Thursday, February 14, 2008

Beyond Darwinian Fundamentalism

The problem with evolution is not that it is false, but that it is not completely true. That is, the claim that all life has evolved from a common ancestor, itself formed by chance from primordial slime, is false. But the idea that life is genetically static from generation to generation is also false. This allows evolutionists to point accurately to many instances of genetic change as if they "prove" evolution, an approach that is as methodically accurate as pointing to your front lawn to prove that the earth is flat.

The problem is not what natural laws and chance events can explain, but what they, by themselves, cannot explain. A man who insists that any given random rock on a mountainside was placed there by aliens is an idiot, but so is a man who insists that the clothes on his back are the products of natural law and chance alone, without the involvement of intelligent agents.

This is not a trivial point. The academic community is overflowing with Ph.D.'s, even Nobel laureates, who insist with a straight face that an unknown intelligent designer must never be considered as a potential cause for anything. Which means that if you have never visited the Chinese factory or met the factory workers who produced your shirt, they consider you a loon for believing it to be designed (or they should, if they were consistent). Some evolutionists try to claim this is only true for biology, but this is an absolutely arbitrary distinction; why should we be allowed to postulate intelligent designers for a shirt made of cotton, but not the cotton material itself?

Besides, it is still unreasonable. Suppose unknown rogue scientists in the employ of Al Quaida genetically modified a bacteria to become a new disease. To be consistent evolutionists would all have to deny that such genetic engineering can be considered as a possibility, even if the rogue scientists left the message "MOHAMMED WAS HERE YOU STINKING INFIDELS" embedded in Arabic right in the DNA strands in morse code. That is the absurdity that unflinching methodological naturalism comes to when it refuses to intelligently consider non-naturalistic causes. We can be sloppy about considering such causes, but even a sloppy approach will get us nearer the truth than a fanatical refusal to even consider possibilities.

After all, it's not as if evolution in the sense of innovative-change-over-time is still a plausible concept in the relevant branches of science. Evolutionism today is as much a fairy tale as the concept of a flat earth, for all the authoritative pronouncements defending it. Consider for a moment the implications of the rates of mutations measured in the human genome.


Imagine a village with 100 adults living in it. Every generation the parents produce 200 children, half of whom die before adulthood. Let us assume that 50% of the children have one hereditable mutation, and that half of these are beneficial and half harmful. Let us further assume that natural selection is perfectly rigorous.

As a result, all the 50 children with harmful mutations die, and half of those with no mutations. The survivors are 50 children with beneficial mutations and 50 with no mutations. As a result the next generation is genetically superior to their parents. This is how evolution is supposed to work.

Of course, this is an oversimplification. In the real world natural selection is not very rigorous - empirical studies and population genetics theory agree that it is a very subtle, weak force in practical terms. In sexually reproducing organisms the best mutation in the world will not be carried in 50% of offspring just by virtue of the random mixing of DNA from each parent.

Just having a beneficial mutation does not guarantee survival, it only enhances it compared to those lacking the mutation. The formula for 'fixing' new beneficial mutations boils down to X = 2A, where A is the percentage increase in offspring, and X is the chance the mutation will spread through a population. Thus, let's say 1% of a population was dying from AIDS without reproducing. A mutation that produced total immunity to AIDS would thus have only a 2% chance of surviving and spreading through a population. So most beneficial mutations will die out on their own just by random chance. And note that most beneficial mutations have a much, much smaller impact than a 1% increase in reproduction.

But all this sidesteps the real problem with the illustration above. In the real world the mutation rate is not .5 mutations/child. The human genome has been the subject of much study in recent decades, and estimates of the mutation rate/child now run much, much higher - 100 is considered an absolute bare minimum, and the real rate is probably several times higher, at least.

Moreover, no serious biologist believes that half of all mutations could be beneficial. Biological systems are extraordinarily complex, and the more complex a system the more likely that a random change will disrupt it rather than enhancing it.
Some optimistically speak of 0.1% of all mutations being beneficial. Some might be neutral, but the vast majority are going to be harmful. There was some dispute about the ratio of neutral to harmful mutations in the past with the concept of 'junk DNA' (after all, randomly changing a gene that is 'junk' can't make it worse, can it?) But with the discoveries of the ENCODE project (cf. Alex Williams, "Astonishing DNA Complexity Demolishes Neo-Darwinism," Journal of Creation 21(3):111-117), it is now clear that virtually all DNA is functional. That means mutations will either enhance their functions or disrupt them, but are very unlikely to have zero effect.

Moreover, truly novel beneficial mutations are even more unlikely because of the way information is layered within DNA in overlapping patterns, something that was known but not fully appreciated before the ENCODE project findings. This means a single point mutation that enhances lung capacity, for example, might also stunt the growth of your eyes and cause your bladder to grow in your kneecap. It is much more difficult to envision beneficial mutations in such a complicated environment. Indeed, known beneficial mutations may have to be re-evaluated as back mutations (mutations that simply reverse or undo a mutation in the past).

This leaves us with a village scenario more like this:

Imagine if the 100 parents gave birth to 200 children. Each of the children has numerous mutations - let's say from 80 to 120 per child in a bell curve pattern. Of the 20,000 mutations in this generation of children, let us say optimistically that 20 of them are beneficial. This means 90% of the children are carrying around a hundred harmful mutations each, while the other 10% have a single beneficial mutation each, along with around a hundred harmful mutations.

Do you see the problem? If you are trying to get a generation that is more fit than the past generation, which children do you allow to live such that they are more fit than their parents? The answer is that none of them are more fit than their parents. The large number of mutations per child guarantees that each individual will be less fit than their parents. True, must of the mutatations have negligible effect. But they are still disruptive to existing metabolic pathways and complex biochemical systems and structures. The trend is inescapable. No matter how rigorous we propose that natural selection can be, there are simply no healthy individuals to select that will maintain or improve the fitness of the population.

This is the situation the human race, and indeed the entire biological world, is facing. It is plainly and powerfully demonstrated in the book Genetic Entropy by Dr. John Sanford, a semi-retired Cornell University biologist with worldwide fame as the inventor of 'gene-gun' technology used for genetic engineering. (He was named 2001 Scientist of the Year by Progressive Farmer, for example.)

Sanford documents the problem so clearly that the only responses to it have been 'crank' responses (such as claiming the mutations in question are all non-hereditable ones). Even a mutation rate of about 1/child would be enough to overpower natural selection and drive inevitable decay of the genome, so a rate in the hundreds makes it astonishingly clear: the human race is on a rapid path of unstoppable genetic decay (short of massive genetic engineering).

In my next posts, I'll outline some of the implications for these discoveries and point readers to Mendel's Accountant, a software simulation tool developed by Dr. Sanford and his co-workers to study the impact of real-world mutation rates on the health of genomes.

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