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#4 of Our Top Stories of 2015: Fear of Intelligent Design Prevents Some Biologists from Accepting ENCODE


Editor’s note: Welcome to the traditional recounting of our Top 10 evolution-related stories of the past year, as compiled in a rigorous, peer-reviewed, strictly scientific manner by Evolution News staff. Sit back and enjoy the most amusing, the most enlightening, and the most important news to come our way in 2015. The countdown will culminate on New Year’s Day.

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Published originally on November 16, 2015.

Author’s note: This is Part 6 of a 6-part series on ENCODE in Salvo Magazine. Look here for Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. The prelude can be found here.

Evolutionists who accept ENCODE’s results have tried to comprehend why other biologists steadfastly challenge the project’s experimentally demonstrated conclusions. Many have suggested that a major force driving anti-ENCODE attitudes is fear of lending credence to intelligent design.

In his retrospective on ENCODE in Nature, Philip Ball acknowledges that there is an “anxiety that admitting any uncertainty about the mechanisms of evolution will be exploited by those who seek to undermine it.”1 Likewise, pro-ENCODE biochemists John Mattick and Marcel Dinger observe that “resistance to [ENCODE’s] findings is further motivated in some quarters by the use of the dubious concept of junk DNA as evidence against intelligent design.”2 Writing in a slightly different context, eight biologists published a Nature article in 2014 recognizing that scientists self-censor criticisms of neo-Darwinism because, “haunted by the spectre of intelligent design, evolutionary biologists wish to show a united front.”3

It’s disturbing that scientists oppose empirically based research results or suppress their own doubts about the neo-Darwinian paradigm simply because they don’t like the perceived alternative — ID. These admissions show that evolutionary biology is in an incredibly unhealthy state, where devotion to the paradigm trumps the evidence. A 2003 paper in Science observed that “the term ‘junk DNA’ for many years repelled mainstream researchers from studying noncoding DNA,”4 but even now that junk DNA has finally been overturned, evolutionary dogmatism still hinders scientific advancement.

In fact, ENCODE proponents aren’t the only ones to have acknowledged how ID phobia plays a role in scientists’ responses. Even ENCODE-critics have admitted it. The journal Science explained how University of Houston biologist Dan Graur opposes ENCODE because he doesn’t like its ID-friendly implications:

Graur’s atheism inflamed his anger at ENCODE. He perceives an echo of intelligent design in the consortium’s “80% [of the genome is functional] claim,” which he takes to imply that most of the genome exists because it serves a purpose.5

But the bluntest summary of why scientists oppose ENCODE came when Graur declared: “If ENCODE is right, then Evolution is wrong.”6 With ENCODE’s empirical data now showing that the vast bulk of the genome has an important purpose, we can safely say that the fears of ENCODE critics are entirely justified.

Future Forecast
Since 2012, research has continued to uncover specific functions for non-coding DNA, and the case for ENCODE grows stronger and stronger with each passing month.7 Eventually, even the evolutionary holdouts will be unable to deny that virtually our entire genome is functional. Or so you’d like to think.

Evolutionists who believe their paradigm stands only if ENCODE falls have careers, reputations, and deeply held worldviews invested in the view that humans were created by purposeless processes that filled our genomes with useless DNA. Thus, after famously saying, “If ENCODE is right, then Evolution is wrong,” Dan Graur’s action plan was, in his own words: “Kill ENCODE.”8 Human nature may never allow such critics to concede defeat. For them, too much is on the line. Win or lose, they’re going down fighting.

The good news is that most scientists aren’t evolutionary ideologues. Rank-and-file biologists know compelling empirically based experimental data when they see it. Because they see it in ENCODE, they will build (and may have already built) a new consensus that rejects “junk DNA” and views ENCODE-critics as a footnote — perhaps one that cautions against putting the paradigm before the evidence.

Some of these biologists are now exploring what they call “post-Darwinian”9 models of evolution, often adopting the same critiques of Darwinism that ID proponents offer. They still seek unguided material evolutionary explanations of life and are resistant to design. But that resistance is weakening. Indeed, widespread fears about aiding intelligent design show that many biologists understand how ENCODE’s results represent a major breakthrough for ID. As William Dembski eloquently put it some 14 years pre-ENCODE:

[D]esign is not a science stopper. Indeed, design can foster inquiry where traditional evolutionary approaches obstruct it. Consider the term “junk DNA.” Implicit in this term is the view that because the genome of an organism has been cobbled together through a long, undirected evolutionary process, the genome is a patchwork of which only limited portions are essential to the organism. Thus on an evolutionary view we expect a lot of useless DNA. If, on the other hand, organisms are designed, we expect DNA, as much as possible, to exhibit function. … Design encourages scientists to look for function where evolution discourages it.10

Imagine if scientists had embraced an ID paradigm when Dembski wrote those words in 1998, how much more advanced would molecular biology — unhindered by evolutionary assumptions — be today? This much is clear: ID boldly predicted ENCODE’s results, and evolutionary biology didn’t. This puts ID in a strong position to lead science forward into a post-Darwinian world.

[1.] Philip Ball, “Celebrate the Unknowns,” Nature, 496:419-420 (April 25, 2013).
[2.] John Mattick and Marcel Dinger, “The extent of functionality in the human genome,” The HUGO Journal, 7:2 (2013).
[3.] Laland et al., “Does evolutionary theory need a rethink? Yes, urgently,” Nature, 514:161-164 (October 9, 2014).
[4.] Wojciech Makalowski, “Not Junk After All,” Science, 300:1246-1247 (May 23, 2003).
[5.] Yudhit Bhattercharjee, “The Vigilante,” Science, 343:1306-1309 (March 21, 2014).
[6.] Dan Graur, “How To Assemble a Human Genome?” (2013).
[7.] The website www.lncrnablog.com documents scientific papers showing function for non-coding DNA.
[8.] Dan Graur, “How To Assemble a Human Genome?” (2013).
[9.] For example, see Simon Conway Morris, “Walcott, the Burgess Shale and rumours of a post-Darwinian world,” Current Biology, 19:R927-R931 (2009).
[10.] William Dembski, “Intelligent Science and Design,” First Things, 86: 21-27 (October, 1998).

Image credit: Edvard Munch [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.