April 19, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Nature Topples ID Straw Man

It’s easier to knock down a straw man than a strong man.  Maybe that explains the human tendency to fantasize about victory over one’s enemies.  In scientific journals, however, one would expect to deal in facts and to realistically portray adversarial positions.  Even better would be to let the adversary respond.  Nature, however, in its latest issue, did neither.  Matthew Bennett and Jeff Hasty mentioned intelligent design just enough to discredit it.1
    The two scientists from the Department of Bioengineering and Institute for Nonlinear Science at the University of California in San Diego were reviewing an experiment in the same issue where a team of European geneticists “rewired” a genetic network to see what would happen.2  In other words, they made certain proteins interact that normally did not.  Fortunately for the E. coli subjects, they survived, and some even did better under artificial selection pressures.  It suggested “the possibility that organisms can evolve by changing the architecture of their genetic network,” though no new structures, functions or organelles emerged from the experiment.  What does this mean for the idea that cells are intelligently designed?  Bennett and Hasty said,

This conclusion also flies in the face of the popular misconception among opponents of the evolutionary theory, who believe that the genetic code is irreducibly complex.  For instance, advocates of ‘intelligent design’ compare the genome to modern engineered machines such as integrated circuits and clocks, which will cease to function if their internal design is altered.  Although sometimes it is instructive to point to similarities between the design principles behind modern technology and those behind genetics, the analogy can only go so far.  Engineered devices are generally designed to work just above the point of failure, so that any tampering with their construction will result in catastrophe.  In the event of failure, new clocks can be purchased or central processing units replaced.  But nature does not have that option.  To surviveand so evolve – organisms must be able to tolerate random mutations, deletions and recombination events.  And Isalan and colleagues’ work provides an important step forward in quantifying just how robust the genetic code can be.

Intelligent design literature does not claim that everything in biology, including the genetic code, is irreducibly complex.  ID scientists already know that mutations occur frequently yet organisms survive.  They claim that the genetic system contains complex specified information that could not have arisen by natural processes.  Irreducible complexity is reserved for molecular machines, like the flagellum, that cease to function when parts are removed.  The genome, everyone knows, survives in spite of mutations because of quality control mechanisms, backups and repair mechanisms that exhibit design.  In fact, they have noted that robustness against mutations is a good strategy that exhibits another level of design above just the information in the genetic code.


1.  Matthew R. Bennett and Jeff Hasty, “Systems biology: Genome rewired,” Nature 452, 824-825 (17 April 2008) | doi:10.1038/452824a.
2.  Isalan et al, “Evolvability and hierarchy in rewired bacterial gene networks,” Nature 452, 840-845 (17 April 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature06847.

Why doesn’t Nature ever let ID scientists speak for themselves?  Why do they rarely let an ID scientist respond to a claim made against them? (and when they do, only in highly edited fashion).  These scientists did not see anything evolve.  No new genetic information arose without their interference.  They did some artificial selection experiments under artificial conditions and watched the robust organisms survive.  Did any functional genetic information arise naturally?  No.  Did they show that the mutated organisms would survive better in the wild?  No.  This is not evolution; it is semi-intelligent tinkering with nature.
    Bennett and Hasty hastened to another fallacy: the phrase “to survive – and so evolve” commits a non-sequitur.  You might survive a world war by the skin or your teeth, but you would be exactly the same individual as before, broken bones, scars and all.  Survival is not evolution.  Evolution requires generating novel genetic information that produces new structures, functions, organs and senses – like eyes, wings, sonar, and all the things that mammals have that E. coli did not.
    Next time, Nature, let your adversaries define their own positions.  It’s interesting that critics of ID complain that it is not science because it is not testable – then they go and claim it has been tested and found false.  They can’t have it both ways.

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