Four Days of Fusion Chromosome Freak-Out

[Note: This is the third of a four-part series

Part One: The Mystery of the Missing Chromosome (With A Special Guest Appearance from Facebook Creationists)

Part Two: The Mystery of the Missing Chromosomes, Continued: An Update From Your Preening Blogger

Part Four: And Finally the Hounding Duck Can Rest]

On Wednesday, I asked creationists for evidence. Over the past four days, I’ve been ordered to buy their book, offered it for free, invited to a debate and to guest blog. I’ve also been accused of lies and misdemeanors, of harrassing innocent creationists, and of being a duck. Actually, a hounding duck. But I still haven’t gotten my answer.

There is, of course, a lesson here.

Briefly, here’s the background. (For more details, read this post I wrote Thursday.) The Discovery Institute promotes intelligent design, which a Federal judge has declared “the progeny of creationism.” They have a staff, along with fellows, who write books (many of which are published by the Discovery Institute Press), run web sites, appear on cable TV, all to attack evolutionary biology and promote intelligent design. Their ranks include a few scientists (ie, people with Ph.D.’s who’ve published research in peer-viewed scientific journals), but in none of their published papers, to my knowledge, do they say anything like, “Our experiment thus provides clear evidence of intelligent design.” Instead, they make their big claims about intelligent design in their non-peer reviewed books and on their web sites. In 2005, the Discovery Institute set up an outfit called the Biologic Institute, where some scientists are supposedly doing the research that will show the world that Intelligent Design is the real deal. So far, they haven’t published any scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals to that effect.

On Wednesday, David Klinghoffer, the editor-in-chief of one of their sites, Evolution News and Views, published a piece promoting a new book from the Discovery Institute Press about human evolution, co-authored by two people from the Biologic Institute and one from the Discovery Institute. It was called, “A Veil Is Drawn Over Our Origin As Human Beings.” Along the way, Klinghoffer raised the issue of our fused chromosome, which, as I wrote Thursday, preserves clues to its origin as two separate chromosomes long ago. Klinghoffer claimed that the structure was not what you’d expect if the chromosome had fused six million years ago.

So here we have a claim. Scientific claims are based on evidence, or at least they should be. I wanted to know what the evidence was for this particular claim, but I couldn’t ask on Evolution News & Views (no comments allowed). So I went over to Facebook. There, the Biologic Institute has set up a page where they posted links to other web pages, one to including Klinghoffer’s page. And on Facebook, you have to let people comment. The biologist Nick Matzke was using the comments to set them straight with various lines of evidence about human evolution, which prompted the Biologic Institute to lay down a 100-word-or-less rule for comments. So I jumped in to ask–briefly–for the evidence about the claim about the human chromosome.

Whoever runs the Biologic Institute’s page responded by telling me to buy their new book. After all, as a book author myself, I wouldn’t just deliver the contents of my book to anyone who asked on my blog, would I?

Well, no, I replied. I then asked again, this time only requesting a citation to a paper that backed up their claim about the fused chromosome.

Now the Biologic Institute stopped replying. Other people left comments to let me know that they had read the book, and that the cited evidence amounted to nothing but a cherry-picked sentence from a ten-year-old paper. (Some of these comments have since been deleted.)

I asked the Biologic Institute if this account was true. Again, no answer.

Instead, I got an email from Klinghoffer himself. Rather than answer my question, he invited me to write a couple thousand-word pieces on Evolution News and Views as a debate with an unnamed co-authors. The debate would be on the various issues in the book. (Klinghoffer added that he wanted a debated focused on “ideas, not personalities.” This civility-minded person is the same guy who once wrote that one my blog posts was “preening and self-congratulatory.”) I hadn’t asked for such a debate, so I said no.

Instead, I asked again for the evidence. No answer.

Klinghoffer responded instead by publishing a piece on Evolution News and Views entitled, “We Called Out Darwinian Critic Carl Zimmer and He Folded.” Instead of answering my question, he condemned me for not reading the Discovery Institute’s book. “So you see what we’re up against,” he moaned. “Carl hasn’t read the book and now, having ducked out of a proper debate, he can go on denouncing it without ever having read it. He’s perfectly willing to waste our time on Facebook, where the phrase ‘pecked to death by ducks’ comes to mind.”

When the Biologic Institute posted a link to the piece on Facebook, I asked them again for an answer. No reply.

But David “Ideas Not Personalities” Klinghoffer was not through with me. The next day he returned to his comment-free platform to accuse me of “hounding our Biologic Institute colleagues on their Facebook page about a particular pet subject that he thinks he knows something about–chromosomal fusion at human chromosome two.”

Klinghoffer then got on Facebook to add a link to this piece on the Biologic Institute page. So I asked him my question again there. What is the evidence for the claim he made?

Again, nothing. By this point I had lost count of how many times I had asked the question.

Meanwhile, I put together this post to explain the latest research on the evolution of our fused chromosomes, from the world’s experts on primate genomes. By comparing the genomes of humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas, they could reconstruct what the original chromosomes were like, and how they evolved in each lineage–thanks to the kinds of mutations that scientists can see today in humans, as well as in many other species.

Unlike Klinghoffer, I let people comment on my posts. As of this writing, there are 70. A fair number of them claimed that intelligent design was the best explanation for our chromosomes. On Saturday, one of these commenters scoffed at the idea that mutations and evolutionary mechanisms could bring it about. If even just two mutations were required, I was out of luck.

Two? Again, I asked for the evidence. And this time I got an answer. I was directed to this 2008 paper in Genetics.

And this is why I ask for evidence. Because I can go do some research to see if the evidence holds up. The paper is a model, informed by experiments, of the rate at which mutations arise. It inspired another Discovery Institute fellow to claim it was evidence that evolution was too slow to have produced enough mutations in six million years to give rise to humans. And then the authors of the paper themselves wrote a letter to make it explicitly clear that the Discovery Institute was wrong. (Here’s a more recent paper that shows that the wait for mutations is not long, courtesy of another comment.)

On Saturday, I got another email from an Intelligent Design web site. This one is called Uncommon Descent. “We sponsor guest posts from people who disagre with us but are civil and well-informed on the issues,” wrote Denyse O’Leary. Would I want to write one?

I replied by pointing out that writing a guest blog post would be a redundant waste of time, since I had already asked my question many times over, and Uncommon Descent had actually just linked to my own blog post. I also found it strange that O’Leary would politely describe me as “civil and well-informed” in a message to me, when she had just written on Uncommon Descent that I am the sort of “Darwinist” who “only needs to pretend to know what they are talking about.”

Well, that little burst of politeness was fleeting indeed. Today, Uncommon Descent featured a new piece about me: “Carl Zimmer Doubles Down on Chromosome Two Lies and Misdemeanors.”

Hey now!

Today’s attack comes from Discovery Institute fellow Cornelius Hunter. Hunter got a Ph.D. in biophysics at the University of Illinois, where he published three papers on protein structure a decade ago according to PubMed. Now he’s an adjunct professor at Biola University, an evangelical university in California.

Hunter claims that the evidence for a chromosome fusion in our ancestors only makes sense if we have already bought into the theory of evolution. It’s a long post that only gets around to what’s happened to the chromosomes at the very end.

The site of the fusion event on human chromosome number two does not provide an obvious picture of a past fusion event. There certainly are suggestions of such an event, but it is far from obvious as evolutionists claim.

Furthermore such an event, if it could survive, would have to take over the pre human population. In other words, the existing 48 chromosome population would have to die off. This is certainly not impossible, but there is no obvious reason why that would occur.

There are problems with the evidence. Perhaps the fusion event occurred, but the evidence carries nowhere near the certainty that evolutionists insist it does…

If evolution is not taken as an a priori, then these evidences are far less compelling. From this theory-neutral perspective, what is important is not reconciling chromosome counts or chimp-human chromosome similarities (after all, those are found throughout the respective genomes). What is important is the more direct evidence of a fusion event, such as in the region where the two chromosomes would fuse, and other tell-tale signs in the chromosome two.

Here the evidence is mixed. Certainly it is far less compelling than evolutionists ever tell their audiences. This need not be controversial. But it is.

That’s it. It’s not obvious. The evidence is mixed. How is it mixed? Hunter never says. What would be obvious evidence to him? He never says. What does he make of the latest research supporting the evolution of the fused chromosome? We have no idea. And–to sing the old refrain–what is the evidence for Klinghoffer’s claim? Hunter  never says.

That’s where our story now stands. I’ll end this post the way this whole adventure began, with the question that has gone unanswered in so many, many ways:

An article on Evolution News & Views stated that the evidence for the fusion of human chromosome two “appears in a ‘degenerate,’ ‘highly diverged’ form that should not be the case if the joining happened in the recent past, circa 6 million years ago, as the Darwinian interpretation holds.” Where is the scientific evidence for this?

Update: The day after posting this, I got my answer. And, as I suspected, it shows why the creationists are wrong about chromosomes.

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