Random Mutations? Cut To The Chase

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This radiation-mutated fruit fly has legs growing out of its head where its antennae should be. Radiation provoked lots of random mutations… but none that conferred significant advantages to the insect. Photo by Thomas Kaufman

I’ve been debating Derrick Rohe and Dan Listermann on Facebook. My challenge to them:

“Show me evidence that random mutations produce beneficial evolutionary events. New features, new organs, better adaptations.”

They can’t prove the random part.

Honestly I suspect they’re struggling a bit to see where I’m coming from.

So let’s cut to the chase. I started asking myself the same question 11 years ago when I first got into a brawl with my brother Bryan about evolution.

I wasn’t a biologist. I knew I didn’t know. Maybe Bryan was right.

I said, “IF random mutations drive evolution, we should be able to find experiments where they sped up mutations somehow, and accelerated evolution.”

It took no time to find those exact experiments. They bombarded fruit flies with radiation from the early 1900s right up to the present.

The whole enterprise was pretty much a total failure. All they succeeded in doing was “If we damage Chromosome #14, we get a leg sticking out of the fly’s head.”

If you apply communication theory you know exactly why. Claude Shannon wrote one of the most important papers in the history of computer science in 1948. It was called “Mathematical Theory of Communication.”

His paper  (cited 62,000 times in Google Scholar) establishes that you can only increase information if you obey the syntax of the coding language.

All other kinds of interference can only destroy the message. This is true in computers and cell phones, and it’s just as true in biology – because DNA is also code. (Over 6,000 of those 62,000 papers also discuss DNA!)

Every programmer knows that you can never randomly mutate letters or symbols in any computer program without trashing the whole thing.

DNA is no different. Yet for a century there has been a giant urban legend in biology (evangelized by atheists like Richard Dawkins and Bill Nye) that random copying errors in DNA supply the raw material for evolution. Those mutations are filtered by natural selection. Then presto, you get evolution.

That’s false.

It’s just as impossible as saying that toast occasionally gets HOTTER when you take it out of the toaster.

It’s not merely unlikely, it’s impossible. Claude Shannon showed why.

So the Random Mutation + Natural Selection theory in biology – even though it’s neat and tidy, easy to explain, and sounds perfectly plausible to the average guy – is flat out impossible.

That is why there’s no evidence it’s true.

Yet there IS evidence for evolution. Lots of experiments in real time.

Because the BIG twist in my story was when I found out Barbara McClintock did radiation experiments in the 1940s. She did succeed in damaging DNA, which is no surprise.

But she approached the problem like a hacker. She used small careful doses, then watched very closely to see what her corn plant did next.

Do you know what happened?

The plant repaired the damage – by editing and repairing its chromosome!

What Barbara had done, without intending to, was trigger the extensive genome editing capabilities of her plant. And in the process, she became the first scientist to ever witness evolution happening in real time.

The plant edited its own DNA, because it was missing something it needed to reproduce. It replaced the missing DNA with other, suitable code. It evolved.

The edits followed definite patterns, which McClintock eventually figured out – and won a Nobel Prize.

So the evolution formula is not

RANDOM MUTATION + NATURAL SELECTION = EVOLUTION

Rather, the evolution formula is:

TRANSPOSITION AND OTHER CELLULAR ENGINEERING + NATURAL SELECTION = EVOLUTION.

NONE of these systems are random. They are directed by the cell, they obey rules, and are just amazing.

All serious biologists know this. What older biologists often don’t realize – because they don’t know communication theory – is that NONE of this is random. The random mutation hypothesis has to be thrown out because it’s not even mathematically provable in the first place.

By the way, the latest 2015 Nobel Prize was for insights into the incredibly intricate error correction systems of the cell – which are much like what computers, Wi-Fi routers and cell phones use to clean up dirty signals.

Cells don’t evolve through random mutations. They RESIST and REPAIR them!

And that, my friends, is Evolution 2.0 in 800 words or less. I hope you’ll pick up the book and get the whole story.

15 Responses

  1. Enoch Sears says:

    Perry – excellent article. A very succinct and convincing argument against RANDOM MUTATION + NATURAL SELECTION = EVOLUTION. This has been on my mind lately because I’m reading a biography of Charles Darwin with my 5 year old son. Good timing.

  2. Nutrient-dependent RNA-mediated DNA repair in the context of the physiology of reproduction is the only way for the bacterial flagellum to “re-evolve” over the weekend in the experiment reported in Science as “Evolutionary resurrection of flagellar motility via rewiring of the nitrogen regulation system.”

    Until a neo-Darwinian evolutionary theorist offer an alternative model of ecological variation that links atom to ecosystems, or explains how “evolution” occurred over a weekend, the RANDOM MUTATION + NATURAL SELECTION = EVOLUTION equation cannot be more than a ridiculous misrepresentation of what all serious scientists currently understand about biophysically constrained cell type differentiation.

  3. Carol Sperling says:

    You said above “Every programmer knows that you can never randomly mutate letters or symbols in any computer program without trashing the whole thing. DNA is no different.”

    You know very well that there are several ways most codons can be mutated and still produce the same amino acids. Whom are you trying to fool? And I am not talking about evolving anything, I am just saying that a mutation doesn’t always “trash the whole thing”.

    • That’s because the genetic coding table is 66% redundant. There are 3 codon combinations for each amino acid. In fact it’s one in a million in terms of optimization for copying error minimization (ref. Stephen J Freeland, his famous “Genetic code is one in a million” paper). This – along with incredibly sophisticated error correction systems (they were the subject of the 2015 Nobel Prize) is why many mutations are neutral instead of harmful. If the genome did not have these redundancy, error correction and protection mechanisms it would be far more vulnerable than it is. I stick to my original statement “Every programmer knows that you can never randomly mutate letters or symbols in any computer program without trashing the whole thing. DNA is no different.” From the standpoint of communication theory this is absolutely true and information entropy is the reason why. You cannot modify a code without observing the rules of the code at every level.

  4. Carol Sperling says:

    So you are saying the DNA “code” is redundant, which helps it resist being harmed by random mutation. Then you say “you can never randomly mutate letters or symbols in any computer program without trashing the whole thing. DNA is no different” How are you not directly contradicting yourself?

    • Claude Shannon’s theory shows how, by engineering a sufficient amount of redundancy into a system, you can safely be assured that a given amount of noise will not destroy a signal. As long as you don’t exceed the threshold. This is one of the major themes of his work. If you exceed that threshold, you irreversibly damage the system. DNA stays intact in a high noise environment (because of redundancy) and the cell actively triple checks every replication. Nevertheless if externally imposed damage goes above the threshold then you “trash the whole thing” – ie you get anything from minor (irreversible) birth defects to fatal defects.

      • Carol Sperling says:

        Part of Shannon’s legacy is that humans have designed much better error correction approaches than to have multiple symbols mean the same thing (synonyms). Ever use a thesaurus? Synonyms are an indication of communication that has evolved through trial-and-error, like the way spoken languages evolved. They are not indications of a designed language. No one would design a computer language with multiple symbols that mean the same thing.

        • On the contrary, Carol, if you take some time and study communication theory, ALL digital communication systems of any sophistication have redundancy and error correction built in. They all feature multiple pathways for ensuring that a message is transmitted correctly even if there is noise in the channel – for the express reason that if you lose any of the data, you destroy the program. They also have systems that detect which pathway contains the error and which pathway was correct.

          Nature’s error correction systems have preserved genetic information for 3 billion years, which is ostensibly far superior to anything man has designed. I encourage you to read this paper from Journal of Molecular Evolution which explores the optimality of the genetic code: http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/~stevel/565/literature/The%20genetic%20code%20is%20one%20in%20a%20million.pdf “The Genetic Code is One in a Million”

          • Structural diversity of supercoiled DNA is an open access publication from “Nat Commun.” http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/ncomms9440

            It adds to what is known about biological systems complexity by linking the dynamic structure of DNA, which twists and writhes, to cell type differentiation via RNA-mediated amino acid substitutions.

            Error correction is nutrient energy-dependent and linked to the physiology of reproduction via conserved molecular mechanisms that link atoms to ecosystems in all living genera. The added complexity of biophysically constrained RNA-mediated protein folding was placed into the context of the 2015 Nobel Prize winners in Chemistry, Physics, and Physiology/Medicine.

            I do not agree with others that error correction can be placed into the context of 3 billion years of preserved genetic information, but that does not matter to any serious scientist. I agree with Perry Marshall that no one can place any aspect of organized genomes into the context of mutation-driven evolution without revealing to others that they are a pseudoscientist. For example, Richard Feynman once said “Social scientists are pseudoscientists.” I have not met one who is not.

  5. New ASU worldwide resource for exploring genes’ hidden messages http://medicalxpress.com/news/2015-12-asu-worldwide-resource-exploring-genes.html

    More than 45,000 journal articles indexed on PubMed can be found via a search for “microRNA.” Who do you think the hidden messages that link the microRNA/messenger RNA balance to healthy longevity or to pathology were hiding from?

    Excerpt: “Small RNAs, called micro RNAs (miRNAs), work to pair with a UTR to block translation, killing the message, and thus, silencing a gene. Uncovering the interplay between miRNA and their specific UTRs have become a hot area in biology, and big business.”

    Obviously, someone needs to tell the folks in ASU’s Center for Evolution, Medicine and Public Health that they are about to be forced off the campus via the works of a science fiction author (Greg Bear) and serious scientists who have since linked atoms to ecosystems across all living genera via nutrient energy-dependent changes in the microRNA/messenger RNA balance.

    “Evolutionary medicine, or Darwinian medicine, is the application of modern evolutionary theory to understanding health and disease.” – See more at: https://biodesign.asu.edu/news/evolutionary-medicine-expert-joins-asu-faculty#sthash.LVK0n49o.dpuf

    Attempts to apply any theories to the practice of medicine have failed miserably and caused more suffering and death that could ever be imagined. The data from experiments that link microRNAs to cell type differentiation attests to the fact that, if we let them, the neo-Darwinian theorists will cause the death of us all. Viral microRNAs are starting to be recognized as a link from virus-perturbed protein folding chemistry to all pathology.

  6. Kees v Buren says:

    Perry,
    Would you please explain me why the information in the following website is irrelevant?
    https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13673-evolution-myths-mutations-can-only-destroy-information/

    • You have to make a distinction between a random, accidental mutation (damage) vs. one that is engineered by the cell, or even an accidental incident of damage that is repaired and then co-opted by the organism, which in effect is making lemons out of lemon aid. This is what Barbara McClintock’s corn plants did, and that’s what the 5 blades of the swiss army knife are. This article is about the latter not the former.

      This issue is not nearly as simple as either the Darwnists or Creationists make it out to be.

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