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Junk DNA and Science-Stopping

Over the years, many (though not all) Darwinists have stated that non-coding DNA is not worth exploring because it is thought to be mere evolutionary junk. In 2003, Scientific American explained that “the introns within genes and the long stretches of intergenic DNA between genes, Mattick says, ‘were immediately assumed to be evolutionary junk.'” John S. Mattick, director of the Institute for Molecular Bioscience at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia was then quoted saying this might have been “one of the biggest mistakes in the history of molecular biology.” (Wayt T. Gibbs, “The Unseen Genome: Gems Among the Junk,” Scientific American (Nov. 2003), emphasis added)

Of course known functionality for non-coding DNA now goes far beyond intronic DNA. Early last month Nature reported that the “junk” is responsible for coding for many of the differences between humans and chimps (see Erika Check, “It’s the junk that makes us human,” Nature, 444:130 (Nov. 9, 2006)). Then just a couple of weeks ago, Nature again reports on function for junk DNA, noting an incredible level of multi-layered codes within our DNA:

That DNA contained at least one code was realized as soon as the molecule’s structure was discovered. That code, cracked in the 1950s and 1960s, parses passages of DNA into threeletter combinations that correspond to particular amino acids. This is a code in the strictest sense; input determines output. But researchers now know that there are numerous other layers of biological information in DNA, interspersed between, or superimposed on, the passages written in the triplet code. Human DNA contains tissue-specific information that instructs brain or muscle cells to produce the suite of proteins that make them brain or muscle cells. Other signals in the sequence help decide at what points DNA should coil around its scaffolds of structural proteins. These are the codes that computer buffs such as Shepherd want to crack with raw processing power … [M]any stretches of DNA in humans and other organisms manage to multi task: a sequence can code for a protein and still manage to guide the position of a nucleosome.

(Helen Pearson, “Genetic information Codes and enigmas,” Nature, 444:259 (Nov. 16, 2006).)

It is revealing to see the scientific community invoking analogies of language, syntax, and using code-breaking methods via computer software to detect multi-layered meanings in the genetic code. This makes the article’s assertion that “[t]his elegance is surely the handiwork of evolution” difficult to take seriously. The code, with its multi-layered complexity, bears the signature of an intelligent coder.

Science Stopping

But it appears that Darwinists are still poised to make the same mistake they made with introns. When analyzing some non-random patterns which seem to correlate over long stretches of DNA, one biologist continued to go with the “junk” hypothesis:

Today, these correlations are thought to be real — but interest in them has faded because, despite researchers’ best efforts, the patterns have not revealed anything biologically important. Perhaps, suggests Ivo Grosse of the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research in Gatersleben, Germany, the patterns could simply be traces of random evolutionary processes, such as the erosion patterns elegantly but accidentally carved into sandstone by the wind. “Long-range correlations definitely do exist, but I don’t think it’s some supercode imprinted in DNA,” Grosse says. “We just stumbled on a feature with probably no deep biological meaning.”

(Genetic information Codes and enigmas)

According to Nature, “interest in them has faded” because scientists are having difficulty figuring out their function, so they simply assume the patterns represent “traces of random evolutionary processes.” This shows that when scientists face difficulties understanding something, Neo-Darwinism can sometimes be a science-stopper–or at least science-delayer, in this case. It is incredible that Darwinists have levied this charge for so long at intelligent design when intelligent design provides a useful heuristic for understanding biological complexity while Darwinism often gets stuck and assumes that non-coding DNA is junk.

The Intelligent Design Approach

ID-proponents have been suggesting a different approach for a while now.

In 1994, ID-proponent Forrest Mims predicted that non-coding “junk” DNA would have function, writing a letter to Science, “Those supposedly meaningless strands of filler DNA that molecular biologists refer to as ‘junk’ don’t necessarily appear so useless to those of us who have designed and written code for digital controllers.”

Science rejected the letter, but in 1998, long before the “junk-DNA” revolution was in full swing, William Dembski predicted function for non-coding “junk”-DNA based upon intelligent design:

But design is not a science stopper. Indeed, design can foster inquiry where traditional evolutionary approaches obstruct it. Consider the term “junk DNA.” Implicit in this term is the view that because the genome of an organism has been cobbled together through a long, undirected evolutionary process, the genome is a patchwork of which only limited portions are essential to the organism. Thus on an evolutionary view we expect a lot of useless DNA. If, on the other hand, organisms are designed, we expect DNA, as much as possible, to exhibit function. And indeed, the most recent findings suggest that designating DNA as “junk” merely cloaks our current lack of knowledge about function. For instance, in a recent issue of the Journal of Theoretical Biology, John Bodnar describes how “non-coding DNA in eukaryotic genomes encodes a language which programs organismal growth and development.” Design encourages scientists to look for function where evolution discourages it.

(William Dembski, “Intelligent Science and Design,” First Things, Vol. 86:21-27 (October 1998))

Finally, in 2004 Jonathan Wells wrote, “research shows that ‘junk DNA’ does, indeed, have previously unsuspected functions. Although that research was done in a Darwinian framework, its results came as a complete surprise to people trying to ask Darwinian research questions. The fact that ‘junk DNA’ is not junk has emerged not because of evolutionary theory but in spite of it. On the other hand, people asking research questions in an ID framework would presumably have been looking for the functions of non-coding regions of DNA all along, and we might now know considerably more about them.” (Jonathan Wells, “Using Intelligent Design Theory to Guide Scientific Research,” Progress in Complexity, Information, and Design, 3.1.2 (Nov. 2004), emphasis in original)

Perhaps it’s time for a new approach to “junk” DNA.

Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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