100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Are We Really Mutants?

Have you heard that Richard Dawkins was stumped by the question "Can you think of an example of a mutation or evolutionary process which is seen to increase information in the genome"? There are so many copies of this on YouTube now, and most of your search results will be responses from atheists trying to defend Dawkins. Many of these videos will tell you the answer is a simple one, and that the footage of Dawkins must have been taken out of context. However, I had a conversation with an atheist friend of mine recently about this very question, and so I thought I'd make a few brief comments.

As usual, I remind you that I'm not a geneticist or anything; I'm just like most of you... my view of the world is shaped by my education as well as documentaries on TV, clips on YouTube, blogs and such like. So this is the context I write in; most atheists claim to have all their ducks in a row, but their information comes from the very same sources as mine... through reading Richard Dawkins' books, or watching documentaries about the origin of various species, or by watching atheist YouTube channels. These same sources which so convince my friend that there is no God have seemed to me quite weak in their arguments. So on this matter in particular, my friend tried to answer this question of “new information” for me. He later revealed that this was the answer given in one of these “in Dawkins defense” videos on YouTube. His answer went something like this...

DNA is made up of four key molecules which we signify by the first letter of their names, A, G, C, T. DNA is read in triplets, called codons. Each codon, such as “AGC” would tell a cell to generate a certain amino acid. These instructions are strung together until a "stop codon" is reached. The amino acids are put together to form a protein. In this way the cell is like a mini factory, the DNA is like the instructions on what needs to be made and how to put them together, and the bits that do the work are like little robots called tRNA. So far, intelligent design is sounding pretty good, by the way - your cells are like little factories, where DNA is the “computer program” to control little robots! Now, as for evolutionary processes creating new information, my friend gave this example... if you have the letters A, G in your DNA, this means nothing; but if a mutation occurs in the DNA strand to add C, you now have a codon AGC which will produce the amino acid Serine. And there you have it... new information!

Normally I don't like to write about the kinds of things which are better left to a website like creation.com, but the reason I wanted to write about this is precisely to point out that you don't always need to consult something like creation.com when faced with information like this. And I'm speaking to atheists primarily... think critically about the information you read and hear. This is supposed to be quite an authoritative answer, but if we just think about it, the story has a fatal flaw. First, let's try to picture the whole DNA sequence. Every group of three bases is a code for an amino acid. There is no such thing, then, as "AG" all on its own, doing nothing. It has to be followed by something... there are no "blanks" in the DNA sequence. Our AG will be part of a very long string. It’ll exist in a sequence perhaps like this...


Now watch what happens if we insert a C after the AG...


It affects every codon after it so that each one now produces something completely different. We no longer have GAG but AGA. No more TUU but GTU, and so on. As for the "stop codon", wherever that was, it has now changed also so that the “program” no longer stops where it used to. One mutation changes everything in front of it.

Now as for the question of whether this creates new information, let's consider what information is. A page of random characters contains no information at all. A page of text, like this one, does contain information. If we encoded information in the same way that DNA does, then a mutation in this sentence here would eftupsz uif sfnbjojoh jogpsnbujpo. (That is, “destroy the remaining information.”) There I wrote a simple computer program to make a similar kind of “mutation” to the way computers encode information. All you get is corruption; a complete loss of information.

Now my friend wasn’t completely defeated by this; he explained to me that this is a known problem called “frameshift”. Now I don’t intend this post to become technical, so I’ll make my point simply... whether you think that such massive change caused by a single mutation could create something new and functional and beneficial despite the massive loss of information that goes with it, or whether you think that multiple mutations might be able to balance out the massive loss that goes with a single mutation, you’re actually starting to forsake the chief defense of Evolution! Namely that massive beneficial change, like all the parts of a jumbo jet falling into place in a dust storm to form a functional jumbo jet, is outside the realm of possibility; and that for this to happen you need gradual incremental changes over long periods of time. For a single mutation to shift all of your DNA into something functional would be tantamount to the jumbo jet example. And I think relying on two or more mutations in close proximity to each other having a beneficial effect is again failing to evaluate the improbability of such a thing.
I don’t know whether or not there are no examples of mutations adding information to the genome, but I am certain of this; that there are nowhere near enough! My friend wanted to say that Evolution isn’t just mutations, it’s also natural selection. But natural selection has no creative power at all! It only selects from what is already there. Adding natural selection to the equation doesn’t add a new way for new information to be added to the genome. Mutations are, as far as I know, the only possible way in theory. So if you consider that the Earth is supposedly 4 billion years old, ask yourself... is even that enough time for mutations to generate the vast amount of information present in the genomes of every species alive today? We should be seeing beneficial mutations all the time in nature!

So was Richard Dawkins actually stumped? As I said, many people made YouTube videos and wrote blog posts to defend him. This particular one which my friend saw clearly failed to do so. One would think that Dawkins himself could write his own defense, and that it would be the definitive answer as to whether he was “stumped” or not. Well, Dawkins did exactly that, and you can read his answer and judge for yourself.


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