NCSE asks Discovery Institute: Where's the Shrimp?

by Alan Gishlick

In a Discovery Institute press release dated Feb. 6, Jonathan Wells accuses three developmental biologists of making "exaggerated claims" in a recent paper in Nature (advance online publication, Feb. 6, 2002). But it is Wells, in his zeal to criticize any research supporting evolution, whose claims are "exaggerated."

One wonders whether he actually read the paper. For example, the press release states: "William McGinnis at the University of California at San Diego just reported discovering a DNA mutation that produces shrimp without hind legs." He did? If Wells has indeed read the paper, currently published on Nature's website, then he should know that no shrimp were mutated in the production of the research. Further, no mutant shrimp were mentioned in a UCSD press release announcing the Nature paper, which is what Wells apparently relied upon for his critique. Wells appears obsessed by illusory shrimp when he asserts: "The mutation does not transform the embryo into anything like an insect, but only into a disabled shrimp."

As plainly explained in the Nature paper, the research involved inserting the crustacean Ubx gene into a fruit fly, and observing that it did not function as a limb inhibitor (as the fruit fly Ubx gene does). Further, the researchers experimented on the crustacean Ubx gene and specifically isolated the mutations that cause the Ubx gene to become a limb inhibitor. This is exciting research because crustaceans have many pairs of limbs, while insects have just three pairs, and it is the Ubx gene that controls limb development in both. The authors conclude that this shows that specific micromutations can cause large-scale phenotypic effects, thus helping us better to understand the processes that may have been involved in the evolution of the insect body plan and by extension those of other animals as well. Wells's hostility toward the biological fact that genes govern the evolution of new body plans seems to have blinded him to the obvious: There were no mutant shrimp.

Wells wastes a press release on thinly disguised creationist pontifications about research that he apparently could not be bothered to read. Intelligent Design proponents in general have been repeatedly told that if they want to be taken seriously, they must produce scientific research of their own rather than uninformed and irresponsible criticism of the work of real scientists. They claim that Intelligent Design is not just antievolutionism, but Wells's press release is no more than that. We keep waiting for real scientific research to emanate from proponents of Intelligent Design but if Wells's latest effort is any indication, then -- to paraphrase a Russian proverb -- we may be waiting until shrimp begin to whistle.

Alan D. Gishlick, Post-Doctoral Scholar