Dr. Egnor is wrong -- Genomics Shows Why

One of the most interesting creationists to ever push his head out of the Discovery Institute is a neurosurgeon by the name of Michael Egnor. Dr. Egnor gained his recognition by penning an essay about why he wouldn't want his doctor to understand evolution. He went about proving that he himself certainly didn't know about evolution.

The most interesting line in his otherwise unremarkable essay came when he said the following:

If you needed treatment for a brain tumor, your medical team would include a physicist (who designed the MRI that diagnosed your tumor), a chemist and a pharmacologist (who made the medicine to treat you), an engineer and an anesthesiologist (who designed and used the machine that give you anesthesia), a neurosurgeon (who did the surgery to remove your tumor), a pathologist (who studied the tumor under a microscope and determined what type of tumor it was), and nurses and oncologists (who help you recover and help make sure the tumor doesn’t come back). There would be no evolutionary biologists on your team.

To be honest, this is largely true and mostly on point. Certainly nobody would want an evolutionary biologist working on their tumor. However, if you were the family member of the person with the tumor, you might have a very different opinion about it all.

The new science of genomic medicine is looking to allow us to trace our personal genetic heritages back hundreds of thousands if not possibly millions of years. One of the most important findings in cancer research, something that I hope even Dr. Egnor would not be "Egnorant" about is the importance of family history in the assessment of cancer risk.

There are tumors that are caused by genetic problems, yet some of these are quite common. From Dr. Egnor's point of view, all he can point to to explain this huge life-changing problem in the lives of his patients is God's will, or perhaps sin (which is also God's will). However the explanations open to the evolutionary biologist are numerous and not only that, the evolutionary biologist can use the knowledge we have of the human genome and the differences between our genome and those of our simian, primate and mammalian relatives to try to find ways to cure or prevent these horrible tumors.

Poor Dr. Egnor will be left where he is now, in the operating room, thinking that there's nothing evolutionary biology has to offer him, but this simply isn't the case even if he looks at the patient he just operated on.

You see the cancer that he is removing also evolved within the patient he is removing it from. Almost all malignant tumors must first lose the gene p53 which would otherwise cause the cell to stop dividing and suicide itself. This is something that each cell contains, so before a tumor can grow, it must first evolve a loss of this gene. To quote the article referenced above:

It seems that DNA damage itself is not the critical event that leads to cancer, as long as the oncogenic-stress pathways that activate p53 are intact. Furthermore, these results underscore the need to ensure that the relevant upstream pathway for p53 activation is intact, possibly even enhanced. For example, drugs in development enhance the function of kinases that activate p53 in response to DNA damage.

To clarify, it is critical that we understand how the gene p53 works to develop drugs that can fight, or even better prevent the cancers that Dr. Egnor is trying to remove. One of the most important components of that understanding comes from studying this gene in other organisms to whom we are related.

Even more interesting is the program for a symposium held in Copenhagen earlier this year. Titles include:

100 Million years of evolutionary history of the human genome
David Haussler, Professor, Director of Center for Biomolecular Science & Engineering, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, University of California Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz

Selection and population sizes in the human lineage inferred from primate genome sequences
Mikkel Heide Schierup, Associate Professor, Bioinformatics Research Center, University of Aarhus

Genome Wide Association studies bring new responses about diabetes and obesity global epidemics
Philippe Froguel, Professor, Chair in Genomic Medicine, Division of Medicine, Imperial College London

Yet to Dr. Egnor, this is all irrelevant. Dr. Egnor represents the worst of the creationist mindset. He doesn't even want to understand the earth and the histories of his patients. He doesn't want to find ways to prevent a disease. He just wants to keep doing what he's always done, ignorant of the greater march of science around him.


NAL said...

If the medical team includes "a physicist (who designed the MRI that diagnosed your tumor)", let's also include the rhesus monkeys who, due to the similar structure of their brain to ours, were used to test the efficacy of the MRI in brain tumor detection. If the medical team includes "chemist and a pharmacologist (who made the medicine to treat you)", let's also include the rhesus monkeys who were used to test the efficacy of the drugs. I wonder why the rhesus brain is similar to humans. Could it be ... evolution?

BahramtheRed said...

He's forgetting the steel workers who forged those tools. Our the researchers who developed the drugs he's going to get. Or even the contruction workers who built the room.

There are a lot of people who contribute to the surgery who never enter the room. And if your willing to push it a bit, people who arn't even attached to medicine.

One of the lamer anti evolution cries I've seen.

Shygetz said...

If you think for a second that the chemist and pharmacologist that helped design your drugs do not understand and use evolution in their research, you're sadly mistaken. As a chemist who is involved in drug research, I can tell you right off that modern drug design makes HEAVY use of evolutionary theory, from computational modeling to design drug candidates that heavily use evolutionary theory to thread protein models, to selection of protein expression systems that are most likely to give you the protein product you need for drug screening, to model organism selection for initial trials...and that's just for standard small molecule drug design. If you get into protein-based drugs and gene therapy (two big "new" things in pharmacology), evolutionary biology becomes even more important.

Evan said...

Shy I think you are correct and that's the point I was trying to make, however ham-handedly.

The actual clinical pharmacologists may not be using evolutionary biology at the time they are doing mg/m2 calculations or other things, but the actual data they are deriving comes specifically from those fields.

Spirula said...

Maybe Dr. Engor would like to explain why a close relative is statistically a more likely candidate as a transplant donor than a distantly or unrelated individual, or why those HLA alleles can be used to determine ancestory and ethnicity?

I wonder what process led to the generation of all those different alleles on those 9 different genes?

Evan said...

Spirula, yes. I find it even more interesting that the proteins in an individual human's MHC may actually be a better match for a cow than for that person's own sibling due to frequency-dependent selection.

In addition there is sexual selection for variable MHC genes as suggested by this study.

Spirula said...


That study always fascinated me, but I haven't seen much in the way of follow-up regarding phermonal influences of human behavior. I suspect it is still somewhat sublime as we have become so much the visual/vocal ape.

For me, Engor's material can always be summed up as follows:
"While standing on the shoulders of giants, Engor tells you he can see his house."

Logismous Kathairountes said...

I thought I understood evolution too, until you said,

"This is something that each cell contains, so before a tumor can grow, it must first evolve a loss of this gene."

I previously believed that the term referred to certain changes in the inherited traits of a whole population over multiple generations - But apparently it also means something that can happen to a single cell during one individual's lifetime.

I mean, I only studied biology in high school, so maybe the term 'evolution' can be used in this way. I admit the limits of my knowledge of biology.

But to those of us who only know high school level biology, seeing you use the word the way you did makes us think you don't know what you're talking about. So even if it's totally legal to talk about a single cell 'evolving', you're going to lose a big chunk of your audience when you do it.

Evan said...

Evolution is genetic change over time in a population.

If the population you're talking about is the population of cells in a given area of a multicelluar individual, if there is genetic change that reproduces, there is still evolution.

Most people when thinking about evolution think about sexual reproduction among animals, but the vast bulk of life on earth is non-sexually reproducing single-celled organisms.

If you view evolution as "the evolution of vertebrates" because that is what you understand, then yes, it seems odd for you to think of a population of tumor cells evolving.

But that's exactly what happens.

An isolated population of cells loses a certain key portion of their genes and begin to reproduce at a high rate because of it, with activity that is deleterious to the larger population of cells that do not share the genome of the cells doing the dividing.

This is evolution if it's happening to bacteria; therefore it's also evolution if it's happening to cancer cells.

I hope that makes it clear.

BahramtheRed said...

shygetz: My applogies. I was unaware of that aspect of evolution science. I was thinking people in lab coats dropping substances in petrie dishes checking for reduction in bacteria cultures.

Blame a show I just watched for think antibotics where either natural and just refined or designed based on those exeriments. Well now I have a new readinf list to find and read.

I see headaches on the horizon. Advanced sceince does that to me...

(Well at least I made a decent point, even if I had to pass it to someone for the slam)

Rick said...

I think its interesting that you can call what is essentially a body losing its original integrity and structure (cancer) as an example of "evolution"; the process that supposedly explains the progression from goo to you exemplified by something that changes you to goo? These seem like changes in the exact opposite direction of what you need to support evolution. Where are the changes that make us stronger, smarter, live longer?

This post shows misunderstandings of what creationists believe. If evolution is "genetic changes over time", then every young-Earth creationist is also an evolutionist! We believe in changes; shoot, we bred dogs, didn't we? In fact, it was a Christian monk, Gregor Mendel, who first penned the laws of inheritence (although ignored by darwiniacs for almost 90 years). However a creationist believes that almost _all_ forms of "selection" (natural or otherwise) represents an elimination and net loss of genetic information (like losing p53). For example, we believe man has taken the original dog-kind (which was much like a modern wolf) and was able to breed the chihuahua. However our claim (prove us false!) is you cannot take a group of chihuahuas and breed something that looks like a wolf, because too much genetic information has been lost in breeding chihuahuas.

Creationists believe in genetic change over time, and the ability of life to adapt to its environment. Life has the ability because of the tremendous potential for adaptation that God gave in the DNA of the original kinds. And yes, natural selection aids that adaptation; but and adapted form always has less future potential for adaptation than what it came from, because it has less genetic information.

Evan said...

Rick, I think it's great that you believe evolution takes place and I hope more Christians also figure out that they also believe evolution takes place.

Your examples are fine but your ideas around those examples are what is the problem.

First, artificial selection is not natural selection. You need to get that clearly into your head. There are similarities and differences, but the primary difference is that artificial selection chooses traits that human beings wish to perpetuate, while natural selection is directionless. Each organism alive today is equally highly evolved, from the archaeans in the depths of the crust of the earth to the malaria parasite that infects human beings.

Evolution merely rewards reproductive success. Whatever perpetuates itself to the next generation is selected for. Whether that is a deletion, addition or lateral gene transfer.

You display a little ignorance of the situation when you state:

Where are the changes that make us stronger, smarter, live longer?

The only changes that persist are those that make an organism have more of its genes passed on. That's it. If that means losing structures, then losing structures will persist. If that means gaining strength, that will persist.

If it means shorter lives, that will persist, if it means longer, then that will persist.

Since you admit that you believe evolution takes place (genetic change over time), you should be able, with the tools you have, to figure this out on your own.

Hope this helped.

Shygetz said...

the process that supposedly explains the progression from goo to you exemplified by something that changes you to goo?

Evolution does not say anything about progress...something you creationists cannot get through your thick skulls. There is nothing inherently "progressive" about a human compared to a bacterium; both are equally evolved to compete within its ecological niche.

Creationists believe in genetic change over time, and the ability of life to adapt to its environment. Life has the ability because of the tremendous potential for adaptation that God gave in the DNA of the original kinds. And yes, natural selection aids that adaptation; but and adapted form always has less future potential for adaptation than what it came from, because it has less genetic information.

Nope...cancer cells actually have MORE potential for future adaptation than the parent population, due to down-regulation of the error-suppressing systems in DNA replication. Cancer cells actually adapt very rapidly, which is one reason why they are so hard to kill.

Also, microbial pathogenic mutation into new strains most certainly does NOT reduce its ability to further adapt, and it often results in a GAIN in information. In fact, all it takes is a simple genomic replication event to cause an increase in information, and we know for a fact that this happens all the time.

There are known mutations that have been measured to enhance the adaptability of the organism. Of course, genetic adaptability always comes at the cost of genome conservation--it's a truism that the more you allow the genome to change, the less it stays the same. So, evolutionary theory predicts that natural selection results in genomes that are sufficiently adaptable to allow survival of the organismal population under the usual range of environmental challenges while maximizing genomic conservation. Oddly enough, this is what we see in nature...we can engineer organisms to have fewer mutations than natural organisms, but they are less able to adapt to environmental stresses; we can engineer organisms to have more mutations, but they tend to be less robust and they certainly do not conserve their genomes as well, thwarting the "goal" of the selfish gene.

So yes, I know what creationists believe, and it has been empirically proven wrong--mutation DOES generate information, mutated creatures can and do continue to adapt and thrive, and evolution is responsible for the diversity of life on Earth. What does creationism predict? That God did whatever happened, and we can never understand why. How...illuminating.

Moses said...

Interesting. My wife is a developmental biologist specializing in cell mobility during gastrulation. Many forms of cancer share similar traits.

Her work on pathway signaling, etc., is even being incorporated by cancer researchers.

My wife will tell you that all of biology is built on the Theory of Evolution. And from that theory, everything in biology makes sense, even if it we don't see it clearly.

OTOH, like most biology scientists, she looks down on MDs. For the sake of brevity, they're not considered bright enough to work in science.

Shygetz said...

Where are the changes that make us stronger, smarter, live longer?

Didn't want to let this pass without comment, as I missed it the first time around.

Just to give one example known from many, I give you seven-time Olympic medalist Eero Mäntyranta, who carries a mutation of his erythropoetin receptor that results in a much higher hemoglobin count--his entire family is loaded with endurance sports stand-outs that also carry this mutation. In fact, the advantage is so great that the drug that mimics the mutation's effects, EPO, is still one of the most popular illegal doping agents in endurance sports.

Considerable progress is being made in animals (where we can actually experiment) in finding mutations that increase intelligence. You do have to remember, however, that we have been evolving for millions of years, but only sequencing genomes for about a decade.

Evan said...

Eero is also at some increased risk later in his life for heart attack and stroke due to this mutation. However, it is likely to give him more offspring before that event takes place, and therefore may end up becoming fixed in a given population where the success he experiences as an athlete is of greater value than long life.

That's how it works.

Marc said...

Re: Dogs of Information
William Dembsky's complex specified information (CSI) work is deeply flawed.

Jeffrey Shallit provided a disproof and general debunking of William Dembsky's work. http://www.cs.uwaterloo.ca/~shallit/papers.html (2003 section)

Using evolutionary algorithms in computer science or hardware design is fairly common now, to the point that people have been using it to find patentable designs.

Professor Richard Lenski has evolved e.coli to be able to process citrate as an energy source. He did this in a fairly remarkable 20 year experiment.

He saved off the colonies every 500 generations. At generation 31k they started to weakly eat citrate, and by 33k the citrate eaters took over from the glucose eaters.

It turns out it took 3 events to do this, one at 20k, another at 31k and a final one at 33k. The one at 20k was suprising since it appears to be neutral to the e.coli.

Re: Cave Salamanders
Having no eyes is an advantage to the cave salamanders.

Eyes take up nutrients, need processing power to run and need to be protected. The cave salamanders that have no eyes are much better equipped in the cave environment than any other salamander species that might venture in with their worthless eyes.

Thus, this also dovetails perfectly into evolutionary theory.

There is so much more about the real world that christians cut themselves off from its staggering.

Obviously old and large universe, the fossil tiktaalik (and the story behind it), ERVs, tracing human female decent via mitochondrial DNA, tracing human male decent via Y chromosomes (oh yeah, they dont converge in Ararat), hips on whales, poor spine design (great for 4 legged creatures, not so good for 2 legged upright creatures), simularities between flagellum and the type III secretory system.

But lets stop looking into all this since clearly the good book has it all laid out for us. Where was it god told the Israelites to find and use penicillin again? That alone would have saved a couple lives trivially. Let alone "It is againts my commandments for filthy hands to touch blood or anything bloody. Hands and wounds must be cleaned with water then covered with clean linen". Nope, instead we get 100s of rules about how far you can walk on the sabbath, or how much to pay a man for raping his daughter. You know, stuff nomadic leaders would need to control people vs a book to help man through the ages sent by god.

Rick said...

Shygetz: "Evolution does not say anything about progress..."

So you would not call the evolution of man as progress over the bacterium? Are you now one of the "a dog is a pig is a rat is a boy" advocates, who believe human life has no more or less right to live than any other form? In other words, have you relinquished God's "dominion" mandate in your deconversion?

Evan said...

So you would not call the evolution of man as progress over the bacterium? Are you now one of the "a dog is a pig is a rat is a boy" advocates, who believe human life has no more or less right to live than any other form? In other words, have you relinquished God's "dominion" mandate in your deconversion?

Rick, I don't know how to make this any clearer. Evolution is genetic change over time in a population of organisms. The only arbiter of what will evolve is the ecology the organism finds itself in. Those genes that perpetuate themselves effectively perpetuate themselves, those that are selected against before reproducing do not.

The fact of evolution has no role in determining what value we, as humans, put on a given life form. That is a choice we as humans make both individually and by consensus based on our socio-cultural and ethical development and understanding of the world around us.

There are arguments that can be made about animal rights, but evolution merely discusses the history of life on this planet, not what is ethical. If you believe human life is more valuable than other life forms that does not mean that other life forms have no value, correct?

As for the Genesis idea of "dominion", I would argue this is one of the most harmful concepts ever to arise in western civilization. It's interesting to see that you think losing it is a bad thing.

Spirula said...

have you relinquished God's "dominion" mandate

Hey, how's that working out for you?

mgarelick said...

What about what Rick said about chihuahuas and wolves? Is that right? It seems wrong to me, but I don't know. Why couldn't you take a population of chihuahuas and breed them to select for larger size, thicker coat, whatever makes canines resemble wolves?

Evan said...


There's no reason whatsoever that it couldn't be done unless chihuahuas are for some reason inbred to the point where they have very low initial genetic diversity.

A case in point is the experiment done in Russia taming silver foxes.

zilch said...

Just a brief historical correction. Rick, you say:

In fact, it was a Christian monk, Gregor Mendel, who first penned the laws of inheritence (although ignored by darwiniacs for almost 90 years)

"Undiscovered" would be correct, rather than "ignored". Mendel published his cornerstone paper „Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden“ ("Experiments with Plant Hybrids") in the "Verhandlungen des Naturforschenden Vereines Brünn" ("Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Brno"), Volume 4, 3-47, 1866, in an edition of 115 copies. Not terribly surprising that no one paid attention to the work of the obscure monk; it simply did not get into the right hands until it was rediscovered by Hugo de Vries, Carl Correns, and Erich von Tschermak, around 1900. The touching story that Darwin possessed an uncut copy is apparently a fiction, similar to his supposed deathbed conversion to Christianity.

Robert_B said...

Manes, Trains And Antlers Explained: How Showy Male Traits Evolved

This evolution related thread is a good place to post the above link to a most interesting press release.

Robert_B said...

Off Topic (but related)

Armored' Fish Study Helps Strengthen Darwin's Natural Selection Theory

ScienceDaily (Sep. 1, 2008) — Shedding some genetically induced excess baggage may have helped a tiny fish thrive in freshwater and outsize its marine ancestors, according to a UBC study published today in Science Express.