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“Large Scale” Function for Endogenous Retroviruses: Intelligent Design Prediction Fulfilled While Another Darwinist Argument Bites the Dust

In his “29+ Evidences for Macroevolution” on TalkOrigins, Douglas Theobald claims that “Endogenous retroviruses provide yet another example of molecular sequence evidence for universal common descent.” The presumption behind his argument is that endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) are functionless stretches of “junk” DNA that persist because they are “selfish”–but they have no function for the organism. If we find the same ERVs in the same genetic loci in different species of primates, Theobald concludes they document common ancestry. But what if ERVs do perform important genetic functions? Even theistic evolutionist Francis Collins acknowledges that genetic similarity “alone does not, of course, prove a common ancestor” because a designer could have “used successful design principles over and over again.” (The Language of God, pg. 134.) The force of Theobald’s argument thus depends upon the premise that ERVs are selfish genetic “junk” that do not necessarily perform any useful function for their host.

In contrast, ID proponents would predict function for ERVs. This isn’t because ID has an inherent quarrel with common descent–it doesn’t. Rather, ID predicts function because the basis for ID’s predictions is observations of how intelligent agents design things, and intelligent agents tend to design objects that perform some kind of function. As William Dembski wrote in 1998, “If, on the other hand, organisms are designed, we expect DNA, as much as possible, to exhibit function.” It seems that the expectations of ID are turning out to be right.

A recent 2008 paper, “Retroviral promoters in the human genome,” in the journal Bioinformatics (Vol. 24(14):1563–1567 (2008)) discusses the fact that “Endogenous retrovirus (ERV) elements have been shown to contribute promoter sequences that can initiate transcription of adjacent human genes. However, the extent to which retroviral sequences initiate transcription within the human genome is currently unknown.” The article thus “analyzed genome sequence and high-throughput expression data to systematically evaluate the presence of retroviral promoters in the human genome.”

The results were striking:

We report the existence of 51,197 ERV-derived promoter sequences that initiate transcription within the human genome, including 1743 cases where transcription is initiated from ERV sequences that are located in gene proximal promoter or 5′ untranslated regions (UTRs).


Our analysis revealed that retroviral sequences in the human genome encode tens-of-thousands of active promoters; transcribed ERV sequences correspond to 1.16% of the human genome sequence and PET tags that capture transcripts initiated from ERVs cover 22.4% of the genome. These data suggest that ERVs may regulate human transcription on a large scale.

(Andrew B. Conley, Jittima Piriyapongsa and I. King Jordan, “Retroviral promoters in the human genome,” Bioinformatics, Vol. 24(14):1563–1567 (2008).)

Darwinists who labeled ERVs as a form of “selfish” and “junk” DNA have been chasing explanations down a blind alley. It should be stated that the authors do not deviate from the neo-Darwinian paradigm, putting the obligatory evolutionary spin on the data. They claim that it’s a possibility that some of the transcribed ERVs are “not functionally significant,” exposing that even in the face of this compelling contrary data, it is difficult for many Darwinists to let go of their seductive but science-stopping “junk-DNA” paradigm.

It seems that Richard Sternberg was correct when he predicted 5 years ago that “the selfish DNA narrative and allied frameworks must join the other ‘icons’ of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory that, despite their variance with empirical evidence, nevertheless persist in the literature.” (Richard Sternberg, “On the Roles of Repetitive DNA Elements in the Context of a Unified Genomic–Epigenetic System,” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 981: 154–88 (2002).)


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.



Endogenous retrovirusesERVJunk DNA