Sometimes, when I hear debates, I imagine how I would’ve liked to respond. Of course, in my head, I’m very fluent and never interrupted. Still, it occurred to me that some of these thoughts might be of interest to my readers.
My Internet soulmate Phil Plait recently wrote an article about a creationist state senator from Louisiana who asked for examples of evolution. The respondent (a science teacher), explained the Lenski bacteria experiment. The senator followed up by asking if “they evolved into a person.”
A person who enjoys debate might note that it’s a textbook example of shifting goalposts. In fact, in this case, the senator shifted the goalpost about 4 billion years, then stuck a straw man on it.
A person who is of sound mind, like the surprisingly patient science teacher, would shake her head and try in vain to assess the meaning of such a question.
As I was taking a walk this morning, it occurred to me that the best path for questions such as these – questions that are either breathtakingly ignorant at best or worthlessly rhetorical at worst – would be to just answer them to the best of your ability.
To that end, here’s my shot. I’m just doing a quick writeup, but I suspect hundreds of thousands of words could be written on this topic, and a lot of statistical analysis could be brought to bear:
“Just to clarify, to make sure I understand the question – you’re asking whether bacteria turned into people during a 20 year experiment? I want to make sure I get it right because it’s an unusual question, but I take it to be an honest one. Surely, someone who has concern over teaching the truth to children wouldn’t employ sarcasm in a question and waste the time of the busy people testifying here today.
The short answer is that the bacteria did not turn into people. The reason why has to do with a number of factors.”
(At this point, one would hope, the senator would protest. But hey, it was an honest question, right?)
“For one thing, bacteria are generally asexual, whereas humans are sexual. As it happens, E. Coli are asexual. So, in order for them to make a baby human, you’d have to first have them split into males and females. We know this is possible, because there are somewhat near relatives to E. Coli who conjugate.
Supposing this happens, you’d still have problems. As you may know, humans are bigger than bacteria. Assuming that E. Coli were able to act as a womb, it would have to be a very big bacterium to hold a human child.
But let’s suppose the E. Coli worked out a way to do this. It still wouldn’t have all the developmental information to make a human. It may be the case that growing up inside a massive mutant bacterium creates epigenetic problems for the baby, but this hasn’t been studied. In fact, before your very insightful question, I doubt anyone even thought of it.
Lastly, supposing even this could be worked out, there would probably be social problems for the child. It might have trouble relating to its parents, for example. They’d probably want it to carry on in the family tradition of making people vomit, whereas the child might want to be a painter or a poet.
So, for all these reasons and many more, during this 20 year experiment on a small colony of bacteria, no people were produced. Mind you, I’ve only read the paper. It’s possible Dr. Lenski actually did produce some humans, but thought the results were less interesting than the evolution of the ability to metabolize citrate.
I hope that answers your question. It’s very nice to see this level of honest curiosity in the halls of government. The public may be under the impression that senators summon citizens away from their jobs purely for political show, so that our elected officials can attempt to score political points on issues of science and education. But, let those cynics note, that though that ugliness may exist elsewhere, the Louisiana senate will ever be the dwelling place of honest seekers for truth.
I hope you found that response as useful as I found the question. It was every bit as sincere.
Do you have any more?”