Information in the Genome: The Debunking

Yesterday I posted a brief challenge to Creationists: define what you mean when you say that no known mechanism can add information to the genome. Nobody has accommodated me by taking up the challenge, so I’ll just get straight to the interesting part. (I know I didn’t allow much time, but I’m bored and have several hours to waste use productively until my next lecture.)

The information ‘problem’ is a relatively recent Creationist claim, and is a good indicator of the trend away from easily-debunked myths about the fossil record or radiometric dating and towards more complex (to them) myths about the genome or cellular biology. You’ve probably heard it a dozen times before: “Information can’t be added to the genome”. But what does this actually mean? There are a seemingly endless number of variations based on what ‘information’ and ‘genome’ are defined as (Creationists seem peculiarly unable to agree on basic terminology), so I’ll just go through the most common ones and debunk them all.

1) Genetic material cannot be added to the genome. This one often shows up when a Creationist is pressed to define what they mean by ‘information’, what which point they fall back on the simplest definiton Wikipedia can think of: actual DNA base-pairs. The ‘letters’ of the DNA ‘language’ (as I’m sure no Creationists reading this need to be told!) are A, G, C and T, which stand for Adenine, Guanine, Cytosine and Thymin respectively. RNA, DNA’s more simplistic cousin, replaces thymine with U, or Uracil. Each letter has a complimentary letter on the other side of the famous ‘double helix’ – A with T and G with C. They can only form hydrogen bonds in this way; you cannot, for example, have A joined to C. These are ‘base pairs’, and they are directly analagous to the 1s and 0s of computer binary information.

Enough of the elementary biology: does this version of the information argument carry any weight? It does not: gene duplication (and in some particularly dramatic examples, whole genome duplication) is a process that commonly adds large amounts of genetic material to the genome. There are others as well, but you get the idea.

(b) Gene duplication just copies the same information again, rather than adding new information. This sub-myth stops making sense when you apply a little though to it; if a duplication increases the amount of raw genetic data in the genome, subsequent mutations of that new data will lead to an increase in both new information and more varied information. As we’ll see in a minute, though, this isn’t even necessary.

2) Mutations don’t add information, they destroy it. This one is a bit of a word game, because it plays on the fact that mutations are ‘mistakes’ in the genetic copying process. It is never clear what Creationists mean when they say that mutations ‘destroy information’ – presumably they don’t mean that the actual DNA base pairs always disappear, so they must be working off some other definition of ‘information’. As far as I can work out, they’re usually talking about the phenotype rather than the genotype, and falling back on the Creationist myth that mutations are always harmful. Of course, this is not the case – benifical mutations, while quite rare, have been found to occur with enough frequency to allow natural selection to take place.

(b) A mutation only adds information if it conveys a benefit to the organism. Again, this sub-myth is tied to the idea that mutations are always harmful. It’s also a brilliant example of the ‘moving goalpost’.

3) Mutations don’t add information. This one is even more vague, but it’s by far the most common version of the myth (even if the word ‘mutation’ isn’t actually used). Here, most Creationists are unknowingly invoking Information Theory (or Shannon-Weaver Information Theory), a field of mathematics that can be applied to many different situations. According to this theory, the ‘random noise’ of mutation actually helps to increase genetic information. Any reduction in redundancy (genetic material that does nothing, of which there is an enormous amount) is an increase in information. This is why I said earlier that duplication is not necessary for an increase in information: because the genome of any organism is huge, there is ample room for mutation to create new genes.

(b) There is no ‘junk’ DNA. This sub-myth attemps to negate the above defence by claiming that there is no ‘junk’ DNA, and that any mutation of existing genetic material will most likely lead to a negative effect on the organism (it is true that harmful mutations are more common than beneficial ones). Since genetic information supposedly cannot be added to the genome (as per Myth #1), the genome must be a more-or-less static entity, with only minimal variation allowed. It’s wrong, obviously: while some non-coding DNA does seem to have a purpose, very large sections of an organism’s genome can be cut out or reversed without any noticeable effect on the organism. (Incidentally, the idea of the genome as static and mostly unchanging is very appealing to those who believe in the special creation of the Bible or Qur’an. This type of thing is a good red flag to look out for when someone claims to reject evolution on purely scientific grounds; the religious bias is always lurking somewhere in the background.)

(c) Mutations just corrupt the genetic template. Vaguness-ahoy! This one plays off of the idea that there’s an original or ‘ideal’ form of the genome, and that any variation on this is corruption (and as we all know, corruption is a bad thing). Usually there are some appeals made to Adam as having this mytsterious ideal genome – if someone goes this far into the waters of fundie-hood, you can safely begin to ignore them. In reality, there is no such thing as an ‘ideal’ genome, for any organism. (The Human Genome Project took examples of those sections of the human genome which vary from many different individuals, since taking it from any one individual would have lead to a database that didn’t represent the diversity of humanity. Too bad they didn’t have any of Adam’s cells lying around!)

(c) Richard Dawkins couldn’t give an example of a process that adds information to the genome. This one is pretty irrelevant, but I thought I’d toss it in here anyway since it’s so common. According to Dawkins, he invited a camera crew into his home to give an interview on what he thought was to be a documentary on the interaction between science and religion. When he was asked about genetic information (with the question phrased in a way that made it sound as if it was lifted directly from Creationist literature) he realised what was happening and, in accordance with his rule about not debating Creationists, decided to cut the interview short there and then. While the cameras were off, the film crew supposedly begged him to continue (they had come a long way) and he relented. when the documentary was aired, he was appalled but not surprised to discover that it had been edited in such a way as to make his long pause (when he says he was deliberating over whether to answer) look like an inability to come up with a reply, followed by a quote, taken out of context, that made him seem as if he was trying to dodge the question.

Obviously only those involved know for sure what actually happened, and the possibility that Dawkins is lying can’t be ruled out. However, I find it hard to believe that he would be unable to answer a question like this, and Creationist deceit is not exactly unprecedented – the widespread use by them of ‘quote mining’ throughout the internet is evidence of that, as is the dubious methodology employed by the producers of Expelled. But, as I said earlier, whether Dawkins was able to answer the question or not is irrelevant, since the scientific evidence clearly and easily refutes this particular Creationist myth.

As usual, comment, criticism and suggestions are very welcome, particularly from those who know more about this than I do and feel that I missed something important due to ignorance of the subject,  or that I made a mistake.

18 Responses to Information in the Genome: The Debunking

  1. rico001 says:

    Too bad scientists can’t agree on simple facts. I’ve noticed that it seems important to have a glossary when debating. Where are the forums you speak of?

  2. forknowledge says:

    What forums? And what simple facts, for that matter?

  3. Malcolm Crawford says:

    I appreciated reading your comments but am not sure I really understand your criticisms. You sometimes make the mistake of representing certain views as facts when perhaps they are not.

    There are known laws that dictate genetic coding and duplication, laws which ironically we are supposed to ignore if “the present is the key to the past.” In fact innumerable scientific axioms have to be suspended in order to make evolutionism believable.

    What do you mean by genetic information seeing as you critique various creationists’ opinions? And are you entirely representative of main scientific thought on the matter? Aren’t there other voices that can disagree with you.

    Where are the example of genetic material be added to the genome? Can you absolutely assure me of any beneficial mutations? And could random chance account for such a remarkable sequence of development in the genome? Remember, even Sir Francis Crick never believed in the evolution of the human cell! (Thus his belief in Pan-Spermia.) I know you are an intelligent person and realize that it takes 46,656 rolls of a single dice to get its six numbers to sequence successively. What are the odds for the gene?

    If you permit to wander a bit from the genetic argument, look at these other arguments for evolutionism: That something can come from nothing and blow up! That life can come from non-organic material. That physical matter can come from nowhere in a universe subject to time.

    With respect, there are good arguments to challenge your arguments. Even our high school textbooks teach that there is only a loss or change of a gene, never a net gain.

    Thank you for your opinion. I have learned much.

    • Luis says:

      “That something can come from nothing and blow up! That life can come from non-organic material. That physical matter can come from nowhere in a universe subject to time.”

      I’m sorry but this arguments are so vague that you would have to explain further to make sense. What do you mean by “…something can come from nothing and blow up”…? Are you talking about the Big Bang? If you are, the phrase is completely out of context.

      “That life can come from non-organic material”. Are you talking about Biochemistry Hypothesis? As far as I know this is speculation and no scientist claims this to be a fact. Organic only means Carbon-based whether they are part of a living organism or not. So it is valid to speculate that there could be certain conditions in which a non-carbon-based molecules could make the basic blocks of life.

      “That physical matter can come from nowhere in a universe subject to time.” – You make it sound like …. pop! There’s the rabbit in the hat. No valid scientific theory would dare to use the “magic” concept.

  4. God's Son says:

    “If you permit to wander a bit from the genetic argument, look at these other arguments for evolutionism: That something can come from nothing and blow up! That life can come from non-organic material. That physical matter can come from nowhere in a universe subject to time.”

    “Arguments against evolutionism”… Really, it’s quite simple to google evolution and find out that it is a scientific theory dealing with, and only with, the explanation of the diversity of life on this planet. It NEVER, EVER deals/dealt with cosmology, the origins of life, or where matter comes from. Those are all just arguments against the big bang, which, by the way, is a TOTALLY different and unrelated theory to evolution.
    To further clarify, the “big bang” is a laughable term. The actual event was not big, and there was no explosion. It was only an expansion of space. Rapid, rapid expansion.
    Also, who are you to say there was nothing before the big bang? it’s like standing of the shoulders of giants (knowing about the big bang) and then pissing off of your vantage point onto all of them (saying “well, since real scientists find it a LITTLE TOUGH to see BEYOND OUR UNIVERSE, 15 BILLION YEARS AGO, then god must have been there and done it!) There are many more ideas about what came before the big bang that are much more plausible than an immortal angry guy.

    • Rui Gomes says:

      Well the theory of the Big Bang doesn’t deal with before, but the Big bang was the begining because, being correct time wouldn’t pass so that was the complete begining. There has been some theoretical work about before, some scientists argue that the universe simply expands and diminuishes every… well, billions and billions of years but I doubt we will put that in a theory in our time.

  5. If you wish to have an example of a positive mutation, there is alway sickle cell syndrome. Now yes, in circumstances that we would consider “normal” this would be thought as a disadvantage. But in places like Africa,this is actually an advantageous mutation. this is because sickle cell syndrome is known to prevent the infection of malaria.

    In countries that have a high malaria infection rate, someone with sickle cell is more likely to live to reproductive age. This is were natural selection comes in to play. They have a kid that carries the mutation, than they have a kid, than they have a kid and so on. This carries on until eventually you end up with a group of people that have a high resistance to the disease, allowing them more of a chance to survive and populate with in their environment.

  6. […] Mister Chartreuse Answered:Why does everyone keep saying that there is no evidence of genetic information being added to the genome? Please read this and stop spreading your misinformation: https://forknowledge.wordpress.com/2008/0 […]

    • Alex Carbone says:

      The article your link is leading to is mostly about evolutionism rationalizing atheism or that science = everything ought to be explained atheistically. Evolutionism remains a speculative science relying on speculative biology and conjecture that cannot be verified. The whole vestigial argument is purely based on opinions. Highly debatable that the appendix would be vestigial

  7. Alex Carbone says:

    Interesting that the belief in a Darwinian evolutionary genesis is being linked to Planet atheism.

  8. median says:

    Funny how the Argument from Ignorance continues on with you apologists into infinity. “I can’t understand how X could have happened. Therefore, Yahweh God did it.” NOPE!

    The correct answer would be, “We don’t yet know” and leave it there. Trying to answer any mystery, with an even bigger mystery, gets you nowhere. [Where did Yahweh come from?] So inserting your God does nothing. It is a non-answer. The correct answer when you don’t know something is…that you don’t know. DONE.

  9. The Watcher says:

    Jody Hey, a leading biologist at Rutgers University, has stated that there are over 20 definitions for the term “species” in contemporary biology, and that evolutionists have been unable to agree on a definition for it. Each evolutionist uses the definition that best suits his argument, and ignores the other 23. Why is his definition correct, and the other 23 incorrect? It seems that Christians aren’t the only ones with the problem of disagreement over terms……

  10. Jeff says:

    What about the information that makes up the genetic “language” itself. I mean, how can it, operating on fixed means of communication add to its actual information which all of its processes are based upon? Let me clarify that my question is not about the information communicated by various insertions or deletions into the genetic code of a certain organism, but about the language system which all of the genetic systems operate. Truly, nothing is added to that, correct? Do we examples of that language system developing? Or any language system for that matter, that is apart from the involvement of new or previously unassigned concepts being translated into that code?

    A serious question…

  11. Jeff says:

    *Fixed my silly typos (and such) from my previous post for means of clarity*

    What about the information that makes up the genetic “language” itself. I mean, how can it, if operating on a fixed system add to its actual information which all of its processes are based upon? Let me clarify that my question is not about the information communicated by various insertions or deletions into the genetic code of a certain organism, but about the language system which all of the genetic systems operate. Truly, nothing is added to that, correct? Do we see examples of that language system developing? Or any language system for that matter, that is apart from the involvement of new or previously unassigned concepts being translated into that code?

  12. Well Jeff, that’ll be a ‘no’ then.🙂 – it’s a great question.

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