My Son the Expert! Part II: More on the Texas Evolution Debate

Everyone knows the scene in Annie Hall. Woody Allen as Alvy Singer is standing in line to see a movie and a pretentious twit of a Columbia professor behind him is going on in a loud voice about Marshall McLuhan. Alvy first berates the guy — “Aren’t you ashamed to pontificate like that? And the funny part of it is, Marshall McLuhan, you don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan!” Then from behind a movie poster he pulls McLuhan himself, who agrees with Alvy: “I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work! How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!”
Alvy then turns to the camera and wishes, “Boy, if life were only like this!
Sometimes it is. This is a brief series about Darwinian “experts” who arouse the admiration of people who don’t know any better, and don’t particularly want to know, but who then turn out to have their facts all wrong. The first illustration is Professor David Hillis of the University of Texas. In his testimony to the Texas State Board of Education about teaching evolution, he referred to the research of Ralph Seelke, a University of Wisconsin biologist.
Seelke’s work tests evolution’s power to produce two necessary mutations in a case where the mutations, to produce a beneficial function, need to happen pretty much simultaneously. Realistically, it can’t happen. He finds that this represents an insuperable obstacle to evolution’s getting its job done. In his testimony, Hillis replied to a question from Board member Pat Hardy, with her touching faith in experts: “I was just curious about Dr. Seelke’s research. How does that demonstrate the weakness of evolution?”

Hillis answered that “Well, I’m very glad you asked that. There’s nothing in that that you could construe as being a weakness of evolution.” He went on to assure Ms. Hardy that another biologist, James Bull, has worked it all out, showing that “simultaneously selecting two things at once, has been achieved multiple times in many experimental conditions. So the fact that [Seelke] was unable to get it can hardly be construed as a weakness in evolution. It does occur — you can do it — it happens in real world organisms.”
What was that about bull?
Not long after, Ralph Seelke stepped out from behind the movie poster. In a polite yet devastating memo to the TSBE, he showed how little Hillis understood about either his or Bull’s work:

Dr. Hillis is an articulate devotee of evolution, but in this case he is wrong. In fact, there is a general consensus that a requirement for two independent events is a barrier to evolution. And, while Dr. Bull has made important contributions to our understanding of evolution, his work has not addressed the issue of multiple independent steps being a barrier to evolution.

An illustration of this that Seelke mentions is antiviral drug cocktails used to treat HIV infections. The cocktails, comprising three drugs working simultaneously, take advantage precisely of the HIV virus’s key weakness — its general inability, for all the virus’s notoriously high rate of mutation, to produce three separate protective mutations at the same time. To save lives, medicine here is using its implicit knowledge of evolution’s inadequacy.
Which is ironic because another occasion for bluffing in Hillis’s testimony, not related to Ralph Seelke, came in his pumping up the importance of evolution in developing medical and agricultural technologies. Kids have to be instructed in Darwinian evolution, and only in Darwinian evolution, otherwise we’ll starve and die of disease.
It’s all scare talk, of course, as even some honest Darwinists admit. Thus in 2006 in the journal Nature, University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne frankly told the truth, that

evolution hasn’t yielded many practical or commercial benefits. Yes, bacteria evolve drug resistance, and yes, we must take countermeasures, but beyond that there is not much to say. Evolution cannot help us predict what new vaccines to manufacture because microbes evolve unpredictably. But hasn’t evolution helped guide animal and plant breeding? Not very much. Most improvement in crop plants and animals occurred long before we knew anything about evolution, and came about by people following the genetic principle of “like begets like.”

Actually, Discovery Institute staff have gone over Hillis’s testimony carefully and found numerous instances of bluffing, evasion, error, and distortion. The document is worth reading in its entirety. One wishes that Board member Pat Hardy had taken the time to read through it. If she had done so, it would have shattered her faith in experts.
Some highlights include:
Hillis claimed to be a “world’s leading exper[t] on the tree of life” and pretended that there is “overwhelming agreement” about the shape of the evolutionary tree based on protein and DNA sequencing. Uh, not true. The same day Hillis testified, the journal New Scientist ran a cover story under the title “Why Darwin was wrong about the tree of life.” Why? Because, genes and proteins tell multiple contradictory stories about the shape of the purported tree.
Add to this the different stories told by morphology and fossils, and you’ve got a hopeless mess of a tree on your hands, a tree that has been run through a sawmill. As the Journal of Molecular Evolution summarized, “That molecular evidence typically squares with morphological patterns is a view held by many biologists, but interestingly, by relatively few systematists. Most of the latter know that the two lines of evidence may often be incongruent.”
Hillis tried to claim that the Discovery Institute had misrepresented the briefness of the Cambrian explosion timeframe. Instead of taking place over 5 to 10 million years, said Hillis, it occurred “over many tens or millions of years.” No. Mainstream estimates place the duration at less than 10 million years. Hillis also claimed the Cambrian was no huge deal anyway, since “most of the major phyla…appear later than that.” As Marshall McLuhan would say, “How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!” Biology and zoology textbooks agree that 70 percent (19 out of 28) of known living animal phyla indeed appeared in that amazingly brief space of time.
At another point, Hillis sought first to dodge a question about the origin of information in DNA, claiming he couldn’t understand the question, then he realized he did understand the question but — no problem! He maintained that lab experiments have shown how information in RNA could have arisen. Problem is, those experiments (called SELEX) rely at every step on artificial, intelligent selection by researchers to do their magic. But explaining how information arose without intelligent design is exactly the problem facing origin of life research — a most daunting dilemma.
Hillis attacked Discovery Institute for suggesting that new revelations about “Junk DNA” cast doubt on Darwinian theory. But the familiar bogeyman of DI has hardly been the only source of this view. A paper in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences made the same point, arguing that “neo-Darwinian ‘narratives’ have been the primary obstacle to elucidating the effects of these enigmatic components of chromosomes,” and therefore, “a new conceptual framework is needed.”
Hillis blithely claimed that “irreducible complexity” and Michael Behe’s articulation of that powerful challenge to Darwinian theory has been “refuted” and “rejected by the scientific community at large.” Where does Hillis get this stuff, the sheer nerve? Peer-reviewed publications in a variety of journals and books have respectfully elaborated upon and discussed Behe’s idea. Some of those journals and books including Dynamical Genetics, the Annual Review of Genetics, Compositional Evolution (MIT Press), Bioremediation, Biodiversity and Bioavailibility, Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling, Physics of Life Reviews, etc., etc.
Hillis tried to dodge the importance of challenges to natural selection by claiming that, well, after all, “no one is arguing that natural selection is the only thing that accounts for all of life’s diversity.” So natural selection doesn’t need to carry all the groaning weight that Darwin critics attribute to it. This minimizes the prospect of its imminent collapse. But countless Darwinians affirm the mechanism’s centrality to their prized theory — as, for example, the authors of the leading textbook Genetics do when they write, “The driving force of adaptive evolution is natural selection, which is a consequence of hereditary differences among organisms in their ability to survive and reproduce in the prevailing environment.” Hillis’s own textbook Life: The Science of Biology says much the same, in its 2008 edition, on page 497. Maybe he’d like to review what he and his co-authors wrote.
Hillis sweepingly claimed that 100 scientific articles gathered for the Texas Board’s perusal, demonstrating Darwinism’s weaknesses, showed nothing of the sort. After all, he claimed, the articles’ authors were all “ardent evolutionary biologists.” No. You could hardly say that, honestly, about tough-minded Darwin doubters like Philip Skell, D.W. Snoke, John A. Davison, Scott A. Minnich, Granville Sewell, and many others among the authors of the research articles.
Who knows what David Hillis with his MacArthur Foundation “Genius” prize was thinking as he rattled off one untruth or half-truth after another before the Texas Board. My guess is that the right word for what he was doing is “bluffing.” He made it all sound so simple — a straight narrative line for those on the Board, and in life, who like their narrative lines to be straight and simple. Untruth as a collaborative effort between the deceiver and the deceived.
Tomorrow, another bluffer, anthropologist Ronald Wetherington of SMU.
For more details, see An Analysis of the Expert Testimony of Prof. David Hillis before the Texas State Board of Education on January 21, 2009

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.