This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 103
2005 Second Paper
On Serendip

Mutations, Evolution, Questions and Faith

Norma Altshuler

How do creationists treat mutations - random genetic changes that can result in changing traits or characteristics? At the core of evolutionary theory is the idea that organisms with favorable mutations flourish and those with negative mutations are weeded out through natural selection; when creationists that mutations occur, how do they refute the story of evolution? What is different about these creationists' methods of mobilizing science?

In this paper, I will analysis two online sources - "Scientists Speak Out Against Mutation," from the Creation-Evolution Encyclopedia and "Can genetic mutations produce positive changes in living creatures?" from Christian Answers - that represent creationist arguments about mutations that I found in my survey of websites on this topic. I chose to limit the number of web pages so that I could closely analysis the arguments each page. Drawing on arguments made by biologists who are proponents of evolutionary theory, I attempt to respond to creationists' concerns from this perspective. Both sources mobilize science to support fundamentalist Christian explanations of nature. So how do the non-Christian sources differ? As this paper will illustrate, these explanations ask more complicated and more extensive questions than creationists do. Finally, speaking to the heart of this question of what makes for compelling and useful explanations of the natural world, my paper will conclude that for those inclined towards evolutionary explanations, continued inquiry beyond seemingly suitable explanations is at the heart of good science.

My first source is an entry from the online Creation-Evolution Encyclopedia, which purports to be "the most comprehensive source of scientific facts and statements on origins." The website that I analysis is drawn from a book authored by Vance Ferrell; little information is available about the Christian publishers, Pathlights. The Encyclopedia seeks to disprove evolutionary theory with scientific tools - to use comprehensive scientific information to support creationism. The website aims to lead people towards "happier, better lives" as they learn "the truth about origins." (1) The authors do not state that these benefits will come from divine favor; rather, they claim that evolutionary theory lowers morality and stress that its scientific fallacies cloud clear, rational thought and discourse about life. (2) Apart from the moral goals, their aims are, in many senses, scientific. The idea that scientific methods of thinking are valuable intellectual tools is widespread; one reason Bryn Mawr College requires students to study natural sciences is to cultivate "facility with... techniques of scientific inquiry [and] logical reasoning." (3) Indeed, this course is designed to be an ongoing conversation in which all benefit from each others' discourses. (4)

Rather than outlining a scientific argument, however, the sections I draw on , entitled "Scientists Speak Out Against Mutation," contain quotations - the majority of which the site's authors claim come from people who are "not known to be creationist[s]" - that raise questions about the validity of evolutionary theory. The compilers intend to use scientists' own words to demonstrate that evolution does not make sense. This site argues that mutations are so rare that evolution is mathematically impossible, and that mutations are almost always harmful. Further, it contends that there is no evidence that mutations account for the emergence of new species or of increasing complexity - that even if mutations could change a species no one has observed the formation of new life from mutations. (5), (6)

At first glance, some of these contentions seem compelling. Certain scientific sources, however, have found conflicting information about the probability and benefit of mutations, and their ability to create change. These arguments are based on greater engagement with biological processes than presented in "Scientists Speak Out Against Mutation" - which simply complies quotations, most of them more than 40 years old, out of context. In the next paragraphs, I will demonstrate this point by explaining and analyzing evolutionary counter-arguments.

Most mutations, Biology textbook editors Neil Campbell and Judy Reese argue, are harmless - and many harmful mutations are not passed on genetically. Some mutations adversely affect organisms, but others are beneficial. (7)One way to account for increasing complexity occurs when parts of an organism shifts functions. The bacterial flagellum, which acts as a propeller, is composed of 30 proteins that must be arranged in a precise structure. While biologist Michael Behe argued that this organelle's complexity pointed towards intelligent design, other scientists have argued that the proteins initially had other functions - some independently acted as a pump for poising other cells. (8), (9) Lighter bones originally enable bird ancestors to climb trees; as wings gradually emerged as a result of random genetic mutations, flying was possible because of changes to bones. ((7)

Furthermore, species changes emerge through mutations to hox genes, which direct the development of body parts. Evidence suggests that around 520 years ago a duplication of these genes produced the first vertebrates; a second duplications, which about 425 years ago, allowed for even more complexity, such as jaws and limbs. Changes to the timing of development through hox mutations can alter form of the adult species. Some salamanders are able to live in trees because their foot growth ends sooner than salamanders that live on the ground. Shorter limbs and more webbings means they can climb up trees.

But what about The Creation-Evolution Encyclopedia's concern that no one has observed increasing complexity? An extensive article about flagella emergence suggests that scientists evaluate explanations based on an explanatory model's identification of an ancestral protein with a different function, the probability that this protein might change function, and the systems in place to support the new function's continuation. (10) Explanations are evaluated, in other words, based on their plausibility - this source looks beyond observations to different ways of asking questions and evaluating information.

My second source uses a different format to question scientific explanations of mutations. A section of the website Christian Answers, a comprehensive resource on Christian issues, the creationist sections attempt to "[win] people of all ages... to the Lord" and "[help" great numbers of Christians... in many ways throughout the world." The article "Can genetic mutations produce positive changes in living creatures?" purports to use "scientific tools of measurement and observation" to determine the actual state and origin of the world. (11) Like the Creation-Evolution Encyclopedia, it mobilizes science to support Creationism, although it uses original prose rather than a compilation of quotations. It also differs by focuses more directly on the benefits of divine favor - salvation.

The article contends that scientific research shows that mutations do not account for the chance emergence of positive traits. Rather, the prevalence of negative mutations demonstrates that the natural world is increasingly chaotic and the human genetic code will eventually become "gibberish." "Christian hope stands as the only light" in the darkness and destruction inherent in the laws of nature - in the increasing entropy of the universe.

As an evolutionary response to my first source might argue, mutations can explain the development of positive traits. The contention about increasing entropy is related to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that all closed systems tend towards greater entropy, or disorder, over time. (12) However, organisms are not a closed system - the interact with the rest of the world and universe - and so increasing disorder in an organism is not necessary, as long as the universe becomes increasingly chaotic. (9) This argument engages with (and cites explicitly) the scientific principle that it is based on by pointing to the Second Law's limit to closed system. Furthermore, life makes use of probability - of falling apart - to draw out energy. Mutations that move an organism towards complexity do not require a radical increase in the amount of order in the universe. (12) Sometimes organisms release less ordered forms, such as heat, than the materials they ingest. (13) These explanation engage with the particular biological processes - they look at whether order actually increases based on how organisms operate and at what organisms emit.

Good scientific explanations engage with the particulars of systems and scientific rules they analyze, and look towards new and complicated ways of evaluating information. Engaging with creationist arguments can provide a powerful stimulus for doing so. Many individuals on both sides of the debate about evolution are embedded in their beliefs and extremely skeptical of any arguments from the other side. In my early stages of research I found myself unable to explain how evolution could account for cross-species change despite considerable efforts. My faith in the theory of evolution, rather than specific questions that I had about creationists' arguments, drove me to continue to look for explanations. However, I then could look at creationist and evolutionary sources, and compare the rigor of their arguments. Some make creationist arguments for non-scientific reasons, but both sources I examine purport to look for scientific explanations. If one uses these methods, one should be open to changing one's answers about evolution. My experience and sources suggest, however, that even if one is grounded in a set of beliefs one can engage with more rigorous scientific methods and questions. And perhaps, at least for some, experiences with scientific methods will lead to a greater willingness to question their personal evolutionary articles of faith.

1) the homepage of The Creation-Evolution Encyclopedia
2) Why this Encyclopedia , the mission statement of The Creation-Evolution Encyclopedia
3) The Bryn Mawr College course catalog
4) Course presumptions for Biology 103 at Bryn Mawr College, from the Serendip website
5) Part one and 6) part two of quotations complied to demonstrate that mutations undermine evolutionary theory, from the Creation-Evolution Encyclopedia
7) Campbell, N., & Reece, J. (2005). Biology. San Francisco, Pearson Education Inc., 459-486.
8) An article about the debate between proponents of intelligent design and evolution, from the New Yorker
9) A special report on intelligent design and evolution from the American Institute of Biological Science's educational website
10) An article about the origin of the flagellum from a website that responds to arguments about intelligent design
11) An article about mutations from, an extensive evangelical site
12) A wikipedia article on the Second Law of Thermodynamics
13) Lecture notes from a biology course at West Virginia University

| Course Home | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 11:57:53 CDT