The ‘bird flu’ and evolution
16 February 2004
At the time of writing (February 2004), a deadly respiratory ‘flu’ is racing with unprecedented speed through fowl populations in Asia and other parts of the world. Countless millions of chickens have either died from the disease, or been deliberately slaughtered to stop it from spreading. The economic cost has been devastating, especially to nations who can ill afford such losses.
In addition, a handful of people have caught the disease directly from the birds, and some have died. So far there is no clear evidence of the virus being transmitted from human to human.
However, many media outlets and health authorities have expressed the fear that the virus could ‘mutate’ to a form which is capable of directly spreading among humans. The 1918–19 ‘Spanish flu’ outbreak, which swept the world and killed more than 20 million people (more even than the just finished war, and than the Black Death in 14th century Europe), is believed to have possibly started in birds and spread to humans.
The fear is heightened by the fact that since that flu nightmare of early last century, the world has become dramatically more populated and more mobile. A disease which killed 20 million then would presumably be capable of wiping out hundreds of millions now. Adding to the alarm is the fact that this bird virus is apparently resistant to some current anti-viral drugs.
Significance for origins
Will it happen? No-one can say for sure. Could it happen? Scientifically and medically, absolutely. In fact, it is anything but far-fetched. The notion of an animal virus ‘jumping’ the species barrier has been previously discussed in creationist circles. The AIDS virus is actually believed to have very likely jumped from the green monkey population in Africa to establish a new host in humans.
Furthermore, the idea of a virus changing hosts turns out to be important for a consistent creation model (see Diseases on the Ark: Answering the Critics). Today there are viruses which only infect humans. If that situation had always been like that, then one would have to assume that Noah’s family carried all known human viruses with them on the Ark. But if animal viruses could have later become harmful to humans as well, then there is no such problem. In fact, measles is believed to have originally come from a virus (canine distemper) which normally only infects dogs.
Are such changes ‘evolution’ as normally understood? The answer is clearly ‘no’, as discussed years ago in our literature (see Has AIDS evolved?). This sort of change is simply not capable in principle of generating even one small step along the assumed path of ameba-to-astronomer biological change.
Actually, no informed evolutionist will try to argue that a virus represents a ‘simple life form’ analogous to the beginnings of the evolutionary process on Earth. The reason is obvious; for a virus to exist there must first be a full-blown self-reproducing organism. A virus can’t reproduce without the complex machinery of a truly living creature. Since viruses are parasitic on cellular life, the first life could not have been anything like a virus.
We’ve repeatedly shown how demonstrating ‘change’ is not enough to demonstrate the reality of the evolutionary history of life on earth. (See Muddy Waters and Beetle bloopers). In fact, when the biological changes generally used to argue for evolution are looked at in detail, they turn out to be the precise opposite of what such a process would require (see The evolution train’s a-comin’ (Sorry, a-goin’—in the wrong direction)). Bacteria can change to become antibiotic resistant, for instance, but such changes result from a loss of information (see Superbugs not super after all and Anthrax and antibiotics: Is evolution relevant?). This is hardly a recipe for heading upwards along the presumed evolutionary path alleged to have turned microbes into magnolias and muskrats.
Unfortunately, the words being used to describe the feared change in the virus, such as ‘mutate’ and ‘evolve’ carry with them all sorts of Darwinian baggage. This will become especially pointed if the dreaded change does eventuate. Viruses, like actual living things, do mutate (the term is properly applied) and change. The issue is, as always, not to be misled by the ‘psychological link’ between such terms and the idea that pond scum has turned into pelicans, palm trees and politicians.