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NYU Scientists Confuse Artificial Selection with Darwinism

Image credit: Darwin Laganzon via Pixabay.

It’s tiring to keep correcting evolutionists’ misuse of terms. Artificial selection is the opposite of natural selection. One must not conflate the two. The difference should be self-evident, but somehow it isn’t.

Consider a paper from four chemists and physicists at New York University, “Mutations in artificial self-replicating tiles: A step toward Darwinian evolution” (Zhou, Sha et al., PNAS). 

In nature, mutation is the first step of evolution, where it provides the genetic variation for the natural selection to act. Here we take a system of artificial self-replicating tiles, DNA origami, that exhibit templated reproduction. We can generate a small fraction of mutations by introducing a mismatch in hybridization between parent and daughter. We can modify the origami functionality to affect the growth rate of the mutated species, giving it less or more evolutionary advantage, and to become dominant in several generations. The introduction of mutations into an artificial self-replicating system provides new directions for research into self-assembly processes. [Emphasis added.]

This is not “a step toward Darwinian evolution.” It’s a step in the opposite direction. If they really wanted to take a step toward Darwinian evolution, they would walk out of the lab and let come what may. What will happen is an increase in entropy. 

The Error of Interference

In The Mystery of Life’s Origin (see the expanded edition, published in 2020), Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen emphasize the error of investigator interference in origin-of-life experiments. When Zhou et al. say, “Here we introduce mutation and growth advantages to study the possibility of Darwinian-like evolution,” they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of Darwinism. Calling their work “Darwinian-like evolution” when they are pulling the strings is a contradiction in terms.

In an attempt to be charitable, let’s see if they understand the self-contradictory nature of their claim anywhere in the paper. The concluding paragraph sums up their research:

We have developed an artificial system of DNA origami tiles of two species in which we can control the growth rates separately. Adding the ability of one species to mutate into the other, we have studied the evolution of the system where only one species is seeded. When growth rates are equal the system evolves to a steady state of equal populations. When one has the competitive advantage of faster growth it quickly becomes the dominant species, even when it only results from a mutation from the originally seeded and exponentially growing species. This is the expected result and a most elementary example of Darwinian evolution but here in an artificial self-replication system.

Alas, the contradiction remains. 

Are Simulations Worthless?

This is not to say that experiments with artificial selection have no educational value. Such experiments, like the computer simulation Avida (discussed here and here), have served a purpose by showing the limits of randomness. Instances of investigator interference can be pointed out, to falsify brash claims that an ill-conceived simulation represents “Darwinian-like” evolution. Indeed, some design advocates have created computer simulations of their own to illustrate the limitations of the mutation/selection mechanism when more realistic parameters are specified. 

Evolutionary algorithms can also lead to scientific results with practical value. Zhou et al. speculate on what further research with their evolving “DNA tiles” might bring forth:

It opens the door to the use of human-made systems, devices, and materials that evolve to have desired properties. In a given environment mutations allow the creation of a set of species and evolution picks the species which grows fastest in that environment, mimicking nature but with artificial constructs.

If something useful comes out of such experiments, well and good — but it will not be because of Darwinism. Who makes the “systems, devices, and materials” that evolve? Who decides what are “desired properties”? Who sets the “artificial constructs” that yield potentially useful products? Clearly human designers are doing all of it. They set the mutation rate, and monitor outcomes to pick winners and losers. Evolution does not “pick the species” that grows fastest; designers do that by deciding with foresight what the desired properties will be, and tuning the settings to get the highest yield.

Employing chance as a tool does not defeat ID. In most card games, the deck is shuffled first. The players don’t know what cards will turn up in their hands, but they know the rules of the game and they learn strategies to win. In an artificial selection process that makes use of chance variations, Darwinism stops when an intelligent mind interferes and does the selecting.

Here, we report the study of the mutation and evolution of an artificial self-replication system of DNA origami dimer rafts. This represents a first step toward using such mutations toward directed evolution of an artificialsystem and illustrates some of the basic principles of natural selection. We designed two self-replicating species AB and CD which share the same replication procedure, but with a controllable growth rate….

Dubious Value

When the authors have started and ended with flawed premises, any conclusions will be dubious. Look how they designed the self-replicating species. Look how they directed the evolution. Look how they call it an artificial system. They set the procedures. They controlled the parameters. On what basis can they say that their work “illustrates some of the basic principles of natural selection”? There’s nothing natural about it. They were the selectors from start to finish. Indeed, they admit that pure randomness would lead to error catastrophe without their continual investigator interference.

Mutation and population domination by the fittest species would amount to natural selection in this artificial system. [???] With an eye toward using this process for directed evolution and the fact that a high mutation rate leads to an Eigen catastrophe, or a species does not persist long enough to take advantage of its evolutionary advantage, we have kept the mutation rate lowalthough not yet as low as in living systems. In the present case a low mutation rate is particularly important in that the forward and reverse mutations are equally limiting the final ratio of the species with high and low growth advantage.

One has to chuckle at phrases like “natural selection in this artificial system” and interventions like setting a low mutation rate so as to keep the system from Eigen catastrophe.

If you are controlling the mutations and selecting the outcomes, you are not doing Darwinism. Criticisms like this have been leveled against Darwin disciples for over a century, but they fall on deaf ears. Why is the message not getting through?