Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mutation creationism

A creationist doctor diagnoses evolution's fatal illness

Barney Maddox, M.D., joins the cavalcade of professionals who lecture the public on the “scientific flaws” of evolution. While I'm fairly certain that Dr. Maddox would resent medical advice offered by someone who never studied medicine, he is quite ready to chastise biologists for not understanding their own discipline. Some doctors like to play God, but most of them are good enough to confine their manifestations within the walls of their clinics or hospitals. Dr. Maddox, however, is ready to shine the light of his uninformed omniscience on us all.

The Institute for Creation Research has seen fit to publish Dr. Maddox's anti-evolution ruminations in the September 2007 issue of the Acts & Facts newsletter. His article is titled “Mutations: The Raw Material of Evolution?” To spare you from skipping ahead to learn the answer, I'll spill the beans now: He says they're not.

Maddox chooses to begin his story with a bit of medical history. That's encouraging, because he starts on familiar ground where his general competence may be assumed. Maddox says it's good that anesthesia was accepted by the medical community after its first use in 1846. It shows how surgeons were prepared to use the latest science in their practices. Therein lies a lesson for us all.
Correct application of the latest knowledge and techniques in surgical science works today. So why not make similar applications in the forensic science of origins? Darwin published his Origin of Species just before the Civil War. Numerous advances in science since that time bring into question the validity of Darwin's theory, yet biology textbooks today maintain the Darwin mantra, “Darwin said it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
It didn't take Dr. Maddox long to run right off the rails, did it? If we take him at his word, he actually thinks that evolutionary biologists simply spout the sacred writ of Darwin's theory. What a shame it is that no one has thought to divide The Origin of Species into numbered verses, so that scientists could cite it as some people do the Bible. That, at least, would conform to Maddox's peculiar perspective that evolutionists are simply Darwin's doctrinaire parrots. “But the case is exactly the reverse” (Darwin XIII:2).

After mischaracterizing evolutionists, Maddox hurries on to demonstrate his misunderstanding of evolution as well. He's the whole package. Maddox is piqued that biologists credit mutation for the diversity of the genetic material on which natural selection operates. He homes in on the problem:
But natural selection only explains survival of the fittest; it fails to explain arrival of the fittest. Natural selection, i.e., the forces of nature, does not change the DNA of the individual animal at all, and can only change the total gene pool of a species by eliminating unfit individuals (leading to the loss, not gain, of genetic information). Genetic drift, or gene shuffling, only involves the shuffling of existing genes within a kind. It does not explain the origination of any gene....

The only way for organisms to acquire DNA other than what they inherited from their parents is for their DNA to change, or mutate. If their DNA doesn't change, living things could never change regardless of how much time passes. Lizards could never become chickens and monkeys, and fish could never become philosophers. Since evolution rejects purposeful design, genetic change could only be random, or accidental.
I'm sure that Dr. Maddox was delighted by minting the phrase “arrival of the fittest,” but I suspect the coinage is not fit enough to survive.

It irks Maddox that biology texts are replete with examples of deleterious mutations except in the chapter on evolution. In that chapter, the textbooks present the notion that there are such things as “positive” mutations.
However, these books fail to inform students that unequivocally positive mutations are unknown to genetics, since they have never been observed (or are so rare as to be irrelevant).
You have to admire that argument—especially the parenthetical fig-leaf. First of all, who argued for “unequivocally” beneficial mutations? As long as there is a net benefit, a mutation can survive. Maddox even mentions the mutation that causes sickle-cell anemia, which persists in the human population by its virtue of also bestowing resistance to malaria. Since sickle-cell anemia is a serious disease, Maddox feels justified in dismissing the mutation as a bad one, neglecting his own argument that natural selection should have weeded it out. It survives, however, in malaria-ridden climes where its benefits outweigh its disadvantages. Is this too complicated for the good doctor?

I am quite taken with his casual aside that positive mutations are either nonexistent or—to reiterate his phrase—“so rare as to be irrelevant.” How, pray tell, could that be? Perhaps in the context of a mere six thousand years of human existence (ICR and its fellows are devout young-earth creationists), one good mutation every ten thousand years might well have produced precisely nothing by now. Over a billion years, however, we could easily be looking at 100,000 beneficial mutations. This, of course, is just playing with numbers, but it suffices to show that Maddox's arguments are weighed down by many tacit assumptions.

Dr. Maddox moves back onto more solid territory when he launches into a lengthy catalog of dread diseases. He thinks he is making the point that mutations are bad, bad, bad and they will cause their possessors to die, die, die.
These diseases are crippling, often fatal, and many of the affected pre-born infants are aborted spontaneously, i.e., they are so badly damaged they can't even survive gestation.
One more time, for the doctor's benefit: This is exactly what one should expect from natural selection. The harmful mutations are not preserved. I guess he missed that.

In fact, I'm sure he missed it, because he cannot resist belaboring what he thinks is his telling argument.
Quantitative information in genetics today is proving evolutionary theory as simply a man-made and irrational philosophical belief.

One top geneticist recently conducted a computer analysis to quantitate [sic] the ratio of “beneficial mutations” to harmful mutations. Only 186 entries for beneficial mutations were discovered (and even they have a downside), versus 453,732 entries for harmful mutations. The ratio of “beneficial mutations” to harmful mutations is 0.000041! Thus, even if a very rare mutation is “beneficial,” the next 10,000 mutations in any evolutionary sequence would each be fatal or crippling, and each of the next 10,000 imaginary mutations would bring the evolution process to a halt.
You got that? Bad mutations would stop evolution. But no. Bad mutations kill their hosts, not their species. The hapless hosts are thus culled from the herd, almost certainly before they breed and pass on their unlucky mutation, perhaps—as Maddox earlier attested—even before being born.

It's natural selection at work, just as Darwin said it would.

Oops! I'm just parroting Darwin now!



Vince said...

Hi Zeno,

I have been reading your blog for a while now. I really enjoy it.

As a medical student myself I am astounded that any educated physician could have such a serious misunderstanding of evolution. It is almost embarrassing. "If their DNA doesn't change living things could never change regardless of how much time passes"

Wow. Brilliant. I wonder if the good doctor is aware that there are literally thousands of "mutations" in our cells each time we copy our own DNA- most just happen to be in non-coding regions.

"scientific flaws" indeed.

Great post.

snarkyxanf said...

Oh noes! A "very small number"! 0.000041! That's, like, really small, which obviously means that, you know, it must be impossible!

Of course, informs me that there have been 353,000 human births today, or so. If one in 100 human births involved a mutation, that'd be one beneficial mutation...every day.

Of course, people's dna transcription is better than that (or rather, he ignores the far more enormous category of mutations that don't do anything good or bad), but with 93,022,000 births this year or so, it wouldn't be surprising if at least a few of our infants didn't have a beneficial mutation.

With a human-chimpanzee split 5mya, and a 2% difference in genome, the human population would have merely had to accumulate something like 13 base pairs of mutation per year.

Somehow, that sounds a lot less impossible to me than "cats giving birth to dogs".

Porlock Junior said...

"many of the affected pre-born infants are aborted spontaneously"

Oh wow. Pre-born infants. I thought that was an invention of smart-ass lefty anti-life satirists.

And this critter is a doctor?

Zeno said...

And please note, Porlock Junior, that these "pre-born infants" are aborted by God.

But let's not make too much of it, since it would not be good to get the omnipotent abortionist mad at us.

kai said...

While noting in passing that constant marker of creationist documents—the “top geneticist” with no name nor literature reference—I think it's more interesting to ponder the source of the figures: How do you enumerate mutations, beneficial or not? I understand that if there is a debilitating disease one can spend quite a bit of effort on trying to find its genetic cause in order to understand the reason for the disease and maybe find a cure. Further, presumably a large number of slightly different mutations may lead to the same disease.

On the other hand, nobody is going to spend millions of dollars on trying to find out the genetic cause that, say, gives Amy Foonderbag her 2% improved blood oxygenation, because nobody even knows of it—we never test for higher-than-normal health. So, even in the best of cases we would have a quite severe under-reporting of beneficial mutations.

Anonymous said...

A paper on the mutation rate in humans -

Quite an interesting read actually with the estimated rate being 175 per diploid generation.

snarkyxanf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
snarkyxanf said...

The original essay does actually have a reference for the study on the ratio of beneficial to non-beneficial mutations. It actually comes from a book written by John C. Sanford, in the Department of Horticultural Sciences of Cornell.

His research does appear to be mostly in genetics. Interestingly enough, the work he seems most proud of is about genome change, development of resistance, etc---that is, evolution, but he does appear to be an ID supporter. The cognitive dissonance must be enormous.

Here's a list of publications, the work in question is "Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome"

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Not to mention that the good doctor can't do basic mathematics. 186 divided by 453732 is .00041, not .000041. But what's a factor of 10 to a creationist?

Zeno said...

Ha! Good catch, Jeffrey!

But really, what's a factor of ten among friends? (I wonder how well his patients fare?)

Bing said...

Very enjoyable post. Huzzah!

Yeah, you know they'd go dippity if you suggested that the world was created in 7/10ths of a day.