Artificial selection

Confusing artificial selection and Darwinism

Image credit: Darwin Laganzon via Pixabay.

It is tiring to continue to correct the abuse of terms of evolutionists. Artificial selection is the opposite of natural selection. The two should not be confused. The difference should be obvious, but somehow it isn’t.

Consider an article by four New York University chemists and physicists, “Mutations in artificial self-replicating tiles: A step to Darwinian evolution” (Zhou, Sha et al., PNAS).

In nature, mutation is the first step in evolution, where he provides genetic variation for natural selection to work. Here we take a system of self-replicating artificial tiles, DNA origami, which exhibit modulated reproduction. We can generate a small fraction of mutations by introducing a mismatch in the hybridization between parent and daughter. We can modify origami Functionality at affect the growth rate of the mutated species, giving it more or less evolutionary advantage, and to become dominant in several generations. The introduction of mutations in an artificial self-replicating system provides new directions for research into self-assembly processes. [Emphasis added.]

It is not “a step towards Darwinian evolution”. It is a step in the opposite direction. If they really wanted to take a step towards Darwinian evolution, they would come out of the lab and let whatever might happen. What will happen is an increase in entropy.

The interference error

In The mystery of the origin of life (see the expanded edition, published in 2020), Thaxton, Bradley, and Olsen point to the error of researchers’ interference in origin-of-life experiments. When Zhou et al. say: “here we present mutation and growth benefits to study the possibility of a Darwinian-type evolution ”, they betray a fundamental misunderstanding of Darwinism. To call their work “Darwinian evolution” when they pull the strings is a contradiction in terms.

In an attempt to be charitable, let’s see if they understand the contradictory nature of their claim anywhere in the newspaper. The concluding paragraph summarizes their research:

We have developed an artificial system of DNA origami tiles of two species in which we can control growth rates separately. Adding capacity from one species to mutate into another, we have studied the evolution of the system where only one species is seeded. When the growth rates are equal, the system evolved to a stable state of equal populations. When you have the competitive advantage faster growing, it quickly becomes the dominant species, even when it results only from a mutation of the origin seeded and species with exponential growth. This is the expected result and a most basic example of Darwinian evolution but here in a system of artificial self-replication.

Alas, the contradiction remains.

Are simulations unnecessary?

This is not to say that artificial selection experiments have no educational value. Such experiments, like the Avida computer simulation (discussed here and here), have served to show the limits of chance. Examples of interference by investigators can be pointed out, to falsify rash claims that a poorly designed simulation represents “Darwinian-type” evolution. Indeed, some design advocates have created their own computer simulations to illustrate the limitations of the mutation / selection mechanism when more realistic parameters are specified.

Evolutionary algorithms can also lead to scientific results of practical value. Zhou et al. speculate on what further research with their evolving ‘DNA tiles’ might bring:

It opens the door to the use of man-made systems, devices and materials that evolve to have desired properties. In a given environment, mutations allow the creation of a set of species and evolution chooses the species that grows the fastest in that environment., imitating nature but with artificial constructions.

If anything useful comes out of such experiences, so much the better, but it won’t be because of Darwinism. Who makes the evolving “systems, devices and materials”? Who decides what are the “desired properties”? Who defines “man-made constructions” that produce potentially useful products? Clearly, human designers do all of this. They set the mutation rate and watch the results to pick winners and losers. Evolution does not “choose the species” that grows the fastest; designers do this by deciding with foresight what the desired properties will be and adjusting the parameters to achieve the highest yield.

Using chance as a tool does not run counter to identification. In most card games, the deck is shuffled first. Players don’t know which cards are going to end up in their hands, but they do know the rules of the game and they learn strategies for winning. In an artificial selection process that uses random variations, Darwinism stops when an intelligent mind interferes and makes the selection.

We report here the study of the mutation and evolution of a artificial self-replication system of rafts of origami DNA dimers. This represents a first step towards using such mutations towards directed evolution of a artificialsystem and illustrates some of the basic principles of natural selection. We designed two self-replicating species AB and CD which share the same replication procedure, but with a controllable Rate of growth….

Questionable value

When the authors start and end with the wrong premises, any conclusion will be questionable. Watch as they designed self-reproducing species. Watch as they directed evolution. Look what they call it a artificial system. They put the procedures. They control The settings. On what basis can they say that their work “illustrates some of the basic principles of natural selection”? There is nothing natural about it. They were the coaches from start to finish. Indeed, they admit that pure chance would lead to a catastrophe of error without the continual intervention of the investigator.

Mutation and domination of the population by the fittest species would amount to natural selection in this artificial system. [???] In order to use this process of directed evolution and the fact that a high mutation rate leads to a disaster of its own, or a species does not persist long enough to take advantage of its evolutionary advantage, we kept the mutation rate low, but not yet as low as in living systems. In the present case a low mutation rate is especially important in that direct and reverse mutations also limit the final ratio of species with high and low growth advantage.

You have to laugh at phrases like “natural selection in this artificial system” and interventions like establishing a low mutation rate in order to protect the system from the Eigen disaster.

If you control the mutations and select the outcomes, you are not doing Darwinism. Criticisms like this have been directed at Darwin’s followers for over a century, but they fall on deaf ears. Why is the message not getting through?