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Thursday, September 21, 2023

Richard Sternberg says ENCODE disproved junk DNA, therefore intelligent design

This is a video of a debate that took place in Kraków, Poland on June 2, 2023. The topic was "Intelligent design in nature—illusion or reality?" (Spoiler alert! - the answer is "illusion.") The participants were Michael Behe and Richard v. Sternberg for the creationists and Michael Ruse and Malgorzata Moczydlowska-Vidal for the science/philosophy side. The video is almost three hours long and I don't recommend watching the whole thing.

Ruse, as usual, is incoherant and more focused on religion and telling Christians how they should behave. The Polish paleontologist didn't do a very good job of addressing the claims of the creationists.1 Michael Behe gave his standard pitch about irreducible complexity and the bacterial flagellum.

The interesting part was Sternberg's defense of intelligent design. I hadn't seen him before although I've been familiar with his writings over the past twenty years. His opening presentation begins at 17:50 and it's worth watching to see how important the junk DNA debate is to the ID crowd.

Sternberg begins by noting that he was skeptical of the arguments put forward by Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene" where Dawkins says that 98% of our DNA is noncoding junk. (Dawkins never said any such thing!) Sternberg says that when he started looking for function in this part of the genome he found that it was replete with function. Then he brings up the ENCODE results and claims that they challenged the concept of a gene (not true). Sternberg says that the new definition of a gene is that it is polyfunctional and "constantly changing in real time." He says,

... how can you have a theory based on an entity that you cannot define and how can you discuss the evolution of something that is kind of this amorphous notion ...

Sternberg seems to think that redefining the gene shows that evolutionary biology is out of touch with reality. He claims that the discovery of the epigenome is futher evidence that there are multiple layers of information that take us far beyond the theory of neo-Darwinism that was crafted in the nineteen teens and the 1920s.

Sternberg reflects the views of many Intelligent Design Creationists who tout the "debunking" of junk DNA as one of their greatest intellectual achievements because they predicted all along that there couldn't be large amounts of junk DNA in our genome because that's incompatible with intelligent design. What's different in the case of Richard Sternberg is that the discovery of function in most of our genome is what led him to the position that design is the best explanation.

I find it strange that Intelligent Design Creationists are relying so heavily on the so-called debunking of junk DNA, especially since in Sternberg's case he is well aware of the fact that some prominent scientists have criticized ENCODE. It's a risky strategy to put so much emphasis on a result that may turn out to be wrong. If our genome is mostly junk DNA (it is!) then the major part of their argument for design falls apart.

From reading the ID literature, it seems that they are supremely confident that most of our genome will turn out to be full of function. It will be interesting to see how they respond when the scientific community concludes that 90% of our genome is junk. From my perspective, they are digging themselves into a deep hole that will be very difficult to climb out of. Maybe it's time to stop digging?

Sternberg made one quip that's worth highlighting. At about 1:46:20 he talks about a saying that he learned in the air force; you don't receive flak unless you're over a significant target. That's cute. He uses it to explain why intelligent design is coming under such heavy attack. He is, of course, correct. When you drop bombs on people you can expect them to get upset. When you attack some of the most important concepts in science you can expect some pushback. That doesn't mean your bombing is justified. If it were justified then scientists would embrace your criticisms instead of shooting them down.

Sternberg scores big at 2:51:11 when he asks, "Can there be Darwinian evolution ... or any evolution in general, without natural selection?" The correct answer is yes. Malgorzata Moczydlowska-Vidal says no and so does Michael Ruse. Ruse then goes on to explain why he dismisses random genetic drift. Sternberg then explains neutral evolution and Michael Lynch's drift-barrier hypothesis and why some biologists use them to explain some of the ID challenges. Sternberg (and Behe) appear to know more about evolution than their opponents.

1. She concentrated on presenting evidence for the history of life but both Behe and Sternberg accept common descent and the correct age of the Earth.


Robert Byers said...

This is iD thinkers and they are famous because they are intelligent in thier subject. They are not biblical creationists. i'm sure they would make a good case to the audience. Its new to these nations but very easily they might embrace God as creator and no reason to imagine creation creating itself. or prove it possible or did!

Anonymous said...

If they're so intelligent why haven't they ever produced original work? Or, a single experiment?

Robert Byers said...

Their original work is the work they do and they were doing it in Poland. These things at such intimate level are not open to experiments. In fact origin issues almost never are. jJust like History investigation.

Anonymous said...

We're talking about science not history. It's been 30 years and no original work and no experiments but tons of excuses.

Joe Felsenstein said...

I cant see that Intelligent Design requires that there be no junk DNA. If all they mean by ID is occasional Design Intervention in an otherwise ordinary evolutionary process, there could be some. On the other hand outright creationist apologetics could be quite unhappy with junk DNA, both because it provides evidence for common descent, and because the Designer in question would not do such messy things as that.

Also, on "can there be Darwinian evolution, or any evolution in general, without natural selection" I find the question ambiguous. Is it whether all change in evolution must involve natural selection? Or whether some change in evolution must involve natural selection. If the question that Ruse and Malgorzata Moczydlowska are answering is the latter, they are right.

Larry Moran said...

@Joe Felsenstein: I think Sternberg meant it when he asked about "any evolution in general." He knows very well that many of the arguments against intelligent design invoke the fixation of nearly neutral alleles. He knows that some people interpret "Darwinian evolution" to be restricted to evolution by natural selection and that's why he added the qualifier.

I think Ruse understood this but he's an adaptationist.

I don't think the Polish paleontologist knows about any mechanism of evolution other than natural selection or she would have answered differently.