Plant geneticist: ‘Darwinian evolution is impossible’
Don Batten chats with plant geneticist John Sanford
Posted on homepage: 5 October 2009 (GMT+10)
Plant geneticist Dr John Sanford began working as a research scientist at Cornell University in 1980. He co-invented the ‘gene gun’ approach to genetic engineering of plants. This technology has had a major impact on agriculture around the world.
Dr Sanford: ‘As a new Assistant Professor, I was responsible for crop improvement. I worked on conventional breeding of fruit crops and became very familiar with the power of genetic selection and the limited range of changes that were possible through selective breeding. I soon became involved in plant genetic engineering research. At that time there were numerous genes which seemed potentially useful in crop plants, but there was no method for delivering these genes into the plant genome. There was no “transformation technology”.
‘I explored many gene delivery options before my colleague Ed Wolf (also of Cornell) and I came up with the idea of shooting DNA into cells, thereby penetrating cell walls and membranes. This initiated an exciting period of scientific exploration, involving many collaborating scientists from Cornell and other universities. In seven years the “gene gun” concept went from a laughable and crazy idea to an extremely effective gene delivery system. Almost all the early transgenic crops were transformed with the gene gun—especially corn and soybeans. A large fraction of today’s transgenic crops were genetically engineered using our gene gun process.
‘The gene gun has been only one of many areas of research for me. But it was this research that opened doors for me—providing recognition and financial resources.
‘I look at the gene gun success as a special blessing that paved the way for my current work—which I consider much more significant.’
A change of mind
Dr Sanford was an evolutionist but changed his mind:
‘I was totally sold on evolution. It was my religion; it defined how I saw everything, it was my value system and my reason for being. Later, I came to believe in “God”, but this still did not significantly change my intellectual outlook regarding origins. However, still later, as I began to personally know and submit to Jesus, I started to be fundamentally changed—in every respect. This included my mind, and how I viewed science and history. I would not say that science led me to the Lord (which is the experience of some). Rather I would say Jesus opened my eyes to His creation—I was blind, and gradually I could see. It sounds simple, but it was a slow and painful process. I still only see “as through a glass, darkly” [1 Cor. 13:12]. But I see so much more than I could before!
‘On a personal level this was a time of spiritual awakening, but professionally I remained “in the closet”. I did not feel I could defend my faith in an academic setting. So I felt the need to take temporary leave from academia and institutional science because of the tension I felt in this regard, and the enormous potential hostility I sensed from my academic colleagues.
‘I think the academic environment is very hostile to the very idea of a living and active God, making it almost impossible for a genuine Christian to feel open or welcome. I needed some distance from academia to get a hold of my own beliefs and why I hold them. I feel I have now grown to the point where I can re-enter institutional academia (to the extent that I am not expelled), without compromising my basic Christian beliefs.’
Is evolution important to science?
I asked John what he thought of the necessity of evolution for doing biological research.
‘Institutional science has systematically “evolutionized” every aspect of human thought. Contrary to popular thinking, this is not because evolution is central to all human understanding, but rather has arisen due to a primarily political and ideological process. Consequently, in the present intellectual climate, to reject evolutionary theory has the appearance of rejecting science itself. This is totally upside down.
‘An axiomatic statement often repeated by biologists is: “Nothing makes sense in biology, except in the light of evolution”. However, nothing could be further from the truth! I believe that apart from ideology, the truth is exactly the opposite: “Nothing makes sense in biology except in the light of design”.
‘We cannot really explain how any biological system might have “evolved”, but we can all see that virtually everything we look at has extraordinary underlying design.
‘I am not aware of any type of operational science (computer science, transportation, medicine, agriculture, engineering, etc.), which has benefited from evolutionary theory. But after the fact, real advances in science are systematically given an evolutionary spin. This reflects the pervasive politicization of science.’
Darwinian evolution impossible
John explained how mutations, which supposedly provide the new genetic information to make evolution possible don’t do the job:
‘Mutations are word-processing errors in the cell’s instruction manual. Mutations systematically destroy genetic information—even as word processing errors destroy written information. While there are some rare beneficial mutations (even as there are rare beneficial misspellings),1 bad mutations outnumber them—perhaps by a million to one. So even allowing for beneficial mutations, the net effect of mutation is overwhelmingly deleterious. The more the mutations, the less the information. This is fundamental to the mutation process.’
Does natural selection help?
Dr Sanford: ‘Selection does help. Selection gets rid of the worst mutations. This slows mutational degeneration.
‘Additionally, very rarely a beneficial mutation arises that has enough effect to be selected for—resulting in some adaptive variation, or some degree of fine-tuning. This also helps slow degeneration. But selection only eliminates a very small fraction of the bad mutations. The overwhelming majority of bad mutations accumulate relentlessly, being much too subtle—of too small an effect—to significantly affect their persistence. On the flip side, almost all beneficials (to the extent they occur) are immune to the selective process—because they invariably cause only tiny increases in biological functionality.
‘So most beneficials drift out of the population and are lost—even in the presence of intense selection. This raises the question—since most information-bearing nucleotides [DNA ‘letters’] make an infinitesimally small contribution to the genome—how did they get there, and how do they stay there through “deep time”?
‘Selection slows mutational degeneration, but does not even begin to actually stop it. So even with intense selection, evolution is going the wrong way—toward extinction!’
Dr Sanford has written a book: Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome.
‘My recent book resulted from many years of intense study. This involved a complete re-evaluation of everything I thought I knew about evolutionary genetic theory. It systematically examines the problems underlying classic neo-Darwinian theory. The bottom line is that Darwinian theory fails on every level. It fails because: 1) mutations arise faster than selection can eliminate them; 2) mutations are overwhelmingly too subtle to be “selectable”; 3) “biological noise” and “survival of the luckiest” overwhelm selection; 4) bad mutations are physically linked to good mutations,2 so that they cannot be separated in inheritance (to get rid of the bad and keep the good). The result is that all higher genomes must clearly degenerate. This is exactly what we would expect in light of Scripture—with the Fall—and is consistent with the declining life expectancies after the Flood that the Bible records.’
‘The problem of genetic entropy (genomes are all degenerating), is powerful evidence that life and mankind must be young. Genetic entropy is probably also the fundamental underlying mechanism explaining the extinction process. Extinctions in the past and in the present can best be understood, not in terms of environmental change, but in terms of mutation accumulation. All this is consistent with a miraculous beginning, a young earth, and a perishing earth—which “will wear out like a garment” (Hebrews 1:11). Only the touch of the Creator can make all things new.
‘All of the problems with evolutionary theory, as outlined in Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome, have now been rigorously proven using numerical simulation. We did this using “Mendel’s Accountant”, a state-of-the-art computer analytical tool for genetic systems. Five scientists—John Baumgardner, Wes Brewer, Paul Gibson, Walter ReMine, and I—developed this tool. We reported these new findings in two secular publications, and they will soon be discussed in a second book, Genetic Entropy and Mendel’s Accountant.’
Dr Sanford also sees great potential for creation researchers:
‘There is a desperate need for more creation researchers. The fields are white and ready for harvest, but the workers are very few [John 4]. Although there are thousands of creation-believing scientists and engineers, there is very little original research being done that significantly impacts the creation issue. Mainstream funding patterns, ideological presuppositions, and ideological filters ensure that almost all origins-related research will continue to beat the Darwinian drum. Bright, independently-minded scientists are desperately needed to swim against the current, critically examining all the Darwinian assumptions, and analyzing raw data for themselves. Even as I have found that evolution’s “Primary Axiom” (i.e., mutation plus selection created all higher life functions) is demonstrably false, so there are many other “sacred cows” waiting to be de-throned.
‘I believe the Lord is saying, “Whom shall I send?”’