Friday, July 23, 2010

No, DNA Doesn't Convey a Supernatural Lingo!

The Christian fundies are nothing if not persistent and indefatigable, in terms of always searching and seeking out useless ‘macguffins’ to try to promote their fulsome nonsense that evolution is false, or “creationism” is somehow validated by some “complexity” in some natural form. The latest, from at least one fundie blog, is that DNA is some ‘miracle molecule” and hence, “evidence” for supernaturalism.

But no one who understands DNA and its origins ought to have any illusions the fundies have demonstrated anything, other than patently extreme desperation and a pathological willingness to overlook reality.

Let’s look at some of one fundie’s recent claims (on his blog) and skewer each in turn:

"Who or what could miniature such information and place this enormous number of "letters" in their proper sequence as a genetic instruction manual ? Could evolution have gradually come up with a system like this?"

First, the fundie gets it all wrong. There are not an "ENORMOUS number of letters" but only four, representing the basic amino acids whose configurations dictate whether an organism is mouse, maggot or human. These constitute four bases: A (adenine), C (cytosine), G (guanine), and T (thymine) that are paired in two mutually exclusive ways . That is, A always goes with T, while G always pairs with C. A sketch of this complementary base pairing, from a section of DNA, is shown. One possible explanation for the preferential pairing arrangement is the presence of multiple hydrogen bonds between bases.

In addition, there is no mystery about “miniaturing” the information since at the level of the molecules they are innately so! Thus, amino acids such as guanine and thymine and cytosine by virtue of their microscopic scale must allow for the "miniaturization" of information in the more complex molecule (DNA) of which they are comprised. And yes, evolution could easily have gradually arrived at such a system, as first pointed out by biochemist Jacques Monod in his ‘Chance and Necessity’.

First, as he notes, the very nature of the DNA molecule is such that its scale is susceptible to the quantum Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The DNA chain is 2.2 to 2.6 nanometers wide while a nucleotide within it is 3.3 nm long. The Uncertainty Principle operates for all scales less than 300 nm. Because of this, we know DNA can neither a perfect stereo-chemical language nor does it remain so. Any single MUTATION – for example arising from the interaction of a molecule with a cosmic ray, can incept an alteration and “mis-translation” of the language. As Monod notes (p.12):

A mutation is in itself a microscopic event – a quantum event – to which the principle of uncertainty consequently applies. An event which is hence and by its very nature essentially unpredictable

In other words, a single mutation can screw up all the finely honed “information”, and further -yield undesirable results – say like Siamese twins, or Albinos or even humans with missing limbs. Monod again (ibid.)

“Physics tells us that, except at absolute zero (an inaccessible limit) no microscopic entity can fail to undergo quantum perturbations, whose accumulation within a macroscopic system will slowly but surely alter its structure.”

He goes on to note that once the structure is altered – by way of the informational molecules of DNA being messed up, “errors occur in translation” and “these tend to precipitate further errors which – ever more frequent – gradually undermine the structure of those organisms”

In other words, those “language” errors can conceivably result in the extinction of organisms because it impinges on their level of adaptability.

THIS is precisely what we’d expect from an evolutionary process which is NOT a perfect algorithm or transcription template! It is not a “supernatural designer” process! Mistakes can appear in the lingo, be replicated and compromise the species undergoing them.

By contrast, if the DNA was as magic and ethereal in origin as this fundie claims, one would at least expect the information would be protected over time and NOT compromised – for example by “quantum perturbations”. But for THAT to be so, a true supernatural force implicit in the organization of the molecule would have to exist – such that it could resist quantum level changes as initiated by mutations, say from cosmic rays. But since we see an ongoing occurrence of mutations (genetic mistakes and misreadings) this isn’t happening.

Hence, one must rationally conclude there is no supernatural intervention at the level of DNA. This makes sense, since the putative supernatural force would have to overcome the basic principles of quantum mechanics, and obviously it can’t.

But clueless, the impetuous fundie rambles on:

"Let's first consider some of the characteristics of this genetic "language." For it to be rightly called a language , it must contain an alphabet or coding system , correct spelling , grammar (a proper arrangement of the words ) , meaning (semantics ) and an intended purpose . Scientists have found the genetic code has ALL of these key elements . "The coding regions of DNA," explains Dr. Stephen Meyer , "have exactly the same relevant properties as a computer code or language" ( quoted by Lee Strobel , The Case for a Creator , 2004 , p. 237 ).

Yes, but the problem with this proposition is that the “language” is easily screwed up (by quantum level - generated mutations) and the errors propagated down the line, as I noted above.. Thus, the ‘language” is vulnerable to the vagaries of known physical laws and can be undermined in such a way to engender design mistakes – such as albinos, Siamese twins, babies born without brains, legless, and a whole spectrum of aberrations.

Comparing the DNA language to a computer code also isn’t very bright, since we know that one simple, single error in reading a 1 or 0 in one line of critical code can throw an entire program off and yield baloney results. Further, since given lines of code are generally integral to successive lines of a program, any error – say in line 1205- will create havoc all through the lines where it is referenced. As they say “garbage in, garbage out”.

Meyer and the fundie are also misfiring by overlooking the fact that numerous other agents can easily scramble the genetic text, including: deletion or addition of several pairs of nucleotides, duplication, inversion or fusion of more or less extended segments.

Thus, because of ALL the events to which the DNA language is susceptible, we further say the language is susceptible to CHANCE – since all the micro-events listed above as well as other mutations are accidents of CHANCE. NO one, after all, can predict exactly WHEN that next cosmic ray will arrive from a distant star or other source, nor predict when or how it will interact with which DNA molecule.

Thus, since the micro-events constitute the only possible source of modification to the genetic “language” the fundie and his pal Meyer are obsessing over, it necessarily follows that CHANCE alone is at root of every molecular change or error.

As Monod so aptly puts it (ibid.)

Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, is at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution. This is no longer even a conceivable hypothesis, it is the sole one consistent with observed and tested fact.”

What we behold then, is a puerile and naïve effort on the part of Meyer and the fundie to recruit DNA as some mysterious “language” (presumbly authored by superior being) into their pseudo-arguments that amount to theo-babble. Again, if they were the least bit correct, and the language actually meant the intervention of some superior designer force- then it ought to be impervious to the havoc wrought by unpredictable quantum –scale events such as mutations from cosmic rays. (Also note, it doesn’t mean anything to assert or claim these micro-event mutations are "only minor" or "only affect a small proportion" of the species. The fact they affect ANY shows a designer language code can’t be operative. It is an all or none proposition! An absolute, infinite capacity "Creator" is being insinuated or implied and that also means it is OMNISCIENT, so cannot make errors!)

Mr. Fundie rails on:

"The only types of communication considered high-level are human languages , artificial languages such as computer and Morse codes , and the genetic code . No other communication system has been found to contain the basic characteristics of a language ".

Again, the fundie blows it by over-taxing the analogy. While human languages are high level for communication, and hence translatable, the ‘language” of DNA doesn’t fall into the exact same template. Let’s take an example – just studying the sentence I wrote above. On reading it one can easily obtain the meaning and also be able to connect the initial word in the ‘chain” to the end. The first and last words are not disconnected, just as they aren’t in this sentence. This conforms to the expectation of a high level language.

By contrast, nucleotide chains in DNA do not fit the bill. The components at the beginning of a chain of information transfer function in total ignorance of what is at the end of the chain. In other words, a communication bifurcation or split exists. Further as Monod points out (p. 106);

“While it is true the genetic code is written in a stereochemical language – each of whose letters consists of three nucleotides(a triplet) in the DNA, specifying one amino acid (among 20) in the polypeptide, there exists no direct steric relationship between the coding triplet and the coded amino acid

This is important, because it basically blows up all the fundie’s claims that his magic DNA language is anything special. Indeed, what Monod is saying in the last quote is that the coding triplet code is divorced from the amino acid’s. It would be as if I was writing a long sentence (or better, paragraph) with odd Greek letters interspersed within English words within the sentence or paragraph. How many would get the meaning? In other words, the “higher language” analogy again breaks down.

Impervious to his unreason, the Fundie marches forth:

"The same principle is found in the genetic code . The DNA molecule CARRIES the genetic language , but the language itself is INDEPENDENT of its carrier . The same genetic information can be written in a book , stored on a compact disc or sent over the Internet , and yet the quality or content of the message is not changed by changing the means of conveying it ."

Again, as we saw, he’s in error, since the genetic language implicit in the arrangement of the amino acids is divorced from the coded nucleotide triplets. While true, it is "independent of its carrier", in the sense of altering the information peculiar to the carrier or the carrier's actions, it is not true that all DNA molecules themselves are different. No, they are all the SAME - which is exactly the point eluding him. It is the arrangement of the 4 bases which is different. DNA consists of two long polymers of units called nucleotides, with "backbones" made of sugars and phosphates joined by ester bonds. The two strands run anti-parallel to each other . Attached to each sugar is one of four types of molecules (already referenced as A, G, T or C) called bases. It is the sequence of these four bases along the backbone that encodes information. Thus, the basic DNA molecule - apart from the specific configuration of the 4 bases - is the same for all organisms!

He's also wrong by asserting the “meaning” of the language is not changed by the means of conveying it. Indeed, since computers also process at the micro-level and their very storage capacities are subject to micro-events and electrical (quantum-scale) failures, then indeed it only takes one or two such events to alter the meaning.

The original "genetic" language (as I showed above) can easily be scrambled by quantum scale micro-events (maybe from a solar flare x-ray or whatnot). We also know the means of "conveying it" DOES make a difference! For example, astronauts in the Space shuttle during major solar flares or other events (proton events) are much more susceptible to genetic damage from the incident radiation. Thus, it isn't strictly true to claim the quality or content of message is "not changed by the means of conveyance".

The point again, is if these micro-level, unpredictable events can’t be controlled to minimize the damage to the “genetic language”, then we can conclude that language is purely natural (since it is susceptible to the natural laws) and not supernatural.

He blathers on:

"This type of high-level information has been found to originate only from an intelligent source . As ex-atheist Lee Strobel explains : "The data at the core of life is not disorganized , it's not simply orderly like salt crystals , but it's complex and specific information that can accomplish a bewildering task - the building of biological machines that far outstrip human technological capabilities" ( The Case for a Creator , 2004 , p. 244 ) . "

The key words above: “biological MACHINES” – at least Strobel is correct on that. Indeed, Jacques Monod agrees, observing (p. 50):

Living beings are all chemical machines. The growth and multiplication of all organisms require the accomplishing of thousands of chemical reactions whereby the essential constituents of cells are elaborated. This is what is called metabolism. It is organized along a number of divergent, convergent or cyclical pathways- each comprising a sequence of reactions. The precise adjustment and high efficiency of this enormous microscopic chemical activity are maintained by a certain class of proteins – the enzymes- playing the role of specific catalysts.

For example, there is the Krebs cycle for aerobic metabolism, whose pathway is:

CH2 COOH-coenzyme A + 2 H2O -> 2 CO2 +8 (e- + H+) + coenzyme A

possessing a self-catalytic feature in that intermediate products necessary for the cycle to occur are generated by the cycle itself.

Like a machine, every organism, down to the very ‘simplest’, constitutes a coherent and integrated functional unit. Clearly enough, the functional coherence of so complex a chemical machine, which is autonomous as well, calls for a cybernetic system governing and controlling the chemical activity at numerous points”

Note that the key issue is that it is chemical enzymes which ensure the autonomous cybernetic information system!

Strobel is incorrect in disavowing the analogy to crystals. As Monod has pointed out (p. 105)

“The forming of the DNA (helix) compares strongly with that of a crystal. Each sequential element in one of the two strands acts the part of a crystalline seed which orients the molecules that specifically link themselves to it, ensuring the crystal’s growth. If artificially separated, two strands will spontaneously reform the complex

The Fundie again:

"The precision of this genetic language is such that the average mistake that is not caught turns out to be ONE ERROR PER 10 BILLION LETTERS . If a mistake occurs in one of the most significant parts of the code , which is in the genes , it can cause a disease such as sickle-cell anemia . Yet even the best and most intelligent typist in the world couldn't come close to making only one mistake per 10 billion letters - far from it ."

Here, amazingly, the fundie oversteps and he’s hoist on his own petard. He not only admits his “author” is imperfect in his genetic language, but concedes that serious mistakes can be made as a result – and sickle cell anemia is certainly one of those! (In the United States, about 1 in 500 black births have sickle-cell anaemia. Looks like the tiny odds in the error of “typing” translate into mighty damned big ones in real life!)

But the point isn’t that "even the most intelligent and competent typist" is subject to making transcription errors, it’s that the Fundie’s implication is that an all-perfect and OMNISCIENT “designer” did it (created the genetic language) yet he couldn’t avoid ONE single error! How perfect or “Omniscient” is that? Huh?

He doesn't get or grok that either the language must be perfect - NO "mistakes" - OR the claim of a supernatural "creator" falls through!

Nonetheless he goes on to put his foot in his mouth even more:

"So to believe that genetic code gradually evolved in Darwinian style would break all the known rules of how matter , energy and the laws of nature work . In fact , there has not been found in nature any example of one information system inside the cell gradually evolving into another functional information program ."

This is total nonsense! In fact, given the occurrence of unpredictable mutational errors in the genetic script, it is ONLY evolution that provides a reasonable explanation! As for “breaking down all the laws of how matter, energy and the laws of nature work” it is the FUNDIE that’s guilty since HE IS asserting a high-level language that’s immune to the vagaries of unpredictable mutations via micro-level (quantum) events but for which the reality (e.g. sickle cell anaemia, albinism, Siamese twins) doesn’t conform.

Evolution, by contrast, is an error prone algorithm which explains how it is that humans have a partially formed (rudimentary) tail(coccyx) and a brain that's really three in one (neocortex, mesocortex and reticular formation)!

The blabbermouth again:

"We therefore have in the genetic code an immensely complex instruction manual that has been majestically designed by a source far more intelligent than human beings . "

So what is it? An Alien? Thought you didn’t believe in them! If it’s God, then why is this “perfect Being” incapable of being perfect in typing out his genetic language? You admitted earlier to "one mistake in every ten billion letters” but as I noted the consequences of even one such error are much worse than this stat implies. For example, human albinism shows up in 1 out of every 100 genes, and 1 in 500 black babies just in the U.S. has the gene for sickle cell.

Here’s where the bear sits with the buckwheat: Either your Designer MUST be capable of absolute perfection (as an absolutely perfect Being) in his transcriptions, OR evolution is responsible for them! You can’t claim both! You can’t have it both ways! Just as you can’t claim duplicitously (next blog) that Antony Flew saved his skin by forgoing his atheism – when he still didn’t cop to your “belief in the Lord JC’ nonsense.

And once more, the soap box:

"My friends , evolution simply fails to provide answers . It is good to remember that , in spite of all the efforts of all the scientific laboratories around the world working over many decades , they have not been able to produce so much as a single human hair . How much more difficult is it to produce an entire body consisting of some 100 TRILLION CELLS ( YES - that's "TRILLION" with a "T" ! ) ."

While science labs have not yet produced a "single human hair", they have created an artificial (synthetic) cell. See:

But in any case, the lack (so far) to replicate “a single human” hair is a separate issue from the claim made by the fundie and his ilk: to wit, that the “DNA language” is indicative of some superior intelligence and not evolution. As we know, all extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence! The fundie has delivered nothing, and even admits this “superior” entity makes 1 error in every 10 billion letters. Yet he fails to grasp the most rudimentary point: that even 1 error in twenty septillion letters is unacceptable IF he is claiming this superior intelligence is a PERFECT being.

Perfect beings do not make mistakes, not one in ten billion, one in a hundred trillion, or one in a googleplex! Either the putative language “creator” must be absolutely FREE of errors, OR the source of the genetic language is imperfect- and that points to evolution (unless you are prepared to admit a race of advanced aliens is responsible! Since as finite beings, while advanced they’d still make an error every now and then. But since you've always disavowed this, you are stuck with no credible "author" for your language!)


"Dr. Meyer considers the recent discoveries about DNA to be the Achilles' heel of evolution theory . He observes : "Evolutionists are still trying to apply Darwin's nineteenth-century thinking to a twenty-first century reality , and it's not working...I think the information revolution taking place in biology is sounding the death knell for Darwinism and chemical evolutionary theories" ( quoted by Strobel , p. 243 ) ".

But none of you bozos gets it, that we’re doing nothing of the sort. It is YOU Creationists that are still applying 19th century thinking by your never-ending yen and demand for “fossil evidence” when evolutionary theory has moved on the micro-biological and genetic! Most of you idiots don’t even know what a genotype or phenotype is and don’t know how to show the alleles from two parents in a Menzelian format.

Finally, the creationists are left with having to account for the ubiquitous presence of DNA in all organisms: from mollusks to molds to mice to men. What escapes all of you, profoundly, is the very ubiquitous presence in all organisms lends itself to the theme of common and unified origin via evolutionary processes over time! No, the “information revolution taking place in biology” isn’t sounding any death knell for evolution – but for your pie-eyed moronic theories of a special “DNA language creator”.

Unless, of course, you can intelligently explain how a perfect being can make “one mistake every 10 billion letters”!

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