Confronting the specter of the ‘mutated goo’ argument

We humans are just a mutation or two away from reverting back into inanimate goo like this, according to one powerful creationist argument. (photo by Flickr user Anapko, via a Creative Commons license)

In my experience discussing evolution within the evangelical community, some variation on the following exchange is fairly common:

Evolutionist person: I am receptive to the theory of evolution. There appears to be quite a lot of evidence for it.

Creationist person: Nuh-uh! Evolution is stupid! Evolution says we came from mutated goo!

Ah, yes, the dreaded “mutated goo” argument. Within scientific circles, it’s often referred to in hushed whispers as “the MGA.”

Essentially, it is the assertion that evolutionary science teaches the following: In the not-too-distant past, there was some goo, a large mutation occurred within said goo, and that’s when the first human appeared.

It is — in all respects — a devastating argument. I can’t tell you how many evolutionists like me have spent night after night unable to sleep, haunted by the specter of the mutated goo argument and our inability to answer it. Theistic evolutionists, at least, have a slightly stronger leg to stand on: They believe in an omnipotent God who helped guide the goo-mutating process. But even they have, in the past, always fallen before the might of the MGA.

One Sunday morning, as I sat in church preparing to worship our God with my fellow believers, another Christian used the MGA on me for the first time, and I didn’t eat solid food for a week. No joke. I almost died. And for years after that, I couldn’t go anywhere near Jello without having a nervous fit (it just looked too much like goo).

But, after much prayer, I believe I am ready to attempt to address the MGA. This is truly a David-and-Goliath moment. (Steadying, portentous sigh) OK, here goes.

Evolution is a theory that explains why life has changed over time. In a nutshell, it involves a variety of mechanisms (natural selection, sexual selection, genetic drift, mutation bias and several others — I think you get the idea) at work on variation within species.

Where does this variation come from? I’m glad you asked. Outside of single-celled organisms, variation arises in two main ways: genetic recombination and mutation.

Genetic recombination is a direct result of sex. When offspring is produced by sex, that offspring’s makeup will be a mix of genes from its parents. Some of these genes will be of a new type. A hybrid gene can be created that consists of part of one parent’s gene and part of the other parent’s. Like Frankenstein, in the form of a gene, if that helps you. This all produces a lot of variety. Some offspring will be stronger or weaker, bigger or smaller, lighter or darker, normal or annoying (as seen on “The Brady Bunch”).

Mutations are also changes in the DNA sequence of an organism’s genome. A mutation can a) have no effect on a gene, b) prevent it from functioning or c) change what it does. Many mutations remain in an organism’s genome, with no obvious effect, until such time that further changes bring them into play. Mutations may also involve duplicating large sections of a chromosome, which can — later in that species’ development — provide much of the raw material for new genes to evolve. E.g., human eyes, which create structures that sense light using four genes that are mutated copies descended from one ancestral gene.

It works something like this: In a competitive environment, stronger siblings would be more likely to survive and pass on their genes, and over time, the species becomes stronger. Evolution tends to build complexity and larger quantities of genetic information over many generations, though changes in an organism’s genetic makeup can happen in any direction. The bottom line is that natural selection weeds out those changed or conserved genes that hinder survivability or reproductive success.

In any case, these changes are gradual. Our closest known ancestor that was not us was a hominid species that looked very much like us. And that species’ closest ancestor was a different hominid species that looked very much like them, but a little bit less like us. And neither of those species looked very much like goo. You’d have to go back a long, long, long, long, long, long, long time to find an ancestor that looked anything like goo.

Unfortunately, it would appear the MGA is bunk. It’s too bad, really. I think it would be more fun for evolutionary biologists to be able to debate when the lightning bolt occurred that struck the goo and prompted the mutation that birthed the first goo-man. That would be a sexy job. That would be a job TLC would make a reality show out of (“GOO CHASERS”).

But that’s not really what they get to do. They instead spend their time tracking tiny changes in populations based on everything from dusty and often-incomplete fossils to the most minute distinctions in countless strands of DNA. Not very sexy. But very important.

A “thank you” is not enough for all the work scientists do that makes our lives brighter and more wonderful. But I hope, at the very least, they can rest a bit easier now that someone has finally had the courage to stand up to the MGA.

Come clean: Have you ever heard (or used) the mutated goo argument?

Tyler Francke

  • Tim Lundy

    This is usually the point in the conversation where a creationist might say, “Sure, MICROevolution can be shown to happen, but MACROevolution is still ridiculous.” Unfortunately most people’s acceptance of ‘macroevolution’ is contingent upon their acceptance of the incomprehensibly large spans of time required for it to work, and the refusal to acknowledge the evidence kinda brings any logical/factual discussion on the subject to a grinding halt. Nevermind that every scientific field of study has mountains of support for an old Earth and universe: “I didn’t evolve from no damn fish!”

    It’s also frustrating that just because we didn’t witness all the tiny, tiny subsequent steps between Goo and sentient life, anti-evolutionists take it as evidence against the process. If they were logical crazy people, they would also realize that meant that God and everything that is written in the Bible must be equally false, since no one alive ever saw our homeboy Jesus in the flesh. Sure, there might be some evidence floating around, but just try to PROVE it happened. It’s impossible, for both (and no, time travel is not an option).