Response to Creationist 16

16. “What mechanism has science discovered that evidences an increase of genetic information seen in any genetic mutation or evolutionary process?”

Oh dear. Someone’s been reading technical jargon they don’t understand.

A few years ago, this question would have been, “how does evolution explain an increase in genetic diversity?” A common creationist argument is that the mechanism of natural selection can only explain a whittling down of the gene pool from an existing state of diversity. Even if they accept natural selection – which some creationists are willing to do, since it’s been observed in action – they believe that biology has no answer to the question of how such diversity arose in the first place: how new genes were created.

(Note that 16’s question, understood as a variation on that theme, puts her at odds with Ken Ham himself, who not only acknowledges mechanisms of genetic increase, but requires them to do far more work in his theory than evolutionary biologists do in theirs. His hypothesis of ultra-rapid postdiluvian speciation requires the diversity of life on earth to have exploded from 7,000 species on the Ark, to 16,000,000 species today, in the mere 4,000 years since the Flood.)

Of course natural selection doesn’t provide that answer, but natural selection is not the only part of evolutionary theory, although you can see why someone might think so. In school biology lessons, evolution tends to be taught with an emphasis on natural selection, which is easy to understand and illustrated with memorable examples like the peppered moth. Counterbalancing mechanisms like gene duplication and mutation are skimmed over, since the details involve complex biochemical processes, and require the use of big words like ‘nucleotide’ and ‘polymerase’, which are much harder to fathom. I have to admit, even I zoned out a little sometimes.

“Bobs Meryll”, a fictional bookprinter-cum-gangster character I invented as a teenager, superimposed on my biology notes on the anatomy of a seed

The argument is still popular, and it shares the typical features of other creationist standards we’ve looked at already: answered easily in five seconds with a search engine, and parroted gullibly by believers without pausing to try that first.

It displays all the intellectual honesty and genuine inquisitiveness of a student of mechanics, having been taught the workings of a car’s engine and drive train, but for the sake of brevity only covering the mechanism of forward, not reverse, gears, who then thinks, “I accept that this all explains how a car powered by a theory of mechanics might move forward, but I’ve seen them parked with their rear ends up against walls, and facing out of garages! Do they expect me to believe that the walls and garages were built behind the already-parked cars? Preposterous! I can only conclude that car movement must be caused by ghosts.”

Maybe it’s the very fact that “how are new genes created?” is so easily googlable that prodded the Creationist Committee for the Deliberate Obfuscation of Science into rewriting it in terms of an “increase in genetic information”. You can tell from the uncertain look on her face that 16 didn’t come up with the idea herself, but has become the latest host of a creationist meme that’s been floating around since some smug jargon-muddler invented it, at least as long ago as 1997, when Richard Dawkins recalls coming across it in precisely this formulation.

He recounts the incident and gives a thorough answer to it here. The term ‘information’, in this context, is being used in its technical sense as a measurable quantity of meaningful data. Apparently creationists are happy to hijack it for their purposes, even though it’s only the nebulous invention of a mere information theory, not a proper fact like the ones in the Bible.

I think it’s a mistake to credit them with even understanding exactly what they’re asking – how irreducibly meaningful data is stored and transmitted by evolutionary processes – although Dawkins’s analysis was worth doing for its own sake, and because it highlights the irony of the answer: information, in this sense, is generated about the differential success of competing genes when they’re whittled down by natural selection; no information is created at all when genes are duplicated, or mutated into junk!

The creationist high command, trying to misuse technical, sciency words to bamboozle people into believing recycled versions of already-debunked garbage, have succeeded in further bamboozling themselves. If only that’s all they’d achieved. Unfortunately, it appears that they’ve caught a number of people, like 16, in the snarl-up.

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