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Any Sufficiently Vacuous Evolutionary Explanation Is Indistinguishable from Magic


Intelligent-design theorists including William Dembski and Stephen Meyer have produced rigorous mathematical, logical, and empirical arguments showing that the mechanism described by the “chance hypothesis” is woefully inadequate to bring about the complex genetic information found in even the simplest life. Yet that has not stopped many a Darwinian from invoking chance as a cause of biological complexity. Information, they believe, “emerges” by accident.

Magic Mutations

One example is this from Yale University likening evolution to a “house of cards.” Yes, you read that right. As Bill Hathaway says in the headline, “In evolution, ‘house of cards’ model wins.” How can this be?

Using sophisticated modeling of genomic data from diverse species, Yale researchers have answered a longstanding question about which competing model of evolution works best.

Their research suggests that the “house of cards” model — which holds that mutations with large effects effectively reshuffle the genomic deckexplains evolutionary processes better than the theory that species undergo the accumulation of many mutations with small effects. [Emphasis added.]

Their reasoning seems to rely on the assumption that since evolution is an accepted fact, and intelligence is disallowed, it must have happened. But mutations, being random genetic changes, offer nothing better causally than the chance hypothesis.

Darwin, of course, knew nothing about genes [i.e., genetic information] when he formulated his theory of how natural selection preserves traits that benefit the survival of organisms. Once the crucial role of genes was discovered, most evolutionary biologists conjectured that random mutations in genes were preserved in populations when they helped an organism survive or reproduce. Since mutations that have large effects are almost always fatal to the organism, one classical model holds that most must have small effects and that many would have to accumulate in order to create new traits and forms.

Another theory hypothesizes the opposite: that mutations do not cause small changes in fitness, but trigger a cascade of changes — the evolutionary “house of cards.” A third theory is even simpler: that mutations have no effect on fitness whatsoever. Recent discoveries of how small bits of genetic material regulate expression of large networks of genes bolstered interest in the “house of cards” model, but only now has the theory been successfully demonstrated to be applicable to diverse organisms on a genomic scale.

Hathaway claims that the Yale scientists have demonstrated this for yeast, worms, and flies. But can a house of cards in a mutational breeze account for such large amounts of genetic information in organisms that have supposedly been stable for hundreds of millions of years?

Let’s recall the high level of information we’re talking about. Recently, a paper in Nature reported that “simple” yeast cells possess the most advanced rotary motors known in life:

The eukaryotic V-ATPase is the most complex rotary ATPase: it has three peripheral stalks, a hetero-oligomeric proton-conducting proteolipid ring, several subunits not found in other rotary ATPases, and is regulated by reversible dissociation of its catalytic and proton-conducting regions.

As for worms, our new video “How to Build a Worm” illustrates the high degree of functional specification in that humble organism.

And flies — well, they fly! Powered flight demands numerous interdependent specifications requiring high levels of genetic information. Claiming that chance mutations in a genetic “house of cards” explains these complex creatures is magic talk.

Magic DNA

News from NASA via Astrobiology Magazine speaks of the “Spontaneous Appearance of Primordial DNA.” Any evidence for that miracle?

The self-organization properties of DNA-like molecular fragments four billion years ago may have guided their own growth into repeating chemical chains long enough to act as a basis for primitive life, says a new study by the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Milan.

While studies of ancient mineral formations contain evidence for the evolution of bacteria from 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago — just half a billion years after the stabilization of Earth’s crust — what might have preceded the formation of such unicellular organisms is still a mystery. The new findings suggest a novel scenario for the non-biological origins of nucleic acids, which are the building blocks of living organisms, said CU-Boulder physics Professor Noel Clark, a study co-author….

While there now is consensus among origin-of-life researchers that RNA chains are too specialized to have been created as a product of random chemical reactions, the new findings suggest a viable alternative, said Clark.

Yet the “viable alternative” is just as random: liquid crystals with “the ability to drive the formation of chemical bonds that connect short DNA chains to form long ones, without the aid of biological mechanisms” contain no genetic information. They are silent on the origin of the functional, specific information that can turn crystals into functional machines:

For several years the research group has been exploring the hypothesis that the way in which DNA emerged in the early Earth lies in its structural properties and its ability to self-organize. In the pre-RNA world, the spontaneous self-assembly of fragments of nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) may have acted as a template for their chemical joining into polymers, which are substances composed of a large number of repeating units.

“The new findings show that in the presence of appropriate chemical conditions, the spontaneous self assembly of small DNA fragments into stacks of short duplexes greatly favors their binding into longer polymers, thereby providing a pre-RNA route to the RNA world,” said Clark.

This explanation completely misses the point. There are other molecules that can spontaneously grow into longer chains, or into intricate structures like snowflakes. What sets DNA apart is its capacity to store coded information. The article glosses over that vital trait as if waving a magic wand of “emergence” will provide the information, once the molecular substrate is present.

Given that science’s job is to explain the mysterious in terms of scientific laws and evidence, it’s astonishing how governments will throw money at magical explanations. Intelligent design advocates, by contrast, have to work independently or raise private donations. This study “was funded by the Grant PRIN Program of the Italian Ministries of Education, Universities and Research and by the U.S. National Science Foundation.”

Magic Motion

Meanwhile a press release from the Institute for Basic Science, entitled “The Stupidly Effective Genius of Nature,” describes how many organisms employ randomness on purpose when foraging for food.

A Lévy walk or flight, named after a French mathematician Paul Lévy, is a mix of long trajectories and short random movements. Numerous short movements are made within a small area, and occasionally a long stride to a distant area, where the action is repeated. This particular motion pattern is observed in humans and animals.

While scientists had previously studied the pattern in humans and animals of inherent intelligence, this research is the first to identify this pattern of movement in molecular motors.

The Lévy walk strategy is employed by jellyfish, birds, sharks, and people. Since there is a purposeful function for the movements, they are not truly random. Finding this motile strategy in cell motors like kinesins, which move on microtubules, it seems the logical deduction should be that they were purposefully designed for it.

Refreshingly, this press release does not attribute the strategy to blind evolution or the magic of emergence! Here’s how they express the proper (non-magical) inference:

The rule they discovered is this. When molecular motors carry cargo, their purpose is to find a destination. They thoroughly explore their immediate environment. If a destination is not found, they travel further, repeating the action until a destination is found. “Nature is more clever than we are. It finds this efficient way to engineer this marvelous result without being smart, without (using any pre-existing) memory, and it saves them energy” added Director Granick.

“The findings of our study may help us to better understand our cells and how our body is engineered” he went on. “At the IBS Center for Soft and Living Matter in Korea, the rule we discovered holds promise to engineer new kinds of artificial active materials.”

This research was funded by South Korea and the U.S. Department of Energy, which allows us to end on a happy note. Engineering, after all, relies not on magic but on intelligent design.

Image: Forgiss / Dollar Photo Club.

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