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Saturday, November 22, 2014

It’s Hard to Improve on What God Made!

Posted by jlwile on January 31, 2010

I am back on an airplane, this time on my way to Chiang Mai, Thailand. I am speaking at an international education conference there. I did the same conference about three years ago, and I met some really incredible people. The location is nothing to write home about, and I really dislike the food. However, the conference attendees are truly amazing, making this something to which I am really looking forward!

In any event, since I am on a plane again, I am catching up on some of my reading. An interesting article in Chemical Engineering and News caught my eye1. It reported on a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry that measured various nutrient levels in rice that had been genetically modified to be more resistant to insects and fungal infections. All three varieties of genetically-modified rice were found to be lacking in certain nutrients. One variety was deficient in vitamin E, another was deficient in protein content, and the last was deficient in key amino acids. The authors say that the study produced

…alarming information with regard to the nutritional value of transgenic rice.

Now I have no problem with genetically-modified crops, as long as they have been put through enough tests to make sure that they are safe for both the ecosystem and the consumer. Such tests are difficult, but certainly not impossible. However, I expect that very little research is done on the nutritional content of such crops. Geneticists tend to compartmentalize genomes, thinking that tinkering with genes involved in immunity won’t affect genes associated with metabolism and energy storage. Clearly this study shows that such compartmentalization is not a realistic approach to understanding genomes.

Anyone who knows me or has seen me in person knows that nutrition is just not all that important to me. I understand the value of good nutrition, but for me, taste rules. I eat the things I like, and I don’t eat the things I don’t like – regardless of nutritional value. I admit this is a short-sighted way to eat, but I would rather live happy than live long – it’s just that simple. So why do I care about this study on the nutritional content of transgenic rice?

Well, it reminded me of something I read quite some time ago in an incredibly interesting book called Genetic Entropy and the Mystery of the Genome by J. C. Sanford. Dr. Sanford is a top-line geneticist, credited with such revolutionary genetic inventions as the gene gun, the pathogen-derived resistance (PDR) process, and the genetic vaccination process. Because he is an expert in genetics, he is also a creationist.

In his book, he discusses how silly it is for anyone to think that mutations acted on by natural selection can ever lead to any genetic revolutions. He talks specifically about an area of research with which he was involved for quite some time. Essentially, the research attempted to “speed up” the evolution of plants by exposing them to lots of mutagens and then artificially selecting any mutants that were considered an improvement over the non-mutant versions. He sums up those years of research as follows:

For several decades, this was the main thrust of crop improvement research. Vast numbers of mutants were produced and screened, collectively representing many billions of mutation events…The effort for the most part was an enormous failure…low phytate corn is the most notable example of successful mutation breeding…The low phytate corn was created by mutatagenizing corn, and then selecting for strains wherein the genetic machinery which directs phytic acid production had been damaged. 2

Essentially, he says that while doing such research, he believed in macroevolution. However, his own research showed that the fundamental hypothesis of macroevolution doesn’t work. Mutations (even when acted on by artificial selection) do not produced genetic revolutions. Instead, they mostly produce genetic damage. Like any good scientist, he abandoned the idea of macroevolution when his data clearly showed that it doesn’t work. He is now a young-earth creationist. Why the leap from evolutionist to young-earth creationist? He says that the more he understands the genome, the more he realizes that it is clearly the result of design, and that most likely, the design was recent.

The point here is that Dr. Sanford sees an organism’s genome as a highly-organized, finely-tuned information storage system that was designed by an intellect that far exceeds that of even our greatest scientists. As a result, anytime that scientists “tinker” with it, most likely, the tinkering will not produce something better. At best, it will produce something that is moderately worse, but useful for a specific purpose, like the low phytate corn mentioned in the quote above (it is useful for livestock feeding, but the mutation makes the corn less likely to survive in the wild). This seems to be what happened with the transgenic rice. Scientists beefed up its immune system by tinkering with its genome, but the end result wasn’t necessarily an improvement, as it has a lower nutritional content. So now you have a crop that grows more effectively, but it feeds people less effectively.

We see this happening in other areas of science as well. I remember reading a study about scientists trying to “help” Acacia trees. As I have mentioned previously, these trees are protected by Cregaster ants. The ants live in the hollow thorns of the trees and eat nectar that the trees make especially for them. As a way of saying “thank you,” the ants viciously attack anything that tries to graze on their trees. This means they attack large herbivores (like giraffes), but it also means they attack other insects. When the tree flowers, the flowers produce ant repellant that tells the ants to stay away from the flowers. In the end, this makes the flowers the only safe place for a pollinating insect to land. 3 Obviously, this is well-designed system that enhances both the trees’ survival and their reproductive success.

Well, the authors of the study thought they would “help out” the Acacia trees by fencing them in. The idea was that these poor little ants couldn’t really protect the trees from large herbivores, so this would “help” the trees and the ants. Well, it turns out that the fenced-in trees were significantly less healthy than the surrounding trees that weren’t fenced in.4 In addition, there were fewer ants living on those trees. Once again, the scientists “tinkered” with a well-designed system that they didn’t really understand, and they ended up doing more harm than good.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that transgenic crops are bad or that transgenic research should not be done. I am also not saying that scientists should stop trying to “help out” other organisms. I am just saying that all such projects will most likely meet with limited success, because the organisms have been designed by God, and it is very hard to improve on something that such a marvelous Designer has made. Most likely, the best we can hope for is to partially fix what thousands of years of mutations have destroyed.

REFERENCES

1. SLR, “Key Nutrients Decline in Transgenic Rice,” Chemical & Engineering News Jan 18, 2010:24
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2. J.C. Sanford, Genetic Entropy & The Mystery of the Genome, p. 25, 2005
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3. Willmer PG and Stone G, “Ant deterrence in Acacia flowers: how aggressive ant-guards assist seed-set,” Nature 388:165-167, 1997
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4. Todd M. Palmer, et. al., “Breakdown of an Ant-Plant Mutualism Follows the Loss of Large Herbivores from an African Savanna,” Science
319:192-195, 2008
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Comments

12 Responses to “It’s Hard to Improve on What God Made!”
  1. I will try to only ask questions, as you suggested in your last comment, but I’m afraid my questions will sometimes act as if I was correcting you, as I don’t think everything you write is correct. That’s not a problem, is it?

    “Because he is an expert in genetics, he is also a creationist.” So there are no experts in genetics who are not also creationists?

    “[Mutations] mostly produce genetic damage.” What does damage mean here, simply change? I thought most mutations are neutral to survival. Do you disagree with Nachman, M. W. and S. L. Crowell. 2000, Estimate of the mutation rate per nucleotide in humans, Genetics 156(1): 297-304, which estimates around 3 deleterious mutations out of 175 per generation in humans? Should I find more studies from other species?

    “He is now a young-earth creationist.” I agree with this one, but that doesn’t mean he completely agrees with you. He says the earth is between 5,000 and 100,000 (one hundred thousand) years old. (Source is from Kansas School Board hearing transcripts, but yes, hosted on Talk Origins.) What do you think of his upper bound of 100,000 years for the age of the earth?

    I couldn’t find any non-creationist reviews of Sanford’s book, can you?

  2. jlwile says:

    It’s not a problem for you to think that what I write is not true. I never have a problem with that. I have a problem with you acting as if you know more about science than I do, which is demonstrably false, given the ridiculous amount of errors you make. Stick with being polite, and there is no problem.

    There are certainly experts in genetics who are not creationists. However, Dr. Sanford specifically says it is his expertise in genetics that makes him a creationist. That’s his explanation for his beliefs, not mine. Please note that your interpretation of what I wrote is not logical. The fact that he is a creationist because he is an expert in genetics does not imply that all experts in genetics are creationists. For example, a person can be a great athlete because his father was a great athlete (thereby giving him a full-time coach, a genetic advantage, etc.). However, that doesn’t imply that everyone whose father is a great athlete will also be a great athlete.

    Most mutations are neutral to survival, because the genome is so well designed that it has multiple layers of redundancy. However. I am not discussing those kinds of mutations in this post. I am discussing mutations that cause phenotypic change (those are the kind selection can act upon, which is what I am discussing in the post).

    It doesn’t bother me that Dr. Sanford thinks the earth might be 100,000 years old. I think he is wrong, but it is a much more reasonable number than 4.6 billion years old. After all, while science cannot even begin to understand basic things like the salt in the ocean, the helium in the atmosphere, the magnetic fields of planets, etc., etc. in an earth that is billions of years old, there is hope of understanding them on an earth that is only 100,000 years old. Also, as I have mentioned before, one of the biggest problems I have with a billions-of-years-old earth is the ridiculously unscientific extrapolation that must be made in order to come to that conclusion. While 100,000 years is still a big extrapolation, it is several orders of magnitude lower than the ridiculously unscientific extrapolation to 4.6 billion years.

    I don’t know of ANY reviews of Dr. Sanford’s book, pro or con. I don’t typically look at book reviews to determine the content of a book. I read the actual book itself.

  3. Just a point for other readers (we know you’re out there!), I addressed your extrapolation post here. I’m glad you brought it up now, as I hadn’t seen your reply yet. So we can continue the extrapolation question here.

    Can you tell me the relative amount of change a decay rate must undergo for the possibility that the earth is at most 5,000 years old? That is, using an element that is used in radiometric dating of rock samples, state the rate (or range of rates) that it decays from experimental data over the last 100 (or less) years. Then show the minimal decay rate change that would allow the oldest rock sample currently available to be no more than 5,000 years old. That is, given the ratio of decayed/non-decayed atoms in our oldest rock sample, and assuming it is no more than 5,000 years old, what is the decay rate that would have to operate on the sample over those 4,900 years?

    Make sense? Please, no jokes about that question.

  4. jlwile says:

    Shooter, you certainly did not address the extrapolation argument in that comment. You said, “Extrapolation? Really? That’s one of your reasons?” and then went on to show that you don’t understand radioactive decay. You said nothing about why you think such a ridiculously unscientific extrapolation is reasonable.

    The relative amount of change a decay rate must undergo for the possibility that the earth is at most 5,000 years old depends a bit on how radioactive decay changes occur. If radioactive decay rates changed gradually, which I think is unlikely, the half-lives would have to change by something like a factor of ten million. After all, the largest accepted radioactive dates (not the largest that have been measured – the largest that have been measured and not subsequently been thrown out based on a priori assumptions) are on the order of 109 years. If you are looking for gradual change in radioactive decay rates, you would need them to be initially about a factor of 107 faster. If they stayed that fast, the dates would turn into something on the order of 100 years old. However, postulating some monotonically-decreasing function with time so that they reached today’s present value would turn the measured dates from the order of billions to the order of thousands.

    However, I think the most convincing data comes from helium trapped in zircons. They indicate a short burst of very fast radioactive decay occurred in the past. This short burst produced what appears to be a few billion years of radioactive decay in something less than a year or so. In that case, we are talking about a short episode in which radioactive half-lives were a factor of 109 greater than they are now.

  5. Your middle paragraph makes no sense to me. When you use “dates” do you mean “half-lives”?

    I also asked you to confine yourself to radioactive decays actually used in the radiometric dating of the oldest rocks we’ve found: Uranium-lead, Samarium-neodymium, Potassium-argon, Rubidium-strontium, or some other named radioactive decay.

    As for helium in zircon, it is irrelevant to radiometric dating. But regardless, this example is typical of how you define DATA. It usually involves some legitimate paper, in this case an article in Geophysical Research Letters from 1982. Take some raw data from it while ignoring the paper’s conclusions and limitations. Then use that DATA to support your 5,000 to 10,000 year old earth premise. If you can find a scientific researcher who has become a YEC, so he* can trumpet his own DATA, so much the better. In short, instead of “convincing data” you should say “cherry-picked and distorted DATA.”

    * It seems all YEC scientists are men. Is that true?

  6. jlwile says:

    The word “dates” means “dates” in that paragraph. The oldest radioactive dates that are accepted are on the order of 4.6 billion years old. Those are NOT the oldest dates ever measured, however. As is typical with radiometric dating, when dates don’t agree with a priori assumptions, they are generally thrown out. Thus, there have been rocks dated as much older than 4.6 billion years old, but those dates are ignored. For example, Zashu and his colleagues dated several diamonds to be 6.0 +/- 0.3 billion years old. Since this is older than the assumed age of the earth, the dates were discarded. (Zashu, S., Ozima, M. and Nitoh, O., K-Ar Isochron Dating of Zaire Cubic Diamonds, Nature, 323:710-712, 1986).

    As I patiently tried to explain to you before, the same basic physics applies to all radioactive processes. Thus, if one isotope’s half-life changes, all should change. However, you can certainly apply my logic to any specific isotopes, including the ones used in the dating methods you listed.

    Of course helium in zircon is NOT irrelevant to radioactive dating, as helium is produced via alpha decay, which is a part of most radiometric decay schemes, including those used in uranium-lead dating and samarium-neodymium dating. In fact, most of the radioactive materials in the zircons are isotopes of uranium and thorium which, as you might expect, are used in uranium-lead dating. Had you actually read about the data before trying to come up with some reason not to believe it, you would have seen that.

    Your definition of data seems to be who published it. If a journal that agrees with your preconceived notions publishes it, it is data. If a peer-reviewed journal that does not agree with your preconceived notions publishes it, it is NOT data. While that might make you able to sleep at night, it is not a scientific approach. As a scientist, I am forced to consider data regardless of who publishes it and weigh it on its own merits. Of course, I have been trained to do that, so it is second nature to me.

    Your question about whether all YECs are men further demonstrates that you haven’t really looked into this at all. Just a few examples of women young-earth creationists are Dr. Nancy Darrall, Dr. Kelly Hollowell, Dr. Angela Meyer, and Dr. Esther Su.

  7. I’ll get back the radioactive decay later, but wanted to write about your last two paragraphs first.

    There are creationist publications/websites that I immediately discount, based on their history of distorting science and the complete lack of citation in the non-creationist/ID scientific literature. Answers in Genesis, Institution for Creation Research, Creation Research Society, and the various Discovery Institute/ID entries.

    These are the sources you turn to in answering my comments. I don’t think you ever cite them as sources in your original posts. I have read as many of the post sources as I can, based on access to the journal. I think I’ve pointed out repeatedly that you are misusing the DATA in these papers, always in refuting the overwhelming scientific consensus of a billions year-old earth, never in providing a positive case that the earth is 5,000 to 10,000 years old.

    (BTW, this range translates as 7,500 years old +/- 2,500 years. Can’t you do any better than a 33% error range? The accepted age of the earth is 4.54 billion years +/- 1%.)

    As for the women cited above, none of them are currently publishing science, and at least one is completely out of science altogether, which is very typical of YEC proponents. Why are the vast majority of YEC proponents no longer publishing in non-creationist scientific journals?

    Finally, I enjoyed reading about Dr. Ester Su. Her quote below perfectly illustrates the standard young earth proponent’s view, and by her own admission, says that creation “science” is not science:

    “I discovered that science was very limited because scientists can only study the present. Science requires observa­tion, but you can’t observe the past. So, the question of whether or not the universe was created is a historical question, not a scientific one. The question should be whether or not the evidence we observe today supports creation or evolution.”

    This is under “The Parents” sub-heading. It sounds remarkably like your position on radiometric dating. I highly recommend reading her three reasons for why the Bible’s creation story is true.

  8. jlwile says:

    You discount the publications/websites you mentioned not because they distort science or because they don’t reference the non-creationist/ID literature. In fact, you clearly have not read much of them, because they do neither. They present data that make you uncomfortable, so rather than trying to learn, you close your eyes, cover your ears, and yell loudly, hoping they will go away. Like I said before, if it makes you sleep better at night, that is fine. Those of us who are committed to science, however, are forced to follow the data where ever they lead. That is the courageous thing to do. You should try it sometime.

    You certainly have not shown that I misuse the data I cite. I agree that you WANT to TRY to show that I am misusing the data, but you can’t, because I don’t Instead, the only thing you show in your comments is your ignorance of even the most basic scientific data and principles.

    I do not turn to only creationist sources when I reply to you. The fact that you claim I do shows that you don’t even care to be honest. Look back at my replies to you. There are plenty of citations from non-creationist sources. That’s because (unlike you), I look at ALL the data, regardless of the source. This is the scientific thing to do, and it is something that terrifies you.

    Once again, my conclusions are based on the data, not wishful thinking. Thus, when the data indicate the conclusion cannot be very precise, then it is unscientific to try to artificially add precision to it. The “accepted” age of the earth is absurd and at odds with so much data that the given error bar is nonsensical.

    So now you claim someone isn’t a scientist unless he or she is CURRENTLY publishing in science? I find that a bit odd. Albert Einstein isn’t a scientist? I know you can’t stand the thought of real scientists being young-earth creationists. As a result, you must continually change the definition of “scientist” in order to protect your fragile worldview, just as you change the definition of “peer reviewed” in order to make yourself think it is justified to ignore so much data.

    Please tell me how many scientific awards you have won. One of those women you dismissed won the New Zealand Science and Technology bronze medal. How many scientific publications do you have? That same woman you dismissed has 11. How many PhDs do you have? Each of those women holds a PhD in a natural science. I find it interesting that in order for you to protect your fragile worldview, you must continually dismiss those who are significantly more qualified than you when it comes to science.

    I agree, Dr. Su’s view sounds very much like mine, as it is the proper scientific view. As she says, one must look at the data we see and determine what it is most supportive of. As I have made clear, the data we have afre most supportive of a young-earth creationism. This is what makes bothers you so much. You know the data are on my side. As a result, you have to continually dismiss the data.

    Like I said, I hope that helps you to sleep at night!

  9. Clarifications:

    The scientific literature doesn’t cite creationist papers – ever.

    I said you don’t cite creationist sources in your postings. You replies contain creationist and non-creationist sources.

    The strange fact is that publishing scientists who become creationists almost all stop publishing in non-creationist sources. Also, there are no young earth creationists publishing age of the earth science in non-creationist sources. There is not a single paper in non-creationist sources that claims the earth is less than 10,000 years old.

    Scientific awards and PhD’s? That is arguing from authority. Not simply citing a source. When you think you’re right by having an award or a PhD, and not by the strength of your arguments, that is the logical fallacy.

    Dr. Su’s third reason for being a creationist: “Dr Su then carefully studied Biblical prophecy, and discovered that what the Old Testament foretold about the coming of Christ all came true. ‘There were just so many prophecies—and so much detail—about the coming Messiah.’ So, during graduate school, and after much study of the Bible, she says, ‘I gave myself to God the Creator’.” Where’s the science in that?

  10. jlwile says:

    Once again, Shooter, you amaze me with how many mistakes you can make in one comment!

    Of course the scientific literature cites creationist sources. The scientific literature is, in part, MADE UP of creationist sources. What you meant to say was that the scientific literature that supports your preconceived ideas doesn’t cite creationist literature. That’s probably true, since you cannot bring yourself to read data that contradict your preconceived notions.

    Of course creationists do not stop publishing in non-creationist journals. Dr. Andre Eggen, for example, is another expert geneticist who is a young-earth creationist. He has a long list of publications in the secular literature. One of his more recent ones is “A physical map of the bovine genome”, Snelling W, et al., Genome Biology 8:R165, 2007. Dr David Dewitt is a young-earth creationist cell biologist whose research program is considered one of the most successful studies of Alzheimer’s disease. His latest publication is Dewitt, DA, et al., “Peri-nuclear clustering of mitochondria is triggered during aluminum maltolate induced apoptosis,” J Alzheimers Dis. 9:195-205, 2006.

    I think what seems to escape you is the fact that if a scientist decides to focus on young-earth creationist research, then he/she will publish in the young-earth creationist journals, because that’s what his or her research focuses on. However, if his or her research is in another speciality, he or she will publish in the journals of that speciality. Come on, Shooter, this is not rocket science!

    I certainly DO cite creationist sources in my postings. In the post that probably bothered you the most (because it so clearly made the case for variable radioactive half-lives), I cite the RATE work, which is in the young-earth creationist literature. Look through my age of the earth posts, and you will see other citations of the creationist literature. You see, unlike you, I do not close my eyes and try to deny the data that are out there. I read ALL the scientific literature, including the creationist literature. Thus, my posts and comments reference both, as I read both. Honestly investigating the data – it’s something you should try sometime.

    I am not arguing from authority. You are the expert at that, to the chagrin of Carl Sagan. YOU asked for female young-earth creation scientists. I gave you the list. However, because your fragile worldview cannot handle the fact that serious scientists are young-earth creationists, you tried to dismiss them as not being scientists because they haven’t published in the secular literature in a while. I was just pointing out how intellectually dishonest that is, since all of them have significantly more qualifications to make scientific judgments than you do!

    The science in Dr. Su’s method for evaluating the Bible is quite straightforward. The way any good scientist makes scientific decisions is to look at the predictions of a theory and see whether or not those predictions come true. One reasonable prediction about the Bible is that if it is truly God’s word, it must have some supernatural qualities. Predicting the future is one such quality. Since so many of the Bible’s predictions later came true (indeed, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection fulfilled 332 separate prophecies in the Old Testament), that gives strong evidence for the proposition that the Bible is God’s word. In fact, this is one of the things that turned me from atheist to Christian. An honest investigator cannot discount the amazing accuracy of the Bible’s predictions about the future. Dr. Su and I were both convinced by such data. You, of course, will probably close your eyes, cover your ears, and yell loudly to make it go away.

  11. Why thank you! I do try to please. More entertainment: in a truly amazing coincidence, the latest Jesus and Mo cartoon has the intrepid prophets doing exactly what you say I do in your last sentence.

    Getting back to radioactive decay, issues from Nature earlier than 1997 are not available on EBSCO’s Academic Search Premier, so I can’t access your citation. Can you scan the article and email it to me?

    Let’s talk about radiometric dating using the Uranium-Lead radioactive decay. From wikipedia:

    “One of its great advantages is that any sample provides two clocks, one based on uranium-235′s decay to lead-207 with a half-life of about 700 million years, and one based on uranium-238′s decay to lead-206 with a half-life of about 4.5 billion years, providing a built-in crosscheck that allows accurate determination of the age of the sample even if some of the lead has been lost.”

    So Uranium-235 into Lead-207 has a half-life of 700 million years, and Uranium-238 into Lead-206 has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. If you state that a presumably 4.5 billion year old rock to decayed at this rate for the last 100 years, what are the functions that describes the changes in decay rates (of U-235 and U-238) so that the 4.5 billion year old rock is really 10,000 years old?

  12. jlwile says:

    Once again, you are displaying your ignorance of basic principles regarding radioactive decay. If all isotopes have the same change in their decay rates (as one would expect from basic physics), then all “cross checks” would not be sensitive to such a change. If a 4.5-billion-year half-life was suddenly altered by a factor of 109, it would be 4.5 years. The 700-million-year half-life would be 0.7 years. In the end, the shorter half-life would track roughly seven times quicker than the longer half-life, regardless of whether the half-lives were constant or not. Given the wealth of data that indicate the half-lives are not constant, you have a LOT more faith than I do if you believe radiometric dating!

    The “Jesus and Mo” cartoon you mention is interesting, as it depicts religious people ignoring transitional fossils, homology, etc. However, it is evolutionists who are forced to ignore the lack of transitional fossils, the fact that homology is not supported by genetics, etc., in order to desperately cling to their faith in evolution. The cartoon essentially has it right, except it is the evolutionists who are doing everything they can to ignore the data. You are an excellent example, as you simply ignore any evidence that doesn’t fit your preconceived notions. Once again, it might help you sleep at night, but your approach is not scientific.

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