Stumping Dawkins?

Posted on January 24, 2015

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“Can you give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome?”

This question was asked to biologist Richard Dawkins by a film crew for a creationist documentary. Dawkins paused for a while, asked to stop the tape, and the internet is still debating that “11 second pause”. Creation Ministries International triumphantly stated that Dawkins was stumped. The clip of Dawkins apparently struggling to answer the question was prominently featured in their documentary, and YouTube videos of that segment have been viewed millions of times. I often see the clip posted in forums and Facebook discussions on evolution and creation. The point seems to be that if Mr. Evolution himself, Richard Dawkins, can’t explain a basic part of evolution, evolution must be wrong (and creationism right by default).

So how can scientists explain the increases of information needed to make evolution work?

The easiest answer is gene duplication (which Dawkins and anyone interested in genetics knows). It happens commonly. There are several factors that may cause a gene to duplicate, and the process has been observed in lab experiments many times. Sometimes an entire genome is duplicated (all of the genetic material, not just the genes). Genetic studies of wheat reveal that its genome repeats itself several times, making it twice the size of the human genome. That’s right, wheat has twice as much DNA as we do.

Sometimes the duplicated gene develops a new function in an organism while the original continues to carrying out its original function (referred to as neofuntionalization). The new function may be useless, or even harmful – but it’s possible for it to provide something which helps the organism survive or thrive in its environment. That’s when natural selection takes over, favoring the new gene until it becomes fixed in the population. This is the mechanism that Darwin and Wallace discovered before anyone even knew what a gene was.

Matt Stopera / BuzzFeed

Photo by Matt Stopera / BuzzFeed. Buzzfeed asked 22 creationists at the Bill Nye/Ken Ham debate to write messages or questions for evolutionists. #16 challenged scientists to explain how genetic information could increase.

Evolution by natural selection is not random, in spite of what you may have heard from critics. The changes may be random, they may be mistakes, they may even be inserted by a virus (another method for increasing genetic information!), but if these common alterations in the genome provide a survival advantage to the organism, the organism is more likely to survive and pass those beneficial mutations to the next generation. It may not be stronger or fitter, it may just have developed a change in color that helps it blend in, or may produce a new enzyme that helps the organism digest food that others cannot (such as nylon-eating bacteria).

This is what evolution is. It’s about small changes in the genome over time that are preserved when they are favored (selected) by natural factors such as the environment, resource availability, and predator/prey relationships (to name just a few examples). Although critics try to call it random chance and equate it with monkeys typing Shakespeare or a tornado in a junkyard assembling a 747, that’s not the case at all. The genome doesn’t need to mutate instantly into place, and natural selection is not random.

So how can creationists continue to say that no new information is added to the genome when we can watch the information increase with our own eyes? First of all, some sources making this claim don’t know what they’re talking about and they say the genome can’t gain new material. Clearly that’s wrong. Some are more knowledgeable, and they realize that duplications and insertions happen, but they say this information isn’t “new”, or it isn’t “information.” (it depends who you ask). A PhD at Answers In Genesis answered the question of added

“Duplications are the result of duplicating existing genetic information, and mutations alter existing genetic information (whether original or duplicated). Neither of them adds new information. // That is not to say that sometimes mutations can’t have beneficial outcomes, such as antibiotic resistance in bacteria, but this is not an example of new information being added.”

Read the rest of the response here.

So Dr. Purdom agrees that a gene can be duplicated, and that the duplicated gene can mutate, and that the mutation may produce a “beneficial outcome” with new functions – but this isn’t new information. If we accept her novel definition of “information”, writing sentences with words that already existed can’t make new information. I can see why Dawkins would find it frustrating to deal with this kind of reasoning.

Neofuntionalization has been observed in the lab, and evidence of past events are found throughout every organism’s genome. The duplicated genes have mutated to become “new” and contain viable information that carry out a useful function. These can be clearly demonstrated. So why do they keep asking this question when it can easily be answered and provides powerful, observable evidence of how evolution works?

I think they do this because the rumor still abounds that the “information challenge” stumped Richard Dawkins – which means it must be a powerful line of attack. Through that misleading anecdote, many creationists have misunderstood genetics and are missing a chance to learn about the fascinating genetic process of functional divergence. Well, I find it fascinating, anyhow. Instead of learning about genetics (or even just learning some basic terminology), they want to skip ahead and show that the whole field is wrong and carries the fatal flaw of being unable to explain increases in information. This stuff bothers me for several reasons, the strongest of which is that the falsehood of Dawkins being stumped is coming from Christians. We should be placing the highest value on truth, and we should be showing love to everyone, including (or perhaps especially) Dawkins.

 

 

Further reading:

Gene Duplicaton article at plosbiology.org

Dawkins Responds to documentary’s  information challenge

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