In an essay in Science's series in honour of the Year of Darwin, John Travis explored the evolution of the immune system. He hits the ground running by recounting the Dover trial and the encounter between biochemist Michael Behe as witness and lawyer Eric Rothschild. A dramatic moment was recalled. Behe had claimed that "The scientific literature has no answers to the question of the origin of the immune system." Rothschild came prepared: he started to bring out journal articles, books, and book chapters, which he said demonstrated research on the evolutionary origins of immunity. Behe was unimpressed. "They're wonderful articles. [. . .] They simply just don't address the question that I pose," he responded. Travis reports that the judge believed Rothschild and rejected Behe's testimony:
The judge, John E. Jones, found Behe's responses revealing. Behe "was presented with 58 peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution," the judge wrote in his decision. Jones concluded that ID proponents set "a scientifically unreasonable burden of proof for the theory of evolution." Score one for evolution, which is now taught without competition from ID in Dover schools.
Exhibit A. This stack of evolutionary immune research literature was used in the Dover trial. (Credit: Nick Matzke/National Center For Science Education, Source Science)
One only has to read Travis' essay to realise that answers have been proposed but are still being evaluated. Some perceive a sudden and dramatic assembly of the immune system and others look for gradual change. Here is a taste of the tensions:
"The basic idea of an immune 'big bang' in the vertebrates has led to a variety of oversimplifications and conceptual problems," says Rast. "Whatever the actual evolutionary pathway that led to the very complex vertebrate adaptive system, it was surely a gradual progression that co-opted many preexisting immune mechanisms."
There is no doubt that many immunologists have written about the origin of the immune system. Judge Jones was impressed by that. But academics do not weigh student essays to award marks - they look at the arguments presented. This principle must also apply to research papers. Speculation does not count as evidence! Furthermore, when the presuppositions of the research exclude design, these do not count either when evaluating alternatives that include design. As an example, consider Marchalonis et al (2006): these words are taken from the Introduction.
"At the onset, we emphasize that evolution is a stochastic or accidental process building upon the spontaneous generation of mutations followed by natural selection based upon survival to reproduce under external/environmental conditions. Our conceptual approach, thus, differs fundamentally from the theoretical approach presented by Cohn, because we adhere to the principle that 'in evolutionary systems there is no design'."
Dr Behe submitted a letter of response to Science, but has been informed that his letter was not of sufficient interest to publish. The Darwinians are quick to claim a victory over these issues but are simply not able to get beyond speculations about the origin of the immune system. Here is Behe's last paragraph.
In my court testimony I cited the then-new article by Klein and Nikolaidis, "The descent of the antibody-based immune system by gradual evolution" (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 102:169-174, 2005), which first disputed the big bang hypothesis. In it the authors candidly remark, "Here, we sketch out some of the changes that the emergence of the AIS entailed and speculate how they may have come about." Valuable as it might be to science, however, speculation is not data, let alone an experimental result. Students are poorly served when they are not taught to distinguish among them.
On the Origin of The Immune System
Science, 324, 1 May 2009: 580-582.
Did the immune system evolve to keep out harmful organisms, or is it like a bouncer at a nightclub, trained to allow the right microbes in and kick the less desirable ones out? In the fifth essay in Science's series in honor of the Year of Darwin, John Travis explores the evolution of the immune system.
Behe, M.J. Letter to Science (unpublished), Amazon Blog, 21 May 2009
Marchalonis, J.J. et al. The antibody repertoire in evolution: Chance, selection, and continuity, Developmental & Comparative Immunology, 30(1-2), 2006, 223-247 | doi: 10.1016/j.dci.2005.06.011
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