In his July editorial in The Scientist, Richard Gallagher marks the 35th anniversary of the term "Junk DNA" by asking the question "Is it time to retire provocative descriptors such as "junk DNA"?" His answer is negative, and he proceeds to justify the term on the grounds that: "junk DNA works as a catchy moniker that helps frame the debate for the general public while evoking passionate debate among scientists". This blog has drawn attention previously to the way evolutionary biologists like to frame the debate for the general public: instead of equipping the public with the concepts and resources to make informed judgments, the objective appears to be to safeguard Darwinism to ensure the public do not revolt!
There is no doubt that "Junk DNA" has been a controversial term within the scientific community. However, for many years, the sceptics were in a minority. The general public were presented with overwhelming evidence that our genomes are "filled with the remains of extinct genes" that are of marginal interest until advantageous mutations bring them back again into centre stage. The Framers made sure the public got the message: "...the designer made serious errors, wasting millions of bases of DNA on a blueprint full of junk and scribbles. Evolution, in contrast, can easily explain them as nothing more than failed experiments in a random process . . ." (Kenneth Miller, 1994) and "DNA differs from written language in that islands of sense are separated by a sea of nonsense, never transcribed" (Richard Dawkins, 2004).
The policy of retaining the term to help frame the debate for the general public is actually very misleading. Recent research is uncovering a mass of functionality that suggests the term actually promotes falsehoods in the name of science.
Even more significantly, Gallagher writes: "The latest iniquity to befall junk DNA is the attempted hijack by proponents of Intelligent Design. Some of them would have us believe that their movement has provided the tools to find function in junk DNA. A withering critique by Pim van Meurs can be found on the Web site, The Panda's Thumb, along with an entertaining and educational thread of 150 or so comments."
This comment is also seriously misleading. The key contribution ID scientists have made is to predict functionality for some, if not most, of the supposed junk DNA. This prediction has emerged partly from an appreciation of the exquisite complexity of living things (including its DNA) and partly from a scepticism about the capabilities of Darwinian mechanisms to achieve large-scale transformations. It was also provoked by declarations like this from Phillip Kitcher (philosopher of science at Columbia University) in 2005: "A lot of the DNA in there is not needed -- it's junk. If it's intelligently designed, then God needs to go back to school." A more judicious assessment would be: ID scientists have risen to the "Junk DNA" challenges thrown at them, and have shown that ID thinking does make successful predictions. It may be concluded that any continuing refrain about ID not making predictions is just more "framing" of the debate for the masses.
Junk Worth Keeping (Editorial)
By Richard Gallagher
The Scientist, July 2007
First Para: June 30, 1972, was a high point for the lexicon of biology. That day, Susumu Ohno coined (or at least publicly introduced) the term "junk DNA." In a talk titled "So Much 'Junk DNA' in our Genome," Ohno argued that the frequency of deleterious mutations restricts the number of serviceable genes to around 105 and that the great bulk of our DNA is merely the debris of failed duplication. "The earth is full of extinct species," he said. "Is it a wonder that our genome, too, is filled with the remains of extinct genes?"
Junk DNA, ResearchID.org (June 2007)
Pearson, A., Why 'junk DNA' may be useful after all, New Scientist, 11 July 2007.
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