Swine flu—Is it evidence of evolution?

Just as with AIDS and avian influenza (‘bird flu’), the latest virus alert is being hailed as proof that evolution is true.

Swine flu warning
In some places (e.g. Egypt), pigs were slaughtered in an effort to guard against swine flu. But with human-to-human transmission of the virus now confirmed, authorities in countries like Australia are looking to increased quarantine measures, including school closures and travel restrictions, to limit its spread. Photo: stockxpert

by and David Catchpoole

Those who say that the creation/evolution debate is really only of academic interest, with little relevance to our daily lives (or to anything else1), must surely have been confronted by swine flu’s continuing domination of worldwide news headlines.2,3 And of course, the secularists couldn’t resist linking these tragedies with evolutionary propaganda.

Swine flu is evolution in action”, shouted LiveScience in its headline,4 with these very confrontational opening sentences as a challenge to any readers doubting evolution:

Anyone who thinks evolution is for the birds should not be afraid of swine flu. Because if there’s no such thing as evolution, then there’s no such thing as a new strain of swine flu infecting people.

For the rest of the population, concern is justified.

LiveScience’s editorial director Robert Roy Britt went on to hammer the line that swine flu “is an excellent example of evolution at work”. His article quoted Michael Deem, a bioengineer at Rice University in Texas: “Yes, this is definitely evolution.” It was certainly clear from Britt’s words that he very much had creationists in mind as a target for mocking:

While much of the modern controversy over evolution centers around whether humans evolved from non-human primates (scientists overwhelmingly agree this is the case), some people still try to poke holes in the theory of evolution, one of the most solid theories in science. In addition to evidence from ancient fossils and modern DNA studies, one of the many lines of evidence supporting evolution is that it can quite simply be seen in action among some species that evolve particularly rapidly, such as fruit flies.

But on no stage does evolution unfold more quickly or with more potentially sickening or lethal consequences for humans than among viruses. It is, to pass on a scary phrase used among scientists and marketers, viral evolution. And you could be the star host of this all-too-often deadly show.

Other anti-Christian voices, too, were quick to jump on the creationist-mocking bandwagon. Typical was this blogger who posted on the Huffington Post website:

How many creationists are running to their doctors right now to get flu medication? If they are doing that, they’ve voided the concept of creationism. The swine flu is a virus that EVOLVED right in front of our eyes! It found a new way to survive. You would not need a new flu vaccine every winter if creationism was real. Heck, even when a new flu vaccine comes out, it’s already obsolete, because 2–3 more strains have already EVOLVED from the base flu strain the vaccine is based on. The whole idea of creationism is "I reject your reality and substitute my own." The war on science and knowledge is over folks, there’s a new sheriff in town!5

And this offering in vulgarity came out of the mouth of well known comedian Bill Maher, in his HBO television series Real Time with Bill Maher:

“You can’t c--p all over Darwin and stem cell research and global warming, then come crawling back to science when you want Tamiflu.”6,7

Change in viruses is not evolutionary change

iStockphoto Swine flu

These claims that the H1N1 swine flu demonstrates evolution are not the first to have been made about a virus. But as our earlier articles on AIDS and bird flu make clear, and as we shall again revisit shortly, changes in viruses certainly represent change, but such changes are not the sort of changes that molecules-to-man evolution requires.

But what about the jump from pigs to humans, some readers might ask? Well, the ability of an animal virus to ‘jump’ the species barrier has been previously discussed in creationist circles—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 infect only 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.

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. And the 1918–19 ‘Spanish flu’ outbreak, which swept the world and killed more than 20 million people (more even than the just finished WWI, and more than the Black Death in 14th century Europe), is believed to have possibly started in birds and spread to humans.

So, how do we make sense of this?

Such changes are in no way ‘evolution’ as normally understood, as this sort of change is simply not capable in principle of generating even one small step along the assumed path of vent-mud-to-virologist 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 machinery8 of a truly living creature—hence viruses are generally considered to be not “living”. Since viruses are parasitic on cellular life, the first life could not have been anything like a virus.

Interestingly, Britt in his LiveScience article is clearly aware of this, and cleverly tried to counter it in advance under the sub-heading “But are they alive?”:

One of the little hole-poking exercises used by critics of evolution is to argue that viruses are not alive. Tell that to the host.

“Viruses may be living or non-living, depending on the definition of life,” Deem explained in an email interview with LiveScience. “Viruses + the host (pig or human) are definitely alive. So, this for sure is an example of evolution in the living system of the virus + pig + human.”

But then Britt admits that David Schaffer, a professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering at the University of California at Berkeley, “takes a slightly different view”:

"Viruses are not alive, in that they do not have the ability to replicate themselves independently, without infecting and relying upon a cell to do so," Schaffer said. "That said, biological entities need not be alive in order to evolve."

Notice that although Deem and Schaffer are at odds with each other over whether viruses are “living”, neither doubts that viruses “evolve”! But viruses, do not “evolve”. Rather, like actual living things, they do mutate (the term is properly applied) and change. Readers, however, should not be misled by the evolutionary barrage over swine flu (and other viruses) into thinking that such change represents evolution.

In fact, Britt’s own words make clear that the swine flu virus (at least in its present form), has likely become that way not by the generation of new genetic information (something essential for pondscum-to-pigs evolution to have occurred), but from existing genetic information:

Viruses … steal DNA that they find useful to their success.

“Many viruses can easily incorporate ready-made genes from other viruses into their genomes,” as explained at [the website9] Understanding Evolution. “This is a possibility anytime a host is infected with two different viral strains.”

That’s likely what’s happened with swine flu.

“It appears the H1N1 swine flu may be a reassortment of the H (hemagglutinin) gene from typical North American pigs with the N (neuraminidase) and M (matrix) genes from European pigs,” Deems said. “If so, this new virus is an example of the importance of recombination in evolution. That is, evolution proceeds not only by small mutations of individual DNA or RNA bases, but also by transmission of large pieces of genetic material from one individual to another.”

So, despite the evolutionary handwaving there, no evolution! Rearrangement of already existing information doesn’t explain the new encyclopaedic information of more complex living creatures. Britt goes on to explain that if you contract a run-of-the-mill flu that causes only mild symptoms but then also contract a really deadly influenza virus that heretofore was only transmitted between pigs, then you’re at risk. Of what—viral evolution? He says that “the two viruses inside you swap genes, and now you’re the host of a newly evolved swine flu virus that can infect your whole family, your colleagues at work, some people at the airport you later fly out of who touch the same armrest you held, and then some folks in the country you fly to. Voila, pandemic!”

“Newly evolved?” No, as there’s no new genetic information, just already-existing genetic information reshuffled, in this case.

We’ve repeatedly shown how demonstrating ‘change’ is not enough to demonstrate a supposed 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 amebas into alert airport screening staff capable of intercepting passengers with swine flu.

Incidentally, for the benefit of Messrs Britt, Maher, and the Huffington Post blogger, believers in biblical creation do NOT “come crawling back to science” for its undoubted benefits to mankind (including, e.g. Tamiflu). Creationists not only readily acknowledge the important contribution of experimental science and medicine in compassionately seeking to ameliorate the debilitating impacts of the Curse on people’s lives, but many creation-believing scientists were responsible for those advances.

It is perhaps especially ironic that Maher, of all people, should be accusing creationists of ignoring demonstrated facts from experimental science. This is because, despite the incontrovertible evidence for the germ theory of disease (first put forward by a creationist, Louis Pasteur), Maher has publically said that he doubts it!10.

Published: 2 June 2009


  1. E.g, proclaiming the Gospel. But see: Street preacher says creation is the issue it’s time for the church to stop avoiding the questions people want answers to and Biblical creation impedes evangelism? Return to text.
  2. Edwards, M., Swine flu continues to spread, ABC News, www.abc.net.au/am/content/2009/s2580671.htm, 26 May 2009. Return to text.
  3. Even the “isolated” continent of Australia is now subject to increased swine flu alert, with a dramatic rise in the number of cases in recent days, with associated enforced quarantine measures such as school closures, and warnings of worse to come. ABC News, Swine flu: brace yourselves, Roxon warns, http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2009/05/27/2582205.htm, 27 May 2009. Return to text.
  4. Britt, R.R., Swine flu is evolution in action, LiveScience, http://www.livescience.com/health/090428-swine-flu-viral-evolution.html, 28 April 2009. Return to text.
  5. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/05/the-view-argues-about-dar_n_196852.html Return to text.
  6. Texas Freedom Network, Bill Maher Mocks Texas Gov. Perry Over Evolution and Swine Flu, <http://www.opposingviews.com/articles/video-bill-maher-mocks-texas-gov-perry-over-evolution-and-swine-flu>, 4 May 2009. Return to text.
  7. While the focus of this article is on swine flu, we cannot let Maher’s comments pass without letting readers know of our articles on stem cell research here and here, and on global warming here and here, which rebut the thrust of Maher’s sideswipe at creationists. Return to text.
  8. Yet Even a tiny virus has a powerful mini-motor. Return to text.
  9. <http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/home.php> Return to text.
  10. See Footnote #8 in Dawkins Ironic Hypocrisy. Return to text.