Setting the Record Straight: Stephen Meyer and "Junk" DNA - Evolution News & Views

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Setting the Record Straight: Stephen Meyer and "Junk" DNA

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Apparently, you can't review a book on Amazon if Amazon thinks you know the author. A recent reviewer on the online retailer's website gave Stephen Meyer's 2009 book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design one star out of five, labeling it "useless" because Meyer "doesn't address 'junk' DNA at all." As Dr. Meyer's assistant and a media-relations specialist at Discovery Institute, I wanted to clarify to this reviewer and other interested parties that, actually, Meyer does discuss the issue of "junk" DNA in multiple places in Signature in the Cell.

So I posted a review of the book highlighting quotes and page numbers, designed to plainly lay out Dr. Meyer's relevant views. My review didn't go live on Amazon, even after their 48-hour time frame had passed. When I contacted them, a customer rep replied, saying that they could not post my review "because your account activity indicates that you know the author." The email continued, saying "any reviews that could be viewed as advertising, promotional, or misleading will not be posted."

Obviously my review, using facts to clarify Dr. Meyer's discussion of a topic, was not advertising, promotional, or misleading. I am certainly guilty of knowing Dr. Meyer, but far from that being a source of unfair bias, my association with Meyer and his written work actually puts me in a good position to make clarifications like these about his books. When I asked a friend to post the clarifying review under his own name on Amazon, it was again rejected.

It seems someone -- or something -- is keeping a close watch on reviews submitted at Amazon.

Here's the text of the forbidden review. Essentially, it's a reminder that, from a design perspective, intelligent design proponents expected (and predicted) function in the nonprotein-coding regions of the genome long before the results of the ENCODE project were released in 2012.

This review is meant to clarify to prospective readers that Dr. Stephen Meyer does indeed discuss so-called "junk" DNA in Signature in the Cell, revealing important functions performed by these nonprotein-coding regions of the genome. A reviewer by the username of "Explorer," who posted a one-star review at Amazon in May 2014, expressed disappointment at Meyer's supposed omission of the topic. The reader did not read closely enough.

On page 406-407 of Chapter 18, Dr. Meyer addresses the issue of "junk" DNA. He first explains that neo-Darwinism predicts that nonfunctional DNA would tend to accumulate in the genomes of organisms, "a kind of remnant of whatever undirected process first produced functional information in the cell." He goes on to quote scientists [and other scholars] who adhere to this hypothesis, including Michael Shermer, Ken Miller, and Philip Kitcher. Then, Meyer presents the view of ID theorists, quoting a prediction of ID researcher William Dembski in 1998: "On an evolutionary view we expect a lot of useless DNA. If, on the other hand, organisms are designed, we expect DNA, as much as possible, to exhibit function." Meyer affirms that "the discovery in recent years that nonprotein-coding DNA performs a diversity of important biological functions has confirmed this prediction." He goes on to present a list of ten important functions of nonprotein-coding regions of the genome, including regulating DNA replication, regulating transcription, influencing the proper folding and maintenance of chromosomes, controlling RNA processing, editing, and splicing, and others, noting that in some cases, "junk" DNA has even been found to code functional genes.

Meyer sums up his argument this way (p. 407):

Indeed, far from being "junk," as materialistic theories of evolution assumed, the nonprotein-coding DNA directs the use of other information in the genome, just as an operating system directs the use of the information contained in various application programs stored in a computer. In any case, contrary to the often heard criticism that the theory makes no predictions, intelligent design not only makes a discriminating prediction about the nature of "junk DNA"; recent discoveries about nonprotein-coding DNA confirm the prediction it makes.
In a footnote on the same page, Meyer references a letter submitted to the journal Science in 1994 by pro-ID scientist Forrest M. Mims III. The letter, which was rejected by the publication, suggests that looks can be deceiving when it comes to nonprotein-coding DNA:
They have always reminded me of strings of NOP (No OPeration) instructions. A do-nothing string of NOPs might appear as "junk code" to the uninitiated, but, when inserted in a program loop, a string of NOPs can be used to achieve a precise time delay. Perhaps the "junk DNA" puzzle would be solved more rapidly if a few more computer scientists would make the switch to molecular biology.
Meyer also reviews the functions of nonprotein-coding regions of the genome in the Epilogue to Signature in the Cell. On page 464, he notes that
the design logic of an information-processing system precludes carrying a preponderance of useless code, especially in biological settings where such excess would impose a burdensome energy cost on the cell." Rather, Meyer argues, nonprotein-coding DNA "provides services and needed functions to the protein-coding DNA during gene expression.
The prediction that "junk" DNA is actually functional is just one expectation of intelligent design. Meyer details a dozen other ID-inspired predictions in Appendix A at the end of the book.

He wrote all this in 2009's Signature in the Cell before the results of the ENCODE project were released in the fall of 2012. ENCODE, a follow-up to the Human Genome Project, is an ambitious research project conducted by a worldwide consortium of research groups aiming to identify all functional elements in the human genome. In September 2012, a groundbreaking series of papers were published in the journal Nature reporting the results of the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project, which detected evidence of function for the "vast majority" of the human genome. Titled "An integrated encyclopedia of DNA elements in the human genome," the paper finds an "unprecedented number of functional elements," where "a surprisingly large amount of the human genome" appears functional. Based upon current knowledge, the paper concludes that at least 80% of the human genome is now known to be functional.

Although the debate continues on how to interpret the results of ENCODE, John Stamatoyannopoulos, a principle investigator for ENCODE at the University of Washington, sums up: "there is a tremendous amount of activity encoded in the genome -- much more than researchers had suspected."

Also note that Dr. Meyer discusses "junk" DNA in his response to eminent evolutionary biologist Francisco Ayala published in a follow-up volume called Signature of Controversy: Responses to Critics of Signature in the Cell. Meyer writes: "According to Ayala, the distribution of a particular sequence (the Alu sequence), which he asserts contains genetic nonsense, suggests a sloppy, unintelligent editor, not an intelligent designer." Meyer refutes Ayala's claims, stating that Short Interspersed Nuclear Element (SINE) sequences, of which Alu is one member, "perform numerous formatting and regulatory functions in the genomes of all organisms in which they have been found." He concludes his response to Ayala by listing (with scientific paper citations) several lower-level and higher-level genomic formatting functions performed by Alu sequences. These include dynamically partitioning one gene file from another on the chromosome (Lunyak et al., 2007), providing DNA nodes for signal transduction pathways or binding sites for hormone receptors (Jacobson et al., 2009; Laperriere et al., 2004), "bar coding" particular segments for chromatin looping between promoter and enhancer elements (Ford and Thanos, 2010), and others.

Again, Dr. Meyer addresses "junk" DNA in Signature in the Cell and the companion book Signature of Controversy. In both volumes, he presents lists (with citations) of numerous functions of the nonprotein-coding regions of the genome. The latest findings in genomic research continue to confirm the predictions made by Meyer and others in the intelligent design research community.