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Ham vs. Nye Cites Lenski Interviewed by Slonczewski & Foster

February 4, 2014


The Ham versus Nye interview is the latest adventure in the misbegotten aim of trying to reason with creationists. You know they’re in trouble when the creationists cite my textbook–Microbiology: An Evolving Science–which interviews Richard Lenski, director of the twenty-year bacterial evolution experiment. It doesn’t get better than this. Any thoughtful person reading that interview–and maybe the rest of the book–can only get swept up into the amazing epic adventure that evolution actually is.

The point Ham was trying to make when he cited the Lenski interview is that the ability of E. coli to metabolize citrate is not a “new trait.” Perhaps not so novel in the global sense, since a similar trait (using different enzymes) evolved in other bacteria such as SalmonellaBut, more globally yet–what is E. coli? In nature, E. coli has what’s called an “open pangenome” (see our Chapter 17). An open pangenome means that if you sample E. coli bacteria in nature, you will find that every isolate has a few genes (not one, more like 300 or so) that occur in none other of the isolates you’ve found so far. Keep going, and in theory you will find an infinite number of new genes in evolving E. coli.

So, Mr. Ham, guess what: E. coli hasn’t evolved just one new trait. It’s evolved new traits to infinity.

  1. SFreader permalink
    February 6, 2014 12:15 pm

    Just read the Wikipedia article on this – amazing how much insight this simple experiment is providing.

    A question: Are any of the ‘clades’ more similar than others in terms of their current relative incidence/distribution in nature? What I’m getting at is – is it possible to say ‘Aha, this is where the e.coli found only in Africa forked from e.coli found in other parts of the world’. Or, after 60,000 generations, and essentially identical evolutionary (in-lab) conditions/opportunities, is this experiment mostly showing the range of potential e. coli cells that can occur.

  2. Richard York permalink
    February 10, 2014 6:06 pm

    I love Bill Nye for everything he’s done for science education. I did not watch the “debate” and, in spite of understanding what a dangerous poison they are I refuse to watch or engage these people. Bill Nye has forgotten one of Mark Twain’s most famous sayings,“Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”

    Sorry Bill but, simply trying to engage these people in rational debate just encourages them.

    • February 11, 2014 9:05 am

      I agree, a rational debate is not possible. In fact, the irrational side uses specific anti-rational techniques, such as “seeding doubt” while ignoring more blatant problems with their own side. But the problem is the issue infects our debate up to the highest national level. It’s hard to know what is the best way to address this. Humor helps; that’s what I try to do.

      As for my textbook, it’s just cool to be counted a “serious threat” to the other side. That’s how my publisher reacted–fortunately. Other publishers have backed down for the sake of the Texas market.

      • February 11, 2014 6:11 pm

        Joan first, my congratulations on you being a “serious threat” to ignorance and self-righteousness. I cannot think of a higher honor for any teacher. Also, kudos to your publisher. (Being a voracious reader and coming from a family of librarians, I harbor very strong feelings about free speech and censorship.)

        I very much understand how the “controversy” around evolution is poisoning our political and social culture. It simply sickens me. Unfortunately, there is no arguing with irrationality. The only (non-violent) way I can see to deal with these idiots is to marginalize them. Wouldn’t it be great if Letterman or Stewart or any of the big time comedians would make up jokes about the idiocy of creationism?

        • February 11, 2014 10:40 pm

          Yes, occasionally Steward and Colbert take it on. It may help to actually show some things from the museum, such as the T-rex eating pineapple (because dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden were vegetarian).

  3. Rick York permalink
    February 12, 2014 7:42 pm


    Jay Lake had a very good post on this yesterday:

    One of the problems with making fun of these people is that, for the most part, they lack both a sense of humor and an understanding of irony.

    • February 12, 2014 9:59 pm

      Yes, I agree. I was once asked to debate a young-earth creationist who had been invited to Kenyon under a misunderstanding (by a student events programmer). I offered to discuss the equivalence of alchemy with chemistry. The creationist said, sure, that would be fine.


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