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In Debate, Britain’s Chief Rabbi Tweaks Richard Dawkins with the Myth of “Junk DNA”

This is delightful. In a BBC-sponsored debate with Richard Dawkins, Britain’s chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, tweaked Dawkins with the ENCODE project results. He does it right out of the box, in the opening moments of the encounter, observing that whereas until recently 98 percent of the genome was “dismissed as junk DNA, ” “actually that 98 percent that people thought was junk isn’t junk at all. It’s absolutely essential to the maintenance of life.”

Watch the video — Rabbi Sacks provides an important lesson not only in science and philosophy but in the human art of treating an opponent with unfailing grace, warmth, and a genuine friendliness that can’t be faked and that disarms even Richard Dawkins.

On the junk DNA point, though, Dawkins manages to squirm out and seems to turn it to his own advantage (at about 13:00). In his telling now, the discovery that junk DNA is not junk at all isn’t a blow to Darwinist predictions but — yes, you guessed right — exactly what a Darwinist would expect.

I have noticed that there are some creationists who are jumping on [the ENCODE results] because they think that’s awkward for Darwinism. Quite the contrary it’s exactly what a Darwinist would hope for, to find usefulness in the living world….

Whereas we thought that only a minority of the genome was doing something, namely that minority which actually codes for protein, and now we find that actually the majority of it is doing something. What it’s doing is calling into action the protein-coding genes. So you can think of the protein-coding genes as being sort of the toolbox of subroutines which is pretty much common to all mammals — mice and men have the same number, roughly speaking, of protein-coding genes and that’s always been a bit of a blow to self-esteem of humanity. But the point is that that was just the subroutines that are called into being; the program that’s calling them into action is the rest [of the genome] which had previously been written off as junk.

If I had been whispering at Rabbi Sacks’s elbow, I would have suggested he point out that Dawkins has changed his tune. Back in 2009, in The Greatest Show on Earth (pp. 332-333), he was presenting the supposed junkiness of the vast majority of the genome as an assured scientific reality and one that is, in the specific case of “pseudogenes,” “useful for. . . embarrassing creationists.”

It stretches even their creative ingenuity to make a convincing reason why an intelligent designer should have created a pseudogene — a gene that does absolutely nothing and gives every appearance of being a superannuated version of a gene that used to do something — unless he was deliberately setting out to fool us.

Dawkins goes on:

Leaving pseudogenes aside, it is a remarkable fact that the greater part (95 percent in the case of humans) of the genome might as well not be there, for all the difference it makes.

That was in 2009, just three years ago. Back then, the purported fact that 95 percent of the human genome “might as well not be there” was an embarrassment “for creationists,” whom in typical Darwinian fashion Dawkins conveniently conflates with intelligent-design advocates. Junk DNA is just what a Darwinist would expect, in other words.

Cut to 2012, and now the evident fact that “junk DNA” isn’t junk at all but is instead vital for life has become “exactly what a Darwinist would hope for,” namely, “to find usefulness in the living world.” That is, heads you lose, tails I win. A wonderful man like Rabbi Sacks would probably have to shed his courtliness for a moment to properly call out Dawkins on this blatant, unacknowledged and suspiciously convenient self-contradiction. Ah well, as we knew already, being a Darwinist means never having to say “I was wrong.”

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.



BBCcreationistsENCODEJunk DNARabbi Jonathan SacksRichard Dawkins