Asperis

Ideas, rants and raves, with emphasis on Science, Politics, Personal Growth and Finance

Answers NOT in Genesis #3: disinformation to critique a comic strip?

Posted by The Lukester on December 22, 2005

Answers in Genesis once again deploys gobbledy goop pseudo-science to misinform their flock about real science. In the article, which critiques a Doonesbury cartoon about bacteria acquiring resistance through mutation, they write:

…what about those experiments where some bacteria developed a resistance to substances over time due to mutations in their genes? Such mutations, which are mistakes in the genes, result from a loss of information (such as the loss of a control gene which regulates the pumping of the substance into the cell). Again, this is the opposite of evolution, which requires an increase in information if it were to occur.

First, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about what a “mutation” even is. Very simply, a mutation is a change (caused by chance, by environment, by radiation, by replication errors, by many things) in a gene. Most of the time, the change is neutral and replicates slowly through the population, to remain or die out. Sometimes the mutation reduces the chance that that bacteria will survive and produce offspring. While we might have an opinion about that change, there is no “Loss of Information” here; it’s just a change. Some mutations are fatal and the individual dies without leaving offspring. Some mutations allow the individual to produce offspring and the mutation may continue in the population at a low level (and possibly combine with future mutations). Some mutations help the individual produce many offspring and that mutation flourishes and – over time – will become “normal” for the species (i.e., evolution).

Bacteria are a great example because they exist in such huge numbers and cycle through hundreds, thousands, millions of generations in a relatively short time. This gives longer-living observers (us) a chance to observe how a mutation effects the greater population.

Here’s a simple experiment: put a single species (“kinds”) of bacteria into a hundred test tubes. introduce a small amount of antibiotic into each one – just enough to harm but not eliminate the test tube population. Wait a few weeks or months, and examine the contents of each test tube.

If the creationists are right, you’d expect to see a small number of “answers” to the antibiotic stress, and these would be the a result of the variations already in the population. To have a hundred different “answers” would be impossible, since statistically that would require that the entire genome consist of just variations of resistance to the antibiotic stress. (I think I’m being conservative here – anyone with the statistical prowess to verify?)

If the scientists are right, you’d expect to see a large number of solutions, perhaps including a distribution as to ‘styles’ of response (since some single-point mutations are more likely to happen then others.)

So what do you get? (This, by the way, is what science means by “testing a hypothesis”.) If you have to ask, maybe I’ll save the answer for another post.

Now, for laughs, mix all the test tubes together and continue the antibiotic stress.

If you’re a creationist you’d expect the “best performer” of the hundred test tubes take over the population, and that’s it (since we’ve teased out the “best” gene in the experiment above). If you’re a scientist you’d expect, well, lots of things: you’d expect the “best performer” to do well, but not necessarily. You’d also expect to observe further mutation as time goes by.

So what do you get? Again, if you have to ask I won’t tell you.

Second, what’s this “loss of information” kick the creationist crowd seems to be so in love with? Quoted by trolls on forums, by ditto-heads on talk shows, and in supposedly “informative” articles like this one, I hear the phrase “loss of information” over and over again. This is a very red herring, since “loss of information” has no meaning in Real Science, unless it’s about a graduate student’s computer crashing the night before the thesis is due. The way it seems to be defined among the creationist pseudo-scientists is, “Something Good” = “Information”, and “Something Bad” = “Loss of Information”.

But let’s say Real Life is actually like that (it isn’t). OK so a “bad mutation” causes Sickle Cell Anemia (SCA). That’s bad, right? Loss of information? After all it’s a “harmful” mutation so it’s Loss of Information definitely. But wait a minute! It turns out that SCA protects certain populations against malaria. In other words, having SCA in the population is a Good Thing when malaria is a problem. OK, so now it’s “Added Information” where there is malaria but “Loss of Information” where there is no malaria.

If that doesn’t make sense, there’s a good reason: The “Added Information” canard in creationism is just a bunch of BS; it makes for nice scienterrific-sounding media-bites, and wows the Faithful, but it has no meaning in the context being used by the creationists.

OK, strip out their misleading definition of mutations. Now omit the meaningless “Added Information”/”Loss of Information” pseudo-babble. And you get… well you get nothing since that’s all there was to the article.

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