During the course of a 1975 debate at the University of Tennessee between the creationists Morris and Gish and evolutionists Schweizer and Jones, Dr Arthur Jones, prominent biologist and parasitologist, disputed the creationists’ claim that evolution in the overall, ‘vertical’ sense had never been observed, merely ‘horizontal’ changes within the kind. As his example, he cited an agreement by scientists of his acquaintance, who were studying genetic change in viruses, to stop further attempts at producing such change because of the danger of producing a new and dangerous strain. His argument obviously impressed one questioner who later asked Dr Henry Morris whether Jones’ mention of the ‘virus that evolved’ didn't ‘blow’ his statements that evolution had never been observed.
Let’s examine this argument and others about viruses in relation to the evolution/creation issue. The first obvious point is that Jones didn’t even talk about a ‘virus that evolved’—he merely mentioned an agreement reached because there was fear that one might evolve! However, this writer does not doubt that it is possible for genetic engineering experiments to one day produce a very deadly variant of a virus strain. If that happened, would that be an argument for ‘observed macro-evolution’? Jones would say that a change from a harmless to a deadly virus is indeed a major evolutionary step, and can be cited as experimental proof of the general theory of evolution. Again, an obvious point is that a change deliberately induced in a twentieth-century laboratory by a scientist deliberately tampering with the DNA is hardly proof that such a change would occur under natural conditions. But let’s not worry about these first two points—let’s assume that we have observed a spontaneous change from a harmless virus to a deadly one.
First, we need to look into what a virus really is. We may regard a living cell (for example, a cell in your skin or liver or other tissue, or a bacterial cell) as a very, very complex chemical factory. This factory is capable of many functions, including that of reproducing itself. Directing all this machinery is a blueprint, which is the coded information contained in the molecule DNA (sometimes RNA). A virus is very different—it consists of a protein ‘shell’ or coat, containing a small amount of this ‘blueprint’ material (RNA or DNA). Note that it has no ‘factory’ of its own—it cannot move itself, it has no power source, and it has no machinery with which to duplicate itself.
When it latches onto a cell the material it contains is released into the cell, and the information on the ‘blueprint’ takes over and starts to direct the cell’s factory, which starts to manufacture many copies of the virus. The cell eventually swells and bursts, releasing lots of new viruses to start the process all over again. So we see that a virus is nothing much more than a package containing a code, which takes over from the cell’s code so that that cell then makes more code-containing packages. The cell is destroyed in the process. (See diagram below.) Many semantic arguments have raged over whether a virus can be called a living thing or not. This is one reason why many people feel it is sort of ‘half-and-half’—therefore a good candidate for a kind of transitional stage between life and non-life. Whether you call it living or not is a matter of definition, however—I hope to demonstrate that however you define life, the virus can in no way be used as an evolutionary ‘intermediate’. The reason is simple—it needs to have all the complex machinery of a living, cellular organism available to it! Without a fully functioning, living cell, the virus cannot reproduce (or should we say, arrange its own reproduction). So, whether you are an evolutionist or a creationist, a virus will not appear before a cellular creature is on the scene. Viruses do not really fit anywhere on the evolutionary ‘tree of life’, since they are obviously not the ancestors of one-celled creatures. (And how can they be their evolutionary descendants?)
So we see, then, that any changes which might occur in viruses have very little, if any, apologetic value for evolutionists trying to show us how a fish changed into an amphibian, for instance. This is the third point which could be made in response to Dr Jones’ assertion. The final point relates to the argument one hears (in this case applied to bacteria as well) that a change in a disease-causing agent converting it from a minor nuisance to a serious health threat would be a major evolutionary step. Surely, says the argument, this could not be labeled ‘horizontal change’ or ‘change within the kind’? Once again, though, we will see that this has very little relevance to evolutionary apologetics.
First we must appreciate that to assess the significance of any genetic change (real or proposed) as an argument for the idea of ‘vertical evolution’ (i.e., change to a higher overall level of complexity) one must look at the informational change required. Thus, for evolution to have converted a reptile into a bird, we can tell by looking at the gross morphological and physiological differences that the amount of new, highly ordered genetic information required would be incredibly large. The same would be true of every significant step along the way—it requires the addition of new, ordered genetic information. However, when we discuss disease-causing agents, we need to remember that the ability of such an agent to infect is a complex thing. We need also to consider its ability to withstand host defenses—e.g., immunologic mechanisms, antibiotics and antisepsis. Thus, the informational change required may be very small, certainly ‘horizontal’ from an informational viewpoint, for it to have a major impact on us as sufferers of disease.
For example, the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus may exist as penicillin-sensitive and penicillin-resistant strains. From all other standpoints, they are identical—e.g., their morphology is the same—they are even classified as the same species. But to, say, a human being suffering from a Staph infection, who only has access to penicillin, the difference may be one of life and death. Someone may say at this point—isn’t there a vast informational difference between the two? After all, the resistant strain has the genetic information necessary to produce penicillinase, which is a complex chemical. In reply, it is necessary to point out that both strains have the genetic information necessary to produce penicillinase—it is only that in the resistant strain, this information has been unmasked or ‘switched-on’. Again, this is another case which is often used to demonstrate neo-Darwinism, but we need to remember that mutation has not added the complex information needed to produce penicillinase whenever a resistant strain appears—it was already there!
Returning to our main point about viruses, a virus may only need a slight variation in its protein coat to alter the way it is recognized by the body’s defense mechanisms. Consider a population immunized against an otherwise deadly virus V1. Now suppose that a research worker somehow manages to cause a slight transformation in the protein coat of one of these viruses by interfering with the genetic code, let’s call the new virus strain V2. In all other respects, these two are identical. Nothing new in the way of complexity has been added, but this minor structural change causes the body’s immune defense mechanism not to recognize it as V1. Before a new vaccine has been developed and put into use, it wipes out millions of people. Emotionally, people would assess this as a change of major proportions.
Therefore we see that in micro-infective agents (viruses in particular), minor genetic shifts can easily have catastrophic consequences out of proportion to the actual change in informational content. When compared to the usual, supposed evolutionary transformations in ‘higher’ creatures, we can easily see that there is no comparison left at all, in spite of the obvious favorable selection which occurs. To summarize all four of our points:
Jones has to demonstrate an instance in which such a change has occurred—this writer has no recollection of a major epidemic blamed on genetic experimentation.
Even if it did occur, the artificial production of change by direct genetic tampering is different from a spontaneous, natural, phenemonon.
A virus can in no way be related to any other form phylogenetically, and so the observation does not apply to the supposed history of life.
An apparently major effect probably reflects only a horizontal or even a negative change in informational content, and again does not relate to the sort of evolution postulated generally.
The creationist, to be consistent in his interpretation of genetic information as designed and purposive, must face the philosophical/theological implications of this concerning viruses. The complex information carried by a virus (e.g., the smallpox virus) seems to have but one purpose (apart from the perpetuation of the virus)—to cause disease, suffering and death. The Curse following the Fall is intrinsic to our understanding of this. If ‘thorns and thistles’ were to come forth out of ground where none existed previously, then a direct creation of new genetic material encoding the ability to cause harm must have taken place after the Fall. The same reasoning applies to the Biblical implication that previously herbivorous animals became carnivorous. Many a ‘smart’ questioner asks about the meat-eating equipment of e.g., tigers and lions—‘if they used to eat grass, how come they’ve got carnivorous teeth?’ The answer is rather obvious—the line of descent between the herbivorous ancestors (pre-Fall) of these creatures and their present descendants was interrupted by an intervening, direct creation of new genetic material. As part of the new order of things, the genetic information coding for the disease-causing ability of a virus is a direct creation by God in implementation of the Curse. Any attempt to avoid the direct intervention of the Creator is unscriptural and probably the result of wishful thinking.
[Ed note: see the more up-to-date and detailed article Did God make pathogenic viruses?]