The evolving bird flu
20 October 2005
For some time now, the scientific press has expressed rumblings of frustration that the warnings of scientists about avian influenza (bird flu) were being ignored by politicians and the wider media. We wrote about this in February 2004, The ‘bird flu’ and evolution, which explains many of the concepts involved, and why influenza has nothing to do with goo-to-you evolution.
Recently, though, things have changed. Now there is much talk of the risks of a pandemic (a major, widespread epidemic which could take huge numbers of lives worldwide). Indeed, the post-WW1 ‘Spanish flu’ outbreak holds the record for the number of fatalities in an epidemic, even eclipsing the plague or ‘Black Death’ in 14th century Europe, as well as deaths from that war.
This has come at the same time as a media ‘stir’ in the US about a new round of lawsuits trying to ban the slightest challenge to evolution in public schools. Thus it’s not surprising that bird flu has featured in some ‘digs’ against creationists and intelligent design supporters. That’s because the bird flu virus has clearly changed, so they fear that a pandemic could occur if the virus changes further so it can be transmitted from human to human (so far all the humans that have been infected have caught it directly from birds).
So is bird flu evolving? In a sense, this is a semantic trap. If ‘evolution’ is defined to mean ‘change’ or ‘genetic change within a population’, the answer is a clearcut ‘yes’. But most people hear the word ‘evolution’ and think that it means the fullblown story—molecules to mathematicians, and so on. And it simply does not follow logically that demonstrating that organisms can change shows that they are capable of the sort of change required to turn microbes to microbiologists.
At the risk of sounding trite, all ‘change’ is not equal. For example, I can change clothes. I can also change nationalities. But it does not therefore follow that I can change into a dragonfly, or a hobgoblin—such a proposition would require separate demonstration. The issue is not only with the amount of change, but with the type of change (e.g. the direction of change), as shown in our article on AIDS some years ago—see Has AIDS evolved? The answer depends on the sense in which you mean to use the word ‘evolved’. Unfortunately, evolutionists often equivocate with the meaning of ‘evolution-words’.
The waters are muddied still further by the fact that viruses are not really living organisms as such—they require the machinery of other life forms to replicate. Viruses are therefore conspicuously absent from evolutionary ‘tree of life’ diagrams. The AIDS article mentioned above goes into all this and more (and see also Did God make pathogenic viruses?). The principles are the same, so you can still use it if anyone throws the ‘bird flu is evolving’ argument at you. For other disease-causing microbes, see Pathogens and creation.