So, you may or may not be aware of the latest “challenge” to evolutionary theory–DI Fellow Jonathan Wells’ new book, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design.” Following in the footsteps of Tom Bethell’s “Politically Incorrect Guide to Science” (whose terrible chapter on AIDS I reviewed here), the book is just all shades of terrible. (As has been pointed out by many others who’ve read books in the “Politically Incorrect” series, they should just drop the pretense of “Politically”–simply “Incorrect” sums them up much better). I’ll have a more comprehensive review of one of Wells’ chapters (discussing, essentially, how evolution plays no role in medicine, antibiotic resistance, etc.) next week some time, and you’ll be seeing others pop up as well (see this post for the collected links), but for today I want to focus on a small part of the final chapter (titled “Scientific Revolution”. Yeah, go ahead and snicker).
You probably remember Forest Mims III. He was the other party in the “Eric Pianka advocates genocide” saga. (See also here and here to remind yourself of the absurdity of the whole situation). Mims is a creationist and another Discovery Institute Fellow, and an amateur scientist. According to Wells, he’s made a bizarre claim: that the fact that influenza viruses haven’t evolved resistance to UV light is evidence for design. I thought that Casey Luskin’s piece on intelligent design and flu was as bad as it gets, but I think this is a toss-up; you just can’t make this stuff up.
Wells writes (page 204-5, emphasis mine):
…some scientists are using ID heuristically to develop new hypotheses. For example, Darwinism suggests that pathogenic viruses should long ago have evolved resistance to solar ultraviolet radiation (UV). Yet studies in Brazil by atmospheric scientist Forrest M. Mims III show that most airborne bacteria are quickly suppressed by even small doses of UV, and he regards this as evidence for design. Mims reasons that if ID is true, flu viruses should also be susceptible to UV from sunlight, and he published a prediction that avian influenza could be “controlled by a substantial reduction” in smoke from regional burning in Southeast Asia that would allow UV from natural sunlight to “suppress the virus before infection occurs.”
The reference Wells gives for this is this (non peer-reviewed) commentary by Mims. In this, Mims states that “influenza incidence was highest during the burning season” in one area of Brazil, and in Thailand and Vietnam. The problem is, as many of you have already likely seen, is that while Mims may have some limited correlation here, he in no way can assign causality from this data. For example, influenza diagnoses also correlate with increased use of natural gas and propane here in midwestern America, but that’s simply because influenza circulates at highest levels during the winter months when the heat is cranked up; propane itself doesn’t increase influenza morbidity. Likewise, they correlate with decreased daylight hours, but again, this doesn’t mean there’s a cause-effect relationship there.
So, there’s that. The correspondence Mims mentions is something that could be tested further, though there’s really no reason to think that UV-B rays explain the increase in influenza better than the well-characterized spike in winter transmissions that occurs each year, regardless of UV penetration. (But typical of IDists ignoring the broader picture in the lit, I suppose). What I don’t get, however, is how this equates to evidence of design. Viruses don’t die, therefore God? If ID, therefore UV susceptible viruses?
With the former (viruses survive, therefore God), Mims makes an unwarranted assumption, that Darwinism implies influenza viruses “should have” evolved resistance to UV. UV is used as a disinfectant because it effectively stops replication by altering pathogen DNA. Some bacteria have, indeed, evolved mechanisms that make them more resistant to UV (spore-forming bacteria, for instance). And some work is being done searching for viruses that are more resistant to UV (for example, in baculoviruses, in order to improve their use as a biological control agent. However, even if UV resistance were a common phenomenon, just because influenza viruses hadn’t evolved this resistance is no blow to evolutionary theory, anymore than is the fact that Streptococcus pyogenes hasn’t become significantly resistant to penicillin. Think of the transmission of influenza; it’s largely via direct contact or airborne droplets, and it doesn’t typically survive long in the atmosphere (though some exceptions have been published). Therefore, UV bombardment isn’t a significant issue, and a higher level of resistance to UV simply may not be advantageous enough to the virus.
Next, the “If Intelligent Design, therefore susceptible viruses” line of thinking, as Wells writes. Wells phrases this as if the finding that influenza viruses are killed by UV was a prediction of intelligent design. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s been known for many decades that UV kills microbes; indeed, it’s used as a common way to disinfect in laboratories and beyond. This has nothing to do with intelligent design, and if this is indeed used as a “confirmation” of their idea, it’s so broad that anything and everything then can be “designed.” As bad as Dembski’s filter and Behe’s “irreducible complexity” are, at least they try to provide some justification for the label of “designed.” Mims’ assertion doesn’t even bother, and Wells certainly doesn’t add any meat.