Sunday, June 5, 2011

Junk DNA and Junk Science

Intelligent Design proponent Jonathan Wells has released a new book called The Myth of Junk DNA. I have not read the book, but his arguments have been posted to the Evolution News and Views blog. Also, biochemist Larry Moran has read the book and blogging about it on his blog Sandwalk.

Before we get into the case he's making I always like to look into the personalities behind these debates, so first little about the author. Jonathan Wells holds a PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology and in Religious Studies. He is a member of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. He's held positions in the church and is considered a Unification Church marriage expert. His theology studies, paid for by Rev Moon, were focused on the conflict between Christianity and Evolition. He was hand picked by Reverend Moon to enter a biology PhD program in order to "destroy Darwinism".

He published Icons of Evolution in 2002, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design in 2006 and Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution in 2008. He co-wrote a few books with William Dembski, one with the clever title "How to be an Intellectually Fulfilled Atheist (or not). "

Oh, and he's an AIDS denialist.

The new book is about junk DNA as it relates to the Theory of Evolution and Intelligent Design. So what is junk DNA and why is it important to the theory of Evolution according to Dr. Wells?

DNA's purpose is to code for proteins. We've known that since the 50's. But in the 70's we discovered that only about 1 to 2 percent of human DNA actually codes for proteins. Following this discovery there was a lot of scientific work done to figure out what this other 98% of our DNA might be doing. At the same time there was a realization that the much, if not most, of this non-coding DNA might be artifacts of the evolutionary process and might have no function at all, adding support, of course to evolutionary theory, foe why would a designer create useless DNA. Throughout this time there have been varying opinions about how much of the non-coding DNA is functional and how much is truely junk. There's no certainty here, but there are clues. Functionless DNA isn't prone to selection pressure and so it tends to degrade. This results in a loss of homogeneity in the gene in the population which can serve as an indicator. On the other hand, about 80% of our DNA is transcribed, which supporters of Intelligent Design point to as evidence of some function. Many, maybe most scientists believe that it's mostly non-functional and could be removed without much effect. This view hasn't changed much since the 80's.

This is not the history that Jonathan Wells paints. Jonathan Wells is David Barton of science history. According to his history, Darwinists latched on to the idea of junk DNA because it saves their theory, which otherwise is all but disproven. (Wells wrote a blog a few years back about junk DNA titled "Darwin's Last Stand? Which promote this view.) The ID crowd says that the idea that the genome is full of junk is a myth, and that recent advances in our knowledge of the cell, especially since the Human Genome Project has shown that what Darwinists have dismissed as junk actually has many functions. Thus, another icon of evolution has fallen and the theory is in trouble. Dr. Wells even claims that millions have died because of Darwinists' dogmatic adherence to the myth of junk DNA, preventing the advancement of life saving genetic research. Damn, first The Holocost, now this. Millions are always dying because of evolutionary theory!

The arguments that have been raging in the blogosphere is largely about what did scientists know about junk DNA and when did they know it, with the IDers saying that scientists have always dismissed function from the start, and those on the other side say "no we haven't".

How much does this history really matter? Not much, it seems to me. Only someone who dismisses the evidence for Evolution might think this an important argument at all. Mr. Wells fits this description. He calls the evidence for evolution 'underwhelming' and 'flimsy'. He says that the only evidence we have for evolution is comparing fossils with existing life, and the matter of junk DNA of course, which he has now dismissed.

So, how much does the Theory of Evolution rest on the existence of junk DNA? And are we at a point in our scientific knowledge that we can say that the vast majority of noncoding DNA is functional and consistent with good design, functional enough that a good designer would have created it in it's current form?

If Junk DNA was as important to holding up Evolution as Wells says it is, you would expect the two recent popular works on the theory, The Greatest Show on Earth by Dawkins and Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne, to give the subject a significant treatment. Instead, neither of them give Junk DNA more than a passing mention. Is junk DNA an icon of evolution? Would the theory suffer if we were to discover that all DNA had function. No and no.

Has the hypothesis that most of the DNA our genome has no purpose been falsified by the evidence since the 70's. The answer is no.

Has Dr. Wells taken a fairly minor controversy in science, cherry-picked the history and built a narrative of a theory in crisis around it, starring dogmatic Darwinists suppressing research to save the icons of the Darwinist faith, costing millions of lives by refusing to admit they're wrong and corrupting our children with a debased sense of our existence. Yes.

David Harcourt

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