Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

The Evolutionary Origins of Genetic Information

Academic journal article Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith

The Evolutionary Origins of Genetic Information

Article excerpt

Biological evolution describes the natural process that transfers information from a local environment into the chemical known as DNA. Something similar happens when gravity causes raindrops to form a puddle, and the shape of the ground beneath becomes reflected in the underside of the water.

This unusual definition of evolution seeks to clarify an ambiguity in traditional alternatives, such as "biological evolution is a natural process of change in genetic material over time." (1) The phrase "change in genetic material" describes and limits exactly what scientists measure and test to develop their evolutionary theory; however, any description of this sort omits two aspects of a living science. One is the group of all propositions that have been revealed as incorrect through tests (such as recapitulation--the claim that the embryos reenact their evolutionary history as they develop from a single fertilized egg cell). (2) Let us call these incorrect propositions "Category 1" omissions. Knowing about them can help scientists avoid wasted time spent repeating previous errors.

The second element missing from a classic definition comprises all propositions for which science has yet to find clear evidence, for or against. We may refer to these as "Category 2" omissions. Propositions in this second category are especially important to science because all suggestions to change existing scientific understanding start here. In other words, Category 2 propositions can gather supporting evidence until they become accepted as scientific truth, altering what we previously thought we understood, perhaps even requiring a change in definition of that science. (It is both humbling and inspiring to remember that scientific knowledge is presently incomplete in ways that are actively misleading us.) However, many Category 2 propositions follow a different trajectory as careful application of the scientific method reveals them as incorrect, and therefore reclassifies them as Category 1 propositions. A third fate is possible for Category 2 propositions. If they do not generate sufficient evidence to make a clear case, whether it be for or against, then they will stagnate. A proposition often ends in stagnation if it fails to generate clear, testable hypotheses that have the power to transform established theory.

Intelligent design theory (ID) has already started its life in Category 2 by suggesting that current evolutionary theory cannot adequately explain the origin of new genetic information. The unusual definition of evolution written above hints why many scientists, including Christians such as myself, think this is an incorrect (Category 1) proposition. What follows seeks to explain why in greater detail--and to equip you to judge for yourself.


Evaluating Suggestions for Changes to Evolutionary Theory

Start by imagining a line that describes every conceivable degree of genetic difference that could separate any two living organisms (figure 1). In fact, we do not have to rely on imagination--such differences can be measured precisely, due to life's shared biochemistry of DNA and proteins (see box 1). Most criticisms of evolution are, upon careful inspection, claims that evolutionary theory is incomplete. They suggest that evolutionary theory can explain differences only up to a specific point on this line. For example, older versions of creationism claim natural processes cannot change anything more than the frequency (number of copies) of genetic material already present within a species. In effect, this defines a point X on the line shown in figure 1. To the right of X lie larger differences in genetic material, such as those that separate different species. Under creationism, these differences are considered too large for natural processes to explain, and are therefore explained by divine intervention.

A growing weight of detailed evidence shows that new species form by the accumulation of changing gene frequencies within a population. …

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