The Years of Living Stupidly

Time to start a new series.

A fellow skeptic keeps posting stuff from Evolution News, and my Facebook feed picks it up. Evolution News is the blog of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, an enterprise started up by creationist Stephen C. Meyer in 1996, and he is currently the director. I’ve spent a lot of time the past two years trying to  ignore output from the Discovery Institute, but something about this post brought me back. Here’s what it’s about:

Adam and the Genome and Human-Ape Genetic Similarity

Evolution News @DiscoveryCSC January 18, 2018, 7:54 AM

In Adam and the Genome, Trinity Western University biologist Dennis Venema covers many other subjects besides what you might expect from the book’s title. We have been reviewing this material by the prominent theistic evolutionist and BioLogos author; find the series so far here.

Thus, Venema cites the high degree of genetic similarities between insulin genes in humans and other mammals as evidence for our common ancestry. He writes:

[W]e can see that there is good evidence to support the hypothesis that these two present-day genes come from a common ancestral population in the distant past … What we observe for this short segment is that the gorilla sequence is identical to that of the human except for one letter; the chimpanzee is identical except for three; and the orangutan is identical except for five. As before, this level of identity far exceeds what is needed for functional insulin, and strongly supports the hypothesis that humans share a common ancestral population with great apes. Indeed, the similarities between these sequences make English and West Frisian look like very distant relatives by comparison.

(Adam and the Genome, p. 30)

Yes, it appears Evolution News is having a go at biologist Dennis Venema’s new book (2017) Adam and the Genome. What the Discovery Institute wants to convince us is that life forms and all we see about us could not have come about by natural processes. A creator, an intelligent entity of some sort, must be behind it. That’s what’s going on here. Here Evolution News is digging at Venema’s evolutionary explanation for the similarity between the human genome and that of some of our close relations. Venema is using the origin of languages to make a comparison. I have the Kindle edition of the book, which allows me to provide the context of the above:

In looking at the sequences above, we can see that there is good evidence to support the hypothesis that these two present-day genes come from a common ancestral population in the distant past, just as “butter, bread, and green cheese” and “bûter, brea, en griene tsiis” do. The principle is the same: they are far more similar to each other than they are functionally required to be. In principle, any words could stand for these concepts in either English or West Frisian; similarly, any matched pair of hormone and receptor could function to regulate blood sugar levels in humans or dogs. Yet what we observe strongly suggests, in both cases, that the present-day sequences are the modified descendants of what was once a common sequence.

Now that we understand the redundancy of the codon code, we can see that for genes this rabbit hole goes even deeper. Many of the amino acids in insulin can be coded for by alternate codons. For example, “Leu” in the diagram indicates the amino acid leucine, for which there are six possible codons. This short snippet of the insulin gene codes for nine leucines, and eight of them use exactly the same codon in dogs and humans (and the ninth differs by only one letter). For these nine codons, there are 96 (= 531,441) possible combinations that will correctly code for just these nine leucines, to say nothing of the other 101 amino acids found in insulin, most of which can be encoded for by multiple codons. Is it merely by chance that what we observe in these two species is only one letter different for these nine codons? A simpler, more reasonable explanation (or what a scientist would call a more “parsimonious” explanation) is that these sequences come from a common ancestral population and have been slightly modified along the way.

Of course, scientists have sequenced the genomes of many other species, so we can test this hypothesis by looking at a larger data set. Humans are not thought to have shared a common ancestral population with dogs for a very long time; other species are thought to be our much closer relatives due to other shared features, such as anatomy. When the pre-Darwin biologist Carl Linnaeus (1707– 78) drew up his taxonomy of animal life (i.e., a system that organized life into categories), he famously placed humans and great apes in a category he called “primate,” from the Latin indicating “prime” or “first.” While he was certainly not thinking about common ancestry, he naturally recognized that these species (such as chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans) have a closer anatomical affinity to humans than other animals. In light of such an affinity, evolutionary theory predicts that these species share a more recent common ancestral population with humans than nonprimate species, such as dogs, do. Therefore, their gene sequences should be a closer match to human sequences than what we observe in dogs. Not surprisingly, this is exactly what we observe. Let’s return to our example of the insulin gene and extend our comparison of the same short stretch to include three great apes (fig. 2.6).

What we observe for this short segment is that the gorilla sequence is identical to that of the human except for one letter; the chimpanzee is identical except for three; and the orangutan is identical except for five. As before, this level of identity far exceeds what is needed for functional insulin, and strongly supports the hypothesis that humans share a common ancestral population with great apes. Indeed, the similarities between these sequences make English and West Frisian look like very distant relatives by comparison.

McKnight, Scot; Venema, Dennis R.. Adam and the Genome: Reading Scripture after Genetic Science (p. 30-31). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I highlighted the portions the author reprinted from the original. Use of this partial excerpt is legitimate, since it does not change Venema’s original meaning and intent. What is to be found in the complete text is a fuller explanation, plus a tie-in to Venema’s language analogy.

The history of languages makes for an interesting study, and for English readers there is particular significance. The book The Story of English, by Robert MacNeilRobert McCrum, and William Cran is a companion book to the PBS television series of the same name. I have a similar book, The Stories of English, by David Crystal. It rehashes the history of English in much the same way:

We can note both of these processes happening for the Germanic group of languages during the period. In the late second century, the Goths moved into Europe from southern Scandinavia, eventually arriving in the Mediterranean region. During the fourth century, Bishop Wulfilas translated the Bible into Gothic. The language had changed so much during this short time that scholars now consider it to be a distinct, eastern branch of the Germanic family. On the other hand, the westward movement of peoples along the north European coast and into England resulted in a group of languages which had much greater similarities. English and Frisian, indeed, were so close that they would probably have been mutually intelligible for many centuries, especially in Kent. Even today, though mutual intelligibility has long since gone, English people listening to modern Frisian sense a familiarity with its expression which is not present in the case of Dutch or German. Genetic anthropologists have discovered a significant Y-chromosome identity, too (p. 31). 3

Crystal, David. The Stories of English (pp. 20-21). The Overlook Press. Kindle Edition.

I once visited the northwest coast of the European continent and was struck by the similarity. At a company cafeteria I picked up a coupon good for two desserts and had no trouble reading it, even though it was written in the local  language.

Anyhow, the background is fascinating, but the intent of Evolution News is to demonstrate that Venema is wrong—genetic similarity does not indicate common descent. Evolution News sometime ago quit identifying authors, but whoever posted this item failed to get the message. Traditionally, Intelligent Design, a concoction of the Discovery Institute, does not rule out common ancestry. These people tend to allow for that, but they also want us to know that natural, and especially random, process are not at work. The whole line of descent process was managed by an intelligent entity, yet unnamed. With some exceptions:

If the Associated Press writer confused a challenge to common descent with “Intelligent Design,” it could be because Intelligent Design proponents with the CSC on occasion do challenge common descent. For example, Ray Bohlin is a CSC fellow and supposedly a spokesman for Intelligent Design. At the Texas Faith Network conference in Dallas on 3 November 2003 Bohlin addressed a large room full of people and stated that common descent was true for all life forms, except humans. You can imagine the confusion of all in attendance.

Retired law professor Phillip Johnson is considered the godfather of the modern Intelligent Design  movement. At a symposium titled “Darwinism: Scientific Inference or Philosophical Preference,” held on the campus of Southern Methodist University in March 199, .I had a chance to talk with Johnson and get his views firsthand. He expressed some surprising points for an opponent of evolution:

n 1992 Johnson attended the conference on “Darwinism: Scientific Inference or Philosophical Preference” at Southern Methodist University (SMU). The conference was inspired by Jon Buell, a local creationist. Buell’s Foundation for Thought and Ethics (FTE) published the book Pandas and People, an early work pushing Intelligent Design. At the conference the departure from young-Earth creationism was stark. Johnson and Buell were standing together when I asked them the question. Their answer was significant. Yes, the Earth and the universe really are billions of years old, and yes, present life forms share a common ancestry. These were not your grandfather’s creationists.

Here is a copy of the proceedings.

Anyhow, Evolution News is now having none of that. Continuing from the post:

The obvious answer to this argument is common design — that humans, gorillas, and orangutans were designed based upon a common blueprint. This would explain genetic similarity between humans and other species quite well.

Then the author presents an additional excerpt and promptly goes off the rails with this:

There he goes again, telling God what he can and cannot do. It’s a bit of chutzpah, don’t you think? He’s also telling God what God must intend when he does certain things. In particular, Venema is telling God that if he designs two species to be similar then God must thereby intend to tell us that those species are related through common ancestry. And if those species aren’t really related, then Venema tells God that he is being deceitful.

But what if Venema is putting thoughts into God’s head that aren’t there? What if God could have entirely different purposes for designing two species as similar — purposes that have nothing to do with trying to communicate some message to humans about relatedness or unrelatedness?

Oh, Jesus! You gave away the store. Intelligent Design is not supposed to be about God. It’s supposed to be science, real science, well-researched science, science that reveals there is a Designer, not identified and definitely not identified as G*d. G*d is the word that keeps Intelligent Design out of public classrooms, which is where its proponents, despite much public posturing, in their heart of hearts want it to be. Possibly we are now seeing the offshoot of all those years of living stupidly.

That covered, there is more of interest. The post dips into  a discussion of The Language of God, a book by Francis Collins:

Francis Sellers Collins (born April 14, 1950) is an American physician-geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project. He is director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, United States.

Before being appointed director of the NIH, Collins led the Human Genome Project and other genomics research initiatives as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), one of the 27 institutes and centers at NIH. Before joining NHGRI, he earned a reputation as a gene hunter at the University of Michigan. He has been elected to the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences, and has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science.

In order to continue following the discussion I obtained a Kindle edition and will be covering that in future posts. Also, and free on Amazon, is Intelligent Design the Final Proof of God. Go for it. Kindle readers are free for tablets and computers.


5 thoughts on “The Years of Living Stupidly

  1. I agree with the Creationists that commonalities such as those discussed above are evidence of intelligent design. However, I differ from them by insisting that the designer was not God, but rather a super-intelligent computer that arrived in an alien spaceship.

  2. Pingback: The Years of Living Stupidly | Skeptical Analysis

  3. Pingback: The Years of Living Stupidly | North Texas Skeptics

  4. From EN&V:

    “from a creationist perspective, such similarities could simply demonstrate that God used successful design principles over and over again.”

    (The Language of God, p. 134)

    The next sentence says that the study of genomes has rendered that interpretation virtually untenable. So this a typical creationist dishonest quote-mine.

    You will likely go crazy trying to play around with all of the Dishonesty Institute’s nonsense.

  5. Pingback: Crazy From On High | Skeptical Analysis

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