As a friend of ours puts it, Jonathan Wells’s The Myth of Junk DNA is in the process of being “Ayala’ed.” To “Ayala” a book is to attack it in review without having bothered to read or even read much about it, simply on the basis of what you think it probably says given your uninformed preconceptions about the author. The term comes from the wonderful instance where distinguished biologist Francisco Ayala pompously “reviewed” Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell for the Biologos Foundation website while giving clear evidence of not having cracked the book open or even looked at the table of contents.
Thus we have several posts from University of Toronto biochemist Larry Moran, criticizing Myth while being totally open about not having read it first. Moran wrote no fewer than four posts on the book in this fashion, claiming as an excuse that Myth would not be published in Canada until May 31. (In fact, the book was available for purchase from Amazon since early May.) And now, as Casey already noted, we have Forbes science writer John Farrell, citing Moran as his source — a “double Ayala,” so to speak, where you attack a book without reading it citing as justification a review by someone else who also hasn’t read it.
Farrell thinks the myth of junk DNA is itself a myth — that “scientists never dismissed junk DNA in the literature.” In other words, Wells has set up a straw man. Of course, not having looked at the book, Farrell can’t have consulted Dr. Wells’s fifty pages of notes documenting his argument. The notes may be downloaded for free here. (Also available in Canada.)
More oddly, Farrell goes on to cite as authoritative the view of botanist Stan Rice making…a classic “junk DNA” argument. But I thought the myth is a myth? Maybe Farrell didn’t have time to read and think about the words he copied and pasted into his own blog post. Rice argues that the genome is constructed pervasively in a way that suggest haphazardness, or as Farrell puts it, “how not-so-intelligently designed [it] actually is.” Rice points to the way information in the genome is fragmented, with coding and non-coding DNA, “exons” and “introns,” all mixed up.
This is, at best, a clumsy system, because whenever a cell divides, all of this DNA is copied, not just the DNA that the cell will use. In addition, since each gene is broken into little “exon” fragments by a large amount of internal “intron” DNA, the genetic information must be spliced together in order to be put to use. That is, to get a functional enzyme, the genetic information from lots of exon fragments has to be cobbled together. If it works, there is no problem, but the whole system is so cumbersomely complex that it often fails.
So information being fragmented this way gives, according to John Farrell, evidence of unintelligent design? Funny, but that is almost exactly the way data is stored on a computer hard disk. Intuitively, you might expect that a given file on your HD — a Word document, for example — is all stored in one place, as in a filing cabinet. But of course that’s not so. As more and more data is recorded, edited and altered, it is written in a scattered fashion across the vast yet still finite real estate of the hard disk. You’ll find a clear explanation of how that works here.
Is this evidence of clumsy or unintelligent design? In the context of computer memory, clearly not. Disk fragmentation can be a problem, necessitating optimization where files are rearranged and put back together in sequence. But with the operating system I use, for example, Mac OS X, that’s supposed to be unnecessary and even counterproductive. Apparently there’s debate on this, which I can’t claim to have followed.
The point is, the genome demonstrates exactly the kind of design choices that faced the folks who engineered the computer on which I’m writing this. Strewing information across physical space, to be retrieved and assembled as needed, is a design choice and one that computer engineers have found to be superior to other imaginable solutions. That’s evidence of design, the intelligent kind, I would think.