Do humans have nine billion bases of DNA not found in Chimpanzees? This is the bold claim made by head science writer for the Institute for Creation Research, Brian Thomas, in a newly released video. There is no doubt that Brian is mistaken. After all, the human genome only has 3.2 billion bases! How could such an error have made its way through the entire process of editing and onto ICRs webpage, Facebook and Twitter pages? Part of it has to do with an apparently dysfunctional peer-review system. I wrote about another obvious error not long ago (When Peer Review Lets You Down: A YEC Quote Problem) and it doesn’t seem that much has changed.
The Institute for Creation Research is boldly moving forward with its plans for a creation museum of their own in Texas (see: New Creation Museum to Test the Limits of Donors and Attendees). Called the ICR Discovery Center for Science and Earth History, ICR has been marketing the new museum heavily over the past two months in an effort to raise the necessary funds to make it a reality. The video in question is a large part of that campaign. You can see it here: http://www.icr.org/discoverycenter/.
UPDATE: ICR has removed the video at the link above. They say that they are in the process of editing the video and will re-upload it when ready. They have also removed the Facebook post that included the video. Presumably they have recognized that the 9 billion bases line was in error and they are going to correct it. I appreciate that ICR recognizes the need to make this correction.
UPDATE 2: The video is now back up. ICR has removed the one line that stated that the human genome has 9 billion bases that chimps from the video.
Here is a transcript of the most obvious problem – of many – in the video:
What about DNA, you’re taught in other museums that your DNA is like a chimpanzee. That is bad science. And our museum is going to show human DNA is absolutely unique. It has 9 billion bases that chimpanzees don’t have. And so we don’t come from apes we come from Adam. There is DNA evidence to support that, plenty of it. And our museum is going to have it.
When Brian says “absolutely unique” I guess he means that literally since he claims there are more differences between the genomes of humans and chimps than there are DNA bases in both genomes combined. Of course, the genomes are not 100% dissimilar. The DNA sequence of the insulin gene in chimpanzees is 99% similar to mine. Other portions of the genome are not as similar but certainly not 0% similar.
I have no doubt that Brian misspoke when he said 9 billion bases are different. I believe he probably meant to suggest there are 900 million differences. That number is also wrong but at least it would represent a number he wrote in one of his own articles in May of 2014 (http://www.icr.org/article/college-clashes-over-adam-eve-statement). There he makes the following statement: “Also, evolutionists almost never discuss the insurmountable differences between humans and chimpanzees, like their 900 million DNA differences.”
Where did he come up with the 900 million number? For that value he references a 2013 article by Dr. Tomkins, another ICR employee, who did an analysis of the differences between human and chimpanzee genomes and reported a similarity of only 70%.
So Brian simply didn’t remember the number he quoted a few years ago. An honest mistake, Yes. But it is a mistake that shouldn’t be made if he had any basic knowledge of genetics and genomes. Unfortunately this mistake is symptomatic of a larger problem and is the only reason that I am taking the time to write about it. Presumably Brian works with Dr. Tomkins, a geneticist, at ICR and reads Dr. Tomkins publications. Dr. Tomkins published a retraction of sorts to his 70% similarity paper last year. Tomkins reanalyzed the human/chimp genomes and admitted that his earlier work was based on a faulty program. He found the genomes were much more similar to each other than he has previously found. Brian should be aware of this and know that those 900 million differences was an extrapolation from the 70% conclusion of that older paper. So the best estimate by ICRs geneticist is that there are many fewer than 900 million differences. The 9 billion number he stated is thus wrong on multiple levels. How could Dr. Tomkins allow this video to be shown on the ICR website?
Sadly, this is not the first time that Brian Thomas has demonstrated that he doesn’t read or understand the literature that ICR’s own scientists are producing (see: Origins of the Dead Sea: All Dried Up – No Room for a Dry Dead Sea in the Young Earth Chronology). When someone such as myself is more aware of the content of ICRs articles than their very own full-time science writer, that has to be a problem for ICR.
Simple errors sometimes hint at deeper problems
ICR and its leader, Dr. Henry Morris III, promotes ICR as the creation science organization that is devoted to doing “real” science. I believe that Dr. Morris truly wants and believes this to be the case. He has stated that this museum will have real science on display which is a thinly veiled shot at the Ark Encounter in Kentucky being built by Answers in Genesis which Morris has referred to as a “theme park” on Facebook.
Does ICR lack the staff to have the work of their employees reviewed? Like many small parachurch organizations, it can be difficult to find technically qualified individuals who hold to the specific convictions of the organization. As a result they often have to fill positions with true believers who may not be experts. Employees in parachurch organizations frequently have great passion for the mission. However, the culture of implicit trust that results from the common bond in vision often results in a lack of critical evaluation of each others work.
I have written many times about the repeating pattern of mistakes that ICR’s primary science writer, Brian Thomas, has made. I am not even talking about his many suspect interpretation of the facts, when he gets those facts right. I have suggested to ICR that they can’t assume that what he writes is factually accurate and some internal form of functional peer review has to be established to prevent these most obvious mistakes. It is painfully obvious that Brian does not have the experience in science necessary to interpret and write about most of the topics on which he is assigned or chooses to write.
To proclaim with such grandiosity that the human genome has nine billion bases that the chimpanzee genome doesn’t have isn’t just a mistake but reveals that Brian isn’t familiar with the field of genomics. If he were involved in research in this area he would have known intuitively that there was something very wrong with his statement. If this video had been reviewed by anyone who had any expertise in genetics they should have sent this video back to the editing room.
I am sure Brian is a nice guy. He obviously has great zeal for his work and loves what he is doing. But zeal and desire are not an excuse for lazy scholarship. He is speaking to groups of thousands and is the face of ICR’s website outreach. He has a responsibility to get his information correct and to understand the science he is talking about. If he can’t be trusted to present factually correct presentations how much less should he be trusted to interpret those facts?