Press Release: Creationists Wrong Again


Once again, the creationists have blundered when it comes to science, this time presenting misinformation about the universality of the genetic code.

The latest creationist attack on the public understanding of science comes in connection with a new 8-hour PBS series that will greatly expand the public’s understanding of a fundamental scientific theory, evolution. Two years in the making, Evolution, produced by WGBH-Boston and Clear Blue Sky Productions, will be shown nationwide on the PBS network on four consecutive nights beginning September 24, for two hours each evening.

“Although virtually every reputable scientist in the world agrees that evolution is good science,” said Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, “some people still refuse to accept it, mainly because they regard it as incompatible with their religious beliefs. So it is no surprise that there is a creationist backlash against the PBS series.”

The first example of bad science came from the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, the creationist arm of the Discovery Institute, a policy organization based in Seattle, Washington. On September 10, the CRSC distributed their PBS Press Release #1, quoting two of their Discovery Institute Senior Fellows, biochemist Michael Behe and biologist Jonathan Wells.

Behe stated that, "The supposed 'fact' of the universal genetic code is based on outdated science that has been invalidated by more recent research.”

Added Wells, "Back in the early 1970s, evolutionary biologists did think that a given piece of DNA specified the same protein subunit in every living thing, and that the genetic code was thus universal. This was unlikely to have happened by chance, so it was interpreted as evidence that every organism had inherited its genetic code from a single common ancestor. In 1979, however, exceptions to the code were found in mitochondria, the tiny energy factories inside cells. Biologists subsequently found exceptions in bacteria and in the nuclei of algae and single-celled animals. It is now clear that the genetic code is not the same in all living things, and that it does not provide 'powerful evidence' that all living things 'evolved on a single tree of life.'"

Reports of the demise of this particular piece of evidence for evolution, however, are premature. James Hanken, Professor of Zoology and Curator in Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, told NCSE that the claims of Behe and Wells that the genetic code does not provide evidence for the tree of life were “so bizarre as to be almost beyond belief,” and added that they “fly in the face of well established and accepted facts."

The reason? As explained by Dr. Norman Pace, Professor in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado and member of the National Academy of Sciences:
A few of the 64 code-words can occur as slight variants in a very few organisms. Those exceptions, however, are known to have derived from organisms that had the standard code. Thus, the code is historically universal. Even in those organisms with the occasional exceptional code-word, the rest of the code is the same as in all other organisms. More important, even, is the fact that the complex machine that interprets the code and carries out protein synthesis, the ribosome, is fundamentally the same in all life forms. The common heritage of all life on Earth is proven beyond doubt [emphasis added].
As if the CRSC’s misinformation were not enough, the Florence, Kentucky young-earth creationist organization, Answers in Genesis, promises to post daily responses to each program on their web site. The responses will be written by AIG staffer Jonathan Sarfati, who in his book Refuting Evolution claims that there is strong scientific evidence for Noah’s Ark and that geological evidence indicates that the earth is only a few thousand years old.

Eugenie Scott commented, “We anticipate that the Evolution series will help the public understand this fascinating scientific field. Because creationists are planning to assault evolution, evidence, and the integrity of science, NCSE — in collaboration with leading experts in relevant scientific fields — is prepared to help the public to separate accepted scientific fact from creationist fiction.”

Check the NCSE web page for periodic updates on this issue.