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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Do Intelligent Design Creationists still think junk DNA refutes ID?

I'm curious about whether Intelligent Design Creationists still think their prediction about junk DNA has been confirmed.

Here's what Stephen Meyer wrote in Darwin's Doubt (p. 400).
The noncoding regions of the genome were assumed to be nonfunctional detritus of the trial-and-error mutational process—the same process that produced the functional code in the genome. As a result, these noncoding regions were deemed "junk DNA," including by no less a scientific luminary than Francis Crick.

Because intelligent design asserts that an intelligent cause produced the genome, design advocates have long predicted that most of the nonprotein-coding sequences in the genome should perform some biological function, even if they do not direct protein synthesis. Design theorists do not deny that mutational processes might have degraded some previously functional DNA, but we have predicted that the functional DNA (the signal) should dwarf the nonfunctional DNA (the noise), and not the reverse. As William Dembski, a leading design proponent, predicted in 1998, "On an evolutionary view we expect a lot of useless DNA. If, on the other hand, organisms are designed, we DNA, as much as possible, to exhibit function."
I'm trying to write about this in my book and I want to be as fair as possible.

Do most ID proponents still believe this is an important prediction from ID theory?

Do most ID proponents still think that most of the human genome is functional?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

New Trends in Evolutionary Biology: The Program

I'm going to London next November to attend The Royal Society conference on New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives. This is where all the scientists who want to change evolution will be gathering to spout their claims.

Developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields have produced calls for revision of the standard theory of evolution, although the issues involved remain hotly contested. This meeting will present these developments and arguments in a form that will encourage cross-disciplinary discussion and, in particular, involve the humanities and social sciences in order to provide further analytical perspectives and explore the social and philosophical implications.
The program has been published. Here's the list of speakers ...

Gerd B. Müller
The extended evolutionary synthesis

Douglas Futuyma
The evolutionary synthesis today: extend or amend?

Sonia Sultan
Re-conceiving the genotype: developmental plasticity

Russell Lande

Evolution of phenotypic plasticity

Tobias Uller
Heredity and evolutionary theory

John Dupré
The ontology of evolutionary process

Paul Brakefield

Can the way development works bias the path taken by evolution?

Kevin Laland
Niche construction

James Shapiro
Biological action in read-write genome evolution

Paul Griffiths
Genetics/epigenetics in development/evolution

Eva Jablonka
Epigenetic inheritance

Greg Hurst
Symbionts in evolution

Denis Noble
Evolution viewed from medicine and physiology

Andy Gardner
Anthropomorphism in evolutionary biology

Sir Patrick Bateson
The active role of the organism in evolution

Karola Stotz

Developmental niche construction

Tim Lewens
A science of human nature

Agustín Fuentes
Human niche, human behaviour, human nature

Andrew Whiten
The second inheritance system: the extension of biology through culture

Susan Antón
Human evolution, niche construction and plasticity

Melinda Zeder
Domestication as a model system for evolutionary biology

I didn't know that Paul Griffiths and Karola Stotz were going. It's a bit surprising that they would associate with some of these views. I'm glad that Douglas Futuyma will be there to represent the voice of reason. He seems to be one of the few speakers who understands modern evolutionary theory.

There are still a few spots available, according to the organizers. Sign up quickly.

The meeting is at Carlton House Terrace, which is just a few blocks from Trafalger Square and a short walk down The Mall to Buckingham Palace where the Corgis live.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What does a person's genome reveal about their ethnicity and their appearance?

If you knew the complete genome sequence of someone could you tell where they came from and their ethnic background (race)? The answer is confusing according to Siddhartha Mukherjee writing in his latest book "The Gene: an intimate history." The answer appears to be "yes" but then Mukherjee denies that knowing where someone came from tells us anything about their genome or their phenotype. He writes the following on page 342.

... the genetic diversity within any racial group dominates the diversity between racial groups. This degree of intraracial variability makes "race" a poor surrogate for nearly any feature: in a genetic sense, an African man from Nigeria is so "different" from another man from Namibia that it makes little sense the lump them into the same category.

For race and genetics, then, the genome is strictly a one-way street. You can use the genome to predict where X or Y came from. But knowing where A or B came from, you can predict little about the person's genome. Or: every genome carries a signature of an individual's ancestry—but an individual's racial ancestry predicts little about the person's genome. You can sequence DNA from an African-American man and conclude that his ancestors came from Sierra Leone or Nigeria. But if you encounter a man whose great-grandparents came from Nigeria or Sierra Leone, you can say little about the features of this particular man. The geneticist goes home happy; the racist returns empty-handed.
I find this view very strange. Imagine that you were an anthropologist who was an expert on humans and human evolution. Imagine you were told that there's a woman in the next room whose eight great-grandparents all came from Japan. According to Mukherjee, such a scientist could not predict anything about the features of that woman. Does that make any sense?

I suspect this is just a convoluted way of reconciling science with political correctness.

Steven Monroe Lipkin has a different view. He's a medical geneticist who recently published a book with Jon R. Luoma titled "The Age of Genomes: tales from the front lines of genetic medicine." Here's how they explain it on page 6.
Many ethnic groups carry distinct signatures. For example, from a genome sequence you can usually tell if an individual is African-American, Caucasian, Asian, Satnami, or Ashkenazi Jew, even if you've never laid eyes on the patient. A well-regarded research scientist whom I had never met made his genome sequence publically available as part of a research study. I remember scrolling through his genetic variant files and trying, more successfully than I had expected, to guess what he would look like before I peeked at his webpage photo. The personal genome is more than skin deep.
This makes more sense to me. If you know what you look for—and Simon Monroe certainly does—then many of the features of a particular person can be deduced from their genome sequence. And if you know which variants are more common in certain ethnic groups then you can certainly predict what a person might look like just by knowing where their ancestors came from.

What's wrong with that?

Monday, June 06, 2016

Can scientists describe what they're doing to a fifth grader?

I'm working on a review of "The Gene" by Siddhartha Mukherjee. It raises a huge number of issues about science writing and the conflict between producing a bestseller and educating the public about science.

As part of the research for that blog post I've been reading all the reviews of his book and I came across an interview with Mukherjee on the Smithsonian website [Siddhartha Mukherjee Follows Up Biography of Cancer With “An Intimate History” of Genetics].

Here's an interesting answer to an important question ...

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Evolution according to "New Scientist"

A recent editorial in the magazine New Scientist caught my eye. The title is "Long Live Evolution" and it offers support for "new ideas" about evolution. The online version is titled Darwin’s beautiful theory must itself be allowed to evolve. The author is not identified; I assume it's one of the editors.

Here's the opening paragraph ...
Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics.

Michael Lynch (2007)
Darwin's great theory must itself be allowed to evolve

THE theory of evolution is a splendid thing: an elegant and utterly logical explanation for how natural selection solves the problems of survival and creates the enormous diversity of life we see in the world around us.
There is no such thing as "THE" theory of evolution. Evolutionary theory is complex. It covers several mechanisms (natural selection, random genetic drift) and its core is population genetics—something that was unknown in Darwin's time.

We know that Darwin’s hypothesis of natural selection ... was correct, but we also know that there are more causes of evolution than Darwin realized ...

Douglas Futuyma (2009)
The New Scientists editor is describing the theory of natural selection but he/she even gets that wrong because most of life's diversity is probably NOT due to natural selection.

The irony here is that New Scientist then goes on to say ...
That brings to the fore areas that are not part of the canon of evolutionary theory: epigenetics, for example, which studies how organisms are affected by changes in the ways in which genes are expressed, rather than in the genes themselves.

Attempts to incorporate such elements into evolutionary theory have not always been welcomed, however. That is understandable, given how successful the theory has been without them. Occam’s razor applies: do not add complications unless they are absolutely necessary.

But another motivating factor is undoubtedly the fear that if scientists themselves are seen to suggest that even small details of the theory of evolution could be improved upon, its detractors will seize upon them with avidity. This is a well-founded fear: it happens all the time, with well-funded and highly visible front organisations distorting scientific discussion to create the false impression of disagreement about the basics of evolutionary theory.

It is a fear scientists need to overcome, lest the admirable defence of truth mutates into defensiveness and rigidity. It is one thing to counter reactionaries who reject evolution; it is quite another to be dismissive of or even hostile to scientists who have new ideas to offer.
I recommend that the editors of New Scientist purchase and read any introductory textbook on evolution before they write any more silly editorials. They will learn that "Darwin's great theory" has already been changed beyond anything that Darwin would have recognized. The fact that the editors of a prominent science magazine don't understand evolution is an example of one of the main problems that have led to so much confusion today over recent attempts to extend evolutionary theory.

If science journalists are going to write about whether epigenetics should be part of evolutionary theory then they better do their homework before criticizing prominent evolutionary biologists for being afraid of changing even "small details" of modern evolutionary theory. I suggest they start by reviewing some "small details" like Neutral Theory, random genetic drift, hierarchical theory, species selection, punctuated equilibria, sympatric speciation, group selection, directed mutation, cladistics, kin selection, selfish genes, endosymbiosis, and a host of other aspects of evolution that have been vigorously debated in the scientific literature over the past century.

Maybe after doing their homework they will realize that prominent evolutionary biologists who question epigenetics are not doing it because they fear change ... they're doing it because "epigenetics" has been debated for fifty years and it has little to do with modern evolutionary theory. Maybe the science journalists will realize that proponents of the "extended evolutionary synthesis" are as ignorant of modern evolutionary theory as they were before they did their homework.

The editorial ends with ...
Evolution is true. But it is also a living, breathing idea that must not be allowed to ossify into a dogma of the kind that it has done so much to sweep away.
Ironically, the most common "dogma" is the false idea that evolutionary theory hasn't changed since Darwin's time and the editor of New Scientist is a prime example of this kind of ossification.