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Feedback archiveFeedback 2007

‘Selfish gene’ theory, the ENCODE project and ‘vestigial’ muscles

This week’s feedback comes from Jessica D. of Queensland. Shaun Doyle replies.

Image cancergenome.nih.gov

DNA double helix

DNA double helix

Hi there. I'm in my first year of my medicine degree, and Dawkins' Selfish Gene theory has come up multiple times (in different subjects). I realise that it is an unfounded theory, but I was wondering if a refutation to it or review of it has been written? I have been unable to find one, and as it is often a subject of discussion at uni so I would like to know more about it. Also, what is its relation to the Variable Number of Tandem Repeats (VNTR) in the Hypervariable Regions of human DNA? In your perspective what is the origin (and purpose if one is known) of the VNTRs, especially in light of the ENCODE research just published?
Another thing I heard a few days ago was regarding the Palmaris Longus muscle in the wrist-as it is variable (2, 1 or none present) it is unnecessary and therefore a evolutionary leftover from ‘when we walked on all fours'. Have you heard anything about it, and the reason for its variability?
Another question I have is regarding genetics-presumably not all genetic variation is due to mutation, but what proportion is? Eg were blue eyes, blonde hair etc most likely part of the created genetic make-up?
Thanks very much for all your work in supporting our faith in Christ amidst all the theories trying to attack the Word of God. Almost every day I encounter an argument for evolution or an ingrained assumption, and I really appreciate being able to be prepared with answers and challenges.
Jessica D.

Dear Jessica,

Thank you for email submitted via our website on 23 August.

Hi there. I'm in my first year of my medicine degree, and Dawkins' Selfish Gene theory has come up multiple times (in different subjects). I realise that it is an unfounded theory, but I was wondering if a refutation to it or review of it has been written? I have been unable to find one, and as it is often a subject of discussion at uni so I would like to know more about it. Also, what is its relation to the Variable Number of Tandem Repeats (VNTR) in the Hypervariable Regions of human DNA? In your perspective what is the origin (and purpose if one is known) of the VNTRs, especially in light of the ENCODE research just published?

No, we have not reviewed Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. However, his selfish gene theory has been discussed in many articles on our website (search using ‘Dawkins’ and ‘selfish gene’), for example: Just-so stories of sex and family life. Sociobiologists have proffered all manner of predictions based on the selfish gene idea. These have so often proven wrong, that the selfish gene idea must be considered dead. It seemed like a nice idea at the time. Even many evolutionists were and are skeptical of the idea.

For a more thorough treatment of a creationist understanding of biological inheritance, I recommend Alex Williams’ in-depth 3-part series (See parts 1, 2 and 3) on the inheritance of biological information in the Journal of Creation, which deals very well with all concepts of gene-centred heredity, which undercuts Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’ theory at its foundation.

Concerning VNTR’s, I would firstly recommend Linda Walkup’s overview of ‘junk DNA’ in the Journal of Creation (Junk DNA: evolutionary discards or God’s tools?) which deals with many of these issues. For the functions of microsatellite sequences, she cites functions such as aiding in organising the centromeres in mitosis and meiosis, and as necessary ‘tethers’ attached to genes to guide the genes to the appropriate place within the cell nucleus for transcription to mRNA. It was however written before the ENCODE project, so that must be taken into account.

Work published before the ENCODE papers started to appear showed that the repeat sequences are involved in controlling gene expression during embryo development. See Don Batten’s summary of this work: No joy for junkies.

That is, so called ‘junk DNA’ actually functions as the information you need to have to know how to use the protein-coding information (genes).

We have recently published some articles that deal with ‘junk DNA’ in the light of the latest ENCODE research. Alex Williams has recently published a number of articles that outline the broad significance of the findings of the project (See Astonishing DNA complexity uncovered, the update and Meta-information). He concludes that most of the genome is made up of what he calls meta-information, or information about information. That is, so called ‘junk DNA’ actually functions as the information you need to have to know how to use the protein-coding information (genes).


Image Wikipedia.org

Palmaris Longus muscles

Palmaris Longus muscles

For neo-Darwinian evolution, which requires sequential random mutational events to build the information content of the genome, this presents another problem—random events are by definition independent of one another. However, meta-information is by definition totally dependent on the information it supports. The flipside is also true; genes are useless without their corresponding meta-information because without the meta-information there is no way to know how to use them. This is particularly critical during development, where genes have to be switched on and off in a precise, sequential manner. It is really an unbreakable connection and neither random mutation nor natural selection can save the day for the evolutionists.

Another thing I heard a few days ago was regarding the Palmaris Longus muscle in the wrist-as it is variable (2, 1 or none present) it is unnecessary and therefore a evolutionary leftover from ‘when we walked on all fours'. Have you heard anything about it, and the reason for its variability?

There are a number of possible functions for the palmaris longus. Since it flexes the wrist and tenses the palmar aponeurosis, this may give a stronger grip, though it may not significantly increase grip strength (see Does the absence of the palmaris longus affect grip and pinch strength?). However, another suggested function may be that it anchors the skin and fascia of the hand to prevent ‘degloving’ of the skin of the palm (http://medind.nic.in/jae/t03/i2/jaet03i2p171.pdf). It may also serve a function in decreasing the strain on the main flexor muscles in the hand, acting as a secondary support structure.

The plantaris muscle in the lower limb (also claimed to be vestigial) has recently been found to have substantial proprioceptive function, providing a sense of ‘feedback’ regarding the position of the limb. Such a situation may well turn out to be the case with the palmaris longus as well. For more information I recommend David Menton’s article The plantaris and the question of vestigial muscles in man.

Its variability would be attributable to the fact that people can cope without it. Thus, it is likely that all people were created with it and it could have been more crucial in a pre-technological age, i.e. grasping spears and other implements. Mutational loss probably accounts for why some don't have it. Such mutations would not be heavily selected against in a post-industrial age.

Traits such as these that have subtle effects are a problem for evolution because … they do not have a high selection coefficient and therefore have a high probability of being lost by genetic drift.

Traits such as these that have subtle effects are a problem for evolution because even if they could arise by natural processes to start with (i.e. mutations, which they cannot), they do not have a high selection coefficient and therefore have a high probability of being lost by genetic drift.

Another question I have is regarding genetics-presumably not all genetic variation is due to mutation, but what proportion is? Eg were blue eyes, blonde hair etc most likely part of the created genetic make-up?

Variation does come about from more than just mutation. Recombination in sexual reproduction from the alleles in the original created genomes increases phenotypic variability. There is also transposition and lateral gene transfer, which can increase the variability by moving DNA around the genome (transposition) or implanting information from other organisms without reproduction (lateral gene transfer). The latter happens especially in bacteria. Mutations may be involved in all these processes, but they need not be. I recommend Liu and Moran’s article on gene duplication and the article on Genetic variability and human history which deal with different modes of genetic variability.

For the specific example you cite, it is likely that blue eyes and blonde hair arose through mutation. Blonde hair and blue eyes are globally rare, and the production of inadequate amounts of melanin is harmful, especially at lower latitudes, so was not likely a part of the original condition. Relating to red hair, see Dr Jean Lightner’s article How we got red hair (it wasn’t by evolution).

Thanks very much for all your work in supporting our faith in Christ amidst all the theories trying to attack the Word of God. Almost every day I encounter an argument for evolution or an ingrained assumption, and I really appreciate being able to be prepared with answers and challenges.

Thank you for your encouraging words.

I hope this helps,

Shaun Doyle

Assistant Editor, Journal of Creation

Published: 22 September 2007(GMT+10)

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