The E. Coli and the Creationist

Carl Zimmer over at The Loom:

Originally, creationists claimed that structures in E. coli showed clear evidence of being created–they were complex, made up of lots of parts, and seemed to work like manmade machines. The flagellum–the tail E. coli spins hundreds of times a second–was one of their favorite examples. It reminded them of car engines, of outboard motors. This sort of thinking reached its climax a couple years back in the Dover Trial, in which parents claimed their school board was introducing religion into school in the guise of “intelligent design.” One lawyer joked that it should have been called the Flagellum Trial. In journalist Lauri Lebo’s excellent new account of the trial, The Devil in Dover, she recounts how one of the plaintiff parents came dress as a flagellum, with a little tail poking out of her pants.

The school board lost, and in the scientific arena–where scientists publish their experiments in peer-reviewed journals–so have the advocates of a designed flagellum. The evolutionary history of the flagellum is becoming increasingly clear as scientists discover related copies of flagellar genes in other structures. But there are still people ready to sell you an intelligently designed flagellum throw pillow (or beer stein or apron).

Now E. coli poses a new quandary for creationists. As I wrote earlier this month, scientists at Michigan State University have been tracking the evolution of E. coli in their lab for 20 years. They’ve been experiencing natural selection as they’ve adapted to this environment, and in one of the twelve lines of these microbes, the bacteria evolved the ability to digest citrate….Andrew Schlafly, who runs a site called Conservapedia that’s supposed to be a conservative alternative to Wikipedia, wrote a letter to the senior author on the E. coli, Richard Lenski. He demanded that Lenski “post the data supporting your remarkable claims so that we can review it.” Lenski responded politely at first that as far as he could tell, the relevant data Schlafly wanted was in the paper, which Schlafly had not bothered to read closely. When Schlafly repeated his demands–and as the discussions on the Conservapedia site veered to accusations of Piltdown-Man-level fraud–Lenski wrote a barbed reply…:

[From the reply]:

Finally, let me now turn to our data. As I said before, the relevant methods and data about the evolution of the citrate-using bacteria are in our paper. In three places in our paper, we did say “data not shown”, which is common in scientific papers owing to limitations in page length, especially for secondary or minor points. None of the places where we made such references concern the existence of the citrate-using bacteria; they concern only certain secondary properties of those bacteria. We will gladly post those additional data on my website.

It is my impression that you seem to think we have only paper and electronic records of having seen some unusual E. coli. If we made serious errors or misrepresentations, you would surely like to find them in those records. If we did not, then – as some of your acolytes have suggested – you might assert that our records are themselves untrustworthy because, well, because you said so, I guess. But perhaps because you did not bother even to read our paper, or perhaps because you aren’t very bright, you seem not to understand that we have the actual, living bacteria that exhibit the properties reported in our paper, including both the ancestral strain used to start this long-term experiment and its evolved citrate-using descendants. In other words, it’s not that we claim to have glimpsed “a unicorn in the garden” – we have a whole population of them living in my lab! [] And lest you accuse me further of fraud, I do not literally mean that we have unicorns in the lab. Rather, I am making a literary allusion. []