The argument from antifreeze

Another day, another stupid creationist argument. This time, it’s some pastor whining that biologists don’t understand how animals survive the winter. We don’t?

These insects are not the only ones that hibernate – there are several others butterflies, insects, and even frog that make antifreeze in the fall and hibernate through the winter.  Insects in all stages of life – eggs, pupa, and adult (CHECK THIS) – have been programmed to make various versions of antifreeze chemicals in order to survive freezing weather.  How did the first Mourning Cloak butterfly learn to make anti-freeze?  If it failed even once, the result was death – an evolutionary dead-end.  God designed this butterfly to survive the brutal winter as an adult butterfly.  The next time you see a butterfly very early in the spring – chances are it is a butterfly that knows how to make antifreeze!

How many attempts to survive the winter did the woolly bear caterpillar try?  When did a certain caterpillar “get it right” and survive?  Remember there had to be both male and female surviving to produce eggs and continue the species.  The original Arctic woolly-bear caterpillar had to make this antifreeze so that its cells would freeze without rupturing for not just one winter…but 13 times for 13 winter freezes…always remembering to produce the antifreeze only just before winter arrived.  Then it had to learn to completely rearrange its body structure to turn into a moth on the 14th spring.

How do evolutionists explain this?  They don’t!  The Arctic woolly-bear caterpillar, the Mourning Cloak butterfly, and a myriad of other creatures were designed to survive through the freezing winter.  When you see design, there must be a Designer and that Designer is God.  Those who wish to deny God’s existence see this marvelous design and say evolution did it – random mutational changes filtered by natural selection caused all this marvelous design to happen…but this is just storytelling and hand waving – it explains nothing.

Gosh, what a surprise — an ignorant creationist. Actually, we do. Winters aren’t all-or-nothing — look at a globe, and we have these things called latitudes, where we can see variation in the intensity of winters. Minnesota gets rather cold in January, while Nebraska is milder, and Texas is milder still. That means it’s trivial to find animals with a range that spreads from mild to cold environments, and that natural selection can have both variation and different selection regimes to operate. This isn’t difficult at all.

Furthermore, anti-freezes aren’t hard to generate: these are just small molecules that lower the freezing point or bind nascent ice crystals to suppress ice formation. These things evolve all the time by chance! Ask Sean Carroll.

Insects have evolved a variety of cryoprotective substances. As winter approaches, many freeze-tolerant insects produce high concentrations of glycerol and other kinds of alcohol molecules. These substances don’t prevent freezing, but they slow ice formation and allow the fluids surrounding cells to freeze in a more controlled manner while the contents of the cells remain unfrozen.

For maximum protection, some Arctic insects use a combination of such cryoprotectants and antifreezes to control ice formation, to protect cells and to prevent refreezing as they thaw. Indeed, a new kind of antifreeze was recently discovered in the Upis beetle by a team of researchers from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Unlike the protein antifreezes of other beetles, snow fleas and moths, the Upis antifreeze is a complex sugar called xylomannan that is as effective at suppressing ice growth as the most active insect protein antifreezes.

The necessity of avoiding freezing has truly been the mother of a great number of evolutionary inventions. This new finding raises the likelihood that there are more chemical tricks to discover about how insects cope with extreme cold.

Carroll has written a book, The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution, that explains in detail how the antarctic icefish antifreeze evolved. It’s a truncated pancreatic enzyme; a copy of the enzyme gene acquired a mutation that reduced it to a short 3-amino-acid long fragment (and which was subsequently expanded by duplication to multiple repeated copies) that has chemical properties that suppress ice formation. The blood of the icefish is saturated with this peptide, and it’s produced by the pancreas, just like the original enzyme, secreted into the intestine, just like the original enzyme, and then transported into the circulatory system. The genome of the icefish also contains pseudogenes, copies of original natural ‘experiments’ in the expansion of the antifreeze gene, that provide a record of its molecular history.

Meanwhile, arctic cod also carry an antifreeze protein…but it’s different and of independent origin from the one found in antarctic notothenioid fish.

So, actually, this creationist is completely wrong. Not only can we explain the evolution of antifreezes in animals, we do so in explicit detail, with step-by-step analyses of the molecular events behind them. If you want to see “storytelling and handwaving” that “explains nothing”, you’ll have to go to the loons who say “God did it.”


  1. says

    This sort of argument always reminds me of something David Attenborough said:

    “They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator.”

    Yes, yes, talk about the pretty caterpillars, talk about the beautiful butterflies when it comes to that oh-so-glorious design and designer. I never seem to hear this argument using something like ticks, which are bloody good at surviving just about everything.

  2. Lofty says

    But there isn’t time for that kind of evolution since the world is only 6015 years old!

  3. rq says

    Oooh, another book for the list. Next time I see an early spring butterfly, I will simply stare at it in amazement.
    By the way, any chance of these beetles mass-producing this antifreeze for use on my windshield, come the -30s Celsius?

  4. Ogvorbis: ArkRanger of Doom! says

    Creationists lack the imagination and sense of intellectual wonder to realize that the world has not been the same through deep time (hell, they lack the imagination and sense of intellectual wonder to accept the reality of deep time). A planet so warm that dinosaurs survived in the Arctic and Antarctic. An atmosphere so supercharged with oxygen that fossil charcoal, and 3-metre long proto-millipedes, are found as fossils. A world with no grasses. A world with no free oxygen. A world in which the most complex genus on land was an algal matte. All of these existed at one time. And the transition from one reality to the next took more time than our species has existed.

    Could it be that an insect living in the tropics, through mutation, developed an antifreeze that allowed it to colonize a new and colder environment? And then rapidly diversified to fill the available niches? And that this happened again and again and again? Or is it easier to close your imagination, to shut down one’s sense of intellectual wonder, wave your hand over a crappy book, and proclaim, “Godidit!”?

  5. Nemo says

    I also like the bits about learning and remembering, as if it were all a conscious process. And of course, the classic “male and female had to evolve together” argument.

  6. says

    The first mourning cloak butterfly? The original Arctic woolly bear caterpillar? It’s not a wonder that they’re so flummoxed by evolution when they continue to not understand it so very thoroughly.

  7. Ogvorbis: ArkRanger of Doom! says

    It’s not a wonder that they’re so flummoxed by evolution when they continue to not understand it so very thoroughly.

    Creationists: Always wrong, NEVER in doubt.

  8. Johnny Vector says

    Aha! So you admit it!! It was only a change from a long protein to a polypeptide! But it’s still a peptide! Microevolution! You never see a protein mutating into a dilithium crystal (macroevolution).

    Therefore your whole house of cards collapses into a just-so checkmate.

  9. Amphiox says

    The interesting fact that an antifreeze protein is derived, from all things, from a pancreatic enzyme is just another one of this little details that creationism fails utterly to explain, but which makes perfect sense in the light of evolution.

  10. says

    Those who wish to deny God’s existence see this marvelous design and say evolution did it – random mutational changes filtered by natural selection caused all this marvelous design to happen…but this is just storytelling and hand waving – it explains nothing.

    Story telling clearly is the mark of a false idea.

    What did the talking snake and magic man do again?

    Glen Davidson

  11. Rey Fox says

    but this is just storytelling and hand waving – it explains nothing.

    Forget evolution, we need to go back to square one and walk this guy through what “explain” means.

  12. katiemarshall says

    Just a minor edit: there are different kinds of antifreezes, and they evolved different ways. Small-molecule antifreezes (like glycerol or glucose), are easily synthesized as modifications of the carbohydrate biochemical pathways already present in animals. Antifreeze proteins (like in the Antarctic fish) are very large molecules (since they’re proteins!), and we’re still figuring out how they all evolved. The fish ones have been sorted out as evolving from digestive enzymes (which makes sense because the issue is swallowing ice in seawater). But the insect ones are still not quite figured out yet. If you want to read more about this stuff, check out the intro to my recently-written PhD thesis is online (and a free download!):

  13. thisisaturingtest says

    How did the first Mourning Cloak butterfly learn to make anti-freeze?

    Fail right there, with the framing of the question as a normative scenario. I’ve always thought that it’s impossible to understand evolution without understanding the basic idea that it’s a process that is not normative- there are outcomes only, no goals aimed at, and no lesson to be “learned” in the sense of survival as an individual being a passing grade for a “test” of it; survival as a species is just a result of enough individuals within it responding to ambient conditions to pass along their responses. Any sentient being thinks normatively; I think it’s just an instinct to project that normative nature onto processes that have no goals to aim for or lessons to teach.
    And, yes, fundie theists generally lack imagination; this pastor is an example of creationists being unable to think outside their own little self-centered boxes. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard theists insist that there must be a god because “human beings are just lost in the universe without a god to give it meaning!” Channeling Carl Sagan (from Contact) here, I think this has less to do with humans being lost in the universe and more to do with themselves, as individuals, not being central in it. “Goddidt” isn’t just a simple answer- it’s a simplistic one, a reaction only that depends on not having enough imagination to think beyond the reaction.

  14. stanton says

    It’s not a wonder that they’re so flummoxed by evolution when they continue to not understand it so very thoroughly.

    Actually it is a wonder… In the sort of way one stands at a ledge of a deep ravine, and wonder “how did that broken corpse get to the very bottom?”

  15. CaitieCat says

    For me, the obvious counterargument to their bullshit is, “Why did your sky-wizard develop a dozen different ways for creatures to survive freezing temperatures? Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier, and more sensible (labour-saving for deities!) to have just developed one, and passed it around? I mean, that’s more or less what happened with hemoglobin, and a whole bunch of other useful molecules that we share with our fellow animals: we have more or less the same one, carried in fluids of various compositions, or in tissues (in invertebrates). Efficient and elegant. Why did the notionally “intelligent” designer come up with a whole bunch of different ways to produce anti-freeze? Surely it would know the best one, and use that for every creature? Or does the sky-wizard not like some of its creatures nearly so well? And if so, why didn’t it just extinct ’em, like it tried to do to California recently (but missed and walloped Oklahoma – maybe time for corrective lenses, oh great and perfect sky wizard?).

    It looks an awful lot more like independently-arrived-at answers to the same question, to me.

  16. crocodoc says

    I’m looking for a new stuff to read anyway, so I searched for an ebook version of Carroll’s book. Among the first search results, however, was this devastating review:

    So I guess I’ll keep myself away from his neodarwinist ideology.

    If you’re not a masochist like myself and don’t want to read Luskin’s brilliant analysis at full lenght, here’s his conclusion:

    Sean B. Carroll’s book The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution makes large promises but fails to delivers. He claims that science will remove “any doubt” about evolution, and he hopes his scare-tactics about a coming environmental apocalypse will convince people to just accept evolution and save the planet. But there’s no valid reason to argue that one must be a Darwinist to accept responsibili ty for protecting the environment. As a conservationist myself, I don’t need, as Carroll taunts me, to “accept evolution or you won’t ‘think at all’” in order to understand the importance of conserving our natural resources. While Carroll is a good writer who makes science easy to understand, his book has a politically oriented gospel message which is simple: just believe evolution without any doubt, and we may be saved from environmental catastrophe. But Carroll’s scientific arguments fail to back up his big talk. Carroll’s examples of natural selection’s creative power—animal breeding, peppered moths, or loss of function—fail to impress. His repetition of Darwinist urban legends about computer studies of eye-evolution and heavy reliance upon vague just-so stories about icefish give little reason to turn the head of the informed Darwin-skeptic. Carroll’s discussions of junk-DNA and pseudogenes are interesting, but it is disconcerting that Carroll never mentions that his “use it or lose it” rule implies that if a stretch of DNA has not been lost, then perhaps it’s still being used. His observation that widely diverse organisms often use the same or similar proteins only serves to further confirm my suspicions of common design in biology. Incredibly, Carroll uses these examples to claim he has “eviscerated” intelligent design. The ID-proponent who reads this book will feel very encouraged about the strength of her own position, for Carroll failed to provide any compelling explanations for the primary subject of his book: the evolutionary making of the fittest.

  17. garnetstar says

    Actually, anything dissolved in a solvent lowers the freezing point of the solvent. The extent of the lowering is determined by the concentration of the solution. That’s why oceans have a lower freezing point than fresh water, and why salting roads in winter melts the ice.

    So living organisms start out with a somewhat lowered freezing point, and the antifreeze was then optimized, as discussed above.

    How many times do I have to tell creationsists: Learn some chemistry! A rhetorical question, of course, since the number is infinite.

  18. vaiyt says

    The argument only makes sense if you imagine caterpillars make antifreeze in little caterpillar labs.

  19. says

    What’s getting to me about this is the preacher in doing enough research to formulate this “gotcha” sermon probably could have found the answer as well. This implies an almost painful level of willful ignorance. Sure, perhaps he just might have gotten it from a creationist library but the same complaint would apply to the person writing the talking points.

  20. unclefrogy says

    How many attempts to survive ?


    God did it! (for ME and you!)
    uncle frogy

  21. dogfightwithdogma says

    I love it, PZ, when you educate me. Your post and the comment thread is a treasure trove of knowledge and learning. It really is a shame and a tragedy that the mind of a creationist is so cloaked with theological and biblical cobwebs and poisoned by religion that they can’t see the wonder and awe of nature as viewed through the lense of natural selection and the many other naturalistic (not-to-mention correct) laws and processes that both govern and explain the workings of nature. I just love going to school when PZ is at the lectern.

  22. David Marjanović says

    secreted into the intestine, just like the original enzyme, and then transported into the circulatory system

    Wow. How do these molecules pass into the blood?

    3-metre long proto-millipedes

    Well, 2.5 m, and it may be a centipede…

    It’s also not really clear how much the oxygen content of the atmosphere really has to do with it. Many insects, at least, do expand and contract themselves to pump air around.

    a dilithium crystal

    a day saved

    Forget evolution, we need to go back to square one and walk this guy through what “explain” means.

    I think you’re right.

  23. Menyambal --- son of a son of a bachelor says

    Why would God design critters with antifreeze in the first place? When Creation was going on, there weren’t any seasons yet. The world was perfect before Adam and Eve ate the apple, or was it before the Flood—theologians disagree as to when Winter started happening, but they agree it was somebody’s fault other than God’s. So why build antifreeze into animals?

    Even if one assumes God designed for winters, couldn’t a change of range, or fur, or little individual miracles have taken care of it? To use chemicals is just tempting people to look for a chemical origin of life.

    To tout antifreeze as great design and to give God the glory is truly a just-so story.

    This preacher person knows little biology and less theology.

  24. Nightjar says

    secreted into the intestine, just like the original enzyme, and then transported into the circulatory system

    Wow. How do these molecules pass into the blood?

    That’s a good question and I don’t know what the answer is in this case and haven’t looked, but…

    Recently, while looking for something else entirely, I learned that apparently fish in general are capable of significant intestinal and rectal absorption of intact or almost intact proteins by pinocytosis (up to 40kDa, IIRC). Adding to that the fact that the antifreeze proteins in question are highly glycosylated and that glycosylation protects proteins from enzymatic digestion in the intestine, and I think it may not be as implausible as it sounds at first.

  25. JohnM says

    I was thinking that some nice person (or myself) should post a link to this within a comment on the creationist’s site in order to expand the person’s knowledge of the world. But lo & behold, comments are closed. Why, one would think that the poor dear was scared that his/her arguments would be shredded by an application of actual facts.

  26. Ichthyic says

    can I just ask for a pre-emptive ban on texpip if it comes here spewing into this thread?


  27. kantalope says

    Where do creationists get these things? Are they like: Whoa, ho. Anti-freeze in the fish? Bet evolutionists can’t explain that! Should I check? Nah. I’ll go with that one. ??

    Because what they really need is a fish that doesn’t have antifreeze or proteins or needs food – they need a magic fish or magic cell or magic pathway for this argument of theirs to work. If it is natural then they don’t need some supernatural designer to intervene.

  28. Azuma Hazuki says


    Nicely spotted :) My reaction to these things is always the same, too: “Bad science, and worse theology.”

    As a bonus, if there IS a God, it used evolution to get life to where it is today, and that means every time one of these idiots opens his stinking gob, he’s blaspheming :)

  29. robro says

    Interesting name behind this Creation Evidence Expo business: Dr. Carl Baugh. I believe you’re familiar with him, PZ.

    The bio for him on the “Presenters” page on the CEE website says he discovered Acrocanthosaurus in Texas and Diplodocus in Colorado. This is extremely unlikely since Diplodocus was discovered in the 1870s, and the only recognized specimen of Acrocanthosaurus was discovered in Oklahoma in 1940, only four years after Dr. Baugh’s birth.

    It’s the purported footprint of an Acrocanthorsaurus that overlaps a human footprint in the Alvis Delk Cretaceous Footprint, displayed in Baugh’s Creation Evidence Museum in Glen Rose, Texas. Wikipedia notes that this fossil has been ‘called a “blatant fake” by biologist PZ Myers.’

    Interesting comment in Wikipedia about him: ‘Creationist organizations such as Answers in Genesis have criticized Baugh’s claims saying he “muddied the water for many Christians. . . . People are being misled.”‘ I guess this is an example of it takes one to know one, or a pot calling a kettle black.

    The picture of Dr. Baugh on the CEE site is also a bit misleading because the person in that picture doesn’t look a day over 45.

  30. Amphiox says

    can I just ask for a pre-emptive ban on texpip if it comes here spewing into this thread?

    That would be out of character for him. He almost never has the courage to get into active, new threads. He almost always tries to wait for a thread to go dead before sticking his dishonest face into it, in hopes of getting fewer responders tearing him apart.

    We may therefore have several months grace before he shows up here….

  31. Thumper; Atheist mate says

    @crocoduck #16

    Re. the review; is

    informed Darwin-skeptic

    not an oxymoron?

  32. says

    Now you’ve done it, Thumper. You’ve actually responded to crocoduck’s drive-by. That means we’ll have six more weeks or creationist drivel.