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Dennis Venema’s Adam and the Genome: A Case Study in Cognitive Bias

In a previous article I described how scientific training can condition some scientists’ minds to resist the evidence in nature for intelligent design. Now, I will demonstrate the effects of this process using as a case study the book Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science, co-authored by Dennis Venema. I must begin by stating that I have never met Dr. Venema, but I have met several of his colleagues, and from my encounters with them I have no reason to doubt that Venema desires to operate with complete integrity and to present scientific claims and arguments that are of the highest academic quality. The challenge he faces lies not with his character or knowledge but with the materialist framework that has distorted his perspective. 

The Not So Good

Many of Venema’s arguments suffer from two of the most common errors endemic among the public defenders of Darwinism: unjustifiable extrapolations of minor observed microevolutionary changes to major transformations and circular reasoning. Regarding the first error, Venema uses the analogy of a verse from the Gospel of John written in the tenth century in Anglo-Saxon slowly changing over the centuries into modern English. The change is dramatic, but the analogy makes points that Venema missed. First, the entire process was the result of intelligent direction. And, more importantly, the meaning of the verse always stayed the same. An impossible task would have been to gradually transform the first chapter of the book of Genesis into the first chapter of the book of Exodus while keeping the text readable. This feat would have required numerous simultaneous alterations at multiple hierarchical levels (chapters, paragraphs, sentences, and words). The same principle holds true for the evolution of complex adaptations such as echolocation in whales and bats. Numerous large-scale alterations are simultaneously required in multiple systems — sound production, hearing, signal processing, pattern identification, high-level decision making, etc. — requiring thousands of highly coordinated alterations which could never occur in the available amount of time. 

Along the same lines, Venema cites research that demonstrates how mutations generated new “functions” in various organisms. For instance, he describes a virus that developed the ability to bind to a new protein in E. coli labeled OmpF. However, he greatly exaggerates the magnitude of the change. The binding did not represent a truly novel innovation, but it resulted from the virus simply gaining a few mutations which enhanced in an already present protein an existing ability. He makes similar misguided claims about research he marshalled to challenge the evidence for the rarity of proteins. What Venema fails to appreciate is that increasing numbers of evolutionary biologists have come to recognize that the types of microevolutionary developments he identifies cannot accumulate to produce large-scale changes such as a fish turning into an amphibian. One central challenge is that such transformations require, among other needs, the rewiring of networks of genes which guide the development of an organism, but such alterations are always harmful. Arguing that the trivial changes he cites could accumulate to generate a major innovation is like a dog owner who was able to train his German Shepard to fetch a stick in a day then claiming he proved that he could train it to play Mozart on a piano in a month. 

In relation to the error of circular reasoning, Venema assumes that every feature in life resulted from undirected processes, particularly natural selection and mutations. He then identifies differences in various organisms, such as orphan genes present only in specific species or genera, and he attributes their origin to the processes’ creative power. Completing the circle, he then presents the existence of the new features as evidence for the power of those processes to generate novelty. Consequently, his arguments for their efficacy depend on assuming their unlimited creative abilities from the start.  

However, careful examination of many such claims outside of the materialist lens reveals serious problems. In the case of orphan genes, biologists and statisticians have argued that the chances of a gene originating out of a noncoding stretch of DNA are remote. For instance, evolving a new gene for a complex protein from scratch requires random mutations in an open reading frame to stumble upon a functional protein sequence. And, random mutations would also have to turn a neighboring section of DNA into a promotor which could initiate the manufacture of the protein at the right time and location. Moreover, genes in complex organisms would have to reside in the correct region of a chromosome for them to be accessible at the right time and in the right cells. To summarize, the formation of a useful protein coding sequence with a perfectly matched regulatory region in the right location would be astronomically improbable without intelligent guidance.

Evolutionists have attempted to bolster the claim that orphan genes originated by chance by identifying parallel noncoding regions in related species. But such sequences could simply represent the remains of previously functional genes which were incapacitated in the distant past. Venema’s other examples of presumed evolutionary feats, such as whole genome duplication events followed by large-scale innovations, face even greater challenges and only appear plausible in the minds of true believers.    

The Bad

The errors I just described are serious but not unexpected, for they represent key dogmas in the canon of the secular creation narrative. However, other mistakes are far more revealing. Most striking, Venema completely misrepresents the origination of the enzyme nylonase. This issue has been analyzed in detail before, but a key point needs to be emphasized. Venema actually read an article that explicitly states that the enzyme resulted from the minor alteration of a preexisting protein. Yet, he reports that it originated from scratch in a noncoding region of DNA. Such an extreme misrepresentation of the facts would have been disappointing from a college freshman rushing to finish a term paper, let alone a seasoned professor. However, he is so committed to maintaining a materialistic framework for science that he dogmatically embraces the idea that proteins must be easy to evolve. As a result, his subconscious mind distorted reality to such an extent that he perceived the opposite of what he actually read. 

But Venema is not through. He makes another equally startling blunder when he attempts to refute Stephen Meyer’s claim that no physical connection (e.g., strong attraction) exists between amino acids and their respective codons in the genetic code. His desire to challenge this claim is understandable since only such a stereochemical connection could possibly explain how protein sequences were ever encoded into RNA or DNA and shortly afterwards decoded. Venema responds to this challenge by stating the following:

Several amino acids do in fact directly bind to their codon (or in some cases, their anticodon), and the evidence for this has been known since the late 1980s in some cases. [Emphasis added.]

The basis for this claim was research conducted by Michael Yarus, a leading proponent of the RNA world hypothesis for the origin of life. Unfortunately, Yarus actually made the opposite claim: 

We review the literature and find no evidence that interactions between short sequences (mono-, di- or trinucleotides) and amino acids are strong or specific enough to originate genetic coding. [Again, emphasis added.]

Yarus instead argued for mere correlations between amino acids and their respective codons (or anticodons) in long nucleotide chains at sites in the chains where an amino acid would bind. The problem is that the transformation of such correlations into the accurate encoding of protein sequences under any scenario would face insurmountable hurdles. Even if these challenges were ignored, the correlations were determined to only exist for a handful of amino acids which would not likely have participated in the original code in any purely materialistic model. Again, Venema’s deep-seated beliefs caused him to unconsciously misrepresent key facts and ultimately to grasp for stereochemical straws.    

The Ugly

Even more disturbing is that a central argument in his book is that his readers must reject their belief that humanity originated in a single couple. He even compares the evidence against such a possibility to the evidence that the earth revolves around the sun. His need to make such a bold assertion is understandable since many in his target audience hold a belief in an original couple (i.e., Adam and Eve) as central to their faith. Now, if the evidence really were that decisive, then he would certainly be justified in writing as he does. Unfortunately, the evidence appears to be far less certain than he claims.

Yet the implication of Venema attempting to undermine his readers’ beliefs based on questionable arguments is not my main point. A more pertinent issue is the fact that the rigorous analysis of evolutionary timescales has demonstrated insurmountable mathematical challenges related to all undirected explanations for major transformations in life’s history. For instance, the analysis of Durrett and Schmidt indicated that the time required for our hypothetical primate ancestors to acquire two specific coordinated mutations is over 100 million years — a duration far longer than the time since the appearance of the theoretical common ancestor between us and chimpanzees. This result is far more conclusive than any argument against an original pair. 

Yet the evolution of complex adaptations in humans, such as vocalization or advanced language, would have required vastly more than two mutations before even a rudimentary form of that ability could have become active. In the case of vocalization, the corresponding brain structures in humans and song birds show remarkable clearly non-inherited similarities in neural wiring and even in the underlying genes. These commonalities indicate that engineering this feature from the brain of an ancestral primate would have required numerous highly specific changes orchestrated at multiple locations within a few million years, a clear mathematical impossibility. Faced with such evidence, Venema would likely abandon the application of mathematics to biology altogether before questioning his materialist framework. Yet, he wishes his readers to abandon their central beliefs on far flimsier grounds.    

What is really unfortunate is that Venema thinks denying the possibility of an original couple and attacking the evidence for design in nature are a help to most of his readers. This belief is based on two false premises. First, he assumes his audience will somehow see the evidence for a Creator in nature’s purported amazing capacities to create and evolve life. His mistake is that anyone who has taken a college chemistry class has learned that natural processes always move everything over extended periods toward higher entropy, lower energy, or both. Yet, the origin of life required simple molecules to move in exactly the opposite direction. Therefore, either life is directly designed, or it is a freak accident. Venema’s fundamental assumption about nature’s inherent life-generating abilities is simply not an option. As a consequence, he is unwittingly driving his most insightful readers toward rejecting a Creator. 

The second false assumption is that anyone can reconcile religious faith with belief in the standard understanding of evolutionary theory. Some would not have difficulty accepting both since they tend to compartmentalize their beliefs. These people might never even question whether the two were at odds, so no conflict would ever arise. Others have the ability to accept ideas that are in tension, and this is due to the individuals’ capacity to maintain a certain level of cognitive dissonance. However, others will find what they were taught in their biology classes and through their religious education hopelessly in conflict. For example:

  • People are designed by God with a purpose, or are they the result of undirected physical processes?
  • Evidence for God in creation is self-evident, or is it largely undetectable?
  • People’s tendency toward destructive behavior is a consequence of a broken relationship with their Creator, or is it the result of random mutations in their primate ancestors?

I have heard many stories of students rejecting their faith after taking evolution classes, even if the professor attempted to put a theistic spin on the concepts. In contrast, I have seen people in the process of abandoning their faith suddenly return after they learned what leading experts in such fields as paleontology, embryology, and systems biology are actually saying to each other about the growing challenges to the standard evolutionary model. And, their faith is strongly reinforced when they learn about the positive evidence for design that even secular scientists are acknowledging.

My hope is that Dennis Venema will find a more objective outside party to help him see past his materialist blinders. Then, his next book might work less toward undermining his readers’ beliefs and more toward encouraging them.

Image: The Creation of Adam, by Michelangelo Buonarroti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.