Debunking Creationism: "Evolution & Mutation Can't Increase Information!"

 

Thumbnail photos: JJjayco/YouTube; quimono (Arek Socho)/Pixabay

 

A commonly-made anti-evolution argument is that evolution or mutation does not increase—or isn't capable of increasing—information in the genome. As I'll show in this post, this creationist claim is a complete falsehood that can be disproven by countless examples. I'm also going to break down the many flaws in arguments of this kind—or perhaps I should say arguments of this species? 

Let's start off with some examples of creationists making this argument. If there is one thing that's the Holy Grail in the creationist community, the one thing that they all bow down before, it's not actually The Holy Bible and it's not the teachings of Jesus; it's probably this video of Richard Dawkins being stumped when he's challenged on whether evolution can increase information.

 

"Questioner: Can you give an example of a genetic mutation or an evolutionary process which can be seen to increase the information in the genome?

Richard Dawkins: *silently thinks for about 10 seconds while looking completely stumped by the question, then asks her to shut off the camera*"

 

If you're not very involved in the atheist vs. theist debates online, you'd be amazed by how many creationists orgasm in their pants when they watch this video: it gets passed around on religious forums; creationists high-five each other and declare victory when they watch it; and I've even seen people whose profile picture is a screenshot of Richard Dawkins looking stumped here. It would not surprise me to learn that there are creationists out there who have bedsheets and pajamas with little stumped-Richard-Dawkins faces plastered all over them.

Richard King writes on PuritanBoard.com

 

"I think I just saw Dawkins evolve into a deer in the headlights."

 

Kinda funny! I gotta hand it to you. Frankly, I didn't know until just now that Puritans were even allowed to make jokes! 

Yes, Richard Dawkins may have been stumped by this question. But just because one particular person on one occasion couldn't answer a particular question doesn't mean that there is no scientific answer to the question. Him being stumped doesn't mean that you've made a brilliant point. Maybe he just couldn't think of a good answer on the spot? Maybe he was ignorant but other scientists could have clued you in?

Creationists, however, would argue that there is no good answer to this question and that it is a checkmate. As Randy Alcorn and Jim Darnall argue in an article for Eternal Perspective Ministries entitled "Ten Major Flaws of Evolution - Revised",

 

"Mutations are thought to drive evolution, but they cannot increase information. . . . Even mutations which are in some way beneficial (such as antibiotic resistance in bacteria or wingless beetles on windy islands) result from the loss of information.  This is the opposite of the vast increase in information required to get from amoeba to man, as proposed in the theory of evolution."

 

It is true that some of the time, a beneficial mutation does consist of a loss of information. For example, during the DNA replication process, part of a gene could fail to be copied, and this could deactivate a protein responsible for pigment color, with the end result being that the organism now blends in better with the background. 

These creationists are correct that some of the time, evolution takes place when genetic information is lost. But they're mistaken when they claim that this is the only mechanism by which evolution can take place. On the contrary, there are several ways that mutation and evolution can increase the amount of genetic information. 

One of these is through the duplication of genes: Due to a mistake in the DNA replication process, sometimes an additional copy will be made of a particular gene, and this change will be passed down to the offspring. Because the organism doesn't presently need two genes that do the same thing, this means that one of the genes is free to mutate and change in a way that could potentially benefit the organism. As we read in Genetic Analysis: An Integrated Approach

 

". . . in a process called neofunctionalization, a mutation in one of the duplicates could provide a function not performed by the original gene. In rare cases where the new function provides a selective advantage, the gene can be maintained and become fixed in the population." 

Source: p. 618, Genetic Analysis: An Integrated Approach, by Mark F. Sanders & John L. Bowman. 2012.

 

There are countless examples where precisely this process has occurred and been identified. We're going to look at several examples, but understand that this is just a tiny sampling. 

 As Brandon L. Logemon et al write in The Journal of Biological Chemistry,

 

"The copper transporter (Ctr) family of integral membrane proteins is ubiquitously found in eukaryotes and mediates the high-affinity transport of Cu+ across both the plasma membrane and endomembranes. While mammalian Ctr1 functions as a Cu+ transporter for Cu acquisition and is essential for embryonic development, a homologous protein, Ctr2, has been proposed to function as a low-affinity Cu transporter, a lysosomal Cu exporter, or a regulator of Ctr1 activity, but its functional and evolutionary relationship to Ctr1 is unclear. Here, we report on a biochemical, genetic, and phylogenetic comparison of metazoan Ctr1 and Ctr2, suggesting that Ctr2 arose over 550 million years ago as a result of a gene duplication event followed by a loss of Cu+ transport activity."

 

Nicholas Panchy et al provide dozens of further examples in The American Society of Plant Biologists. We're going to read the entire study together. I'm completely kidding, of course. I'm extremely joking. We'll just look at a few examples—although it is a fascinating paper.

 

"Some examples where neofunctionalization after duplication has likely contributed to duplicate retention include MADS box transcription factors involved in the evolution of novel floral structures, 4,5-dioxygenase and cytochrome P450 genes that contribute to pigment variation in Caryophyllales, and the recruitment of duplicated primary metabolite genes into specialized metabolite pathways.

. . . some specialized metabolic genes likely arose from neofunctionalized duplicates of primary metabolism genes, and further duplications of specialized metabolic genes have likely contributed to additional novel biochemical activities. In some cases, these duplicates are implicated in defense against herbivores and microbes as well as in attracting pollinators.

. . . a duplicated KNOX transcription factor has acquired a novel regulatory pattern that regulates leaf shape and aboveground architecture in plants. Finally, duplication can contribute to the interactions of plants with other organisms: the duplication of a receptor-like kinase gene originally involved in mycorrhizal symbiosis gave rise to the lysin motif receptor-like kinase SILYK10 in tomato (Solanum lycopersicum), which likely adopted a new role in nodulation with clear adaptive significance."

 

Not only does the duplication of individual genes or several genes increase information, but sometimes organisms undergo a wholesale duplication of their entire genome!—and sometimes, not only does this not kill them or harm them, but it actually confers evolutionary benefits.

Juan Carlos del Pozo and Elena Ramirez-Parra write the following in The Journal of Experimental Botany:

 

"Polyploidy is a common event in plants that involves the acquisition of more than two complete sets of chromosomes. . . . In spite of inconveniences derived from chromosomic rearrangement during polyploidization, natural plant polyploids species often exhibit improved growth vigour and adaptation to adverse environments, conferring evolutionary advantages. These advantages have also been incorporated into crop breeding programmes. Many tetraploid crops show increased stress tolerance, although the molecular mechanisms underlying these different adaptation abilities are poorly known."

 

Nicholas Panchy et al provide some specific examples:

 

". . . recent whole-genome duplications that have occurred in the lineages of several domesticated crop species, including wheat (Triticum aestivum), cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), and soybean (Glycine max), have contributed to important agronomic traits, such as grain quality, fruit shape, and flowering time."

 

Although more commonplace in plants, this process is not exclusive to plants. As we read in Molecular Genetics and Genomics,

 

"Whole-genome duplication (WGD) events have shaped the history of many evolutionary lineages. One such duplication has been implicated in the evolution of teleost fishes, by far the most species-rich vertebrate clade. After initial controversy, there is now solid evidence that such [an] event took place in the common ancestor of all extant teleosts. . . . Recent studies let us conclude that [teleost-specific whole-genome duplication] has been important in generating teleost complexity, but that more recent ecological adaptations only marginally related to TS-WGD might have even contributed more to diversification. It is likely, however, that TS-WGD provided teleosts with diversification potential that can become effective much later, such as during phases of environmental change."

 

To reiterate, this is only a smattering of the countless examples where these processes have taken place. Strangely enough, creationists apparently reject the idea that this disproves their argument. As Alcorn and Darnall put it,

 

"Mutations are thought to drive evolution, but they cannot increase information. Mutations can only change DNA by deleting, damaging, duplicating, or substituting already existing information."

 

I'm sorry, but if a gene or the entire genome gets duplicated, and if these duplicates diverge from the original genes and take on new functions which give the organism a survivalistic and reproductive advantage, this is clear example of mutation increasing genetic information in a manner that benefits the organism. 

"Can you show me an example of mutation increasing information?"

"Yeah, here's an example of a general process by which this happens across the entire biological world."

"Those examples don't count!"

This is textbook special-pleading right here. Yes, actually those examples do count, because they demonstrate precisely what you're asking us to demonstrate. These examples also plainly refute the claim, made on Creation.com, that "selection involves getting rid of information," because as we've seen, selection can also involve duplicating and modifying, and thus, increasing information.

With that said, I do understand the point that gene duplication isn't enough to explain how we got from from the most primitive organisms with their very basic genome all the way to the rich diversity of life and genetic variation that we have today. Go far back enough and some of these genes must have originated on their own. So can the evolutionist provide examples of genes arising from scratch? Yes, actually, he can—or she, I suppose, in the interest of inclusivity. It is, 2018, after all: Get with the fucking times, you sexist!

As Emily Singer writes for QuantaMagazine.org,

 

"In 2006, [biologist David Begun] found some of the first evidence that genes could indeed pop into existence from noncoding DNA. He compared gene sequences from the standard laboratory fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, with other closely related fruit fly species. The different flies share the vast majority of their genomes. But Begun and collaborators found several genes that were present in only one or two species and not others, suggesting that these genes weren’t the progeny of existing ancestors. Begun proposed instead that random sequences of junk DNA in the fruit fly genome could mutate into functioning genes.

. . . his team came across the Pldi gene . . . The sequence is present in mice, rats and humans. In the latter two species, it remains silent, which means it’s not converted into RNA or protein. The DNA is active or transcribed into RNA only in mice, where it appears to be important — mice without it have slower sperm and smaller testicles.

The researchers were able to trace the series of mutations that converted the silent piece of noncoding DNA into an active gene. That work showed that the new gene is truly de novo and ruled out the alternative — that it belonged to an existing gene family and simply evolved beyond recognition.

Scientists have now catalogued a number of clear examples of de novo genes: A gene in yeast that determines whether it will reproduce sexually or asexually, a gene in flies and other two-winged insects that became essential for flight, and some genes found only in humans whose function remains tantalizingly unclear."

 
 

"De novo genes are usually defined as protein-coding genes that have evolved from scratch from previously non-coding DNA . . . There is now evidence that this mechanism has contributed a significant number of genes to genomes of organisms as diverse as Saccharomyces, Drosophila, Plasmodium, Arabidopisis and human. From simple beginnings, these genes have in some instances acquired complex structure, regulated expression and important functional roles.

. . . MDF1 is a de novo gene which is only found in S. cerevisiae. Li et al. conducted several careful experiments to demonstrate that this very new gene has a function in suppressing sexual reproduction by binding MATα2 in rich medium and thus promoting vegetative growth. More recently, it was shown that the link between nutrient availability and mating is mediated by MDF1 through its function in two distinct pathways. Thus, this novel gene has not only acquired functionality quite rapidly but has integrated into two central cellular processes."

 

And in case this strikes you as an extremely unlikely process, it's not like you'd just go, in one giant step—in a cascade of hundreds of the exactly-needed mutations happening all at once—from a strand of junk DNA to a perfectly functioning, complex protein. The researchers outline how this process would happen gradually and incrementally:

 

"Rather than an extremely rare occurrence, it is now evident that there is a relatively constant trickle of proto-genes released into the testing ground of natural selection. . . . evolutionary tinkering with this pool of genetic potential may have been a significant player in the origins of lineage-specific traits and adaptations.

. . . The earliest discoveries of de novo genes, though from very different lineages, all had one thing in common—the identified genes were short and simple. This observation led to the suggestion that the emergence of de novo genes should be a gradual process, and that these examples were neonates. In keeping with this, proto-genes gradually acquire traits characteristic of genes such as longer coding length, higher expression, cis-regulatory sequences, codon usage bias and purifying selection. Similarly, the encoded proteins get progressively integrated into cellular processes."

 

Now that we've demonstrated quite clearly that mutation can, in fact, increase genetic information, let's take a closer look at these creationist arguments and break down the many flaws in their logic. As Creation.com writes,

 

"[Mutations] are accidental mistakes as the genetic (DNA) information . . .  is copied from one generation to the next. Naturally, such scrambling of information will often be harmful—thousands of hereditary diseases in people, for instance, are caused by just such inherited mutational defects."

 

Hang on a sec: aren't you the creationist here? Aren't you the ones that believe that human beings were created by a perfect being? Why would he create such disease-prone creatures? If he's all-powerful and all-knowing, presumably he knew when he created humans that many of them would suffer and die from these genetic defects, so why would he move forward with this faulty creation plan? Presumably that means he's either indifferent to our suffering or he wants us to suffer in this way—with neither option being compatible with the idea of a loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful God.

 

"The examples commonly cited, e.g. peppered moths and the Galàpagos finches, are indeed examples of natural selection. But this is not evolution, since [no] new information has arisen."

 

What the hell are these people talking about? They seem to be using this weird definition of evolution where evolution is defined as the creation of new genetic information. 

Not only is this simply not the definition of evolution—as anyone can learn by picking up a biology textbook—but it makes absolutely no sense as a definition of evolution. Mutation could create new genetic information that has zero impact on the phenotype or survival of the organism; perhaps a few extra nucleotides get inserted into a strand of junk DNA, for example. Alternatively, as they point out in their own article, sometimes evolution takes place as a result of information decreasing in the genome—if, for example, a protein gets inactivated and that changes the organism's coat color. So defining evolution as the creation of new genetic material is completely nonsensical—even according to their own silly and unscientific article.

 

"Given a pre-existing gene pool, different combinations of the genes arise through sexual reproduction and some of those may be better able to survive. So natural selection can account for the formation of different varieties, but cannot account for the origin of moths or finches"

 

First off, sexual reproduction is not the only mechanism of genetic variation; it's one of several, as anybody who knows anything about evolution will tell you. 

And how do they know that "[no] new information has arisen"? The only way they could say that with certainty would be if they performed before-and-after genetic comparisons. But given that the diversity of Galapagos finches is something that Darwin observed over 150 years ago—far before the advent of genetic sequencing—this is not something that they could possibly demonstrate. They could make this claim with some degree of confidence if they compared the genomes of these finches to show that no replication appears to have occurred and no new genes have apparently arisen. 

But clearly they've done none of these things. They're just assuming that they're correct; they're assuming that the evolution of these finches didn't involve new genetic information arising—even though it very well may have. Although this mindset might fly in your Sunday church service or during your visit to the creation museum, this is not how things work in science: You don't just blindly assume the truth of the claim that you're supposed to be proving; you collect evidence and run experiments to demonstrate the likely truth of that claim.

 

"natural selection can account for the formation of different varieties, but cannot account for the origin of moths or finches"

 

Actually it can do both. Gradual changes over time add up until, eventually, two populations of the same species diverge from one another to the point that they're no longer considered the same species. Creationists will concede that yes, small evolutionary changes do take place, but big ones don't—and I find this so strange, because it's the exact same evolutionary process, it's just that small changes take place over short periods of time whereas large changes take place over much longer periods of time. 

It'd be like saying: "Well yeah, of course I believe in microtectonics, because we can measure small movements in tectonic plates every year, but do I believe in macrotectonics—that these plates can move huge distances over time? Absolutely not. I don't have enough faith to believe that." 

This kind of thinking is ludicrous, because it's the same process; the only thing that's different is the timescale. Not only that, but there's abundant evidence that evolution creates new species: observational evidence, fossil evidence, genetic evidence, biogeographical evidence—the list goes on. But nevermind all of that "evidence" stuff: creationists just prefer to bury their head in the sand—and ironically enough, if they do that for long enough, they might actually evolve into a new species!

They write:

 

"Are there ‘good’ mutations? Evolutionists can point to a small handful of cases in which a mutation has helped a creature to survive better than those without it."

 

A "small handful of cases"? If you type into Google "examples of evolutionary mutations," you find over five million results. There aren't just a few, minor, isolated examples; there are encyclopedias worth of examples. Read any biology textbook and you will just be inundated by example after example. This would be like saying "You can point to a small handful of cases where Nazis killed a Jew"; "There are a few isolated incidents where a person died of heart disease"; "You can point to a small handful of cases where a creationist made himself look foolish!"

There's also a general misconception in their logic that more visibly-complex creatures necessarily require a larger genome. While this is true at a very broad level—with the genomes increasing in size from bacteria to algae to reptiles—past a certain point, there's no correlation between genome size and the complexity of the organism. Many amphibians and flowering plants, for example, have a much larger genome than humans do, and yet most of us would argue that humans are a much more complex organism than toads or onions—although frankly I think some toads would give creationists a run for their money. So complexity isn't purely a matter of genome size; it's also the result of how these genes are used.

As we read in a monograph on Metode.org

 

"In prokaryotes (Archaea and Bacteria) there is, in general, a linear relationship between genome size and the number of genes. . . . However, in eukaryotes there is no correlation between genome size and the complexity of the organism. This is known as the C-value paradox. The largest genome is found in an amoeba, a one-cell organism, with 686,000 Mb, 200 fold larger than the human genome and 20,000 fold larger than the one found in yeast."

 

So for many reasons, this anti-evolution creationist argument is extremely flawed. Contrary to what they argue, mutation and evolution actually can increase the amount of information in the genome, both through genetic duplication and through new genes arising from scratch. When they make this claim, they are making an outright falsehood, and this faulty argument presents no real challenge to the validity and truth of evolution.