First, a confession: I am no fan of Larry Moran. He’s an evangelist of old-school Darwinism, which is rapidly being plowed under by Systems Biology.
Moran’s strident promotion of the now-discredited “Junk DNA” theory alone should give all of us pause. The man is still trying to save Junk DNA from extinction. (The ENCODE project killed it dead three years ago.)
PREDICTION: Ten years from now, when we understand twice as much about the genome as we do now, most scientists will be reluctant to admit they ever entertained such anti-scientific superstitions.
Well lately Moran is in a gladiator fight with Ann Gauger of the Discovery Institute. And he makes a valid point.
Moran fires a missive:
Take Stephen Meyer, for example, you can read his books from cover to cover and still not know what he thinks about the history of life. It’s clear that the Cambrian Explosion is a big deal for him and it’s clear that he thinks god is behind it all but he’s remarkably noncommittal about what actually happened according to his interpretation of the evidence.
Ann Gauger replies:
Meyer believes no such thing. He thinks that the appearance of most of the animal phyla over 10 million years represents a considerable increase in biological information. Ten million years is nothing on the geologic time scale, and information isn’t had for free. New body plans and new ways of living require new cell types, new organs, new nervous systems — at a minimum, new ways of using existing genes and the acquisition of new ones. This represents an incredible increase in biological information.
… I have already said Meyer does not think that all these animals poofed into existence over the span of days, weeks or years. He acknowledges the existence of the fossil record and the time span of ten million years over which animal life made its appearance.
Moran volleys back:
Damn! We’re no further ahead than we were before. Apparently the gods inserted all this new information into existing evolving species gradually over the course of 10 million years instead of just a few days, weeks or years. That’s not very helpful in understanding what the Intelligent Design Creationists are proposing.
Perhaps Ann Gauger can expand on this a little more? Did the gods nudge some of the species toward being arthropods in the first million years but waited until the last few years to create the information required to make chordates and vertebrates? What kind of information did they insert? What did they insert it into?
Most folks side with either Moran or Gauger and cheer for their team. But both sides have made valid observations – and both have missed a golden opportunity.
Let’s begin by acknowledging Moran has scored a serious point. ID people are notoriously vague about where this information came from, and how.
ID people say “Inference to the best explanation clearly points to design.” Yes, I agree… sort of… because I’m a communications engineer and I know this only too well. But how can you claim to know where, when and how the design event took place?
When you say “God caused the Cambrian explosion” you have given the scientist or engineer nothing to work with or do. And you’ve been remarkably unspecific about what actually happened 540 million years ago.
No scientist earning a paycheck gets to say “Hey, I know how what caused the Cambrian explosion – God caused the Cambrian explosion!!!” and take a three-martini lunch. Any more than Newton could say “God caused the apple to fall out of the tree” and head for the nearest pub.
Had Newton done that, nobody would know his name today.
I believe in God. And yes, God is an ultimate explanation – a beginning point and a rational source of order. But God is unhelpful as an immediate, physical, pragmatic, empirical explanation. You don’t need a degree in theology to know God is not repeatable. Not testable in the lab. Can’t be subjected to mathematical models.
Most ID people struggle to see why this is a problem.
Well, it’s a problem because when you use science in that particular way, science stops.
If you solve problems that way, how are you going to fund your research project? How are you going to get a job? How are you going to get a grant? The only thing a working scientist can do is peel another layer of the onion, discover something useful, and get paid for it.
Moran is likewise not without guilt. His obsolete Neo-Darwinian model neither explains where information originally came from, nor how it continues to increase during the history of life.
Natural Selection can only decrease information, since it causes things to die. (Which is subtraction of information.) And random mutation is noise, and noise destroys (because of information entropy). So you have two subtractions and zero additions of information with Neo-Darwinism.
Natural Selection explains survival of the fittest, but not arrival of the fittest. You need post-Darwinian mechanisms like transposition, horizontal gene transfer, symbiogenesis etc. in order to increase information.
Ultimately, we need to understand how organisms make these programming choices. We see the outlines of what they do. We do not actually know how they do it. Barbara McClintock put it this way: “What does a cell know about itself?”
Notice that Moran’s “Junk DNA” agenda is ALSO a three-martini lunch. “Our DNA is 90% useless, we don’t have to study it. So let’s close the office early and enjoy an extended weekend.” That is just as lazy as a “God did it, I believe it, that settles it” bumper sticker.
Junk DNA presumes disorder where we have consistently found order. “Junk DNA” has done more damage to mankind than the sacking of Rome. 40 years of genetic vandalism.
When you solve problems by declaring them “Junk” – or by saying, in Jerry Coyne’s words, “Move along folks, nothing more to see here” – how are you going to fund your research project? How are you going to get a job? How are you going to get a grant?
The only thing any working scientist can do is peel another layer of the onion, discover something useful, and get paid for it. And before you can even do that, you have to assume there’s something orderly to discover in the first place.
BOTH Larry Moran and his ID opponents make valid points, yet at the end of the day, abdicate some part of science.
This is precisely why I wrote Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design. Even though I agree we see breathtaking order, engineering and information in biology, the model that ID is currently using will never get accepted by the scientific community. And the model Moran advocates is fast heading for the slag heap.
I wrote Evolution 2.0 because “Junk DNA” is junk science; because cells DO execute fantastically amazing processes that increase information; because the Cambrian is explainable via natural systems; and because all hard-working scientists and engineers who do their jobs deserve to get a paycheck.