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Unraveling the Myth that Undesigned Processes Generate Novel Functions

computer simulation
Image: A scene from The Information Enigma, via Discovery Institute.

I was recently informed of a video posted on the YouTube channel Creation Myths titled “Creation Myth: ‘Information’ Requires ‘Intelligence’.” The video specifically references a clip of Stephen Meyer detailing the design implications of the Cambrian Explosion. Meyer states that the information required for the sudden appearance of radically new animals could only have originated from a mind. The critic responds to this claim by arguing that experiments have demonstrated that information can be created by natural processes, and he cites two research studies to support this assertion. His argument ultimately fails since it is founded on a misunderstanding of the evidence for design associated with biological information. This error is so common that it deserves special attention. 

The Research Studies

The first cited article is a 2017 study by Neme et al.  that purportedly demonstrated the creation of new information with ease. The researchers inserted randomly generated sequences of 150 base pairs into the DNA of E. coli. They reported that 25 percent of random sequences enhance cells’ growth rate. The experiment purportedly yielded new information without intelligent direction. 

The second cited article is a 2018 study by Yona et al. that explored the difficulty of randomly generating a 100-base-pair DNA sequence in E. coli that would bind to an RNA polymerase. The study demonstrated that 10 percent of random sequences adjacent to the genes in a lac operon would bind to the polymerase in such a way as to initiate transcription. This study also purportedly demonstrates that information can be created by a random process. 

The Misunderstanding 

Upon close inspection, both studies fail to challenge the design argument that is based on biological information. Neme et al. misinterpreted their results, as Weisman and Eddy explain in their critical review of the study. Douglas Axe summarizes the experimenters’ error as follows:

They merely showed that if you burden bacteria by forcing them to churn out RNA and protein from random inserts, it’s fairly easy to find sequence-dependent effects on growth — not because anything clever has been invented, but because the burden of making so much junk varies slightly with the kind of junk. That means any junk that slows the process of making more junk by gumming up the works a bit would provide a selective benefit. Such sequences are “good” only in this highly artificial context, much as shoving a stick into an electric fan is “good” if you need to stop the blades in a hurry.

In short, the sequences performed no new function, so no new information was created. 

The Yona et al. experiment did show that a DNA sequence can be randomly generated that can perform simple functions, such as binding to a polymerase. Yet this achievement is not relevant to Stephen Meyer’s full argument. Meyer is not claiming that random processes cannot generate small quantities of information. He is arguing that random processes cannot generate the quantity of information required for anything comparable to creating a new protein with a novel structure. Axe and others have decisively demonstrated that the information associated with even modest proteins is typically greater than what could be produced by any undirected process (hereherehere).

The Challenge for Evolution

The central challenge for evolutionary theory is creating sufficient information to produce something truly novel that functions at a level that would benefit an organism. In the case of the lac operon, the specificity required for it to function is not the difficulty of an RNA polymerase binding to the promoter region. The specificity and thus the information reside in the sequences that encode the repressor that acts as an on/off switch and the genes that encode the proteins that break down lactose. The minimal required information for the operon to function is vastly greater than that associated with the region that binds to a polymerase. The amount is almost certainly beyond what any undirected process could produce.