Kent Hovind's Discussion of DNA: Abysmal Incompetence or Shrewd Demagoguery?

Kent Hovind presents himself as an expert on the scientific issues concerning evolutionary biology. He keeps up a busy travel schedule giving "seminars" on "creation science" around the USA. These seminars are pitched in the traditional revival tent-meeting style: short on substance, but long on put-downs and condescension toward supposed unbelievers.

In looking for other material in Hovind's seminar transcripts, I ran across the following text:


Did you know the possum, the redwood tree and the kidney bean all have 22 chromosomes? Identical triplets. See, that's a possum; that's the tree and kidney bean. Hey! Got them right! Look at that! The average scientist can't tell the difference. They've got 22 chromosomes-all three of them. "Let's see: we've got tree, possum, kidney bean and huh, which one is which? I don't know."

[End Quote - K Hovind,]

The statement above gives us a dilemma: Is Hovind merely abysmally ignorant of genetics, or is Hovind deliberately telling falsehoods?

Any student who has spent more than a couple of hours studying the topic should know that DNA, the chemical which stores heritable information in most living organisms, forms a structure which we call a "chromosome". With just a little more study, the student will learn that for any eukaryotic species (organisms with sub-cellular organelles with membranes) there is a particular number of chromosomes typical of the species. Each chromosome carries the DNA which encodes for many different proteins, and each chromosome can carry different information for each gene. In many familiar animals, chromosomes are paired - each chromosome in the pair has the same structure and distribution of genes, but the particular information in the genes may be different when comparing across the pair. Such organisms, which include humans and opossums, are called "diploid". The number of chromosomes counted in a cell in a diploid organism is properly reported as follows (example is for human):

Human diploid number: 2n = 46

What this means is that humans have 23 pairs of homologous chromosomes. Remember that the information on each pair of chromosomes is related, but that each pair of chromosomes can - and usually does - carry information that is quite different from that of the other pairs. Between species, though, there is no necessary correspondence of information across those chromosomes. The number of chromosomes tells us very little about how close or distant a match we would find if we compared the information contained in the DNA. It's like going into a library and claiming that one shelf of books cannot be told from any other shelf of books with that same number of books. It's a ludicrous claim, and just as ludicrous when Hovind uses it on DNA across species.

Now, you might be wondering why I have said that Hovind is on the horns of a particularly unappealing dilemma. Hovind claims that scientists can't tell organisms apart if they have the same number of chromosomes. Hovind is telling a whopper here, and the only question is whether he knows that he is lying or not. Scientists, it turns out, can not only tell apart different species that have the same number of chromosomes, but they can tell apart individuals of the same species by their genetic information, and individuals of the same species almost always have the same number of chromosomes. You have probably heard about "DNA fingerprinting", which has revolutionized the practice of criminal forensics. In the application of DNA analysis to forensics, samples of DNA to be compared are processed and analyzed. The pattern of matches and mismatches is so sensitive a test that it can tell scientists whether the DNA in one sample comes from the same individual as the DNA in another sample. Telling apart individuals of different species by their DNA is, by comparison, a breeze.

Kent Hovind's folksy anti-intellectualism packs in the crowds at his revival meetings. Hovind rails against people who tell lies in his speeches. And yet Hovind himself tells the most fanciful falsehoods. Whether this is because Hovind is himself an anti-intellectual ignoramus, or because Hovind thinks that a lie is what you need to be told, I will leave to your judgment.

Wesley R. Elsberry