Mr. Dunford’s Concession: Antibiotic Resistance Is Irrelevant to the Intelligent Design/Darwinism Debate

Michael Egnor

Zoology graduate student and Darwinist Mike Dunford at Panda’s Thumb has replied to recent posts in which Dr. Jonathan Wells and I pointed out that Darwin’s theory is irrelevant to medical research on antibiotic resistance, and that antibiotic resistance itself is irrelevant to the debate about intelligent design and Darwinism. Remarkably, Mr. Dunford, referring to a recent advance in research on antibiotic resistance, concedes both points. He writes:

The scientists worked in a lab. They artificially replicated a set of conditions (an antibiotic-rich environment) that occur in nature. Finally, they placed the bacteria into this environment – something that happens spontaneously outside the lab…We’ll pretend that anything that happens in a lab must be artificial selection, and that it is totally and completely wrong to use the phrase “natural selection” when referring to these experiments.

Mr. Dunford is right. Selection that happens by design in a lab is artificial selection, not natural selection. This distinction is of fundamental importance in this debate. Why? Consider Mr. Dunford’s next observation:

The differences between what the scientists did in a lab and what happens in nature are small, and not incredibly significant. I find that I’m not as impressed as Egnor is by these differences.

I’m not impressed by the differences between artificial selection and natural selection either, except for this difference — artificial selection is accomplished by intelligent agency, and (according to Darwin’s theory) natural selection is accomplished without intelligent agency. Yet Mr. Dunford is exactly right about the outcomes of the two different kinds of selection: “The differences between what the scientists did in a lab and what happens in nature are small, and not incredibly significant.” Except this: intelligent agency causes the first, but not the second, and the results are the same. The debate about intelligent design and Darwinism is about inferring the causes of biological change based on the study of the endpoint of biological change — the organism itself. As Mr. Dunford points out, intelligent causes of acquired antibiotic resistance (breeding in a lab) lead to the same result (resistant bacteria) as do unintelligent causes of acquired antibiotic resistance (natural selection). So the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance doesn’t distinguish between the inference to design and the inference to natural selection. So Mr. Dunford admits that antibiotic resistance is a poor example to use in the debate as to whether biological complexity arose with design or without design.
The important medical research on antibiotic resistance in bacteria deals with how the mutations that give rise to resistance arise, exactly what those mutations are and how they work, and what can be done to counteract them. The important medical research involves genetics, molecular biology, and pharmacology. Darwin’s theory is of no substantive value to the research because, as Mr. Dunford admits, there is no difference between antibiotic resistant bacteria that emerge through artificial intelligent selection and antibiotic resistant bacteria that emerge through natural selection. Antibiotic resistance is a phenomenon that occurs because there are often a few bacteria in a large population of bacteria that have a mutation that renders them less sensitive to the antibiotic. These bacteria that aren’t killed by the antibiotic eventually outnumber bacteria that are killed by the antibiotic. Survivors survive. Does this mundane observation really help Mr. Dunford understand things he may not have otherwise understood? It certainly doesn’t advance medical research in any meaningful way. New insights into genetics, molecular biology, and pharmacology do advance medical research.
Darwin’s theory is of no value to medical research because the claims ‘all biological complexity arose without teleology’ and ‘survivors survive’ are of no tangible value to medical research. Medical researchers know that ‘survivors survive’ without invoking Darwin, and their research proceeds just fine even if they infer teleology in some aspects of biology. In fact, the inference to teleology may be of benefit to research, as most medical research at the molecular level involves biological reverse-engineering, which implicitly presupposes design.
Antibiotic resistance is irrelevant to the inference to design or to chance in biology, and therefore it is irrelevant to the debate over Darwin’s theory. The antibiotic resistance canard aside, let’s move on to the real issues which are relevant to our debate, such as irreducible complexity and the origin of biological information. One has the sense that Darwinists emphatically cling to an issue irrelevant to our debate — antibiotic resistance — because they are uncomfortable with the evidence on issues — such as irreducible complexity and the origin of biological information — that are relevant to our debate.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.