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Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Evolution Refuted" video, from Answers in Genesis

The Evolution Refuted video, from Answers in Genesis, (AIG) a leading Young-Earth Creationist organization, was published in 2011, but I hadn't seen it until recently. (The video is a little over two and a half minutes long.) I'd like to muse about it.

Evolution Refuted makes two claims:
1) "Fact One: There is no known observable process by which new genetic information can be added to an organism's genetic code."
2) "Life has never been observed to come from non-life."
Let me consider these claims, in reverse order.

Life from non-life
My own position is that life would not be present on earth without God's activity, however and whenever that was.

The second claim is true, but trivial. Either life has always been present, since the beginning of the universe, or it somehow came to be, from non-life. Few, if any, people believe the first alternative. The second is true, whether or not anyone observed this. The claim, quoted above, includes not only natural processes (if any such exist) but God's creative actions. Neither of these have been observed. Does AIG wish to claim that God didn't create, because no one observed it? Surely not.

The claim stands in for a more specific, less trivial claim, which was not expressed in the video. That claim is that life can't come from non-life by natural means. Perhaps not. Perhaps it can. We can't observe the entire biosphere all the time. Far from it. It is possible that, somewhere, perhaps in an ocean, a microscopic new living thing has just come into existence, from non-living precursors. If that were to happen, how would we know this? How could we be sure, in the very unlikely event that we found the resulting living organism, that it didn't descend from some previously unknown type, that's been around for a long time? If a new living thing really came to be, in this way, most likely it would not be as good at obtaining energy, reproducing, and protecting itself, as organisms that have been around for a while in the same location, and subject to adaptation and natural selection. So, most likely, it would quickly go extinct, and we would never know of its existence.

(For all we know, God is creating some new form of life right now, somewhere, as far as that goes. We can't really disprove that!)

Can life come from non-life by natural means? As I said, maybe, maybe not. If it did, it couldn't be through natural selection, the mechanism of evolution. (Natural selection really does exist. There's no reasonable argument about that, but there are arguments about its power. See below.) Natural selection requires reproduction, and variety in the offspring. Non-living entities don't reproduce. 

What AIG is really against is not exactly evolution. Evolution, through natural selection, is a fact, for example in the descent of different racial groups from the original human stock. The Bible teaches that. AIG is really against two ideas. One of them is the idea that the earth is billions of years old, rather than a few thousand years old. The other is naturalism. (See here and here for a discussion of the Young-Earth part of Young-Earth Creationism.) Naturalism should be opposed, and is opposed by most Christians, and others. Even if things take place through natural processes, that doesn't mean that God didn't create the processes.

So, for the first claim, the video is really against the possibility of living things arising from non-living by natural means. As indicated above, the claim that this has never been observed is correct. But AIG accepts God's creative activity, and that hasn't been observed, either. But what if natural processes really can be observed to bring about life from non-life? What if, in some yet-to-be-invented experimental system, life is observed to come from a mixture of non-living substances? So what if this did happen? The Bible doesn't rule this out, and it was God who planned for the Carbon atoms that are central to life, and, somehow, brought them into being. It was God who planned for, and brought into existence, the processes, the energy, the substances, necessary for life. Such a discovery would not rule out God's creativity and intelligence.

New genetic information
What about the second claim, which is that new genetic information can't be added to an organism's genome?

One proposed mechanism for this is by duplication, followed by mutation. For example, there are four different globin proteins in humans, including hemoglobin. This article has a table, comparing the amino acids (building blocks of protein) found in all four of them. The table indicates that the four different proteins are similar in their make-up, and scientists believe that all four of them descended from an organism that had only one gene for hemoglobin, but, over time, that gene was duplicated, due to some error in copying, and, once a second (or, eventually, in another organism, a third or fourth) copy existed, it was not critical to the organism, since the first one was still present, so changes in the second copy weren't selected against, and, eventually, it produced a protein with a somewhat different function, because changes eventually led to organisms with these changes were selected for. There are a number of genetic systems where the same thing seems to have happened. New genes, with new genetic information, have become critical to the life of organisms. Can we prove that God didn't specially create these four hemoglobins? No, of course not. But natural processes can explain the existence of similar, but different, functional genes from a single gene ancestor. The AIG claim is really that there is no way this could have happened, without a miracle. All that is needed to refute that claim is to show that there are such mechanisms.

Besides new genes arising by duplication, it is also possible for new functions, from new or modified genes, to arise by mutation. One example is the rise of the ability to use citrate (see also here) in an experimental population of bacteria.

See here for more on the addition of information to an organism's genome.

AIG's claim is really that there is no way that genetic information could be added to an organism's genome, except by Divine action. That claim is false.

In summary, at best, the claims of the AIG video are over-simplistic. At worst, one of those claims is false. Thanks for reading.

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