"Junk DNA"

A common comment by IDists concerns “junk DNA”: they will claim that it is only “evolutionists” who would have thought that so much of the genome was “junk,” but that an IDist would assume that what looked like junk was in fact there for a purpose. Therefore, as scientists start to learn about previously unknown functions for some of that “junk DNA,” some of the IDists are crowing “We told you so - if you just wouldn’t have been so dogmatically attached to your theory of blind, purposeless evolutionary processes, you wouldn’t have set research back by dismissing so much of the genome as “junk.” (I could go find quotes to this effect, but I will assume that those of you who keep up with the IDists know what I am talking about.)

Now in November of last year, Scientific American had an article, “The Unseen Genome: Gems Among the Junk,” in which writer W. Wayt Gibbs (not an IDist)summarized some of the new research on what has been considered the junk part of the genome, and in the process made some similar comments about how “dogmatism” has misled biologists into mislabeling and thus ignoring the “junk.”

However, in March of this year Scientific American published a letter by Harold Brown, a member of the philosophy department of Northern Illinois University, responding to this charge of dogmatism with some very pertinent points. I’d like to discuss what Brown had to say.

Here is the heart of what Brown wrote:

This narrow focus [on the “non-junk” part of the genome] by the research community led to detailed discoveries that have, in turn, challenged the the guiding dogma and done so in a relatively short time on the scale of human history.

Closely constrained communal research may be a more effective long-term means of pursuing knowledge than research in which resources are continually diverted to following up any apparent lead. The idea that tightly organized research leads (despite itself) to the recognition of anomalies that generate new approaches was one of the themes of Thomas S. Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”

First let me make the obvious and important point that the discovery of these previously unknown functions has been made by mainstream biologists, not by IDists! It’s not very compelling for the IDist to say, effectively, “well, if we had been doing the research, we would have figured this out sooner,” when in fact they don’t do any research.

However, the more important point lies in Brown’s reference to Kuhn. One of Kuhn’s points is that true “paradigm shifting” only comes when one truly immerses oneself in the details of the current paradigm, for only then can one really understand the key issues upon which the paradign shift must occur. If one has but a shallow understanding of the current paradigm, it is easy to offer all sorts of possible paradigm shifts, but, being ungrounded in what is solidly known, such speculations are almost guaranteed to be wrong. That is, it’s really easy to come up with new ideas about how things might be if in fact you don’t know much (or choose to reject what is known for ideological reasons of one’s own) - bad ideas are a dime a dozen and are easy to come up with just sitting in the armchair, so to speak, but good ideas take hard-working immersion in the details.

The IDists are sitting in the armchairs, saying “I told you so” to the people out doing the hard work. So next time someone using this “junk DNA” argument in respect to ID, ask, “So who’s figuring out what part isn’t junk and what it in fact does?” Until the IDists get in there and do some of the research that will uncover the genuine anomalies in our current understanding, they have no cause to take any credit whatsoever for shifting the paradigm about “junk DNA.”