Still Not Getting It

The cunning bastard known as the vaccinia virusViruses are a difficult topic for creationists. If the world as created by God was originally “very good” then how could viruses even exist in the first place? To answer this, it is generally asserted (in a hand-wavy fashion and entirely bereft of evidence, as usual) that viruses were originally created to preform some kind of function involving the transfer of genetic material between animals. There are a number of problems with this, beginning with why it was even necessary in such a world, and why we don’t still see it happening in any particularly useful way in the modern, post-Fall world.

Nevertheless, Thomas’ latest article – Virus Adapts with Gene Accordion – just assumes this explanation and carries on:

One newly discovered genetic manipulation program helps the poxvirus rapidly invade various kinds of cells. How would such a program arise?

Poxviridae is the family of viruses that includes smallpox and cowpox. Viruses in this family use DNA, rather than RNA, as their nucleic acid of choice. DNA viruses have a much lower mutation rate than RNA viruses such as HIV, but are still capable of adapting to keep up with changes in the immune system. To see what tricks are being used to make this possible, a group of researchers observed the vaccinia poxvirus.

They found that the K3L gene on the virus’ small genome, if subjected to high selection pressure by the removal of another gene that also plays a role in the taking over of the infected cell, could duplicate over the generations to as many as 15 copies. This is in itself advantageous to the the virus, but it also makes a bigger target for potential beneficial mutations. They also found that once the right mutation had occurred the number of duplicate genes decreased, until only the mutated one was left (they described the whole process as being like an accordion). Pretty neat, I have to say, if a little worrying.

Brian writes:

A preview article in the journal Cell described it as “a powerful selective device that is likely to be a broadly applicable evolutionary mechanism.” Of course, that statement becomes more biologically clear simply by removing the word “evolution.”

Actually, it becomes less clear. Assuming he meant to remove the word “evolutionary” instead, we are left not knowing what kind of mechanism it is. That’s what adjectives are for, and you can’t just walk around removing them willy-nilly. However, the modified phrase may well make more sense to a creationist. Their brains tend to switch off whenever they hear variants on the word “evolution,” and replacing it with something like “adaptation” should at least have the effect of keeping them listening and processing information.

Elsewhere, he says:

A rough illustration of this whole scenario is a locksmith generating a key to open a locked door. First, he makes extra copies of key blanks. Then, he etches slightly different profiles on the keys until a key successfully opens the lock. Lastly, he discards the unnecessary keys. Nowhere along the way are random processes invoked.

The biggest problem with this description is the identity of the locksmith – there isn’t one. A more accurate analogy is that of keyrings, capable of reproducing. The keys on the new keyring may include duplicates of certain keys, each of which is slightly different. A keyring with lots of keys on it is unwieldy, so if possible the less-useful keys will not be passed on. Eventually, the door is opened (though really, the door opens for most keys but some keys are better at it than others in some metric) and there is only one key left for opening it.

Brian says “Nowhere along the way are random processes invoked.” This might be true if there literally was a locksmith testing out which design worked best at opening the lock, but instead the modifications to the keys are being made by mutations which are random – it’s bullshit.

Mr Thomas, along with many other people at the Institute for Creation Research, have a real problem with understanding what natural selection is and how it works. This is natural selection. We have a random process that produces variation (number of copies of the gene, mutations on the gene), the results of which are ‘selected’ on the basis of whether or not they work better than what is also available. Instead, creationists like B.T. seem to think that evolution is a completely random process, or that natural selection is a literal designer (and God-substitute), neither of which are true.

In fact, the gene accordion researchers claimed that the actual mechanism that causes all of this to take place is yet unknown—indicating complexity of design. Nobody would suggest that the lock selected the correct key. Locks are not intelligent; but locksmiths are.

Yes, a classic God of the gaps argument helps round this article off. And no, there’s still no locksmith involved here.

Like any machine or program, the gene accordion is strikingly positive evidence for design. In addition, as a biochemical mechanism that enables viruses to pioneer new host cells, it takes credit away from natural selection and gives it back to the Creator who built this “powerful selective device.”

It’s quite amazing how Brian manages to turn what is quite definitely an evolutionary discovery into something that allegedly supports creationism. And why do I think that he just chucked the “powerful selective device” quote in there without even knowing what it means?


2 thoughts on “Still Not Getting It

    • In my use, the keys are copies of genes, part of the virus. In Brian’s, he writes in a footnote:

      In this imperfect analogy, the lock is the PKR protein, the keys are the viral K3L’s gene product, the slightly different profiles are the single base alterations to the K3L gene, and the key copying, altering, and discarding process is the poxvirus gene accordion.

      It’s not a very good analogy.


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