Functions of endogenous retroviruses does nothing for intelligent design

Scanning electron micrograph of HIV-1 (in green) budding from cultured lymphocyte.

On August 21, 2008, Casey Luskin wrote Large Scale Function for Endogenous Retroviruses: Intelligent Design Prediction Fulfilled While Another Darwinist Argument Bites the Dust. In this post, Luskin uses a recent article in Bioinformatics by Conley et al. to attack a piece of evidence brought up by Douglas Theobald in his 29+ Evidences for Macroevolution. This article can be found at TalkOrigins, and is a must read for anyone who is interested in the evolution debate.

Short response:

Luskin is not really addressing the evidence provided by Theobald. Luskin says that new evidence shows that endogenous retroviruses have function. Theobald never addressed this issue. Therefore, Luskin’s point is moot and should be disregarded as such.

Full Response:

The piece of evidence in question here concerns the presence of endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) found throughout genomes. When a retrovirus (such as HIV or HPV) infects a person, the virus gets incorporated into the person’s DNA. If a germ cell gets infected by one of these viruses, then it will become part of the offspring’s genome. Once it has become part of the genome, it is endogenous and will be passed down to successive generations.

Because these ERVs are passed down to offspring, one should be able to trace the introduction of different ERVs through evolutionary history by examining phylogenetic trees. As pointed out by Theobald, this is in fact what we see when we look at the ape family or the felines. We never see an ERV in the same position in two different distantly related apes without seeing it in the intervening species. So this provides strong support to evolutionary theory. An excellent overview of this can be found in episode 113 of the Evolution 101 podcast.

So how does Luskin try to disprove this evidence? He discusses the Bioinformatics article that points to ERVs affecting transcription of genes. Luskin states:

Douglas Theobald claims that “Endogenous retroviruses provide yet another example of molecular sequence evidence for universal common descent.” The presumption behind his argument is that endogenous retroviruses (ERVs) are functionless stretches of “junk” DNA that persist because they are “selfish”-but they have no function for the organism… The force of Theobald’s argument thus depends upon the premise that ERVs are selfish genetic “junk” that do not necessarily perform any useful function for their host.

However, this is not at all the point of Theobald’s argument. He says nothing about whether the ERVs are able to affect the function of genes. This is clearly a strawman that Luskin created for his uninformed readers.

The focus here is not if the ERVs have a function, it is do their positions in the genome match what a phylogenetic tree would predict.  The fact that ERVs affect gene expression is not unknown or unexpected. For one thing, retroviruses utilize their host cell’s machinery to express their own genes. So if the retrovirus gets put into the genome near another gene, why wouldn’t it affect the gene?

The real thing to ask yourself, or someone from the Discovery Institute, is why a Designer would need to put the skeletons of retroviruses by genes to effect its expression?  Other genes do not have these remnants of retroviruses and seem to function just fine.  This should really be the focus of someone interested in reality, but we know proponents of intelligent design are not interested in what is going on.

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7 Responses

  1. I question I would like to ask Luskin, is he a liar or just plain stupid? Probably he is both.

    You said “So this provides strong support to evolutionary theory.” I would call it lead-pipe evidence and smoking-gun proof that evolution is a fact. If there was some way to make the brain-dead creationists understand this evidence there would be no more creationists. Unfortunately the creationists never make an effort to understand anything. Instead they read what their favorite Liar-For-Jebus says and that’s good enough for them.

  2. loved the way you said it, keep it coming! קידום אתרים

  3. I was just reading up on retro viruses and realised that it made an extremely strong case for common descent. So I read a bit more and wanted to see how the religious community responded to this.
    I came accross Luskins article and realised exactly what you describe in your blog. He does not address the key issue of retroviruses and common descent.
    There are interesting times ahead of us for DNA sampling is becoming very common and it won’t be long before there is just too much evidence for anyone to deny the facts.

  4. Pete,
    I welcome your optimism that more evidence will stop people from denying the facts. However, I have to disagree with you. I feel there is so much evidence already that no matter how much more evidence for evolution becomes available, people will still believe in Intelligent Design or another flavor of creationism. I hope I am wrong though.

    • No I don’t think you are wrong. I am actually afraid that the exact opposite will happen. Of lately I have had a few discussions with strong religious people, and no matter what you say they will not even consider the possibility of it being correct.
      Religion is cognitive dissonance on a major scale. . .

    • ” no matter how much more evidence for evolution becomes available”..
      What the hell? Are you kidding, RIGHT? In fact, as the time passes, the evolutionary wishful thinking is dying, being overcome by new researches and scientific discovers, each desperate evolution claim is heading to a miserable ending, no surprise, evolution is a dead theory from the beginning…

      • Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. As you may have noticed from my lack of posting, I have nearly lost interest in the debate.

        Could you please enlighten me on all the progress that intelligent design has made in the last couple of years? Could you also point out the failures of evolutionary theory? I really don’t see how evolution was a dead theory since it’s arrival.

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