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With ENCODE Results, Evolutionary Biologists Are Forced to Wait in Perplexity


Editor’s note: This is Part 5 of a 6-part series on ENCODE that Casey Luskin has been publishing this year in Salvo Magazine. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 have already been published. The prelude can be found here.

As we recently saw, some evolutionary scientists have responded to ENCODE by attempting to rewrite history and claim that evolutionary science predicted function for non-coding DNA all along. Other evolutionists handle ENCODE’s results in a more candid manner. Instead of rewriting history, they acknowledge the evidence now supports mass functionality in the genome, and even concede that evolutionary models didn’t anticipate this result. They are compelled to live with ambiguity until evolutionary models come along to explain ENCODE’s data.

For example, lead ENCODE researcher John Stamatoyannopoulos admits that “new models of evolutionary conservation are needed”1 to explain why so much human DNA is functional. Similarly, in a Nature article titled “Celebrate the Unknowns,” Philip Ball reflects upon ENCODE’s implications:

[T]he current picture of how and where evolution operates, and how this shapes genomes, is something of a mess. … But we are grown-up enough to be told about the doubts, debates and discussions that are leaving the putative ‘age of the genome’ with more questions than answers. Tidying up the story bowdlerizes the science and creates straw men for its detractors. Simplistic portrayals of evolution encourage equally simplistic demolitions.2

Aside from Ball’s admission that ENCODE leaves evolutionary genomics in “a mess,” don’t miss his last two sentences. In referring to “detractors” who make “demolitions” of “simplistic portrayals of evolution,” he’s referring to proponents of intelligent design, who point out that ENCODE refutes evolutionary models predicting a junk-filled genome. Now that those predictions have failed, the best way to save evolution from ENCODE is to disavow those models by calling them “simplistic” or “straw men.”

Ball is being honest when he says that ENCODE’s data wreak havoc upon old evolutionary models, and that evolutionists cannot, presently, explain those results. What he doesn’t tell readers is that those old models that predicted junky genomes were not “straw men” or fringe hypotheses. They were well-accepted proposals and direct consequences of evolution-based population genetics math.

[1.] John Stamatoyannopoulos, “What does our genome encode?” Genome Research, 22:1602-1611 (2012).
[2.] Philip Ball, “Celebrate the Unknowns,” Nature, 496:419-420 (April 25, 2013).

Image: � ellisia / Dollar Photo Club.


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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