Thursday, 17 July 2014

Clearing Up the Unintelligent Designer's Mistakes

Hamilton O. Smith. (Photo: Jane Gitschier ©PLoS Genetics)
I'm homing in on the genetic essence of life - opinion - 14 July 2014 - New Scientist

In an interview published in New Scientist a few days ago, 1978 Nobel Laureate and synthetic biologist Hamilton O. Smith said:

The other thing we want to know is... how much can we rearrange the genes? Evolution has sloppily put them together. A lot of the cell's processes are scattered around. We're putting them together into one neat form.

He was explaining how his synthetic and bioengineering group at the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California, USA is using the genome of a bacterium Mycoplasma mycoides to investigate the minimum number of genes needed to function as a viable, living organism.

Their greatest challenge is to work out exactly what DNA is junk, i.e., which has been included over billions of years but which now doesn't serve any purpose. Hamilton Smith estimates that it only needs 400-450 genes to make an organism viable. The other task is to rearrange these genes more efficiently instead of being scattered around the genome in the haphazard and 'sloppy' way they are in M. mycoides.

The aim is to strip the genome down to its bare essentials so it can be used experimentally by adding sequences that allow the organism to live in a different environment, make new substances or use something like photosynthesis. An incidental benefit is that we will discover more about what particular genes do. There are currently some 100 genes in M. mycoides whose function is not understood. Stripping the genome down and then adding or removing these could tell us what they do.

The only reason this is necessary, of course, is because evolution, unlike the design process, is such an unintelligent, utilitarian designer. Just so long as it works and gives the organism some sort of advantage it'll be retained and gradually spread throughout the organism's genepool. It matters not if a gene or group of genes for a specific function is scattered about throughout the genome and it matters not if occasionally chunks of DNA have been accidentally doubled to give two or more copies of the same gene, one of which can then mutate without being eliminated by making its carrier non-viable.

The only thing that matters is that it works. It's a bit like starting with a car to design a boat and retaining the wheels but reducing the drag by making them too small to function as wheels any more, but keeping them anyway because there is no particular benefit in getting rid of them. Another motoring analogy would be to design a sophisticated engine management system but continuing to fit a distributor and a choke cable. Not the act of an intelligent designer.

The J. Craig Venter Institute is a commercial organisation researching into, amongst other things, biofuels. It's objective is to make money. It's not difficult to see why they are using the knowledge they acquired from the study of Darwinian Evolution and have not opted for the idea currently fashionable amongst the religious right in America - so-called Intelligent Design, in other words, fundamentalist Christian biblical literalism. Quite simply, it isn't a scientific theory with any useful application because it's not based on scientific reality but fundamentalist religious dogma with a hidden political agenda.

It almost beggars belief that politically motivated organisations like the Discovery Institute and the Institute for Creation Research continue to get away with their nonsensical 'Intelligent Design' idea when one only needs to scratch the surface to see how much evidence there is against it. It takes profound ignorance, willfully maintained in the face of such an abundance of freely available information, to avoid seeing this evidence. It's almost as though creationists inhabit a different world to the rest of us - one in which the evidence of the world around them is of no importance.

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