Defining Evolution 14: Mutations

My friends and I had made it to the end of another Thursday, and met once more at Danny’s Bar, Grill, and House of Rabblerousing to celebrate with a mound of Nachos and all the root beer we could consume. When I arrived, Bill, Tom, Carl, and Captain Blue Beard were already at the round table near the dart board, and our affable waitress, Wendy, had already left for me a frosty mug of suds. As I greeted my comrades, I discovered that something was strangely amiss about the countenance of my friend Carl. NACHOS logo

It wasn’t a new haircut. He wasn’t wearing glasses. Then it hit me. He was smiling.

“What ho, Carl,” I said. “Was your Thursday a rousing success?”

“Not in terms of my profession,” he replied, “but I have been looking forward to this get together.”

“Glad to hear it,” I said. “I’m awfully hungry myself.”

“Something hit me this morning as I was brushing my teeth,” said Carl.

“I do most of my best thinking when I’m brushing my teeth,” said Blue Beard.

“I didn’t know you brushed your teeth,” joked Tom.

“Oh, now that’s just hurtful,” replied Blue Beard. “I’ll have you know I brush my teeth at least once every week whether I need to or not.”

“Anyways,” said Carl. “I was thinking about your definition of Evolution…”

“You mean this one?” I said, pulling the note card out of my pocket and reading, “Evolution is an unguided, Natural process which increases the genetic information in an organism; Creating new Genes which did not previously exist.

These new genes then cause an increase in physical complexity and associated behavior, Both of which increase the organism’s ability to survive and pass on these traits to offspring.”

“Yes,” said Carl, his smile fading quickly. “That one. I was thinking about it and I realized what it was that is really being described. It is in fact a primary driving mechanism of evolution which is observable and for which we have decades of evidence in the lab and in nature.”

“You’re talking about mutations?” I asked.

Carl’s mouth fell open and his eyes went wide. “Well, yes. Yes, I’m talking about mutations.”

“Well it’s about time,” said Blue Beard.

“Personally,” said Bill, “I expected you to bring this up weeks ago.”

“Yeah,” said Blue Beard. “It’s like you ain’t been paying no attention around here.”

Carl, his mouth still open, looked to Tom. “I kinda expected you to bring it up too,” Tom admitted. “Like, weeks ago.”

“Then why didn’t YOU bring it up weeks ago?” asked Carl.

“I figured if there was anything to it,” explained Tom, “you would have already done so. Besides, I don’t really think about this Evolution stuff at home or at work.”

“So come on now, Mr. Johnny-Come-Lately,” said Blue Beard. “Let us have the scientific wonders of evolution by Mutations.”

“It would seem you all already know about mutations,” said Carl through a sneer.

“Well, a course we do,” said Blue Beard through a smile, “but it would mean so much more coming from you.”

Carl pulled out his notebook and flipped it open to the page he had prepared for the night. “Just to make sure we’re all on the same page,” he said, “I’ve got scientific definitions from UC Berkley’s Evolution web site*;

“Mutation is a change in DNA, the hereditary material of life. An organism’s DNA affects how it looks, how it behaves, and its physiology — all aspects of its life. So a change in an organism’s DNA can cause changes in all aspects of its life.”

“Oh, good!” I said. “They included behavior. A lot of evolutionary sources tend to forget about that.”

Carl looked at me with low brows, but chose to keep reading;

“Mutations can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful for the organism, but mutations do not “try” to supply what the organism “needs.” In this respect, mutations are random — whether a particular mutation happens or not is unrelated to how useful that mutation would be.”

“Is that it?” asked Blue Beard.

“Almost,” said Carl. “I’ve got one more useful quote to help you all understand what Mutations are. Here it is,

“Most of the mutations that we think matter to evolution are “naturally-occurring.” For example, when a cell divides, it makes a copy of its DNA — and sometimes the copy is not quite perfect. That small difference from the original DNA sequence is a mutation.”

Carl looked up with a hint of triumph in his eyes and said, “So when you put it all together, they are explaining that these random mutations which we see happening all the time are in fact the unguided, Natural process which increases the genetic information in an organism; Creating new Genes which did not previously exist, and blah blah blah.”

“Ooh,” said Blue Beard. “Did you see that? Brought it full circle for once! Nicely done Carl.”

“I can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic,” admitted Carl.

“To be honest,” said Blue beard, “I have the same trouble sometimes. But in this case you actually made an attempt to be relevant to the discussion! It’s a nice change of pace.”

Carl, seemingly unsure if he was being complimented, sank back into his chair with a quizzical expression. “Yes, well, I think the point is that, even using your own definition of Darwinian Evolution, we now have an observed mechanism which makes Evolution occur.”

“Just to bring home the importance of mutations,” added Bill, “I also have a quote on the subject;

“It must not be forgotten that mutation is the ultimate source of all genetic variation found in natural population and the only new material available for natural selection to work upon.” *E. Mayr, Populations, Species and Evolution (1970), p. 103

“Boy,” I said, “it sure sounds like mutations are important to evolution, eh guys? It sounds like, if mutations aren’t making new genes, then there’s no evolution at all!”

“So I think,” said Carl looking at me, “this should be the part of the conversation where in you finally agree that Darwinian Evolution is not only possible, but is an observed fact of science.”

“Oh, my dear Friend, Carl,” I said. “I hate to ruin a good day for you. To be honest, I rather enjoyed seeing you smile for once.”

“Then concede, dear boy, and I shall smile some more.”

“Unfortunately, I can’t do that, Carl. The problem with mutations is that they are a hypothetical, fictional mechanism of Evolution, but not an actual one.”

“What are you trying to say?” asked Carl. “Are you saying mutations don’t happen?”

“Not at all,” I replied. “What I’m saying is, they don’t create new genes. They destroy old ones.”

“Nonsense.”

“Let’s start at the very beginning,” I said. “A very good place to start. First of all, consider Mount Rushmore.”

“Don’t change the subject,” objected Carl.

“Not changing the subject,” I said. “But as you know I talk with my hands and in word pictures. Mount Rushmore started off as a mountain like a lot of others. It’s made of rock, and that rock has certain properties. One of those properties is that it is not invincible, and thus parts of it can be cut, clipped, worn, or blasted off. Left to itself with no human intervention, the effects of the weather would have eroded the side of the mountain so that it changed shape. Would we all agree?”

“Well, of course,” said Carl. “But what does this have to do…?”

“It’s a metaphor,” I explained. “And what kind of erosion was it that resulted in the side of the mountain becoming a very good likeness for not one but four of our past American leaders?”

“None, obviously,” said Carl, his annoyance growing.

“Hold on now!” I said. “Are you saying erosion doesn’t happen?”

“Well, of course it happens!” he blurted out. “But erosion will never carve a mountain into the face of George Washington! Why are we even talking about this?”

“But turning the mountain side into George Washington’s face was just a matter of removing rock, which can be done slowly over time,” I pointed out. “Can’t erosion remove rock slowly over long periods of time?”

“Yes of course, but…”

“And hypothetically,” I continued, “if the right pieces of rock were removed the result could eventually be the face of a former president, right?”

“Hypothetically,” said Carl, “but it will never happen.”

“Well then,” interjected Blue Beard, “how do you explain the fact that there are four former presidents carved into the side of Mount Rushmore if erosion didn’t do it?”

“You idiot pirate!” shouted Carl. “A team of men worked for years to design and carve those faces! Erosion will never make anything as complex as a human face!”

“Nonsense,” said Blue Beard. “Given enough time, anything is possible, and I say it were erosion what carved them faces. This story of yours about an artist and his team of magical men carving it is silly and unscientific.”

“Unscientific?” sputtered Carl.

“Certainly!” shouted our pirate friend. “Geology, chemistry, and physics all tell us that erosion can wear down rocks and create lots of shapes. I dare say there are no shapes that erosion is incapable of making. I admit that it seems unlikely that those shapes would add up to become President George and friends, but as there is only one Mount Rushmore, it only had to happen once.”

Carl was too flustered to answer, so Tom stepped in. “Even though I’m pretty sure Blue Beard is just trying to get a rise out of Carl, which we’ve come to expect, I’d still like to point out that we’ve gone pretty far from the original topic.”

“Because they refuse to admit that they’ve been beaten!” shouted Carl. “They have to change the subject to rocks and national landmarks or they’ll have to admit that I’ve shown that Evolution is a scientific fact!”

Blue Beard had sunk into laughter and had nothing to add. “Tell the truth,” I said to Blue Beard. “You actually knew where I was going with this, didn’t you?”

“Totally,” he admitted. “But Carl here still hasn’t figured it out.”

“Wait,” said Tom, “you were making a point?”

“Well, I like to see Carl’s face turn red, I admit,” said Blue Beard. “But the metaphor is simple. Just because something isn’t logically impossible, doesn’t mean it will ever be actual. The reason design implies a designer is because the opposite is so unlikely as to be impossible.”

“Let me give it to you in math terms,” said Bill.

“Thank you,” said Tom.

“Can you flip a coin so it comes up heads a thousand times in a row?”

“No,” said Tom. “The odds of what happening would be…”

“Hold on now,” said Bill. “I didn’t say WILL you flip a coin so it comes up heads a thousand times in a row. I said, CAN you?”

“Well, it is a hypothetical possibility,” said Tom. “There is nothing in a coin which would make it actually impossible. But the odds against it happening are so great that it may as well be impossible.”

“Can we please get back to talking about mutations?” insisted Carl.

“We’ve been talking about mutations,” I said. “Metaphorically. Let me unpack the metaphor. Evolution needs to demonstrate how bacteria could gain the genetic information to add to their physical complexity until they become everything from wolves to cabbage. This means taking a string of DNA some hundreds of thousands of letters long, and adding BILLIONS in the right order by pure, blind, accidental chance.”

“That’s how it happens!” Carl insisted.

“I’ve got a quote on the topic which might clarify my point,” I said. Then I read the following:

To propose and argue that mutations even in tandem with ‘natural selection’ are the root-causes for 6,000,000 viable, enormously complex species, is to mock logic, deny the weight of evidence, and reject the fundamentals of mathematical probability.”
Cohen, I.L. (1984) Darwin Was Wrong: A Study in Probabilities , New York: New Research Publications, Inc., p. 81

“What’s probability got to do with it?” asked Carl.

“Imagine,” I said, “trying to turn a single prop engine plane into a Bowing 747 while it’s in flight with small, successive modifications. Keep in mind that it needs to keep flying, or you all die. Oh, and you’re all blindfolded. And you don’t know that you’re TRYING to make a 747. Are you more probable to crash and burn, or to succeed?”

Carl had no comment.

“Are you starting to see what Creationists mean when we say life is too complex to evolve by chance? Because if not, I can keep cranking out metaphors.”

“And mutations…?” asked Carl impatiently. “Airplanes aside, we are talking about the creation of new genetic information.”

“Mutations are a corruption of the existing information,” I said. “To start with, you will never get the first gene by mutations, let alone all of the genes it takes to run an entire cell. But even when you have a perfect genome, the odds are certain that every mutation will destroy the information in the DNA, and never actually produce new information.”

“That’s ridiculous!” said Carl. “We’ve been observing mutations for decades! Mutations create new breeds of viruses and bacteria all the time in nature, and have made all kinds of variations on fruit flies through experiments in the lab!”

“Mutations cause changes to be sure,” I said, “but not the creation of new genes. Those mutations which can be said to be beneficial- like antibiotic resistant bacteria- actually result in a loss of structure and function. These are like getting locked in the basement during a tornado. You haven’t gained anything, but by happy chance you survive when others do not. Yet, what evolution NEEDS to have happened is a mutation which ADDS information to the genome, like a guy who figures out how to make his siding tornado proof- or a guy who figures out how to get his car to fly. But how many spelling mistakes do you have to make in the blueprints for a car before it can fly, and without passing through a phase where it explodes?”

“Speaking of flying,” said Bill, holding up his personal computation device, “I have a couple of quotes about those fruit fly mutations Carl just mentioned. Scientists have been using our friends in Drosphilia to research mutations for decades.”

“What’s a Drosofilliana?” asked Blue Beard. “That one of them little middle eastern countries?”

“Drosophila,” answered Bill, “is a genus of small flies, belonging to the family Drosophilidae, whose members are often called “fruit flies.” Blue Beard nodded in understanding and Bill read the following:

“The fruit fly has long been the favorite object of mutation experiments because of its fast gestation period (twelve days). X-rays have been used to increase the mutation rate in the fruit fly by 15,000 percent. All in all, scientists have been able to catalyze the fruit fly evolutionary process such that what has been seen to occur in Drosophila is the equivalent of many millions of years of normal mutations and evolution.”—*Jeremy Rifkin, Algeny (1983), p. 134.

“There you go!” exclaimed Carl. “MILLIONS of years of normal mutations and evolution! Imagine what these experiments have produced!”

“We don’t need to imagine,” said Bill. “I have a couple of quotes about that too.”

“Fruit flies refuse to become anything but fruit flies under any circumstances yet devised.”—*Francis Hitching, The Neck of the Giraffe: Where Darwin Went Wrong (1982), p. 61.

“Imagine!” said Blue Beard. “Read us another one, Bill old man!”

Bill read the following;

“In all the thousands of fly-breeding experiments carried out all over the world for more than fifty years, a distinct new species has never been seen to emerge … or even a new enzyme.”

(Gordon Taylor, The Great Evolution Mystery (New York: Harper and Row, 1983, pp 34, 38)

Seems that far from creating life in the lab,” I noted, “we can’t even get it to CHANGE in the lab.”

“Rotten little, uncooperative insects,” shouted Blue Beard, thick with sarcasm. “Don’t they know we’re trying to prove evolution here? Did anyone tell them? Whose side are they on anyway?”

“Apparently,” said Bill, “no one has told them- for millions of years! Listen to this!”

“If mutation were a variation of value to the species, then the evolution of drosophila should have proceeded with extreme rapidity. Yet the facts entirely contradict the validity of this theoretical deduction; for we have seen that the Drosophila type has been known since the beginning of the Tertiary period, that is for about fifty million years, and it has not been modified in any way during that time.” MICHEL DELSOL PROF. OF BIOLOGY, UNIV. OF LYONS, ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE LIFE SCIENCES Volume II, p. 34.

“Well, in that case,” said Blue Beard, “then the lab tests have accurately reflected the lack of Evolution in nature. Bully for those boys in labcoats.”

“Consider your coin flipping again,” I said to Tom. “Remember that DNA codes for proteins, which build the cell?”

“Sure,” said Tom. “I’ve got that.”

“Did I mention that an average functional protein needs 900 of those DNA letters in the right order?”

“You did not.”

“You know how having one number wrong in a telephone number means you can’t make your call? It can be a lot like that. Only the wrong number kills you.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Carl. “You talk like a single wrong letter in a gene will kill you.”

“It can,” said Bill. “Sickle Cell Anemia is the result of ONE wrong letter. In fact, there are more than two hundred places in the genes that make blood cells we know about where a change will cause disease and death. Your cells will pay dearly for dialing a wrong number.”

“On the bright side,” said Blue Beard, “DNA gets free nights and weekends, and unlimited texting.”

“That could be the cause of lots of mutations,” I said. “Your cells try to text and replicate at the same time. Tragically, not all of them survive.”

“Of course, sometimes the errors don’t do any harm,” said Bill.

“Thank you,” said Carl.

“But over generations,” Bill continued, “those harmless errors add up until they are harmful. Neutral mutations are like smoking. Your first cigarette probably won’t kill you, but over the years, the tiny bits of tar from each one accumulate until your lungs look like a freshly sealed driveway. After that, your tennis game starts to deteriorate, along with your cardiovascular system. “Harmless” mutations are a lot like that.”

“Are you guys really trying to tell me that you think no mutation ever helps any cell?”

“No, of course not,” said Bill. “In the medical field, we see mutations all the time which cause a cell to grow faster and more vigorously than a normal cell. Those cells seem impossible to kill sometimes.”

“There you go,” said Carl. “Beneficial mutations causing cells to grow and survive better than normal cells.”

“Carl,” said Bill, “do you know what cells I’m talking about?”

“Sure. Those superbugs- the anti-biotic resistant bacteria. Right?”

“No, Carl. I’m talking about cancer.”

Carl had nothing pithy to say about this latest scientific revelation, so I put in my two cents. “In summary, mutations making new genetic information is hypothetically possible, just as it’s hypothetically possible to get George Washington’s face on a mountain with erosion, or hypothetically possible to flip a coin so it lands heads up a thousand times in a row.”

“Although, to be fair,” added Blue Beard, “we need to realize that every species on earth needs to flip a coin heads up a thousand times. Remembering too that coming up tails kills you.”

“And observations in this area,” added Bill, “have shown bacteria and fruit flies experiencing millions of generations of mutations, but never producing any new beneficial feature of any kind. In fact, the only beneficial mutations ever seen have been losses of genetic information, which, as has been said, is the opposite of what is needed to grow the Darwinian Tree of life.”

“And it seems to me,” said Tom, “that for every one of these genes, there are a huge number of ways a mutation can go wrong.”

“Come on, Tom!” objected Carl. “Whose side are you on? Are you joining the religious wackos against science now?”

“I’m not against science, but I have to consider the math. If the average protein takes nine hundred DNA letters written in the right order,” said Tom, “that means you have a lot of information which has to be right in order to get even one functional protein.” He held out his own personal electronic device to Carl. “If you think its easy getting a particular sequence through blind, accidental chance, then here, see if you can guess my four digit pass code.”

“Then do it for nine hundred phones,” suggested Blue Beard. “If you can do that, I think we’ll all admit that getting a protein by accident is easy.”

“Sorry Carl,” said Tom. “The numbers don’t lie. Lots of things are possible which are simply improbable.”

“When people say evolution is impossible,” I explained, “its not because they don’t know how it could work, it’s because they know enough to know it could not work. Many evolutionists stick to evolution to fill in the gaps where a step up is impossible. “It must have evolved” they argue, “Because there it is.” This is a very common “Evolution of the gaps” attitude.”

Whatever retort was formulating in Carl’s mind, it was quelled by the arrival of the great feat of Nacho for which we had waited. Tom’s mind was buzzing with numbers, and I hoped he would share what he deduced. In the mean time, there was Nacho to be had, and darts to be thrown, and a lot to be said about the most recent theories surrounding the latest science fiction blockbuster movies. Our discussion of science would have to continue another time.

Happy Nachos! And thanks for letting me be your Rent-A-Friend.

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