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When Pharyngula seems to get it right. . . May 4, 2007

Posted by Administrator in Cultural Pessimism, Pharyngulism, Science.

. . .it makes for fascinating reading.

Way back in the early 19th century, Geoffroy St. Hilaire argued for a radical idea, that vertebrates and most invertebrates were inverted copies of each other. Vertebrates have a dorsal nerve cord and ventral heart, while an insect has a ventral nerve cord and dorsal heart. Could it be that there was a common plan, and that one difference is simply that one is upside down relative to the other? It was an interesting idea, but it didn’t hold up at the time; critics could just enumerate the multitude of differences observable between arthropods and vertebrates and drown out an apparent similarity in a flood of documented differences. Picking out a few superficial similarities and proposing that something just looks like it ought to be so is not a persuasive argument in science.

Something has changed in the almost 200 years since Geoffroy made his suggestion, though: there has been a new flood of molecular data that shows that Geoffroy was right. We’re finding that all animals seem to use the same early molecular signals to define the orientation of the body axis, and that the dorsal-ventral axis is defined by a molecule in the Bmp (Bone Morphogenetic Protein) family. In vertebrates, Bmp is high in concentration along the ventral side of the embryo, opposite the developing nervous system. In arthropods, Bmp (the homolog in insects is called decapentaplegic, or dpp) is high on the dorsal side, which is still opposite the nervous system. At this point, the question of whether the dorsal-ventral axis of the vertebrate and invertebrate body plans have a common origin and whether one is inverted relative to the other has been settled, and the answer is yes.

The article continues on for some time, spouting arcane yet fascinating biological data to support the idea that arthropods and vertebrates once shared a common ancestor, and that the altereation took place when one set of worms decided to orient itself upside down in relation to the other set of worms.

Which leads to the hilarious title, in which PZ suggests we all have the brains of worms.

Maybe you, PZ. . .

But that is to wander from the point. Science is loaded with fascinating and instructive material such as this. Where Myers falls down, is that he insists that when one has a connection to religion (such as Francis Collins), it hampers their ability to do good science.. I cannot agree with him. Scientific discovery is akin to wandering through some magnificent and heretofore-unknown palace, containing architectural wonders never before seen. And we then get the chance to look at this building and gain some insight into how it was built; showing the same wonder and joy a mechanically inclined 8 year old is fascinated by the workings of a dismantled watch.

The difference is that PZ says the watch -or house- was constructed by random events. Collins and I say that it was made by an architect or watchmaker. Either source of creation need not prevent us from discovering how it works. And that is all science is supposed to do.

If you want to know the who/what/why it came about, that is the realm of the philosopher.

PZ is a fine scientist, and a perfectly disastrous philosopher.



1. Pat - May 4, 2007

This is true of a great many scientists – they are very poor philosophers, chief among them atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins. And, as A.N. Whitehead and others have shown, Western science was born out of the Westrn Biblical and Socratic mindset – there is such as thing as Truth and the human mind can know Truth.

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