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Thursday, April 07, 2016

Can evolution by natural selection be responsible for new information/new genes?

Last month, Stephen C. Meyer, an advocate for the Intelligent Design movement*, debated with two other persons.  I did not see, hear, or read the debate, but Meyer has posted about it, and Dennis Venema, of BioLogos, has also done so.

*Intelligent design is, in simplest terms, the idea that God planned the universe. The Intelligent Design movement, (ID) however, also believes this, but furthermore believes that God did not plan that natural selection would be capable of generating new information or new genes. ID also believes that it is possible to prove God's planning, and, by inference, His occasional intervention in living systems, scientifically, and that Intelligent Design should be taught as an alternative to evolution by natural selection in the public schools of the US. Some ID adherents also believe in a young earth. Some do not. I am not an IDer, but I do believe in intelligent design.

What was the debate about? Well, one thing that the debate was about was the question posed by the title. If the answer to that question is definitely shown to be "no," then ID gains considerable credibility. Not only that, but evolution by natural selection should not be taught in public (or private) schools as an explanation for the vast diversity of living things. Meyer believes that the answer is, indeed, no. He is wrong.

Why is he wrong?

One reason is that Meyer, and others, cite a paper by Douglas Axe. The paper was published in what I take to be a scientific, peer-reviewed, journal. Axe claims to have shown that the probability of protein being able to perform a new function is vanishingly small. However, there are some problems with Axe's work, or at least his conclusions. Some of them are detailed here. To summarize, Axe wasn't working with a normal protein, but with a chosen small subset of normal proteins. That means that his estimate of probability is too small. How much too small is impossible to state, but enough that it seriously weakens his argument. More criticism of the validity of using Axe's work to show that the answer to the question of the title of this post should be answered with a "no" is here.

The problem with Meyer's answer (and that of others) to the question is not only reliance on Axe. There is also a misunderstanding of probability. See here for more on that.

Dennis Venema argues, here, that the antibody-producing mechanism of vertebrates is, in fact, able, by natural means, to generate new DNA sequences, which can help defend against organisms, or substances, which have newly arisen. If the antibody-producing mechanism can do that, this shows that the answer to the question above is, at least partly, "yes."

Finally, what is probably the strongest argument that the answer to the question posed is, in fact, "yes," is that new genes have arisen within the recent past. One example of this is a gene in some bacteria which codes for a protein that allows them to use nylon as a food. (Nylon is a synthetic fiber which did not occur at all until the twentieth century.) That gene has arisen since the production of nylon, and its release into the environment. 

Another example of a new gene arising, in the recent past, is discussed hereThis post, discusses some posts by Venema, which describe another example of functional genetic material arising, apparently through natural selection.

It appears that part of God's design was the mechanism of natural selection, which makes it possible for natural systems to come up with new means of coping with new or unique environmental conditions. To me, and others, that is at least as amazing as it would be if God had, as it were, stepped in to specially create such solutions. 

Thanks for reading!

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