I watched only a little bit of the Ken Ham – Bill Nye creationism “debate,” enough to be highly irritated by both participants. But one part of what I did watch really jumped out at me from Ham, his ridiculous attempt to dismiss the results of a brilliant experiment by Richard Lenski. Let me give some background first.
Lenski set up 12 different isolated environments (flasks, essentially) in his lab and put an equal amount of E. coli in each one, with the contents of those flasks being the same initially. Over time, he changed the environment in the flasks and let the bacteria reproduce. Every 500 generations, he removed a sample from each of the flasks and froze it, then let the rest continue to reproduce. Whenever something interesting happened — say, a big bloom in one of the flasks that indicates that something happened that facilitated greater reproduction — they could then take the current population, sequence the DNA and compare it to the frozen samples from that flask. This allows them to identify specific mutations that took place and when they took place (since they had samples from each flask every 500 generations).
One of the fascinating things that happened a few years ago is that one of the flask populations developed the ability to metabolize citrate (citric acid), meaning use it as food to fuel growth and reproduction. In the wild, E. coli can’t metabolize citrate if oxygen is present, but sub-population #3 in the lab had developed that ability, an obviously beneficial adaptation that would allow E. coli to survive and thrive in new environments when other sources of nutrients are not available. They were able to trace the development of that trait to a pair of mutations that took place at about 20,000 generations.
Ken Ham brought that experiment up and tried to debunk it by presenting a short video clip from Andrew Fabich, who teaches microbiology at Liberty University. Fabich spent the first 40 seconds giving his resume, then offered this profoundly lame response:
When I look at the evidence that people cite of E. coli supposedly evolving over 30 years, over 30,000 generations in the lab, and people say it is now able to grow on citrate, I don’t deny that it grows on citrate, but it’s not any kind of new information, the information is already there and it’s just a switch that gets turned on and off. That’s what they reported and there’s nothing new.
This is gibberish. The word “information” is utterly meaningless. What happened in that experiment is that two mutations took place that created an entirely new trait in the population in one of the 12 flasks, the ability to metabolize citrate. Those mutations made it possible for the bacteria to pull citrate molecules through its membrane. All this talk of “new information” is just hand-waving, an attempt to confuse the issue and distract attention away from the fact that an entirely new trait evolved on its own in a remarkably short period of time.
I should also note that this is exactly what Michael Behe claims can’t happen. By Behe’s definition, that new trait is “irreducibly complex” because the first mutation conferred very little survival advantage, if any (those bacteria in that flask that had the first mutation were still totally outcompeted by their glucose-metabolizing colleagues). It was only when the second mutation occurred, increasing the efficiency of the metabolizing process, that the citrate-eating bacteria took over the flask in huge numbers. Behe claims that can’t happen, yet it did.