Major Evolutionary Blunders: Evolutionists Strike Out with Imaginary Junk DNA, Part 1
by Randy J. Guliuzza, P.E., M.D. *
The suspense is palpable as fans watch baseball slugger Casey at the plate primed to wallop a game-winning home run. “And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go, and now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.” But the blow turns out to be a massive swing-and-a-miss for Casey—a total whiff—so “there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.”1 Ernest Thayer’s legendary 1888 baseball poem conveys the message of how overblown expectations, bolstered by smug overconfidence, can be dashed when the actual performance results in an enormous swing-and-a-miss.
Just like the mighty but futile force of “Casey’s blow,” evolutionary literature gloated for over three decades about evidence evolutionists believed was a powerful confirmation of evolution. Their “proof” was the discovery that a large percentage of DNA they called junk DNA does not code for proteins. Since evolutionists believe that over long ages organisms (and their DNA) are crafted by chaotic environments in which they struggle to survive, evolutionists expect to see in evolution’s wake many different types of “useless” genetic junk. They were so certain that most non-coding genetic material was junk DNA, some said its only functional ability was embarrassing creationists.
Yet, joyless Mudville was let down by Casey, and recently there has been less joy in Evolutionville as the expectations of junk DNA have been exposed as overblown. Thoughtful research confirmed function for much of the diverse types of DNA mislabeled as junk. Scientific evidence showed the widely touted “junk DNA” argument, which evolutionists anticipated being a Darwinian home run, is really a blundering swing-and-a-miss—another total whiff—for their theory.
Evolutionary Theory Expects to Find Genetic Junk in Organisms
Evolutionary proponents have had many whiffs. Recall the case of Haeckel’s embryos, which were touted as reflecting the stages of organisms’ evolutionary past. Biochemist Michael Behe noted, “The story of the embryos is an object lesson in seeing what you want to see.”2
And regarding the Piltdown Man hoax, biology philosopher Jane Maienschein recounted “how easily susceptible researchers can be manipulated into believing that they have actually found just what they had been looking for.”3 These episodes and others show that rather than being established by observation and experiment, major evidences for evolution have historically only needed to be phenomena that could be envisioned within evolutionary scenarios. Thus, finding DNA that does not code for protein, or looks like genetic wreckage, or appears as a hodgepodge of non-functional genetic repeats, etc., matches the chaotic genetic history of life on Earth that an evolutionary theorist is expecting to “see” in DNA.
This evolutionary “sight” affects all levels of scientific interpretation. Scientists whose analysis is constrained to fit evolutionary theory will not see a brain, a digestive system, and other complicated biological phenomena as designed things but rather as conglomerations of parts cobbled together by nature. “We’re all here because of mutations,” claims molecular neuroscience professor Jernej Ule, who adds:
But most random mutations actually disrupt the functions of our genes and so are a common source of genetic diseases….How does nature resolve this conflict?...We’ve known for decades that evolution needs to tinker with genetic elements so they can accumulate mutations while minimising [sic] disruption to the fitness of a species.4
How can Ule so easily embrace such counterintuitive thinking? By using a mental rescuing device. In his case this is his belief that a simple appeal to nature is a sufficient stand-alone cause to explain phenomena that in any field other than biology it would require the actions of an intelligent agent. Ule conceives of nature as being like an omnipotent agent capable of “resolving conflict” and “tinkering” with organisms over time. Nature, just like a potter, thus fashions creatures as if they were modeling clay.
This belief is widespread because most research programs in Ule’s field of evolutionary biology are shaped by a very influential concept synopsized in Nobel laureate Francois Jacob’s 1977 paper “Evolution and Tinkering.”5 Nature was described as a mindless tinkerer that drove the evolutionary process in fits and starts, down dead ends, in U-turns and other meandering paths throughout Earth’s history. Evolutionists believe that numerous “mistakes” and “junk” in living things confirm that nature started with a primitive cell and shaped it into all of life’s diverse forms. For them, the perceived struggle to survive explains why biology has both junk and incredibly complicated molecular machines that look like they were designed for a purpose—but really weren’t.
The distinguished biochemical researcher Walter Neupert explains how he and most biologists project God-like powers onto Mother Nature to mentally reconcile the counterintuitive notion that no designer was necessary for living things that look remarkably designed:
The vast majority of biologists believe that these ‘machines’ are not made by optimizing a design. Rather, we are convinced that they are the products of aeons of evolutionary processes. Francois Jacob made this clear almost 30 years ago: nature is not an engineer; she is a tinkerer (Jacob, 1977). Molecular machines, although it often may seem so, are not made with a blueprint at hand….There are no blueprints; the workshop of the tinkerer is a collection of millions of bits and pieces that are combined, and odds and ends are used over and over again to yield something that works better.6
A more recent scientific article presented a model for a natural origin of microscopic biological machines. Just like Neupert, the evolutionist authors project God-like creative powers onto nature as a whimsical tinkerer: “This model agrees with Jacob’s proposition of evolution as a ‘tinkerer,’ building new machines from salvaged parts.”7 If readers are attuned to it, they will find that evolutionary literature commonly invokes the personification of nature exercising agency through evolution as a substitute for God’s intelligent agency. Junk DNA fits perfectly with the evolutionary expectation of biology being messy rather than neatly engineered—and in their minds, evolutionists could “see” junk all over the genome.
Is Junk DNA Strong Evidence for Evolution and against Creation?
The concept of junk DNA began in the early 1970s when genetic researchers made the curious finding that over 95% of DNA does not code for proteins. Some DNA is characterized in perplexing ways such as long strings of repeated code that almost seemed like gibberish. Evolutionary researchers believed they were observing genetic fossils and other genetic wreckage left over from nature’s tinkering. In reports that were uncharacteristic of good science, many investigators hastily labeled the huge segment of DNA with yet-unknown functions as “junk,” beginning with geneticist Susumu Ohno who explained:
More than 90% degeneracy contained within our genome should be kept in mind when we consider evolutional changes in genome sizes. What is the reason behind this degeneracy?...The earth is strewn with fossil remains of extinct species; is it a wonder that our genome too is filled with the remains of extinct genes?...Triumphs as well as failures of nature’s past experiments appear to be contained in our genome.8
Evolutionary authority Jerry Coyne made a post-hoc prediction in 2009 that evolutionists would expect to find DNA in genomes along the lines of Ohno’s “junk,” and “the evolutionary prediction…has been fulfilled amply.” He noted, “Now that we can read DNA sequences directly, we find…in [species] genomes is inscribed much of their evolutionary history, including the wrecks of genes that were once useful.”9
Junk DNA flourished in evolutionary literature as valid proof of evolution. Evolutionary spokesmen like Ernst Mayr and Richard Dawkins appealed to it. Dawkins claimed that “[pseudogenes] are genes that once did something useful but have now been sidelined and are never transcribed or translated….What pseudogenes are useful for is embarrassing creationists…[since it] is a remarkable fact that the greater part (95 per cent in the case of humans) of the genome might as well not be there, for all the difference it makes.”10
On one side of the coin, the supposed existence of junk DNA is used as evidence for its evolutionary origin. But as Dawkins implies, on the other side of the coin evolutionists see it as a strong argument against DNA being intelligently designed. Popular science historian Michael Shermer contrasted these two explanations for DNA’s origin. “Rather than being intelligently designed,” he said, “the human genome looks more and more like a mosaic of mutations, fragmented copies, borrowed sequences, and discarded strings of DNA that were jerry-built over millions of years of evolution.”11 Shermer’s comments were consistent with what the evolutionary community was publishing about other genetic research.
In 2001, when the first drafts of the Human Genome Project were published, results were interpreted by some who saw so much “junk” that to them the reality of evolution became a mental certainty.
They identified thousands of segments that had the hallmarks of dead genes. They found transposable elements by the millions. The Human Genome Project team declared that our DNA consisted of isolated oases of protein-coding genes surrounded by “vast expanses of unpopulated desert where only noncoding ‘junk’ DNA can be found.” Junk DNA had started out as a theoretical argument, but now the messiness of our evolution was laid bare for all to see.12
Collins Fits Junk DNA into Theistic Evolution
Geneticist Francis Collins was the Director of the Human Genome Project and currently is Director of the National Institutes of Health. Unsurprisingly, he once endorsed the concept of junk DNA. What did surprise many was the degree to which Collins publicly identified his work as fully compatible with belief in God’s creative agency. He was instrumental in founding the organization BioLogos to promote evolutionary creationism. BioLogos credits the diversity of life on Earth to “the God-ordained process of evolution”13—i.e., theistic evolution, in which natural or created heterozygosity (genetic diversity) is fractionated out by natural processes. Citing junk DNA as evidence for evolution, Collins said:
Even more compelling evidence for a common ancestor comes from the study of what are known as ancient repetitive elements (AREs)....Mammalian genomes are littered with such AREs, with roughly 45 percent of the human genome made up of such genetic flotsam and jetsam.14
Within the same context, he mocked creationists who claimed from an investigative standpoint that the “junk DNA” label was premature: “Of course, some might argue that these are actually functional elements placed there by a Creator for a good reason, and our discounting them as ‘junk DNA’ just betrays our current level of ignorance.”14
Creationists at the time were adamant that experiments had not ruled out a functional role for this DNA. They disagreed that it should be classified as junk given the normal understanding of the word. Bypassing decades of potential research on this DNA, evolutionary authorities simply declared it “junk.” In fact, two leading researchers had already concluded by 1980 that “the conviction has been growing that much of this extra DNA is ‘junk,’” unlikely to have any function and “that it would be folly in such cases to hunt obsessively for one.”15 Consistent with Darwin’s look-imagine-see approach to science,16 it was natural for evolutionary researchers to clearly envision DNA of unknown function as junk given their firm evolutionary beliefs.
However, at the time when junk DNA was being declared as factual evidence for evolution and against creation, there were already published scientific reports on some “junk” DNA that documented its important functions. Next month’s Major Evolutionary Blunders article will show that ignoring these findings was akin to the hubris the slugger Casey flaunted just before his embarrassing total whiff of the pitch.
- Thayer, E. Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888. The Daily Examiner, June 3, 1888.
- Behe, M. J. Teach Evolution—And Ask Hard Questions. New York Times. Posted on nytimes August 13, 1999, accessed September 28, 2016. See Guliuzza, R. 2016. Major Evolutionary Blunders: Haeckel’s Embryos Born of Evolutionary Imagination. Acts & Facts. 45 (11): 16-18.
- Maienschein, J. 1997. The One and the Many: Epistemological Reflections on the Modern Human Origins Debates. Conceptual Issues in Modern Human Origins Research. Clark, G. A. and C. M. Willermet, eds. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 413. See Guliuzza, R. 2015. Major Evolutionary Blunders: The Imaginary Piltdown Man. Acts & Facts. 44 (12): 12-14.
- Ule, J. Hidden Code in DNA Explains How New Gene Pieces Are Made. RealClear Science. Posted on realclearscience.com January 10, 2017, accessed January 11, 2017.
- Jacob, F. 1977. Evolution and tinkering. Science. 196 (4295): 1161-1166
- Neupert, W. 2005. Highlight: Molecular Machines. Biological Chemistry. 386 (8): 711.
- Clements, A. et al. 2009. The reducible complexity of a mitochondrial molecular machine. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 106 (37): 15791-15795.
- Ohno, S. 1972. So much “junk” DNA in our genome. Brookhaven Symposia in Biology. 23: 366-370. Posted on junkdna.com, accessed December 31, 2015 .
- Coyne, J. 2009. Why Evolution Is True. New York: Viking, 67, 56.
- Dawkins, R. 2009. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. New York: Free Press, 332-333.
- Shermer, M. 2006. Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design. New York: Times-Holt, 75.
- Zimmer, C. Is Most of Our DNA Garbage? New York Times. Posted on nytimes.com March 5, 2015, accessed January 20, 2017.
- What We Believe. BioLogos. Posted on biologos.org.
- Collins, F. S. 2006. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York: Free Press, 135-137.
- Orgel, L. E. and F. H. C. Crick. 1980. Selfish DNA: The Ultimate Parasite. Nature. 284 (5757): 606.
- Guliuzza, Haeckel’s Embryos.
* Dr. Guliuzza is ICR’s National Representative. He earned his M.D. from the University of Minnesota, his Master of Public Health from Harvard University, and served in the U.S. Air Force as 28th Bomb Wing Flight Surgeon and Chief of Aerospace Medicine. Dr. Guliuzza is also a registered Professional Engineer.
Cite this article: Randy J. Guliuzza, P.E., M.D. 2017. Major Evolutionary Blunders: Evolutionists Strike Out with Imaginary Junk DNA, Part 1. Acts & Facts. 46 (4).