In Part 2 of Stephen Meyer’s response to Francisco Ayala’s critique of the Intelligent Design movement in general, and of Signature in the Cell in particular, Meyer focuses primarily upon Ayala’s statement that, “there are lots and lots of DNA sequences that are nonsensical.”
First, I would like to note that one cannot help but be impressed with how current Meyer is with regard to this literature. He cites ten articles from 2009 and three from this year. Clearly he and his colleagues are keeping up with the literature. This is just one example of why I have come to conclude that the ID movement ought to be considered a scientific movement.
Another example is Meyer’s book itself. In the book, Meyer, quite eloquently in my opinion, demonstrates that his approach fits within the bounds of how historical science is done. The fact that he spends time carefully analyzing the scientific literature for evidence of function is further indication that they are doing science. Their Intelligent Design model predicts that the DNA in the human genome (and other organisms) is fully functional, and Meyer and his colleagues are carefully scrutinizing the scientific literature to see if it is.
Although I am convinced they are wrong on many counts, I appreciate that they are doing science (however good or bad it is) and I hope the scientific community will engage them on the basis of that science and not on the basis of rhetoric (theirs and ours!). Elements of their work are clearly rhetorical, and I alluded to one example of that in yesterday’s post. Regretfully, there are times when I slip into that mode as well. I am trying my best to stay focused on the issues—if you catch me doing otherwise, you should feel free to call me on it.
Since Meyer used technical language unfamiliar to many non-scientists, I want to refer readers to an excellent new book, Inside the Human Genome: A Case for Non-Intelligent Design, by leading evolutionary biologist, John Avise. Like Ayala, Avise argues that biology informs theism, and most certainly does not negate it. If there is any one science-related book I would urge our audience to read in the upcoming year it would be this one. Avise clearly lays out the philosophical and theological work we Christians have yet to do, based on detailed but accessible descriptions of genomic data.
Meyer spends considerable time disputing what he calls “Ayala’s claim” that Alu1 sequences are distributed randomly. I’ve reread Ayala’s post several times trying to find what makes Meyer think Ayala claimed this. Put simply, he doesn’t say it nor does he imply it. He does say that on average there are about 40 copies of Alu sequences between every two genes, but this is simply a fact. Meyer spends considerable time trying to show Ayala is wrong about something he didn’t say. I don’t know why he does this and don’t consider to be helpful to the discussion.
There are about a million Alu sequences (see footnote) scattered around the human genome. They constitute about ten percent of all letters in the DNA code. Meyer points out that a number of functional regions have been discovered within Alu sequences. He’s right. But this comes as no surprise to biologists—evolutionary theory certainly predicts that some portion of these sequences would take on useful functions over time.
However, there is no question that many Alu sequences really have no function. As Avise explains in his book, and as Ayala mentions in his post, most of these elements are almost certainly of no value to cells. On the contrary, these extra sequences can cause serious problems. In Avise’s words, “To the best of current knowledge, many if not most of these repetitive elements contribute not one iota to a person’s well-being. They are well-documented however to contribute to many health disorders.”
Alu is only one of many kinds of repetitive elements in the genome. The actual number of DNA letters devoted to all mobile elements (those which move from one location in the genome to another) is at least 1.3 billion! That’s 45 percent of the genome. In addition, non-mobile elements represent another huge portion.
For sure, plenty of magnificent “sense” is scattered throughout the genome, coding for absolutely marvelous things—like how to make the brain, for example—but this still doesn’t negate the fact that almost certainly much, if not most, of the DNA plays no role, and in many cases can be harmful.
Since many of our readers are not experts and they depend upon authorities, I would like to conclude with a request. If you hold a faculty position in molecular biology at a research university (or you know of someone who does), and you think that my portrayal (or Avise’s and Ayala’s) of the current state of our knowledge about this is inaccurate, please send an email to email@example.com. We will post the names of any dissenting molecular biologists who hold faculty positions in research universities on our website. I am aware that ID folk will simply say that such scientists will not respond because of the need to be clandestine in order to protect their careers. However, my experience is that tenured faculty are not afraid to say what they think; indeed it is that quality that especially distinguishes the faculty I have known over the years.
1. Alu is a short stretch of DNA code. There are three billion letters of code in the human genome. One Alu sequence is about 300 letters long. There are about a million copies of this short sequence scattered throughout the genome.