October 09, 2007

How They Lie: Babu Ranganathan and "The Genetic Boundaries of Evolution"

In case you haven't already run across Babu Ranganathan before, a little background seems in order. He's another liar for DA LAWD who writes the same articles over and over about why evolution can't possibly be correct and humanity must have come into being via an act of special creation. While he frequently gets quoted in such nuthouses as The Conservative Voice, the publication that most frequently gives voice to his ravings is South Korea's The Seoul Times. His most recent column there was published on October 6 and is entitled The Genetic Boundaries of Evolution and, as usual, he makes a variety of absolutely incorrect claims about evolutionary biology. One of these oft-repeated claims is the following:

In any case,there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that the environment has the ability to generate entirely new genes which would program for the development of entirely new traits in species.
In a literal sense, this is true. The environment doesn't "generate" genes, and nobody claims that it does. New genes, according to modern theory, do in fact arise from old ones. As far as there being no evidence of this happening, that's entirely untrue. There is, in fact, a great deal of evidence.

For example, one of the most common means by which new genes, and hence new traits, can be created is by a duplication—degeneration—divergence scheme. This is actually fairly simple to understand. The process by which DNA is replicated isn't perfect, and it has occurred that one of the errors results in an extra copy of a gene (duplication). When this happens, selective pressure on one copy of the gene is relaxed. With two copies present, one becomes redundant, allowing for the accumulation of mutations without causing harm to the species in question (degeneration). This frequently results in pseudogenization; the extra copy of the gene simply becomes nonfunctional for some extent of time. We can still see, via molecular analysis, the origin of the pseudogene, but it doesn't code for a useful product. On the other hand, both duplicate genes and pseudogenes can accumulate mutations that eventually code for some new product, with the end result being a new trait (divergence). That's where new genes come from, and we know that this process occurs because a few genes are so highly conserved that when duplication does occur, the degeneration phase never proceeds to any great extent and the species in question simply winds up with multiple, practically identical copies. The classic example of this are the Hox genes, functionally crucial segments of DNA that determine the basic layout of an organism's body. These have been duplicated several times in the course of evolutionary history such that primitive Agnatha (e.g., hagfish) have a single copy and mammals have four sets. Because we have the capability to analyze these genes at the molecular level, we can now chart when these duplications took place and put together a phylogeny:

Source: Monteiro AS, Ferrier DEK. Hox genes are not always Colinear. Int J Biol Sci 2006; 2:95-103. http://www.biolsci.org/v02p0095.htm

Suffice to say, Ranganathan either doesn't know what he's talking about or is intentionally misrepresenting the state of scientific knowledge on this point. This is typical of Creationists, of course, but Ranganathan's is an argument that has now been debunked so many times now that it's hard to imagine that he was unaware of how wrong it was when he made it.

In fact, we have so much evidence of new genes (and hence new traits) arising that a new study has just been published that specifically explores which of these genes came first, which ones are the duplicates, and how the new genes arose in terms of evolutionary history:
Ancestral reconstruction of segmental duplications reveals punctuated cores of human genome evolution

Human segmental duplications are hotspots for nonallelic homologous recombination leading to genomic disorders, copy-number polymorphisms and gene and transcript innovations. The complex structure and history of these regions have precluded a global evolutionary analysis. Combining a modified A-Bruijn graph algorithm with comparative genome sequence data, we identify the origin of 4,692 ancestral duplication loci and use these to cluster 437 complex duplication blocks into 24 distinct groups. The sequence-divergence data between ancestral-derivative pairs and a comparison with the chimpanzee and macaque genome support a 'punctuated' model of evolution. Our analysis reveals that human segmental duplications are frequently organized around 'core' duplicons, which are enriched for transcripts and, in some cases, encode primate-specific genes undergoing positive selection. We hypothesize that the rapid expansion and fixation of some intrachromosomal segmental duplications during great-ape evolution has been due to the selective advantage conferred by these genes and transcripts embedded within these core duplications.
That's a mouthful of jargon, I know, but a more English-friendly explanation of what's going is available via press release here:
Researchers have answered a similarly vexing (and far more relevant) genomic question: Which of the thousands of long stretches of repeated DNA in the human genome came first? And which are the duplicates?

The answers, published online by Nature Genetics on October 7, 2007, provide the first evolutionary history of the duplications in the human genome that are partly responsible for both disease and recent genetic innovations. This work marks a significant step toward a better understanding of what genomic changes paved the way for modern humans, when these duplications occurred and what the associated costs are – in terms of susceptibility to disease-causing genetic mutations.
What should be abundantly apparent is that before a study like the one above could ever have been undertaken there must have been a tremendous amount of evidence. What science does is to look at evidence and propose ways by which it becomes coherent. Under a Creationist ideology, there is simply no way that the large amounts of evidence for the arising of new traits, always accompanied by changes to the genome, make any sense at all. It would leave us only with guesses and vague allusions to the unknowable will of an undetectable designer about whom one cannot even ask questions, let alone come up with answers. Unless, of course, Ranganathan wishes to assert that the differences between fins, insect legs and mammalian limbs don't represent different traits in the first place. That would require a degree of blind idiocy of which I would like to think that even the most hardcore Creationist is incapable. Anyone who asserts that there are no differences between hagfish and hippos is due as much ridicule as can be mustered against him for reasons that should be obvious to anyone, whether or not they understand molecular biology even the slightest bit.

Of course, my favorite piece of Creationist articles like Ranaganathan's latest hunk of ignorance is when they give credentials that are supposed to impress us:
The above opinion piece is written by Mr. Babu G. Ranganathan (Email: bgrnathan@yahoo.com), religion and science writer who was recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis Who's Who in The East. He holds a B.A. with concentrations in theology and biology.
An undergraduate degree with a "concentration" in biology? I'm not sure exactly what that means, but my undergraduate degree has a "concentration" in chemistry that resulted in my having a minor in the subject — but I certainly don't fancy myself to know as much about chemistry as someone with a doctorate in the subject. My undergraduate degree was in biology, and I can say with all honesty that I've learned almost as much about the subject in one month of work toward a doctoral degree as I did in three of the four years of undergraduate work. Even an undergraduate degree only means that one is conversant with the basics; it's a huge field. Ranganathan's "concentration" likely means he took three or four biology courses many years ago. As far as Who's Who goes, what does inclusion in that esteemed tome mean, exactly?
Though the number of entries in Who's Who in America has grown to over 100,000 in recent years, the publication has tried hard to convey the impression that standards for inclusion have remained the same. Being accepted into Who's Who is "an honor that only a select few ever enjoy," the company boasts. Every person in the book is subjected to "painstaking selection, research, rigorous nominee review, and thorough editorial review." And who does the painstaking nominating and selecting? Marquis implies that members of the publication's Board of Advisors play a large role in the nomination process, but they don't seem to know much about it.

"The reality is, I don't do anything," says John Fox Sullivan, publisher of National Journal and a member of the board for the last decade. "There is almost no communication back and forth. Once a year I get a piece of paper asking me if I want to recommend someone. It's not as if there's an annual retreat somewhere where we sit around and decide who makes it this year. Or if there is, I haven't been invited..."

...There's not a word about qualitative or quantitative criteria. Does everyone who applies get into Who's Who? "I'll say a majority," admitted Canning [the publication's editorial director from 1992 to 1997], "but I can't get any more detailed than that. I think the majority are appropriate for one of our regional or topical publications. I think I need to leave it at that." In other words, just about everyone who tries hard enough will get his name in print...

Donald Ray Grubbs of Portland, Texas, is proof that persistence pays off. From 1973 to 1986, Donald Ray worked as a pipe fitter and welder for the Pipefitters Local 195 in Beaumont. Now an employee of Longview Inspection, a company that assesses the structural integrity of industrial sites, Grubbs has been appearing in various Who's Who publications for a decade or so...

...As most of those listed in the book know, entries in Who's Who are mostly self-reported and largely unchecked, making it the ideal place to tidy up an uneven educational or work history...

In the mid-1980s, Joe Queenan, then at American Business magazine, decided to test the Who's Who fact-checking apparatus. Queenan submitted an application on behalf of a nonexistent magazine editor named R.C. Webster. Webster, Queenan wrote, had graduated with a master of fine arts degree from F&M T&A University and received doctorates from Quaker State University and the University of Ron (Ron, France) before moving on to edit such magazines as American Business, Latin-American Business, The Business of Business, Your Business and Our Business Monthly. Webster and his wife, the former Trish Abigail Boogen, had children named Cassette, Lothar, Skippy and Boo-Boo. A member of the Association of Men and the Bureau of People, he listed his hobby as "managing editing." Who's Who printed most of the entry in its following edition...

Indeed, the first clue that Who's Who is a vanity publication is the "Thoughts on My Life" feature that appears beneath some entries. This is the part where biographees are invited to reflect upon their achievements using their own words. It's all pretty amusing, and it must be profitable, too, because Marquis recently decided to expand the concept. For $150, those listed in Who's Who in America can now write up to 200 words about themselves and their work...


Babu Ranganathan's greatest accomplishment is appearing in a vanity book that also features non-existent magazine editors and pipe welders. He likely even paid for the privilege. What an honor. Clearly, the man is a scientific genius who has made inestimable contributions to the betterment of makind and solved all sorts of ticklish problems... right?

Well, no. Like many who seek to spearhead Creationist nonsense, he's largely a self-serving self-promoter. Even a clown like William Dembski has more credibility than Babu Ranganathan, which essentially means that if you stand next to the man his credibility void will suck the legitimacy out of you like a great black hole. What, then, to be said of listening to the arguments of such an individual?

I'm left wondering why any newspaper, or anyone else, gives this know-nothing a soapbox from which to preach his damaging nonsense. There is good reason to believe that this kind of faith-based deception does real harm, in fact. I'm sure one could draw a straight line between the efforts of folks like Babu and the belief that one is so beloved by his invisible friend in the sky that one can traipse off to Afghanistan to convert the Taliban to Evangelical Christianity. Ranganathan, I think, isn't so much a scientist as he is a vector for brain damage.

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