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What a Darwin Advocate’s Response to the ENCODE Project Tells Us about the Darwin Debate

University of Toronto biochemistry professor Larry Moran is not happy with the results of the ENCODE project, which report evidence of “biochemical functions for 80% of the genome.” Other Darwin-defenders are trying to dismiss this paper as mere “hype”.

Yes that’s right — we’re supposed to ignore the intentionally unambiguous abstract of an 18-page Nature paper, the lead out of 30 other simultaneous papers from this project, co-authored by literally hundreds of leading scientists worldwide, because it’s “hype.” (Read the last two or so pages of the main Nature paper to see the uncommonly long list of international scientists who were involved with this project, and co-authored this paper.) Larry Moran and other vocal Internet Darwin-activists are welcome to disagree and protest these conclusions, but it’s clear that the consensus of molecular biologists — people who actually study how the genome works — now believe that the idea of “junk DNA” is essentially wrong.

Moran, for his part, thinks that all these other scientists aren’t just wrong, but that they are misrepresenting the evidence — with dire consequences for the public scientific debate over Darwinian evolution. Over on his blog, he’s been filling pages with words, pleading with the ENCODE project researchers, and their friends in the media, to tone down their discussions of these results so as not to lend support to intelligent design (or as Moran unendingly puts it, “the creationists”). He writes, in various posts:

  • “The creationists are going to love this. You blew it Ed Yong. … ‘Almost every nucleotide …’? Gimme a break. Don’t these guys read the scientific literature? This is going to make my life very complicated.” (Larry Moran, “ENCODE Leader Says that 80% of Our Genome Is Functional“)
  • “[ENCODE’s previous] results were widely interpreted as proof that most of our genome has a function and the result featured prominently in the creationist literature. … Responsible science journalist should have dug deeper to find out whether the new ENCODE data was any better than the earlier data and whether their interpretation of the results is being widely accepted in the scientific community. They don’t have an excuse this time.” (Larry Moran, “The ENCODE Data Dump and the Responsibility of Science Journalists“)
  • “I’m not letting the science journalists off the hook but I reserve my harshest criticism for the scientists, especially Ewan Birney who is the lead analysis coordinator for the project and who has taken on the role as spokesperson for the consortium. Unless other members of the consortium speak out, I’ll assume they agree with Ewan Birney. They bear the same responsibility for what has happened. … The public now believes that the concept of junk DNA has been rejected by scientists and that our huge genome really is full of wonderful sophisticated control elements regulating the expression of every gene. It’s going to take a lot of effort to undo the damage caused by scientists like E[w]an Birney.” (Larry Moran, “The ENCODE Data Dump and the Responsibility of Scientists“)

Aside from the fact that Larry Moran is very bothered by the prospect that our genome is “full of wonderful sophisticated control elements” and now sees his mission as controlling the “damage” done by scientists talking about that evidence, what else do Moran’s words tell us?

First, they show that Darwin-activists are susceptible to letting sociopolitical concerns influence their words and behavior. They might treat a study one way, or another because of the feared implications of the evidence, not because of the evidence.

Second, Moran’s writing shows how the implications that proponents of Darwinian evolution fear most are those which lend support to intelligent design (or as they often put it, “the creationists”). They claim their pages and pages of rebuttal-text are simply about enforcing “accuracy,” but I suspect Moran et al. wouldn’t be so up in arms if there weren’t implications here that they fear lend credence to ID. It’s not hard to understand why Moran and his colleagues are coming out and forcefully attacking this ENCODE paper.

Third, this shows that many advocates of Darwinian evolution would like to believe the mainstream news media are generally on their “side,” and will respond favorably to requests, pleas, and demands to not print statements friendly to intelligent design. Based upon years of personal experience working with the mainstream media, I have to say that this assumption is mostly valid. In this case, however, it seems like folks in the media were largely oblivious to the implications regarding intelligent design, and the fact that ID proponents have been predicting the demise of junk DNA for years. The media certainly haven’t mentioned ID at all in the flurry of stories on this paper. These new ENCODE papers, and their coverage in the media, appear to have been driven by the fact that hundreds of leading researchers from around the world are now convinced by massive amounts of data that junk DNA is essentially wrong.

So we’re left in a situation where Darwin-activists are castigating the ENCODE project and the news media for allegedly “overstating” their findings with “hype” because “[t]he creationists are going to love” this research. But we’re given no persuasive motive explaining why these scientists and reporters would overstate anything here. If the scientists and reporters allegedly promoting the “hype” are not friendly to intelligent design, what reason would they have to overstate evidence that’s friendly to that position? These scientists involved with ENCODE already have all the funding, prestige, and CVs filled with publications that they need.

Whatever the case, what Larry Moran and others clearly show us is that they want, and expect, the news media and other scientists to dramatically tone things down when the evidence might be seen as lending support to intelligent design. Even the notably unsuspicious (and genuinely “creationist”) biologist Todd Wood says this behavior is “starting to sound like an anti-creationist conspiracy.” Wood, who is well known for his decidedly non-alarmist persona, writes:

What bothers me more this time is this undercurrent I’m seeing that basically perceives this latest hyperbole as especially egregious because creationists will misunderstand the results and use them for propaganda purposes. I hope no one is actually suggesting that scientists ought to modify the presentation of their results to prevent creationists from misusing them? Perhaps even … dare I say it? … censor themselves to prevent creationists from taking advantage? Because that really is starting to sound like an anticreationist conspiracy.

As I recently explained here, I don’t believe in such conspiracies. But I do believe that Darwin activists are human beings who can be susceptible, whether consciously or subconsciously, to thinking like Larry Moran. That thinking is motivated by sociopolitical and philosophical concerns rather than a desire to follow the evidence where it leads.

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.



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