Biochemist Laurence Moran has related his frustrating interaction with ChatGPT, claiming that the responses included fabrications and misquotes about “junk DNA.” Does the AI bot “lie,” as Moran maintains? Let’s take a look.
He begins, “We have finally restored the Junk DNA article on Wikipedia. (It was deleted about ten years ago when Wikipedians decided that junk DNA doesn’t exist.)” So now you know his own perspective on the subject, if you didn’t already. Moran says that he’s been trying to figure out how far the misunderstandings of junk DNA have spread, so he’s been querying ChatGPT about this. His findings reveal ChatGPT’s ability to cite “quotes” that don’t really exist (referring to Francis Crick’s 1970 article, “Central Dogma of Molecular Biology”), but the irony is that Moran’s criticism of ChatGPT for misunderstanding junk DNA seems to be rooted in his own opinions on the issue.
In Search of Function
Philosopher of biology Paul Nelson notes that Moran has become entrenched in his assertion that the majority of other biologists misunderstand the finding that what used to be called junk DNA has increasingly shown regulatory function. After all, evolution is blind and driven by random events, isn’t it? Consistent with this idea, Moran complains about geneticists including John Mattick who are curious about possible function in what was previously thought to be junk DNA. They keep looking for function and refuse to stop at what Moran thinks is the obvious “null hypothesis.”
A null or default hypothesis, such as expecting the absence of function in non-coding segments of DNA, reveals a presupposition that biases one’s interpretation of available scientific evidence.
That Moran’s views are steeped in evolutionary thinking is clear. “[W]hat the heck,” he says, “nothing in all of biology makes sense if you don’t know about evolution.” I would amend his assertion to clarify the role of his worldview, as follows: Indeed, “nothing in all of biology makes sense if you don’t know about evolution,” and if you presuppose a closed, materialistic universe. On the other hand, most everything in biology makes sense if you accept an open universe in which a purposeful intellect designed living organisms in a manner consistent with maintaining Earth’s habitability over the past 3.8 billion years or so and culminating in a thriving humanity on the leading edge of Earth’s history.
Moran’s Notably Isolated Thoughts
Moran contends that “ChatGPT is probably spewing back the common misunderstanding of junk DNA.” Is the arguable “misunderstanding” real, or is it just that ChatGPT presented a summary of web content that failed to align with Moran’s notably isolated thoughts on junk DNA? Indeed, Moran’s latest book title claims that “90% of Your Genome Is Junk.”
Moran’s singular views are at odds with the progression of scientific investigation on the human genome, including results of the ENCODE project, as Casey Luskin reported in a 2013 Evolution News article:
A groundbreaking paper in Nature reports the results of the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project, which has detected evidence of function for the “vast majority” of the human genome. Titled “An integrated encyclopedia of DNA elements in the human genome,” the paper finds an “unprecedented number of functional elements,” where “a surprisingly large amount of the human genome” appears functional.
Based upon current knowledge, the paper concludes that at least 80% of the human genome is now known to be functional.
How does Moran defend his view that most of DNA is junk? The first in a list of five arguments that he gives for junk DNA is referred to as genetic load:
Every newborn human baby has about 100 mutations not found in either parent. If most of our genome contained functional sequence information, then this would be an intolerable genetic load. Only a small percentage of our genome can contain important sequence information suggesting strongly that most of our genome is junk.
A comment on a post at Uncommon Descent regarding Moran’s new book and his argument about junk DNA offers this response: “First off, it is important to note that Moran’s claim that 90% of our genome must be junk is not derived from any direct empirical observation, but [rather] Moran’s belief that 90% of the genome must be junk is forced upon Moran because of the mathematics of population genetics.”
Though not a geneticist, I would suggest that within the design paradigm, the “100 mutations not found in either parent” might not accumulate to “an intolerable genetic load” if the genome was designed to include a sufficient level of redundancy and flexibility. Not much would be needed, when considering the mutations as a fraction of the entire genome (100/3.5×109 base pairs = 2.9×10-8), or 1 part in 35 million. An intelligent designer would recognize the probability of mutations in the genome and would with foresight incorporate coding principles to ameliorate their effects. It seems rather unimaginative to contend that the only way to handle natural mutations is to front-load the genome with 90 percent junk. But dogmatic assertions based on stubborn presuppositions have a way of making their adherents stumble over the obvious.
So, Does ChatGPT “Lie” About Junk DNA?
Moran’s post on his interaction with ChatGPT drew some comments contending that ChatGPT, though sophisticated compared to past technology, still suffers from “GIGO,” or “garbage in, garbage out.” Or, as Moran laments, “ChatGPT is probably spewing back the common misunderstanding of junk DNA.” Whether the common view is true or false, it’s probably just what a web-based AI chatbot will give you. Real knowledge can only derive from reality, and a summary majority view from online sources remains a poor substitute.
In reading about ChatGPT on Digital Trends, we learn that the public version has “limited knowledge of world events after 2021.” Can we conclude that AI chatbots are “going to make everyone stupid”? To me as a university professor, it’s obvious that the temptation students face to find a way to quickly complete an assignment such as writing a research paper or essay, without doing original work, has just exploded. At what cost? Most likely the outcome will be a reduced ability for critical thinking and for effective writing, and in the end, greater apathy about why it all even matters.