I wrote up a critique of an article DI mouthpiece Casey Luskin wrote regarding avian influenza back in October. I don’t know whether Luskin ever read my post; at the time, trackbacks to the DI site weren’t working. But I’d guess I’m not the only one who pointed out the abundant mistakes in his article, which advanced the thesis that avian influenza wasn’t a good example of evolution. He has since written a response to critics here (warning: .pdf file), correcting one of his errors in the original article (and making a confusing mess out of things).
Luskin’s original thesis was that H5N1 wasn’t a good example of evolution because, he claimed, it was simply a reassortant virus: an avian-human hybrid. Therefore, the “evolution” was not any “new information,” but simply a move of information that already existed. Only, of course, the H5N1 strain circulating *isn’t* a reassortant virus: it’s a pure avian virus. You might think that this tidbit of information would shoot down Luskin’s whole thesis, but no, he struggles on.
Though Luskin admits he was wrong when he called H5N1 a reassortant, he still claims:
…regardless of whether or not the Avian Flu has yet evolved into a more deadly form, this evolution would represent small scale genetic change and would not represent an impressive example of evolution.
Contrast this with his original claim:
The reason that the Avian Flu is succeding thus far is because when the two previously-existing viruses swapped some genetic material and created Avian Flu strains, its current configuration is different enough from microbes our immune systems can already target that many people are unable to fight off the virus.
But it’s evolution within limits, and it’s evolution that generally uses pre-existing genetic material.After all, the current strains of the Avian flu are nothing more than viruses, which are descended from nothing more than a line of billions upon billions of generations of viruses, which, as far as we can tell, have always been viruses, and aren’t becoming anything other than more viruses.
Viruses are masters at taking what already exists and swapping it around to dodge our immune system. And that’s what has happened here. It’s still a virus, and there’s probably nothing “new” in terms of new genes. This does not show that evolution can create new genetic information.
Luskin also fails to correct his mistake about the 1918 virus, still claiming it, too, was a reassortant virus (as the viruses that caused pandemics in 1957 and 1968 were). It wasn’t. Taubenberger et al. finished sequencing the virus and published their results in October (prior to Luskin’s original article on the topic, I might add, and certainly long before his January correction piece). I wrote a bit about the results of the 1918 sequencing study here, and the New England Journal of Medicine has a review here. Quoting from that review:
The startling observation of Taubenberger et al. was that the 1918 virus did not originate through a reassortment event involving a human influenza virus: all eight genes of the H1N1 virus are more closely related to avian influenza viruses than to influenza from any other species, indicating that an avian virus must have infected humans and adapted to them in order to spread from person to person. Thus, pandemic influenza may originate through at least two mechanisms: reassortment between an animal influenza virus and a human influenza virus that yields a new virus, and direct spread and adaptation of a virus from animals to humans.
So Luskin’s claims about reassortment in the 1918 virus are still all wet. He’s simply swapped one mistake for another.
…my critique of the relevance of the evolution of virus by reassortment to supporting Neo-Darwinian claims of macroevolution is still valid.
Now, that’s interesting. First, I don’t know anyone who would claim that influenza virus evolution was an example of macroevolution, so that’s a nice little strawman right there. As Luskin so brilliantly notes in his original article, “in the end, they’re still always viruses.” Nevertheless, antigenic shift–this swapping of viral segments–is only one way the virus can evolve. What’s already been shown to occur with H5N1 is antigenic drift–the accumulation of point mutations in the viral genome. It’s these small mutations that require us to re-formulate influenza vaccines every year. Could this drift result in a pandemic strain of virus? There’s no reason to discount the possibility, and as I mentioned above, this seems to be the way the 1918 virus evolved. The H5N1 strain circulating already has some point mutations that were detected in the 1918 virus genome. Is it becoming more human-adapted? If so, are these changes an “increase in information,” as I asked in my previous post (not addressed in Luskin’s correction, of course).
The thing is, even small mutation events can produce slightly modified proteins with novel functions. What the intelligent design folks (and other creationists) keep dodging is whether this novel function represents an “increase in information” or not. If so, what exactly then *does* constitute such an increase? They’ve denied that gene duplication is such an increase–but such duplication can result in reduced selection pressure on these duplicated genes, eventually resulting in the production novel proteins as mutations accumulate. Is this then an “increase in information?” If not, why not? As they currently define it, there is no way for information to increase. Therefore, even when we give a dramatic example of evolution of a new ability (such as this one), it is denied due to the all-encompassing “increase in information” excuse. It’s a “heads I win, tails you lose” situation.
So, once again I will quote from the DI’s evolutionnews site:
The misreporting of the evolution issue is one key reason for this new site. The newsmedia in the U.S. seem to have rediscovered the evolution controversy recently. Unfortunately, much of the news coverage has been sloppy, inaccurate, and in several cases, overtly biased.
and wait for Mr. Luskin to do some *real* correcting of his errors regarding influenza virus evolution. I ain’t holding my breath.