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The designer is in the details

Dispute over junk DNA shows flaws in Darwinian evolution


The designer is in the details

A new study is reigniting the old debate about junk DNA and evolution.

For years, evolutionary scientists claimed most human DNA was a useless byproduct of the evolutionary process. And they used that theory to support their contention that there was no design or purpose to the universe.

Then in 2012, after a decadelong project, the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements, or ENCODE, published 30 papers that Science Magazine reported sounded the death knell for the theory of junk DNA. The ENCODE researchers found at least 80 percent of human DNA serves a purpose.

Their conclusion didn’t sit well with evolutionary scientists, particularly Dan Graur, who on his Twitter feed calls himself a crusader on a white horse about to slay the dragon, ENCODE.

Now Graur has published a new study in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution that attempts to refute the ENCODE findings and proclaims at least 75 to 90 percent of human DNA is useless trash.

The ENCODE researchers, sponsored by the National Human Genome Research Institute, were not affiliated with creationism or intelligent design. They were unique, according to Jonathan Wells, author of Zombie Science, because they did not go into their research trying to make their data fit the assumption that Darwinian evolution was true.

“They’re just doing their work and reporting their evidence,” Wells said on a video.

Graur referred to the conclusions reached by the research team as the “evolution-free gospel of Encode.”

“ENCODE’s take-home message that everything has a function implies purpose, and purpose is the only thing that evolution cannot provide,” he wrote in a paper published in Genome Biology and Evolution.

Graur analyzed the rate at which harmful DNA mutations occur compared to the birthrate required to keep the population constant. Harmful mutations, which Graur estimated to comprise 40 percent of all mutations, would not be able to damage junk DNA because it is useless anyway. But, Graur hypothesized, if most human DNA were functional, then the harmful mutations would have ample opportunity to wreak havoc on the human genome. Many babies would not survive, and those who did would pass on their gene mutations, causing even more problems for future generations. He calculated if 80 percent of DNA were functional, each couple around the globe in each generation would have to have an average of 15 children, and all but two of those children would have to die, or at least not reproduce and pass along their mutated genes, to maintain a constant population.

Graur’s mistake, according to Discovery Institute experts, is he estimated 40 percent of mutations were harmful based on research done not on humans but on one protein found in bacteria. “These estimates are crude approximations and subject to error,” they wrote on the blog Evolution News & Science Today. Even a number of harmful mutations somewhat smaller than Graur’s estimate would make a profound difference in the calculations.


Headed down the slippery slope

Researchers in Oregon have for the first time in the United States created genetically modified human embryos, showing they could possibly correct defective genes that cause diseases, MIT Technology Review reported.

The researchers used the CRISPR gene-editing tool to edit the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos, which they discarded a few days later. The MIT Technology Review hailed the experiment as “a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans.”

Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine issued ethical guidelines regarding editing reproductive cells, eggs, sperm, or embryos. The committee advised caution but also emphasized caution did not mean prohibition. Many ethicists warned the noncommittal statement would open the door for scientists to engineer genetically modified humans and eventually designer babies with physical enhancements.

Although scientists say they want to pursue editing embryos to cure inherited diseases, ethicists warn it won’t stop there. “Many are drooling to engage in eugenic genetic enhancements. So, are we going to just watch, slack-jawed, the double-time march to Brave New World unfold before our eyes?” Wesley J. Smith wrote on Discovery Institute’s blog, Evolution News & Science Today.

Even if the researchers did stick to attempts to cure disease, the experiments still require the destruction of human life.

The United States mandates the destruction of modified human embryos after 14 days, and the Food and Drug Administration forbids funding for clinical trials that involve genetic modifications to reproductive cells. But the United States has no control over what other countries do, and reproductive technologies like IVF are basically unregulated. Some ethicists fear it is just a matter of time until IVF clinics or other countries begin to experiment with implanting modified human embryos. —J.B.


Virtual reality therapy

People suffering from anxiety disorders such as phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder may soon have a new treatment option. Limbix, a California based start-up, is marketing a virtual reality service for treatment of those and other psychological difficulties.

Gradual exposure to an anxiety-producing object or situation has long been the standard treatment for people with a variety of anxiety disorders. But insurance restrictions, geographic limitations, and liability issues often make it difficult for a therapist to accompany a client to a real-world exposure situation. For example, it is often not possible for a therapist to accompany a client who has a fear of flying on an airplane trip. So psychologists ask clients to imagine a feared situation instead, but that is often difficult to do.

The virtual reality system that Limbix designed can realistically simulate a feared situation or can virtually teleport clients to any address on Google Maps, all from the therapist’s office. Therapists can control the degree of exposure to help their clients gradually conquer their fears.

A second Spanish start-up company is working on similar technology, and another virtual reality company offers an older type of headset at many times the cost that Limbix plans to charge. —J.B.

Shot record

Amid a swirl of controversy, Italy’s parliament just made certain immunizations mandatory for all children entering school. The required vaccinations include diphtheria, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox.

Throughout Europe and the United States, tens of thousands of parents choose not to vaccinate their children because of safety, ethical, or religious concerns. Protesters in Italy gathered outside parliament sporting signs saying, “Don’t touch our children.” According to Sonia Viale, a top health official, the law marks “a return to fascism.”

Those who favor mandatory vaccines say no scientific evidence has found a connection between autism and childhood inoculations. They point out the dangers of failing to vaccinate against diseases such as measles.

According to the World Health Organization’s European Region, there have been over 3,300 cases of measles and 2 deaths in Italy since June 2016. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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