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Thursday, September 06, 2007

The fairy people

Those who keep an eye on science news may have heard the new findings about moray eels. Specifically, the finding that their second jaw (located behind the first) can actually reach up through their throat into the mouth, grab prey, and drag it back down. It's a little like the critters in the movie "Alien" only not quite as bizarre. Moray eels aren't the only fish to have secondary jaws like this, and scientists knew that morays had these jaws for some time, but this ability is something of a surprise.

The discovery can be attributed to scientists at the University of California- Davis and, particularly,* to Rita Mehta who studies, as she puts it, feeding behavior in elongated vertebrates. So, you know, snakes, eels, my uncle Ted, and so forth. Using a high speed camera, Mehta was able to show how the eels reach up with their second jaws to grab food. There's some awesome video of this as part of the coverage on the NPR website as well as audio of Steve Inskeep and friend singing the classic song "That's a Moray."** You should really go check it out. I bring this up today, first, because it's totally cool. This is the sort of exotic innovation that keeps evolutionary biologists interested in their work. It also really helps emphasize the diversity of the animal kingdom.

I also bring it up because I'm more or less waiting for the Intelligent Design folks to get wind of this. Particularly, I'm waiting for something to show up over on Wild Bill's blog Uncommon Descent. What we have here is a complex structure with many interrelated parts. Moreover, it is a relatively unusual structure. As a consequence, I fully expect to see a post before long wondering how the "darwinists" will explain this new discovery that "clearly" can only be the result of intelligent action. This is a pretty common tactic for them so I don't think I'm being unfair if pre-emptively mocking them.*** The thing is, if we concede for a moment that this feature is difficult for evolution to explain,**** how does intelligent design improve on the situation? Consider the following approaches to understanding this system, one deriving from evolutionary biology, and one deriving from intelligent design creationism:

Evolutionary Biology: The Moray Eel has been found to have a second jaw with a complex arrangement of teeth and musculature. This feature is, as of now, unknown in other fish. We don't know how this happened. SO: Let's sequence the DNA and compare it to other relatives and try and determine the evolutionary trajectory of this feature. Let's try to understand how this was adaptive for the eel, and trace the adaptiveness of the feature over time. Can we find precursors of this feature in fossil traces of other fish? Are there other organisms under similar environmental pressures and, if so, can we find any evidence of adaptations to serve a similar purpose? Do other eels have a similar sort of ability? If not, why not?

Intelligent Design: The Moray Eel has been found to have a second jaw with a complex arrangement of teeth and musculature. This feature is, as of now, unknown in other fish. We don't know how this happened. SO: God did it. Rockin work there, Holy One!


Is this example a little caustic? Sure, but it's also accurate. The problem with intelligent design***** is that it is a dead end. Its starting point "we don't know how this happened" is effectively also its stopping point because "some inexplicable and supremely powerful force must have done it" doesn't actually tell us anything. It reminds me of nothing so much as the fairy people.

Don't know what I mean? Let me enlighten you. When she was little my cousin, Laura, believed in invisible friends known as the fairy people. Once, she came to visit my parents for a few days and my aunt asked my mother to try and disabuse Laura of the notion that the fairy people existed. My mother was good about this until the last day when, having returned from a trip to the park, she raced upstairs and colored in two pages in my cousin's coloring book. On discovering the pages my cousin asked my mother, "Did you color these?" To which my mother replied: "No... it must have been the fairy people."****** Certainly the coloring book was there, and it was colored in, but there were a number of viable explanations aside from "the fairy people," especially since my cousin knew my mother had both the opportunity and the capability to color the pages herself. I'm not blaming my cousin- she was, after all, a small child- but I am blaming the proponents of intelligent design.

We have interesting features in many plants and animals. We have a plausible set of mechanisms that we know produce variation in living things. We have plenty of fossil evidence showing evolution through time. And yet, somehow, they still prefer to believe in the fairy people.

That might be cute in a child, but it's disgraceful in an adult.


* Mehta is lead-author with Peter Wainwright as her co-author.

** As in: "When an eel bites your thigh as you're just swimming by, that's a moray. When you scream and you beg but it still bites your leg, that's a moray."

*** I don't have any good examples of this tactic right now, although I can point you to their recent comparison of the opposition to intelligent design to the slow acceptance of imaginary numbers. Jason Rosenhouse neatly eviscerated this argument so I will decline to treat it myself. I will limit myself to observing that you're in trouble if the best argument you can come up with for your god is to compare it to something that is explicitly labelled "imaginary."

**** I don't think many scientists would concede anything of the sort, but that isn't the point.

***** More accurately: "...one of the many problems with intelligent design."

****** If I'm an asshole, I come by it honestly. Someday maybe I'll tell you about my father. Suffice it to say, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

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