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Junk DNA and the Darwinist Response so Far

Over the weekend, Jonathan Wells’s The Myth of Junk DNA broke into the top five on Amazon’s list of books dealing with genetics — a list normally dominated at its pinnacle by various editions of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Not bad, Jonathan.
The juxtaposition with Dawkins’ Selfish Gene is appropriate, notwithstanding the demurrals of biochemist Larry Moran et al. Dawkins and other Darwinists, such as Jerry Coyne, have indeed posited that neo-Darwinian theory predicts that swaths of the genome will turn out to be functionless junk. The Junk DNA argument has been a pillar of the Darwin Lobby’s efforts to seduce public opinion and influence public policy. Professor Moran wants to imagine that Dawkins never held that neo-Darwinism predicts junk DNA. But that’s not how other Darwinists see it. (Compare, for example, Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, page 316.)
So far, with none of them having actually read the book (though P.Z. Myers threatens to do so), the Darwin apologists’ response to The Myth of Junk DNA has followed along four lines of defense.
1) The usual insults. In his blog Larry Moran of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Toronto, a grown man and from the looks of him not a young one either, repetitively derides Jonathan as an “IDiot.” (How embarrassing for this mature gentleman, you might think. Can you imagine Jonathan Wells or anyone else prominent in the ID community replying in kind, designating Professor Moran as “Larry Moron” or similar? The question is self-answering and tells you a lot about how desperation kindles anger among these people.)
2) Denying that junk DNA ever figured preeminently in the Darwinist’s quiver of arguments against design. Moran, for example, asserts, “There was never a time when knowledgeable molecular biologists equated ‘junk’ DNA and ‘noncoding’ DNA.” Huh, that’s strange. I’m not aware of anyone who has scientifically polled the community of professional biologists on the subject. But I do know that in the struggle for public opinion over the question of Darwin versus Design, junk DNA has again and again been employed, by all the most eminent protagonists on the Darwinian side, as a bludgeoning weapon against intelligent design. Never mind The Selfish Gene, in his most recent book, The Greatest Show on Earth (2009), Dawkins observed that “the greater part…of the genome might as well not be there, for all the difference it makes,” and that this fact is “useful for…embarrassing creationists.”
Similarly, in Why Evolution Is True (2009), Jerry Coyne offers it, again, as a “prediction” of neo-Darwinian theory that we’ll find the genome littered with useless “vestigial genes.”
3) When not denying that junk DNA is a prime, staple argument for Darwin apologists, Professor Moran wants to have it the opposite way. In the same series of blog posts attacking “the IDiot” Jonathan Wells, Moran maintains his own belief that the genome is indeed overwhelmingly useless junk. “Some (I am one),” he writes, “still think that as much as 90 percent could be junk.” He insists that “it’s not sufficient to show that a few bits of repetitive DNA have gained a function in some species.”
Dr. Moran’s problem is that he has neither read Jonathan’s book nor, it seems, followed the cascade of evidence from the scientific publications. It’s a heck of a lot more than just “a few bits of repetitive DNA” that have been shown to be functional. In a brief (and enviably readable and accessible) 115-page book, Jonathan Wells offers over 600 references to recent peer-reviewed literature.
Twenty-five thousand studies further down the road from where we are now, no one knows how much of the genome will turn out to be truly functionless and therefore genuinely worthy of the appellation “junk.” But for Darwinists, the speedily mounting evidence against junk DNA is an ominous portent. As Casey Luskin and others have put it, it’s the trend that stands out prominently here, on which the likes of Larry Moran have so far been in denial.
4) Finally, in my own small contribution to this debate, I made a facetious comment here about how the identification of Osama bin Laden’s corpse by DNA fingerprinting, using his “junk DNA” as the media habitually referred to it, provided a welcome news hook for the publication of Jonathan’s book. This provoked braying responses from the Darwin Lobby. For example, our journalist friend Lauri Lebo, challenged as ever in her reading-comprehension skills, somehow understood that I was saying the usefulness of non-coding DNA for this forensic purpose proved it isn’t junk.
P.Z. Myers tried to show that the usefulness of non-coding DNA for genetic fingerprinting is another demonstration that the stuff really is junk, being “subject to random changes at a higher rate than coding DNA, because it is not subject to functional constraints.”
But whether “junk DNA” is functional is exactly the question at issue, isn’t it? The fact that our DNA is pervasively transcribed, as Jonathan Wells points out in Chapter 3 of his book, itself suggests pervasive functionality. As has become clear, too, DNA may serve in various functions even if it does not code for functional RNA.
So far, the Darwinist response fails to appreciate that Jonathan is in the act of very seriously blunting a Darwinian icon. What, in this context, is an icon? It’s a mainstay in the public debate about Darwinian evolution that turns out, on inspection, to be based not on solid science but on puffery, illusion or deception.
This is another icon that, as Jonathan shows, was in the process of being blunted by biologists who are not ID advocates, well before Dr. Wells gathered the evidence together so concisely and conveniently in these pages.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.