Over the years I have developed a keen interest in dysteleology and examples of so called ‘bad design’ that are often used in connection with this topic. I have seen many times that the biological basis for claims of ‘bad design’ is weak or no longer even exists. The most famous example in this regard concerns the structure of the vertebrate eye and its inverted retina.
Science has increased knowledge and understanding of the eye and at the same time decreased any room left for claims of ‘bad design’. But it’s not always that straightforward. The odd route of the recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN), for example, is difficult to understand because it seems directly connected to the context of mammal ontogeny. Why this seemingly inefficient detour?
The routes of certain nerves do not follow an exactly specified blueprint. In this regard it’s not comparable to the wiring in human constructions. Nerve growth follows a certain logic, it seems to be a very flexible and adaptive process. Consider possible requirements in development: Could a organ like the larynx develop properly if not innervated at the right time? Unless we have a good understanding of questions such as the ontogenetic development of complex animals – how could we judge on the quality of the route that a specific nerve or vessel takes?
Comparing the case of the vertebrate eye with the RLN, we are quickly handicapped in the latter case by a lack of knowledge and understanding. Judging the quality of a design presupposes a reasonable understanding of it. Otherwise it’s just talk. In which category does the case of ‘junk DNA’ belong?
Scientists do understand a lot about DNA, to the point where the manipulation of DNA has become their daily business. They know it’s code and seem to read it like an open book. So they should be able to make a well educated statement on the existence of real ‘junk-DNA’.
Proponents of ID are excited whenever parts of ‘junk-DNA’ are shown to be useful. As teleologists they like any hint of purpose although they are not forced to believe that every part of DNA serves a purpose – after all the blind forces of nature do their destructive work. Even sophisticated DNA-repair mechanisms can’t do a perfect job to counter that. Still many proponents of ID give the impression that ‘junk-DNA’ will disappear with the progress of science. But they might very well be wrong – and it’s not the C-value paradox alone that makes me cautious about this.
Gerd Müller and Stuart Newman wrote about some open questions in their book Origination of Organismal Form. Beyond the Gene in Developmental and Evolutionary Biology. They ask questions like: “Does the genetic code contain the complete information of organismal form?” and, logically based on the first question, “Do new structural elements arise from mutations?” as well as other basic questions highlighting that the genesis of organismal form in development is unexplained (which is even more true for its evolution). It’s not the case that we get the organism along with the DNA (as in Jurassic Park).
Now, if DNA indeed contained the ‘blueprint’ for an organism ‘junk-DNA’ would be a big deal. It would mean that the most central aspect of life is in a big mess, disorder where we would expect order to the highest degree. But what if the information on the DNA is just part in a bigger game? After all, life starts with a cell and not with DNA. The information in the DNA is of course necessary and very influential on many levels of a organism’s phenotype, as can be easily shown. But it’s a different matter to focus on genetic information as if it were the master key to life’s secrets.
The case of ‘junk-DNA’ suffers from a lack of knowledge and understanding as does the case of the RLN. The significance of junk-DNA depends on the role of genetic information as such: The more one views genetic information as the master key to life’s secrets the more disturbing it must be when he encounters real ‘junk-DNA’. As soon as we understand the bigger picture – the origination of the organismal form, the secrets of ontogeny – it will be possible to judge on the meaning of ‘junk-DNA’ and if it really is an example of ‘bad design’ from an engineers viewpoint.
The way to that knowledge and understanding is explained by Michael Ruse in his book Darwin and Design:
“We treat organisms – the parts at least – as if they were manufactured, as if they were designed, and then we try to work out their functions. End-directed thinking – teleological thinking – is appropriate in biology because, and only because, organisms seem as if they were manufactured, as if they had been created by an intelligence and put to work.”
Take the ‘as if’ part out and it will not hurt. But it could even turn out to be helpful. Maybe some ID proponent will come out one day and say: “Look, I took teleologic thinking farther and more serious than a Darwinist ever would and here is my result: (fill in) A secret layer of information hidden in the ‘junk’ adding this and that way to morphogenesis…(fill in)”
See also: Junk DNA: The original ‘onion test’ is a biological non-sequitur
Thoughts on the “C-Value Enigma”, the “Onion Test” and “Junk DNA”
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