Science writer Peter Dizikes reviews my book Microcosm for the New York Times. It’s great to see that he gets it–i.e., he understands what I’m trying to do with E. coli in the book. I actually appreciate that more than a positive review. Fortunately, he liked the book, too, calling it engrossing, vivid, and adroit. Check it out.
The strange thing about E. coli, as I explain in my book Microcosm, is that it has played a central part not just in the modern science of life, but in the political conflicts over life. It may come as a surprise that a humble gut germ could get involved in culture wars. But you need only consider how much attention creationists have been lavishing on E. coli in recent years, hoping to use it as evidence that life did not evolve–that it was created or designed instead.
Originally, creationists claimed that structures in E. coli showed clear evidence of being created–they were complex, made up of lots of parts, and seemed to work like manmade machines. The flagellum–the tail E. coli spins hundreds of times a second–was one of their favorite examples. It reminded them of car engines, of outboard motors. This sort of thinking reached its climax a couple years back in the Dover Trial, in which parents claimed their school board was introducing religion into school in the guise of “intelligent design.” One lawyer joked that it should have been called the Flagellum Trial. In journalist Lauri Lebo’s excellent new account of the trial, The Devil in Dover, she recounts how one of the plaintiff parents came dressed as a flagellum, with a little tail poking out of her pants.
The school board lost, and in the scientific arena–where scientists publish their experiments in peer-reviewed journals–so have the advocates of a designed flagellum. The evolutionary history of the flagellum is becoming increasingly clear as scientists discover related copies of flagellar genes in other structures. But there are still people ready to sell you an intelligently designed flagellum throw pillow (or beer stein or apron).
Now E. coli poses a new quandary for creationists. As I wrote earlier this month, scientists at Michigan State University have been tracking the evolution of E. coli in their lab for 20 years. They’ve been experiencing natural selection as they’ve adapted to this environment, and in one of the twelve lines of these microbes, the bacteria evolved the ability to digest citrate. The lack of citrate metabolism has been, till now, a hallmark of E. coli as a species. The scientists don’t know precisely how the bacteria evolved this capacity, but it appears to have involved a series of mutations that happened over several thousand generations.
This new paper has apparently touched a creationist nerve. There have been two sorts of responses. One has been to downplay the finding. Unless E. coli actually evolves into a human being in front of someone’s eyes, then its evolution is insignificant. “It’s important for us all to remember that when we read science news that seems to ‘confirm’ evolution, it’s never a true threat to the biblical worldview and the creation account because God’s Word never changes but man’s fallible ideas do,” Answers in Genesis consoles us.
Some have responded by suggesting there must be some mistake in the experiment, perhaps even fraud. Perhaps there was some contaminating DNA that endowed the bacteria with the ability to feed on citrate, for example. Andrew Schlafly, who runs a site called Conservapedia that’s supposed to be a conservative alternative to Wikipedia, wrote a letter to the senior author on the E. coli, Richard Lenski. He demanded that Lenski “post the data supporting your remarkable claims so that we can review it.”
Lenski responded politely at first that as far as he could tell, the relevant data Schlafly wanted was in the paper, which Schlafly had not bothered to read closely. When Schlafly repeated his demands–and as the discussions on the Conservapedia site veered to accusations of Piltdown-Man-level fraud–Lenski wrote a barbed reply that’s definitely worth reading in full. You can see the whole correspondence at Panda’s Thumb or Bad Science.
It is surreal to watch people with Conservapedia claim to be champions of science. Conservapedia has a densely detailed entry for Young Earth creationism, and another for Flood Geology. But their entry for Big Bang Theory is tiny–and taken up in large part by the objections of creationists. The entry for parasites informs us of the young Earth view that parasites are the result of Adam’s sin. What’s not surreal is to see E. coli at the eye of the storm. It’s business as usual for the little bug.
The British edition of Microcosm is coming out on July 3 (Brits can pre-order here, and here’s a link for Americans). In conjunction with its publication, the Telegraph asked me to explain why I love E. coli so. Here’s why.
It’s nice to get book reviews in both the popular press and academic journals. I hope everyone will read my books, but I also hope that scientists will consider them good science. And, speaking of Science, the journal of said name just published a lovely review of Microcosm by the evolutionary biologist Daniel Rankin:
A popular science book on E. coli may not sound like the most interesting read. However, Microcosm is just that. The next time you hear of an outbreak of nasty E. coli on the news, spare a thought for this minute creature, which has arguably helped advance humanity far further than any other organism. Not only has it inhabited human guts for as long as we have existed, it has benefited almost all areas of the biosciences, from genetic engineering to evolutionary theory. To really understand life, it seems we must pay close attention to this bug’s life.
Hey Angelenos! I hope you can come out to catch my next talk about Microcosm. It’s part of the Zocalo lecture series. I’ll be talking next Wednesday, June 25, at 7:30 pm at the Skirball Cultural Center. Here are the details.
My recent post about a striking new experiment in evolution (E. coli evolving the ability to eat a new kind of food) is still drawing lots of commenters and links. Very cool! Not so cool are the claims that this experiment is evidence of creationism, made by people who have not actually read the paper itself. Unfortunately, the paper is behind a subscription wall at the journal. Fortunately, the scientists have posted it on their own web site (pdf link). So go, read, and digest.
I’m also hoping that Zachary Blount, the grad student who pored over the trillions of E. coli in this experiment, will have time to respond to the many comments in the next few days. Stay tuned.
The field of biology has been wildly successful by taking what’s called a reductionist approach, i.e., you tackle a small problem in isolation in order to gain insight into larger questions. In his new book, Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life, Science writer Carl Zimmer took that reductionist approach and applied it to a pretty big issue: life itself. For Zimmer, the system that serves as a model of all life, and of humanity’s often uncomfortable relationship to it, is the unprepossessing gut bacteria, Escherischia coli. Covering all of life is a big task, and Zimmer made the challenge that much harder on himself by choosing to target the book to a general audience. Still, he handles the challenge extraordinarily well.
Meanwhile, on other Microcosm fronts…
My interview on This Week In Science is now online here. I jump in at about minute 32:00, but the whole show is worth a listen.
Thursday I’ll be heading up the road to talk about Microcosm at one of my favorite bookstores: RJ Julia in Madison CT. The talk is at 7, and it’s free. And for once I don’t have to fly to a talk. Here are the details. Hope to see some Connecticut Loom-readers there.
Imagine that mad scientists defied nature and violated the barriers between species. They injected human DNA into non-human creatures, altering their genomes into chimeras–unnatural fusions of man and beast. The goal of the scientists was to enslave these creatures, to exploit their cellular machinery for human gain. The creatures began to produce human proteins, so many of them that they become sick, in some cases even dying. The scientists harvest the proteins, and then, breaching the sacred barrier between species yet again, people injected the unnatural molecules into their own bodies.
To understand why this is not science fiction–and why it’s not as horrifying as it sounds–read my latest post over at the Scienceblogs book club.
[Picture: "The Young Family," by Patrician Piccini (2002-3). Wikipedia]
I am literally only 12 pages in, yet Zimmer has already managed to make me catch my breath, clutch the book to my chest, and feel my eyes get a little moist from the emotional impact of it all.
I wonder what a couple hundred more pages will do…