We’re Looking for a Few Good Mutations

Question from Nick:
How do you refute the argument that it is mathematically impossible for “good” mutations to occur and that evolution is mathematically impossible, and thus not a real theory, but a pseudoscience?

Short answer by SmartLX:
With evidence.

Okay, longer answer by SmartLX:
The idea that beneficial mutations are “mathematically” impossible is based on easily addressed misunderstandings of the process. The fact that the idea is so widely held by creationists despite being so easily addressed speaks to a common reluctance among their number to accept simple facts, if those facts are inconvenient.

A very simple counter to the claim is the fact that most individual mutations can potentially be reversed in subsequent generations. This is an observed and well-known phenomenon straightforwardly called reverse mutation. The list of reversible mutations includes many that would be regarded as “bad” or detrimental to survival and procreation. The reverse of these mutations would by definition be “good”, so there’s no barrier to this whatsoever.

The other effective counter is the set of beneficial mutations that have been observed. You can look them up on Google, or follow up on the short list given here. Most famously, the Lenski E.coli experiment tightly controlled an isolated population of E.coli and documented its acquisition, via repeatable mutation, of the ability to metabolise (eat) the citrate in its environment. The bacteria couldn’t do it, then they could. Creationists did everything they could to discredit this and failed pretty badly. We had our own little argument over it in the comments here (search the page for keyword “Lenski”).

Three Ducks In A Row

Question from Bryson:
1. Based on Mendel’s work, only genes, not physical acquired traits are passed to the next generation. Now, based on that, what mechanism in nature creates new genetic codes to build an improved animal? None that I know of. none that Richard Dawkins himself can think of as when asked he had no answer. So there would be no inheritable variations for natural selection to choose from. Now I know that some evolutionists have mutation as the answer. But mutation only damages DNA, it doesn’t produce new information and as proved by scientists, there’s no beneficial mutations in existence.

2. Also the Cambridge discovery. The oldest fossils ever found on earth, showing different species of the same “family” suddenly appearing at the same time with no links connecting them. Everyone says evolution is proven fact, when in actuality, evidence is extremely rare, and highly inconclusive at best.

3. Also, when scientists tried, they found that even on paper, you can’t take a cell below 200 genes. And in 06, they concluded in reality, it actually is impossible to go below 397 genes. A cell needs a certain amount of things to live. Scientist call this the minimal gene concept. Well…to find the origin of life you would have to go down to 0 and build up.

What is the atheist response to this?

Answer by SmartLX:
Three very old creationist canards. The word is appropriate because it defines them as unfounded, and slightly funny because it’s also the French word for a duck. I’ve numbered them for reference.

1. Gene duplication, transposable element protein domestication, lateral gene transfer, gene fusion/fission, de novo gene origination, and probably more. Several of these happen during mutation. The Lenski E.coli experiment, despite what Conservapedia has claimed, is a pretty clear-cut example of a positive mutation directly observed. Richard Dawkins wasn’t dumbstruck because he didn’t have an answer, he was furious because the nature of the question made him realise a pair of creationists were in his home under false pretenses. Here’s his explanation of the event. Even if you don’t believe his account, in the same piece he gives a complete answer to the question, and it stands on its own merits.

2. Fossils are rare to begin with, but when you go all the way back to when animals didn’t have skeletons or hard shells of any kind, there are hardly any at all. I’m not familiar with the specific “discovery” you refer to (link to it if you like), but that’s generally why fossils appear to start off already diversified. It hardly matters when we share more than half our genome with all animals and even certain plants, indicating a common ancestry.

3.The “minimal gene set” is a few hundred proteins, not genes, and it was easier for them to come together when they did than it would be now. Naturally occurring amino acids were all over the world and throughout the sea, and there was no other life to consume them or otherwise interfere. The chances of the specific protein set coming together were tiny, but this was more than balanced out by the vast amount of space, materials and time the chemicals had to get it right, and also the number of different possible combinations that would have had the same effect. And of course it only had to happen once.