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Evolutionary Immunology in the Kitzmiller Case

April 21, 2006

 

Update: The editors of Nature Immunology have put up the Bottaro et al. article for free on their website.

Bottaro, Andrea, Inlay, Matt A., and Matzke, Nicholas J. (2006). “Immunology in the spotlight at the Dover ‘Intelligent Design’ trial.” Nature Immunology. 7(5), 433-435. May 2005. (Subscription no longer required: DOI | Journal | Google Scholar | PubMed | Supplementary Material)

NCSE Homepage: Immunology in the spotlight at the Dover ID Trial
http://www.ncseweb.org/resources/news/2006/ZZ/968_immunology_in_the_spotlight_at_4_21_2006.asp

NCSE Education & Law website
Evolutionary Immunology in the Kitzmiller Case
http://www2.ncseweb.org/wp/?p=124

PT posters in Nature Immunology
http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives/2006/04/pt_posters_in_n.html

Supplementary Material
http://www2.ncseweb.org/kvd/exhibits/immune/index.html

Annotated Bibliography on the Evolution of the Immune System
http://www2.ncseweb.org/kvd/exhibits/immune/immune_evo_annotated_bib.html

Longer, Unannotated Bibliography on the Evolution of the Immune System
http://www2.ncseweb.org/kvd/exhibits/immune/immune_evo_bib_long.html

Readers may recall an interesting episode during the Kitzmiller trial: During the cross-examination of Michael Behe, plaintiffs attorney Eric Rothschild challenged Behe’s claim that there was no scientific literature on the evolutionary origin of the immune system by presenting Behe with a tall stack of literature on the evolutionary origin of the immune system. Here are some of the press accounts:

Weiss, Mike (2005). “War of ideas fought in a small-town courtroom: Intelligent design theory vs. the science of evolution at center of Pennsylvania trial.” San Francisco Chronicle, November 6, 2005. (Link)

Behe asserted, as an example, that “scientific literature has no answers to the question of the origin of the immune system.”

Under cross-examination, the professor — whose science faculty colleagues at Lehigh University have issued a statement supporting evolutionary theory as established science — was surrounded by stacks of biology and medical texts and peer-reviewed journals piled there by plaintiffs’ attorney Rothschild, who pointed out that all the writings discussed the evolution of the immune system. But in his three days of testimony, Behe did not budge.

Gene Lyons (2005). “There’s hope for the republic yet.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. November 23, 2005. (Link)

But enough sophomoric humor. The scientist who fared worst on the witness stand was Michael J. Behe, a biochemist from Lehigh University and author of the best-selling book, “Darwin’s Black Box.” Surrounded by stacks of books and journal articles dealing with the evolution of the human immune system, a mystery for which, his book argued, “scientific literature has no answer,” Behe was reduced to rhetorically dismissing works he obviously knew nothing about.

Even journalists are expected to read books before reviewing them. Attorneys for the complaining parents also appear to have had a grand time taking Behe systematically through “Of Pandas and People,” repudiating one creationist nostrum after another. Indeed, his version of ID seems to boil down to the idea that God created the first living cell several billion years ago, placed it on the primordial earth, fixed himself a bowl of popcorn and sat back to enjoy the show. Maybe he did. Asked what “mechanism” the designer used, Behe offered none. In short, ID not only fails to qualify as a scientific theorem, it’s not even a hypothesis. It’s the equivalent of a 3 a. m. dormitory bull session about The Meaning of Life. The good news is that whatever Americans may tell pollsters about evolution when it’s falsely equated with atheism, when circumstances force them to think seriously, the majority reaches the right conclusion.

Nichols, Peter (2006). “Intelligent Demise.” (Profile of Eric Rothschild in the UPenn Alumni Magazine) The Pennsylvania Gazette, March/April 2006. (Link)

Behe claimed that mainstream scientists had produced “no detailed, rigorous explanations for how complex biomedical systems could arise by random mutation and natural selection.” The biochemical intricacy of the immune system is one such purposeful arrangement of parts. “I see no Darwinian explanation for such things,” he stated.

During cross examination, Rothschild stacked up on the witness stand 58 articles from prestigious journals like Science, Nature, Molecular Cell, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. All of them described research on the evolution of the immune system. “Is your position today that these articles aren’t good enough?” Rothschild challenged. He then piled on 10 textbooks with titles like Origin and Evolution of the Vertebrate Immune System.

“What I strongly doubt is that any of these address the question in a rigorous fashion,” the star witness replied, adding later that “I haven’t read them [all].”

“It was the high point of the trial,” Harvey recalls. “Anyone who studies that cross examination would realize that Professor Behe’s work is bankrupt. Eric just took it to pieces and did it brilliantly.”

Jeremy Manier (2006). “Unlocking cell secrets bolsters evolutionists.” Chicago Tribune, February 13, 2006. (Link)

Perhaps the strongest rebuke to ID in the Dover case concerned the claim by Behe and others that it would be impossible for evolution to produce the immune system. Miller testified that since Behe wrote his 1996 book, evolutionary biologists have built a rich account of the immune system–a point Judge Jones highlighted in his ruling.

“[Behe] was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system,” Jones wrote, “however, he simply insisted … that it was not `good enough.’”

Behe still staunchly defends ID, saying Miller and other biologists have yet to show how evolution originally produced any complex biochemistry.

“They’re saying part of the flagellum looks like some other part of the cell,” Behe said. “None of that says what the first step would be in trying to construct the flagellum.”

Proponents of intelligent design clearly are refusing to play by the normal rules of scientific evidence, Miller responds.

Behe’s dismissal of the immune system research “tells you right away, ain’t nothing gonna convince this guy,” he said.

Now, with the help of immunologists Andrea Bottaro and Matt Inlay, I have helped to tell the backstory to how this challenge was inspired, assembled, and carried out, and the impact it had in the case. This story has just been published in an essay the three of us wrote for the May 2005 issue of Nature Immunology. See the NCSE Announcement and the Supplementary Material at in the NCSE Kitzmiller documents archive. See also the Annotated Bibliography on the Evolutionary Origin of the Vertebrate Immune System and the Longer, Unannotated Bibliography on the Evolutionary Origin of the Immune System.

by @ 3:58 pm. Filed under Trial transcripts and exhibits

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