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Show Me: A Challenge for Martin Poenie

Douglas Axe

DebatingDD.jpegI appreciate University of Texas cell biologist Martin Poenie’s taking the time to reply to my previous post. Having just returned from travels, I’ve now read his reply and would like to respond.

Poenie repeats a complaint that many others have made about the study of BioF that I did with Ann Gauger. The complaint is that we examined the difficulty of a non-historical functional transition instead of attempting to reconstruct evolutionary history, and this supposedly makes our negative result irrelevant.

Ann and I anticipated this criticism and explained what’s wrong with it in our paper, and I’ve reiterated our point at least two times since then (here and here). The problem, once again, is that biologists like Poenie want to be free to appeal to evolutionary processes for explaining past events without shouldering any responsibility for demonstrating that these processes actually work in the present. That clearly isn’t valid. Unless we want to rewrite the rules of science, we have to assume that what doesn’t work didn’t work.

It isn’t valid to think that evolution did create new enzymes if it hasn’t been demonstrated that it can create new enzymes. And if Poenie really thinks this has been done, then I’d like to present him with an opportunity to prove it. He says, "Recombination can do all the things that Axe thinks are impossible." Can it really? Please show me, Martin!

I’ll send you a strain of E. coli that lacks the bioF gene, and you show me how recombination, or any other natural process operating in that strain, can create a new gene that does the job of bioF within a few billion years. You wouldn’t have to run a billion-year experiment to do this. You would simply have to characterize an actual process in your lab, including the constraints within which it operates, and then do the math to show what it would do in a realistic population over an evolutionary timeframe.

That’s exactly what Ann and I did. And I suspect that if you, Martin, were to take this challenge seriously, then our approach would start to make sense to you. And if you find a different approach that really does show how a working replacement for bioF can evolve, I assure you that you will have my rapt attention and my full respect. After all, that’s what real science deserves.

But evolutionary groupthink? Hmmm… not so much.

Douglas Axe

Maxwell Professor of Molecular Biology at Biola University
Douglas Axe is the Maxwell Professor of Molecular Biology at Biola University, the founding Director of Biologic Institute, the founding Editor of BIO-Complexity, and the author of Undeniable: How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed. After completing his PhD at Caltech, he held postdoctoral and research scientist positions at the University of Cambridge and the Cambridge Medical Research Council Centre. His research, which examines the functional and structural constraints on the evolution of proteins and protein systems, has been featured in many scientific journals, including the Journal of Molecular Biology, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, BIO-Complexity, and Nature, and in such books as Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt by Stephen Meyer and Life’s Solution by Simon Conway Morris.

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