Debunking the creationist myth that mutations don’t produce new and useful information

Genetic variation is a fundamental requirement for evolution, but many of the evolutionary mechanism (such as selection and genetic drift) actually remove variation from populations. Therefore, evolution is entirely reliant on the formation of new genetic information, and without it, evolution would grind to a halt. Creationists often seize this fact, and erroneously claim that evolution is impossible because we have never found a mechanism that is capable of creating new genetic information. This claim is, however, completely false, because mutations do, in fact, create new genetic information. Nevertheless, many creationists respond to that fact by insisting that mutations simply “rearrange” existing genetic information, rather than creating “new” information. Therefore, I want to briefly explain why this argument is fundamentally flawed.

Hopefully everyone recognizes this, but if not, it's Mr. DNA from Jurassic Park

Hopefully everyone recognizes this, but if not, it’s Mr. DNA from Jurassic Park

Before I can explain the problems with this argument, we need to be clear about the basics, and you need to have at least a rudimentary understanding about how DNA works. DNA (or deoxyribonucleic acid if you prefer) consists of four bases adenine (A) guanine (G) thymine (T) and cytosine (C). These four bases get arranged into groups of three, and each group of three codes for an amino acid. Those amino acids then get strung together to form a protein, and those proteins combine to form tissues. Thus, your DNA is your body’s blue-print, and it tells your body which amino acids to make, and how to combine them to make proteins, tissues, organs, etc.

Please note that although what I have presented here is the most fundamental concept for you to understand, actual DNA also includes stop codons, start codons, and many other complexities that are irrelevant for this post.

 Now that you understand the basics of DNA, we can talk about mutations. I explained them in far greater detail here, but in short, they are simply random changes to the genetic code (the ones that are important for evolution usually occur during the formation of egg and sperm cells). There are many different types of mutations such as inversions (which flip a segment of DNA), deletions (which remove base pairs), insertions (which add extra base pairs), substitutions (which insert the wrong base into a chain [e.g. a T instead of a C]), duplications (which duplicate a segment of DNA), and several others. In every case, however, they change the genetic code, and by changing the code, they can change the amino acids and ultimately the proteins that are produced (note: there is redundancy in the way that amino acids are coded, so not all mutations result in changes downstream).

At this point, we can examine creationists’ claim that mutations simply rearrange information rather than producing new information. The most obvious problem with this is simply that some mutations (like insertions) do actually insert entirely new base pairs. In other words, they don’t rearrange the code that is already there. Rather, they add new bases (i.e., new information) to that code.

The second problem is really the more important and fundamental one. Namely, this argument seems to be using the word “new” in a rather peculiar sense, because rearranging the existing bases does in fact produce a new code that often results in the production of different amino acids and new proteins. Let me illustrate. A coding strand of DNA that contains the sequence CTT would code for the amino acid Leucine. However, if a mutation rearranged those three bases so that they were TCT, that strand of DNA would code for the amino acid Serine instead of Leucine. Thus, by simply rearranging the existing bases, we created new information which produced a different amino acid. In other words, we added genetic variation to the population, because the individuals who receive that mutation will produce Serine, while the result of the population is producing Leucine. Objecting to that by claiming that “no new information has been created” is really quite silly because the fact remains that individuals with that mutation are producing a different amino acid than everyone else. Something that codes for the production of an entirely different amino acid is, by any reasonable definition, “new information” (i.e., it is information that was not there before).

A useful analogy to help you conceptualize this is to think about letters in the alphabet. The English language has 26 letters (bases), and we combine those letters to from words (amino acids). We then arrange those words into sentences (proteins), and we arrange those sentences into paragraphs (tissues). Ultimately, we can use those paragraphs to make books, essays, etc. (organisms). Now, according to creationists’ reasoning, it should be impossible to make any new information by simply rearranging those 26 letters, but that is clearly absurd. We can arrange them one way and produce the works of Shakespeare. We can arrange them another way and produce “The Origin of the Species.” We can rearrange them yet again and produce the script to a Stargate episode. Indeed, there are a virtually infinite set of possibilities, each of which contains different information, and the situation is no different for DNA. We can arrange the bases one way and get a dinosaur, and we can rearrange that code (via mutations) and get a chicken. We can rearrange it yet again and get a whale, human, tree, bacteria, mushroom, etc. This notion that making new arrangements of the four existing bases doesn’t produce new information is absurd because everyone agrees that different arrangements of those bases produce very different organisms.

A big part of the problem here once again comes back to the definition of the word “new.” Creationists seem to think that evolution requires something that is completely and totally novel, such as a new base pair or, at the very least, an entirely new amino acid that has never existed anywhere before, but that is a straw man fallacy. Evolution does not require something that has never previously existed anywhere. Rather, it simply needs to have variation. Thus, any change to the genetic code is “new information” in an evolutionary sense, because it provides variation. A useful way to think about this is that evolution doesn’t need “new” information. Rather, it needs “different” information. In other words, all that it needs is a code that is different than the one that was there before.

To further illustrate what I mean by this, it is worth mentioning that even mutations that remove bases can actually produce new information in an evolutionary sense. Going back to the alphabet example, imagine that the document in question is a recipe, and imagine that the instructions get “mutated” by the random deletion of one of the steps. That actually provides new information because the end-product will be something different than the intended product (i.e., there will be variation for the trait). The same thing happens with DNA. If you remove the bases for a particular amino acid, then the final protein product will often be different from the one that was originally coded for, and that variation is all that evolution needs, regardless of whether or not you want to describe it as “new.” To give an actual example of this, the virus that causes HIV typically uses the CKR5 protein to enter macrophages and complete its lifecycle. However, people who have deletions (a type of mutation that removes bases) on both copies of their genes for CKR5 are resistant to HIV because those mutations alter the protein, and HIV cannot bind to this new, modified protein (Dean et al. 1996; Sullivan et al. 2001). Thus, a loss of genetic material results in a new set of instructions, which causes cells to produce a protein with a new modification, and that new modification provides a beneficial function. Creationists may try to say that this example doesn’t illustrate the formation of “new” information because an existing protein was simply modified, but that is, once again, a straw man fallacy, because evolution just needs variation, and this mutation provides that (thus, from an evolutionary perspective, it is new information).

Finally, you might be tempted to protest to all of this on the grounds that, “mutations are nearly always harmful,” but that claim is a myth. Most mutations are actually neutral at the time that they occur (i.e., they are neither beneficial nor harmful; Nachman and Crowell 2000; Eyre-Walker et al. 2007). Further, although harmful mutations certainly do exist, they are selected against, so they are really irrelevant. In other words, even if there were 10,000 times as many harmful mutations as beneficial mutations (which there aren’t), that wouldn’t preclude evolution, because nature would select against the harmful ones and for the beneficial ones. On that note, I want to be absolutely, 100% clear that beneficial mutations do exist and have been well documented (Newcomb et al. 1997; Dean et al. 1996; Sullivan et al. 2001; Shaw et al. 2002, 2003; Joseph and Hall 2004; Perfeito et al. 2007; see Halligan and Keightley 2009 for a good review). Indeed, we have done experiments with bacteria were we monitored populations for many generations, and observed the formation of novel, beneficial mutations that provided the bacteria with new information that allowed them to perform a novel function that they were previously incapable of (Blount et al. 2008; more detailed explanation in the citrate section of this post).

From the Star Trek TOS episode "I, Mudd"

From the Star Trek TOS episode “I, Mudd”

In short, this notion that mutations can’t produce new genetic information is laughably absurd. DNA is simply the code that tells organisms what proteins and structures to make, and modifications to that code result in novel modifications, proteins and structures. Indeed, if you accept that dogs and cats are different because of differences in their DNA, then you have already accepted that rearranging genetic codes can in fact produce new information and result in vastly different organisms. Indeed, saying that rearranging DNA can’t produce new information is no different from saying that rearranging the letters of the alphabet can’t produce new information. Obviously it can, as is evidenced by this new blog post that I am writing. Additionally, when we say that evolution needs “new information,” we don’t mean that it needs something completely novel and totally different from anything else that has ever existed. Rather, we simply mean that there needs to be variation for traits. In other words, any slight modification to an existing trait qualifies as “new information” when talking about evolution. Finally, we have experimentally documented that mutations can produce that variation, and we have demonstrated that beneficial mutations do in fact occur and result in novel proteins that perform novel functions (i.e., the mutations created new information).

Literature Cited

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12 Responses to Debunking the creationist myth that mutations don’t produce new and useful information

  1. You are working much too hard here. DNA contains information; mutation produces new DNA; therefore mutation produces new information. That is all that really needs to be said, and the creationist/intelligent design argument is based on obfuscation about different meanings of “information”.

    I sometimes say that mutation produces new information; selection winnows that new information for meaning; and the combination of the two is necessary to generate meaningful new information. But this depends on a highly subjective concept of meaningfulness, and I would welcome a better formulation

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      I completely agree with you that it is that simple, but I have generally found that creationists reject very simple explanations like that, and analogies like the alphabet help.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. voodoobike says:

    Creationists actively and knowingly twist the meaning of science to give some comfort to their predisposed beliefs, denial of new evidence, and contradictory information. Personally I don’t understand how anyone can think in this static way that cannot imagine a world where we discover new things and constantly change our views and very realities through scientific discovery. Although I love this post and it’s explanation, it will unlikely sway many Creationist opinions. This unyielding steadfast mindset is the very nature that allows anyone remain a Creationist. Some Creationists think they can debate with scientists and science minded people, and indeed it takes skill in using logical fallacies to seemingly sound credible. Personally I need to counter with my clear grasp of these local fallacy definitions which are tricky to grasp yet useful in so many ways.

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  3. aFrankAngle says:

    Well done … Just another example of the willingness of creationists to twist and distort anything that threatens their perspective …. all along, preying on the religious who misinformed and under-informed.

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  4. will Brooks says:

    IF you are at all intersted in actually drilling down into the details and have the courage to test your worldview you may want to check out ‘Can mutations create new information?’ by highly qualified Ph.D scientists Dr Robert W. Carter.

    Going by past form I strongly suspect you will resort to your usual prejudiced putdowns which only serve to reveal that when it comes to the hard facts and evidence of microbiology and genetics that you are in want of knowledge and understanding.

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    • FWIW, Carter (of Creation Ministries International) says “Can mutations produce new information? Yes, depending on what you mean by ‘new’ and ‘information’. ” He goes on to say that they cannot account for all of evolution. His PhD is in marine biology, neither genetics nor information theory, and the problems he raises were solved by the likes of JBS Haldane almost a century ago.

      Earlier iIn the same article, Carter says “Many evolutionists use the existence of mutation as evidence for long-term evolution”. Bollocks. This is like saying that many atronomers use the existenbce of gravity as evidence for the orbits of the planets. Back to front; evolution was established science long before mutations were identified.

      So yes, I have drilled down and yes, I have read Carter and yes, I have put aside my admitted susicion of CMI (I did one learn something new from CMI-type YECs!) and examined his competence and his arguments. My conclusions are given above. I shall say no more here

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      Carter’s argument fundamentally misunderstands evolution. One of his opening lines is, “Evolution requires the existence of a process for the invention of new information from scratch,” and that basic statement is reiterated numerous times and seems to be something of his thesis, but it is a complete straw man. Evolution does not require the formation of new information from scratch, rather it requires a mechanism that slightly alters existing information, which is exactly what mutations do. For example, he said, “Saying a gene can be copied and then used to prototype a new function is not what evolution requires, for this cannot account for radically new functionality.” Yet he is totally wrong about this. All that evolution needs is slight variation on a existing traits, and those mutations and variation can indeed cause “radically new functionality.” See, for example, the papers that I cited on the evolution of bacteria in the citrate experiment. The bacteria did, in fact, mutate to have a radically new function.

      Indeed, his entire argument is nothing more than an irreducible complexity argument. For example, he said, “These are not simple things, but amazing processes that involve multiple steps, and functions that involve circular and/or ultra-complex pathways will be selected away before they have a chance to develop into a working system.” However, we have known the answer to the irreducible complexity argument for well over a century (indeed, Darwin himself explained it). In short, things don’t need to function for some grand endpoint. Rather, they just need to function for something in order to be selected. I explained in more detail here https://thelogicofscience.com/2015/04/26/reducing-irreducible-complexity/

      His article is full of numerous other misconceptions and scientific inaccuracies, but I think that the point has been made. To be clear, this is not a “prejudiced putdown.” Rather, he is simply wrong about the facts.

      Finally, you seem to be committing an appeal to authority fallacy. Carter is not “highly qualified.” Beyond the points that Paul made, he has published a grand total of 5 peer-reviewed publications. Having a PhD does not make you a qualified scientist. Conducting actual scientific research and contributing to the scientific body of knowledge does. By comparison, I have over 10 peer-reviewed publications, and am half way through a PhD on population genetics. So 5 papers is really quite pathetic. Further, let’s not forget all of the thousands of publishing geneticists and evolutionary biologists who all agree that he is fundamentally misunderstanding basic concepts about biology. To be clear, I am saying that he is wrong because he is unqualified, or that he is wrong because I or other scientists say that he is wrong. Rather, my point is that you described him as if he is an expert in the field, which is totally incorrect and extremely misleading.

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  5. Max says:

    Why do creationists argue that mutations don’t produce new genetic information? I am from India and although we have plenty of illiterate people, not a single person who has at least attended high school never argue scientific concepts such as evolution even if they might believe in God.

    Is this phenomenon – literate people arguing scientific concepts – seen only in the US? Or is it seen in other countries too?

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    • Max says:

      Just to clarify, by “never argue”, I meant if you don’t already know enough about that topic, then you wouldn’t argue with a scientist and say he/she is wrong. For example, if you are a rocket scientist and you’re expertise is on fuel, I am not going to say “You’re wrong, you should use kerosene to fuel your rockets.”

      But on the other hand, if you’re studying a subject and you know enough on that subject, you would argue.

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      • Fallacy Man says:

        The US is definitely the hot-bed of creationism, but it’s not just the use. Indeed, Ken Ham (who runs one of the largest creationist organizations) is actually from Australia.

        As far as why, they are just desperate for a scientific justification for their religious beliefs.

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  6. Tip. Pit.

    I used the same three letters there to create two different words. Don’t see why I can’t do the same thing when I have four to play with.

    Liked by 2 people

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