Faith & Science
Francis Collins, Karl Giberson, and Books and Culture Promote Misconceptions About Intelligent Design, Falsifiability & Junk DNA
In the media, it’s not unusual for an interviewer and interviewee to hold similar views on whatever subject they are discussing. Radio show hosts and podcasters, for example, commonly interview friendly guests. But imagine if Paul Allen interviewed Bill Gates on the merits of Microsoft, and then published the interview as an independent journalistic article in Wired magazine. Not only would it would read like a paid advertisement, but critics would begin wondering if Wired was in business to promote Microsoft products.
The Microsoft example is of course fictional, but something like it happened recently when Karl Giberson (executive vice president of the BioLogos Foundation) interviewed Francis Collins (the president of BioLogos), and then published the interview in Christianity Today‘s Books and Culture. In this case, the product being promoted was theistic evolution.
In the “interview,” Collins makes some inaccurate criticisms of intelligent design (ID). Giberson asked him: “What do you think of this project that the Discovery Institute has launched with a laboratory where they want to do genuine scientific research, with their own in-house Intelligent Design scientists?” Collins replied: “It is hard for me to imagine what they will do. ID doesn’t actually propose any falsifiable hypotheses.” This is an odd response from Collins given that in his book The Language of God, he argues as if junk DNA falsifies design.
In The Language of God, Collins makes the case that a huge portion of our genome is junk, writing that, “Mammalian genomes are littered with such AREs [ancient repetitive elements], with roughly 45 percent of the human genome made up of such genetic flotsam and jetsam.” (pg. 136)
“Flotsam and jetsam” is of course debris or junk floating in the ocean, often being trash thrown overboard by mariners. So Collins indicates that he would apparently believe that at least nearly half of our genome is comprised of useless junk DNA. When we find shared non-functional elements in different species, Collins argues this is evidence for common ancestry:
“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….There are AREs throughout the human and mouse genomes that were truncated when they landed, removing any possibility of their functioning….Unless one is willing to take the position that God has placed these decapitated AREs in these precise positions to confuse and mislead us, the conclusion of a common ancestor for humans and mice is virtually inescapable.”
(The Language of God, pp. 135-137)
Collins frames his argument in theological terms, but his argument entails the position that a creative intelligence would not normally insert non-functional DNA elements into identical locations in the genomes of two species. Thus, we see a testable prediction of intelligent design inherent in Collins’ argument: shared structures will have a function.
Collins’ use of this testable prediction of ID is seen in his logic where he states that shared structures that DO have a function do not allow one to discriminate between common design and common descent, and thus do not refute design:
“This evidence does not, of course, prove a common ancestor; from a creationist perspective, such similarities could simply demonstrate that God used successful design principles over and over again.” (The Language of God, pg. 134)
“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.” (The Language of God, p. 136)
Again, we can recast his theological argument scientifically in terms of design. Do designers re-use design principles that don’t work, or design things that do nothing? Not usually. When we find shared non-functional elements in biology, there’s a good chance they did not arrive at that state by intelligent design but are evidence of either independent hotspot mutations / insertions or inheritance from a common ancestor. Thus, we can falsify intelligent design for given genetic elements by finding shared non-functional DNA in different organisms. Collins thinks he’s found precisely these kind of non-functional elements in our DNA and the DNA of other mammals, and uses this evidence as part of his case for Darwinian evolution.
So Collins’s view implies that design is falsifiable, after all. But as Logan Gage and I observe in our response to Dr. Collins, he is simply wrong on the facts that we should assume these genetic elements are non-functional “junk.” Studies have found extensive evidence of function for AREs, and it’s not clear at all that they should be presumed to be functionless “junk.” Citing a paper by Richard Sternberg in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, we write:
Collins is wrong to make an argument from ignorance and assume that AREs (or “truncated AREs”) have no function, merely because no function is currently known. In 2002, evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg surveyed the literature and found extensive evidence for function in AREs. Sternberg’s article concluded 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.” Reprinted from Sternberg’s paper, known genomic/epigenetic roles of REs include:
- satellite repeats forming higher-order nuclear structures;
- satellite repeats forming centromeres;
- satellite repeats and other REs involved in chromatin condensation;
- telomeric tandem repeats and LINE elements;
- subtelomeric nuclear positioning/chromatin boundary elements;
- non-TE interspersed chromatin boundary elements;
- short, interspersed nuclear elements or SINEs as nucleation centers for methylation;
- SINEs as chromatin boundary/insulator elements;
- SINEs involved in cell proliferation;
- SINEs involved in cellular stress responses;
- SINEs involved in translation (may be connected to stress response);
- SINEs involved in binding cohesion to chromosomes; and
- LINEs involved in DNA repair.
(Source: 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: 154–188 (2002).
(Casey Luskin and Logan Gage, “A Reply to Francis Collins’s Darwinian Arguments for Common Ancestry of Apes and Humans,” in Intelligent Design 101 (Kregel, 2008).)
Thus, in a certain sense Collins is doubly wrong: ID makes testable and falsifiable predictions, and in the case of junk-DNA, ID is passing the tests.
Searching for function for non-coding DNA is not the only realm where scientists are seeking to test ID. The Biologic Institute’s research page explains that they are testing ID by studying the degree of complex and specified information (CSI) in DNA, the constraints required for life, and the ability of intelligence vs. Darwinian processes to produce CSI.
(In private conversations, I’ve directly seen or heard of prominent theistic evolutionists claiming that ID proponents are not practicing scientists. However this claim originated, it is false and these theistic evolutionists, whom I have no doubt care deeply about seeking truth, should stop making it.)
Clearly there’s another side to the story that counter’s Dr. Collins’ allegation that ID is not falsifiable. The question now becomes: Would Books and Culture publish a similar interview with an ID-proponent, say, Stephen Meyer, defending the pro-ID viewpoint?