Living fossils and evolution, and does it matter if ‘junk DNA’ has functions?
Published: 8 October 2011 (GMT+10)
Photos by Joachim Scheven, LEBENDIGE VORWELT Museum
Living fossils, which are everywhere in the fossil record, provide tough questions for evolution.
This week’s correspondence deals with the validity of using ‘living fossils’ and functions in endogenous retroviruses (ERVs), which are commonly seen as ‘junk DNA’, as evidence against evolution. CMI’s Dr Don Batten and Lita Cosner respond.
Travis S. from the United States writes:
Can you answer this rebuttal I received from my brother?
There is no written rule that says a lineage has to die out just because an offspring develops a beneficial mutation. The theory of evolution explains how species change over time, it doesn’t say that all species must change over time. As long as a species can survive in its environment and pass on its genetic information to its offspring, it can survive indefinitely. It doesn’t mean that the “living fossil” didn’t speciate, it just means those possible splits died out while the original lineage was able to always successfully reproduce even into today. How exactly does that not work with evolution?
CMI’s Dr Don Batten responds:
Thanks for your comment, which I have also shared with Dr Werner.
Dr Werner said in the article:
“If a scientist believes in evolution and sees fossils that look like modern organisms at the dinosaur digs, he/she might invent an hypothesis to ‘explain’ living fossils this way: ‘Yes I believe that animals have changed greatly over time (evolution), but some animals and plants were so well adapted to the environment that they did not need to change. So I am not bothered at all by living fossils.’ This added hypothesis says that some animals did not evolve. But if a theory can be so flexible, adding hypotheses that predict the opposite of your main theory, one could never disprove the theory. The theory then becomes unsinkable, and an unsinkable theory is not science.”
Furthermore, evolutionists do admit that living fossils (‘stasis’) are a big problem for evolution (see: ‘Living fossils’ enigma). They have no explanation. This is not about suggesting that something has to go extinct if something evolves from it; that is not the point. The point is the lack of change, which is a huge problem for evolution, which is about vast changes. High profile evolutionists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge admitted that stasis was a major problem for evolution.
All organisms undergo mutations. There is no special mechanism that prevents mutations such that many organisms can remain the same for supposedly hundreds of millions of years. Evolution is about change, and putting “evolutionary” in front of “stasis”, does not explain the stasis in terms of evolution. See Evolutionary Stasis.
This article remarks on an example of 425 million years of stasis: Remarkable stasis of a fossil ostracode with soft parts. In that time-frame, evolution by mutations and natural selection has supposedly changed some (unidentified) worm into all the species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals (including elephants and mice, and of course, us). At the same time all the land plants have supposedly evolved. Such is the claimed power of evolution to change things, and yet these ostracodes remained unchanged (and many others ‘dated’ even older). Note also that according to the evolutionary story, the predators for organisms have supposedly evolved and this means that the environment for virtually every organism changes. Furthermore, even the idea that the physical environment has remained stable contradicts evolutionary notions of global mass extinction events such as the Permian extinction (supposedly at 225 Ma) and the Cretaceous extinction (65 Ma), through both of which the ostracodes and many other examples of ‘living fossils’ remained unchanged.
Combine the observations of stasis and the paucity of transitional fossils (there should be millions of them) and you have to ask, “Where is the fossil evidence for evolution?”
I hope this helps.
Does it matter if endogenous retroviruses have functions?
F.B. from the United States writes:
Just a question about your article on ERVs in junk DNA. This article you guys posted, Large scale function for ‘endogenous retroviruses’, argues that ERVs are functional and thus not proof for evolution. The evolutionists I have encountered rejoin by saying the issue of functionality is unimportant because the real evidence for common ancestors is the fact that ERVs are inherited. Meaning they were passed along from common ancestor to primates and humans.
Just curious as to what you’re all’s take is on that point.
CMI’s Don Batten and Lita Cosner reply:
Dear Mr B.,
As we’ve said about other DNA similarities, there are two possibilities for similarities: they could be inherited, or they could be the result of being programmed by the same Designer. If the latter were the case, we would expect that humans would share some of the same DNA programming as primates, because we’re more similar to them in body type than any other sort of animal. This is one of the cases where the interpretation of the evidence is so important; the evolutionists see it as evidence for common descent, but creationists see it as evidence for a common Designer—part of the ‘biotic message’ that there is one Creator, not many.
I suggest that the evolutionists you have encountered are misinformed, even from a point of view of evolutionary orthodoxy. If a protein in an ape or a human has to be an almost exact sequence for it to function at all (and there are a number like this), then the similarity in DNA sequence that codes for that protein cannot be held up as evidence for evolution as opposed to creation. Your evolutionists are assuming a priori what they are claiming to prove: that all DNA sequences in humans came from common ancestry with apes, so any similarity must be due to common ancestry (aka evolution). This is circular reasoning, which is not logical reasoning at all. Evolutionists held up the ERV argument as “proof” of evolution precisely because they considered the “ERV inserts” to be random insertions of “junk” (useless DNA sequences). Because such junk DNA would have no function to constrain the sequence and location, the occurrence of the same sequences in the same locations in humans and chimps would indeed be strong evidence for evolution, as against creation. Why would an intelligent creator place useless bits of DNA with the same sequence at the same location in both humans and chimps? This would not seem to make sense.
However, the whole argument depends on the correctness of the assumption that the sequences have no function. If they have a function, then their sequence and location have to be what they are for them to have the function and they would now be evidence for design. Well, the evidence is mounting that these ERVs are not junk but are in fact functional. The sequences and their locations are not accidental. So the ERV argument evaporates.
Other than the article you mention, there are several articles that deal with this whole topic on our website. Try No joy for junkies and the articles under the headings “What about the similarities between ape and human DNA? Does this support evolution?” and “How does genetics point toward design?” on our Genetics Questions and Answers page. You can also search for “junk DNA” in the search window on creation.com.
Don Batten and Lita Cosner
Creation Ministries International
Not all evolutionists agree among themselves, just as they do not agree with creationists. High profile evolutionists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge be darned, I do NOT see 'stasis' as a problem for supporting evolution. The Permian and Cretaceous extinctions did not necessarily affect all physical environments equally, greatest effect being on those creatures that relied on stable atmospheric conditions for survival.
Of course evolutionists do not agree among themselves (although they like to present a united front for public consumption). How could they agree on something so nebulous as evolutionary 'theory'?
Dragonflies, which by your reckoning would be amongst those most greatly affected by the supposed Permian and Cretaceous extinctions, have remained basically unchanged (except for size) through both. While the nymph stage of their life cycle is in water, they have an essential flying (atmospheric) stage. Furthermore, having a life cycle of the order of a year, there is enormous opportunity for evolution to occur over its '300 million years' (300 million life cycles / reproductions).
Also, many birds survived the 'K/T' (Cretaceous / Tertiary) extinction, as Carl Werner has pointed out (that they have been found in 'Cretaceous' rocks with dinosaurs). And many flying insects survived this also (e.g. antlion fossils have been found in 'early Cretaceous' rocks in Brazil).
But even your contention that aquatic environments were somehow stable for these enormous periods of time does not agree with 'mainstream' evolutionary views of 'climate change'.
I'm sorry but it seems that you are in denial about the problem of stasis for the evolutionary story. Gould and Eldredge were being candid and trying to face the facts head-on.