The Reality of New Biological Information

According to an idea popular among young earth creationists,  evolution cannot result in new genetic information, and biological information can only be degraded with time. There are variations on this theme, including the concept that mutations cannot be beneficial.

These statements are simply incorrect. Many of the arguments to support the “no new information” meme come from physics and engineering, and are usually supported by various interpretations of information theory. The problem is that none of the arguments have any biological validity, because they don’t take into account the facts of transmission and mutation of biological information. Some of these facts are as follows.

Biological information is stored, preserved, transmitted, and processed by the DNA of all living cells. The information is translated into specific protein structures that compose the cell’s phenotype (all its characteristics). While transmission of information can be subject to loss of accuracy in many physical systems, it isn’t in biology. Each step of the transmission process, including the replication of the DNA in the genome and its transcription into RNA followed by translation into protein structure, has a defined and extremely low error rate. This is not due to chance or luck, but to a complex and highly efficient set of repair systems that are constantly checking and fixing errors as they occur. While there is a small degree of error in DNA replication, this is not a burden but an advantage to cells, since it allows for mutation, variation and evolution.

The result of these repair processes is that there is no trend toward genetic or any other form of informational degradation with time.

Actually, evolutionary mechanisms also include a number of ways to increase and improve the quality of biological information. Among these are increases in gene numbers, the selection of mutations that increase the fitness of organisms, the development of extremely complex gene expression control networks that allow for rapid adaptation to environmental challenges, and the advantages of genetic recombination during sexual reproduction that produce novel combinations of alleles, leading to greater genetic diversity and more chances for survival.

Genes are often duplicated due to many factors including retrotransposon activity, replication errors, and environmental effects. A duplicated gene allows for a higher mutation rate than would usually be tolerated, since the duplicate is not necessary for the cell to survive. Sometimes, these highly mutated genes lose all function and become pseudogenes, but occasionally they become new genes with new functions.

The normal process of replication allows for some mutations to give rise to alternative alleles for specific genes, which may be detrimental, neutral or beneficial. Examples of new alleles that have arisen in the human population during the past 50,000 years of evolution include lighter skin for people who reside in dark sunless regions (allowing for a more efficient uptake of Vitamin D), the ability of adults to tolerate foods containing lactose (lactose intolerance is the biological norm past childhood), and resistance to a number of diseases.

There are thousands of examples of new beneficial genetic information that can be found throughout the world of plants and animals. The claim that mutation or time can only result in information loss is plainly false for biological systems, and such a claim has never been stated in the peer-reviewed recognized biological literature. Some who claim this idea to be true will quote valid, scientific papers, but they invariably either misunderstand or deliberately distort the actual statements or conclusions in the paper being quoted.

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7 Responses to The Reality of New Biological Information

  1. Almost Iowa says:

    “While there is a small degree of error in DNA replication, this is not a burden but an advantage to cells, since it allows for mutation, variation and evolution.”

    Taking this to heart, one might even say that creativity is the natural result of error.

    A friend of mine, a cop, not a scientist, came up with the best definition of reality I have ever heard. He said, “it’s whatever works.”

    • “creativity is the natural result of error.” I agree completely, Greg. I plan to steal that quote. (with attribution of course). And that is one smart cop. Its precisely how evolution proceeds.

  2. Almost Iowa says:

    We have all heard the term “intelligent design” bandied about as a way of suggesting that an external power “designs” the patterns of life. I am not sure I buy that in terms of creationism, yet it is obvious that life is designed by intelligence. Evolution dictates that change happens by mutation and sexual selection – but one has to ask how individual members of a species know what characteristics to select?

    Humans use concepts like models and ideals. I mean who doesn’t want to look like Brad Pitt and have the wealth of Donald Trump (uh, just kidding) but still… pick up a copy of SELF, US, COSMO or PEOPLE and it is all about idealized models of how-to-be. You have to wonder whether we are the only animals with the desire to model ourselves and make decisions based on an ideal.

    You also have to wonder whether this is where “intelligence” in evolution comes from.

    • Actually, individual creatures do not get to choose what characteristics to select. Humans can do it some extent, by changing behavior and culture, but we cant change our genetics either (yet). That’s why its called “natural” selection, the selecting part is done by nature. If the climate gets colder, those yaks with more fur will survive more than yaks with less fur. (Im sure there is a joke in there, but I will leave the humor part to you, Greg). Why does one particular yak have more fur than another? Genetic variation. In human terms, if the climate really super heats in 100 years or so, tall people will become scarce and shorter folks will be the rule.

      • Almost Iowa says:

        But isn’t sexual selection based on individual choices? Isn’t that how secondary sexual characteristics like the iconic peacock’s tail evolve? You would think Ms. Peacock must have been reading PEACOCK Magazine to acquire her lust for plumage, otherwise how would she get it?

        By the way, I am not trying to make a case for anything here… it is just my typical idle curiosity (I guess my ancestors must all have been nerds). 🙂

  3. Sorry Greg, I read your first comment wrong. I didnt see you were talking about sexual selection, which is, in fact, much faster than natural selection, although it is one type of the latter. Yes, there can be an element of choice in sexual selection, but it always tends to be the choice that increases the biological fecundity or other health of the species. For example, if all the women in the world decided that old, dumb, fat, out of shape men are really really attractive, that might be great for me, but it wouldnt do much for the improved survival of the species. So that would be a bad choice, and would be selected against. Choosing strong, young, smart, and good looking guys is a much better idea, for all concerned. (Even me, since I dont care any more.)

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