When is a non-function not a non-function?

Yesterday I looked at orphan genes in the general context of providence, and cited a New Scientist article showing the increasing degree to which they are thought to arise in non-coding DNA sequences. In other words, in the proverbial “Junk DNA”.

There has, of course, been much furore on that last subject, particularly over ENCODE’s recent definition of “function” as “transcription”, with the ensuing heated debate between ID and ND-skeptics on the one hand, and True Believer Scientists on the other, about what that means in terms of “real” function.

It’s a silly debate really, if one thinks about it. “Function” is defined in the OED as “mode of action by which something fulfils its purpose,” and that’s how the word is loosely used throughout the scientific literature on genes. But scientifically (if one has excluded the discussion of teleology) it’s an improper use of the word. And for those whose denial of function to Junk DNA is in conscious opposition to “Creationists” it’s merely analogical, for there isn’t actually “Purpose” at any level of the processes of life. “Function” to them is actually shorthand for “the appearance of function”, that is, what emerges from the illusion of design.”

Classically, in the one-gene-one-protein era, it meant that gene A functioned as the template for protein X (that in turn functioned as, say, a metabolic enzyme), but in the galactic complexity of inducers, promoters, inhibitors, overlapping genes, alternative splicing, retro-transposons and so on that now are being shown to be what biology actually does, the concept of “function” becomes that much more nebulous.

So it is that when some function is found in non-coding DNA, the response is apt to be that life uses whatever happens to be lying around, but that doesn’t make the rest of non-coding DNA functional. Which, being interpreted strictly according to the naturalist metaphysic, means that although one piece of apparently purposeless DNA has come under the illusion of design through the appearance of function, that doesn’t mean the rest of the genome has illusory design or apparent function…

What information is actually being conveyed there? Nothing, as far as I can see, beyond: (a) “I deny teleology on principle” and (b) “I am ignorant of any causal relationships between large chunks of the genome and living processes.” Both those statements are purely subjective, because “function” is a convenient human construct on a process with, in reality, no purpose at all.

So if gene A codes for protein X, on the naturalist paradigm, it’s just a contingent fact, the result of the blind watchmaker’s stumbling around over 3 billion years. If it should turn out that, because cells leave vast amounts of uncontrolled mutating “junk” lying around, they have a consistent source of genetic innovation that drives the whole process of evolution, that too is a brute fact from the same cause. But if this were to explain the process of evolution, how is that genetic materials repository any less “functional” than a protein coding gene?

Such mental acrobatics are easily avoided, it seems to me, if one has a high view of divine providence and teleology. Gene A codes for protein X, in the end, because God wanted protein X to function in that cell for whatever purpose we observe (or indeed don’t observe). And repetitive element M exists and becomes incorporated into orphan gene F (vital for the unique existence of species Q) because that’s how God chose to manage the creation of Q.

In the one view, nothing has true function, and so calling DNA “junk” means nothing more or less than does calling gene A, or species Q, an unintended, unplanned accident. In the other view, God’s will is being fulfilled by every happenstance, and “junk” is just as meaningless a term in DNA, genes and species equally.

What becomes silly, and causes all the argument, is when either or both sides pollute their worldviews with metaphysics derived from the other. The materialist who insists that some things have function and others do not is denying his own conviction that nothing actually has purpose. The Christian trying to distinguish what is the outworking of God’s will and what is just “junk” is denying what is supposed to be his conviction that all things in heaven and earth were made by, through and for the Logos of God.

The whole debate, then, is being conducted entirely between metaphysically confused people.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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