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Darwinism and DNA

Update: In my hurry to get this posted I inadvertently left out the fact that it is not from me, but rather are thoughts from a CSC Fellow.

Some Darwinists are upset with Ken Chang for his recent New York Times report on the controversy over evolution and intelligent design. It seems that the Darwinists would have preferred a propaganda piece advertising only their side in the debate. Oh, well; they should take comfort in the fact that they managed to slip at least one piece of pro-Darwin propaganda into the article.

Chang wrote:

“Nowhere has evolution been more powerful than in its prediction that there must be a means to pass on information from one generation to another. Darwin did not know the biological mechanism of inheritance, but the
theory of evolution required one.”

It has become standard practice for Darwinists to claim credit for just about everything in biological science, but this particular claim is funnier than most. For centuries before Darwin, breeders knew that there had to be “a means to pass on information from one generation to another.” They didn’t need evolutionary theory to predict it. In fact, the theory of heredity that Darwin proposed turned out to be completely wrong. Modern genetics originated in 1865 with an Austrian monk, Gregor Mendel, who had never heard of Darwin’s theory and probably would have rejected it if he had. Indeed, when Darwinists finally learned of Mendel’s theory of inheritance they ignored it for decades before finally accepting it in the 1930s.

Genetics is not the only biological discipline that owes nothing to Darwin. Most modern disciplines in biology — including anatomy and physiology, zoology and botany, systematics and paleontology — were founded by scientists who were either pre-Darwinian or anti-Darwinian. The suggestion that evolutionary theory deserves credit for any of them is akin to old Soviet claims that Russians invented the radio and the airplane.

Chang continued:

“The discovery of DNA, the sequencing of the human genome, the pinpointing of genetic diseases and the discovery that a continuum of life from a single cell to a human brain can be detected in DNA are all a result of evolutionary theory.”

Although these claims are not as obviously wrong as the first, they still greatly exaggerate the role of evolutionary theory in biology and medicine. German chemist Friedrich Miescher discovered DNA in 1869, with no help from Darwin. In the 1940s American microbiologists Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod and Maclyn McCarty discovered that DNA carries hereditary information in bacteria. Like Miescher, they needed no help from evolutionary theory.

Even James Watson and Francis Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 owed more to Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray diffraction data than to evolutionary theory. Nevertheless, Watson and Crick seem to have been at least partly motivated by their desire to fill in the gaps in neo-Darwinism. After Darwinists finally embraced Mendelian genetics in the 1930s, they supposed that genes mutated randomly to produce new variations and natural selection preserved the useful ones. But how, exactly? By discovering a molecular mechanism to explain both stability (heredity) and change (mutation), Watson and Crick appeared to provide the missing element in evolutionary theory. Indeed, Crick announced in 1953 that they had “discovered the secret of life.” In 1970, molecular biologist Jacques Monod repeated Crick’s claim and added that “the mechanism of Darwinism is at last securely founded” so “man has to understand that he is a mere accident.”
So Watson and Crick’s discovery — unlike the discovery of DNA itself — may have been partly inspired by evolutionary theory.

A similar desire may have contributed to the current emphasis on genome sequencing, though the sequencing itself does not depend on evolutionary theory. Yet how much has genome sequencing actually accomplished? According to Chang’s article, one accomplishment has been “the pinpointing of genetic diseases.” Although this is true, the medical benefits have been surprisingly thin. Diseases caused by specific genetic defects constitute only about 2% of human ailments. The genetic basis of the remaining 98% remains a matter for speculation.

Even among the 2% of diseases that are frankly genetic, genome sequencing has contributed surprisingly little to medicine Take one famous example: Phenylketonuria (PKU) is a heredity disease that afflicts about one in 25,000 newborns. Left untreated, the disease often leads to mental retardation. In the 1950s, German pediatrician Horst Bickel discovered that temporarily modifying the early diet of afflicted newborns would largely prevent retardation; and in the 1960s, American microbiologist Robert Guthrie (motivated by having a child afflicted with PKU) invented a simple screening test to detect the disorder. Nowadays, most of the 4 million babies born in the U. S. every year are tested for the disease, and affected babies are fed a preventive diet.

So the diagnosis of PKU preceded Watson and Crick, and its treatment preceded genome sequencing. The PKU success story owes a lot to pediatrics and microbiology, but nothing whatsoever to evolutionary theory.

What about the claim in Chang’s article that “the discovery that a continuum of life from a single cell to a human brain can be detected in DNA?” The “continuum of life” through descent with modification from a common ancestor is Darwin’s core hypothesis. He sought to support it with evidence from comparative anatomy, fossils, and embryos; but all three of these categories provide as much evidence against the hypothesis as for it. With the advent of genome sequencing, Darwinists hoped to find more reliable support.

This hope has not been realized, though you’d never know it from reading Darwinian propaganda. It takes a review of the scientific literature to learn that even Darwinian biologists no longer think that humans and bacteria are descended from a single ancestral cell. There are just too many inconsistencies in the molecular data.

Even among the major groups of animals, the evidence from genome sequencing has failed to produce a consistent “tree of life.” Different results are produced by comparing different molecules, or even by submitting the same molecule to different laboratories. The April 28, 2005 issue of Nature reported that DNA sequence data have failed even to establish whether insects are more closely related to us than they are to roundworms.

So except perhaps for giving Watson and Crick more motivation than mere curiosity to unravel the structure of DNA, the predictions of evolutionary theory have not contributed to our modern ideas about heredity or to the diagnosis and treatment of hereditary diseases. And despite the Darwinist’s claims, the descent of all forms of life from a single ancestor has not been confirmed by DNA studies.

Ken Chang — a physicist, not a biologist — could not be expected to see through the Darwinists’ inflated claims, so he should not be faulted for repeating those claims in what was, after all, a necessarily abbreviated report on a complex controversy. Yet the Darwinists fault him for giving too much column space to the other side of the controversy. Perhaps they should be grateful instead that Chang included so many of their bogus talking-points.

Robert Crowther, II

Robert Crowther holds a BA in Journalism with an emphasis in public affairs and 20 years experience as a journalist, publisher, and brand marketing and media relations specialist. From 1994-2000 he was the Director of Public and Media Relations for Discovery Institute overseeing most aspects of communications for each of the Institute's major programs. In addition to handling public and media relations he managed the Institute's first three books to press, Justice Matters by Roberta Katz, Speaking of George Gilder edited by Frank Gregorsky, and The End of Money by Richard Rahn.