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Dr. Richard Lenski’s long-term evolution experiment with E. coli is commonly used to support evolution without distinction between observable limited change and unobservable molecules-to-man evolution. Many publications in scientific journals have described the mutations that have provided these bacteria with a benefit in their laboratory environment. A close look at the biochemical basis behind these mutations shows that the vast majority of fitness benefits are due to the disruption, degradation, or loss of unique genetic information. Furthermore, mutations that result in a gain of novel information have not been observed. As the idea of evolution from a simple, common ancestor requires the accumulation of novel genetic information over a long period of time, Lenski’s experiment then actually provides evidence against this idea and instead supports a Biblical creation model of life and origins.
The word evolution has been hijacked. It is being used for both observable changes and unobservable changes.
This obfuscation was one of Ken Ham’s important points during the famous debate that occurred between him and Bill Nye. When discussing evolution a distinction must be made between the observable process of natural selection and the unobservable idea of molecules-to-man evolution. The kind of limited change that we can (and repeatedly) see is when natural selection (and other mechanisms) leads to variation within the originally created kinds. On the other hand, the unobservable idea of molecules-to-man evolution purports that small changes building up over a lengthy period of time has brought about the current biosphere from a common, simple ancestor.
Lenski’s long-term evolution experiment has been especially focused upon and cited by secularists in support of evolution. Unfortunately, the distinction between observable variation and the unobservable idea of molecules-to-man evolution is rarely upheld. However, a close look at the experiment actually provides evidence against molecules-to-man evolution and instead supports a biblical creation model of life and origins.
Dr. Richard E. Lenski is an evolutionary biologist widely recognized for his long-term evolution experiment where several populations of Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria have been adapting to laboratory media for over 60,000 generations. Though fitness gains decelerated after rapid increases within the first few thousand generations, an especially large fitness increase was observed when some E. coli populations evolved a “key innovation.” It is this moment in particular that captures the attention of many molecules-to-man evolution proponents so it is important for Christians to have a good understanding of the experiment in order that we may defend and demonstrate the truth of God’s Word through its findings. I hope to provide such information in what follows.
Lenski’s experiment demonstrates that the vast majority of fitness benefits are actually due to the disruption, degradation, or loss of genetic information
To investigate the experiment I reviewed 26 peer-reviewed, scientific articles authored by Dr. Lenski et al. published between 1991–2012 (see footnotes 1–16; 18–27). I was especially interested in papers that discussed the genetic changes in the E. coli populations as they adapted to their environment. This is far from an exhaustive review; however, these papers represent the major genetic findings from over 20 years of the experiment.
The publications allege that several genes underwent a genetic mutation that conferred a benefit to the bacteria. In no particular order, I will review each of these examples and discuss the known or hypothesized biochemical basis of how this benefit was achieved. The scientific jargon may be confusing, but take special note of any trends regarding the mechanism of these changes.
The unobservable idea of molecules-to-man evolution hypothesizes that all living things have been derived from a common, simple ancestor in our distant past. This would require the accumulation of novel information over a long period of time through genetic mutations. However, Lenski’s experiment demonstrates that the vast majority of fitness benefits are actually due to the disruption, degradation, or loss of genetic information. A possible exception to this tendency is the evolution of citrate utilization in aerobic conditions; however, no novel information was gained in this instance as this ability was the result of previously existing information being rearranged and used in a different way. The novelty here was that no one had ever observed a promoter capture event for a gene involved in central metabolism.
It must be remembered that fitness improvements or even gains of protein function are not equivalent to a gain of novel information (GONI). A loss of information occurring in a regulatory region may improve gene product function by increasing its expression, but this would not represent a GONI. Neither would a mutation that brings back a function that was previously lost, a decrease in specificity of a protein’s function, a rearrangement of already existing information, the duplication of existing information, or the general increase in diversity over time. A GONI must involve a mutational event or series of events that enable the production of novel protein(s) that can perform a specific and previously unknown activity. This type of mutation has not been observed.
Findings from this experiment demonstrate that the vast majority of adaptations are due to the loss of unique genetic information. This is utterly opposed to the requirements of molecules-to-man evolution and is why Lenski’s experiment actually provides evidence against the truth of this idea.
In the biblical creation model, God created various kinds of living organisms in a highly complex state. Ever since the Fall of man in Genesis 3, genetic mutations have resulted in the degradation of information that, while having many negative consequences, come with the positive benefit of allowing populations to diversify and adapt to their new environments. When defending the truth of creation, we must remember that natural selection only exists due to the entrance of death into the world through sin (Romans 5:12) and proclaim that our only hope of salvation from sin and death is Jesus Christ.