Effect Measure

So what does my Scienceblogs colleague, Dr. Tara Smith of Aetiology know anyways? So she’s got an advanced degree and is a practicing epidemiologist. How could she be so smart if she writes stuff like this?

Those of you who have followed creationism/intelligent design literature over the years have probably felt as if you’re living in an alternate universe sometimes. In that literature, many times it seems as if “up” means “down” and “highly supported by the evidence” means “a theory in crisis.”

[snip]

Phylogenetic analyses based on genetic mutations are used to determine relationships for all kinds of organisms–including humans. In infectious disease epidemiology, they can be used to pinpoint the origin of a virus, or to track and predict its spread, as I’ve written about previously. A new paper in Nature uses similar methodology to examine the introduction of influenza H5N1 into Nigeria. [Etc., etc., about some science-y stuff regarding evolution and viruses.] (Aetiology)

Whoa, stop right there, Doctor Smith! Let me educate you. Or rather, we’ll have Mike Martin of Greeley, Colorado, Guest Columnist in The Greeley Tribune and former editor of Ag Weekly Magazine, educate you. The problem, Doctor Smith, is that you believe in mutations:

If the human population is suddenly decimated by a bird flu pandemic, will it be because the H5N1 virus that causes the disease “mutated?” Or is the use of the word “mutation” an inaccurate, perhaps even deceptive, description of so-called changes occurring in the virus?

The June 24 Health and Science page of the Tribune carried the alarming headline, “Mutation found in bird flu.” The story was about the H5N1 virus “mutating slightly” and spreading from person to person in an Indonesian family. The article said the mutated virus had stopped, and there was no danger of a pandemic arising from the situation. However, we are once again warned: “Experts fear the H5N1 virus could eventually mutate (there’s the word again) into a highly contagious form that spreads easily among people, potentially sparking a global pandemic.”

[snip]

Darwin’s theory of evolution proposed that changes that cause one species to evolve into another occur through random mutations which are carried on through succeeding generations. Hence, apes eventually became humans by a series of mutations. Mutation, in this sense, is a result of genetic damage.

But now, “mutation” is being redefined to include any change. If changes can be found in the population of a species they are proclaimed by those who believe in evolution as proof of the theory. The same logic is used in telling us that mosquitoes have “mutated” to become resistant to DDT. But the fact is, before the use of DDT, a small group in the total mosquito population was already resistant. When the insecticide was applied, the resistant insects survived while the unresistant died. The resistant then reproduced forming a strain (a group with common ancestry) of resistant mosquitoes. This an example of population shift, not of mutation in the Darwinian sense. The same fundamentals are used intentionally in cattle breeding to create a population shift that changes a herd of Herefords into black Angus.

The same principle applies in the H5N1 virus. Obviously, at least one strain of the virus is already capable of getting into some segments of the human population (since numerous people have already died of bird flu). All that is necessary for a pandemic is for those strains to become more prevalent — or perhaps, for the flu to wend its way into a group of more susceptible humans. Regardless, no mutation will be required for the sickness to make the leap to pandemic. All that is necessary is the right set of circumstances — circumstances that have nothing to do with evolution.

Don’t be fooled by evolutionists who want to promote their theory by redefining “mutation” to include population shifts. They aren’t the same thing. Evolutionists will have to look elsewhere for elusive proof of their creation story. (The Greely Tribune)

I’m not fooled, Mr. Martin. Clearly this mutation business is a trojan horse to get “evolution” into biological science. Thank you for writing this in a newspaper. I see that you have a degree in technical journalism from The Colorado State University. No one can deny this is journalism. Technically.

Comments

  1. #1 Tara C. Smith
    July 10, 2006

    Silly me and my religious belief in mutations. :) I wonder, where does he think this population of DDT-resistant mosquitoes–or human-adapted H5N1–came from in the first place?

  2. #2 Eric
    July 10, 2006

    There are times, about once or twice a year, when I am sad to say I am from Colorado.

  3. #3 revere
    July 10, 2006

    Eric: Alas, we all have those times about wherever we live.

  4. #4 Polyphony
    July 10, 2006

    Revere & Tara: I hope you have made Mr. Martin aware of your responses. I tilt at windmills of hoping journalists are capable of evolution when confronted with their published foolishness.

  5. #5 Tara C. Smith
    July 10, 2006

    I submitted a letter to the newspaper. That one was just too ridiculous to let go.

  6. #6 neil
    July 10, 2006

    Alas..,
    Sometimes up is down and others down is up. It may only be the language that is mutating.

  7. #7 Dr Philip Lee
    July 10, 2006

    Revere, If you understood what was being said in the articles that you site you would realise that you are mistaken. It’s all about the mutations. Perhaps you would prefer a term more like ‘genetic variation within a population’. Of course it is mutation at the genetic level which creates this variation which may or may not lead to an advantageous phenotype. Perhaps you are getting your chicken and eggs mixed up.

  8. #8 revere
    July 10, 2006

    Philip: Huh? Did you see this is filed under the category of “sarcasm”? You didn’t take this seriously I hope as an expression of our view.

  9. #9 Halo Thane
    July 10, 2006

    It seems so difficult to get people to understand that mutations happen, that it is not just already adapted organisms who were there all along.

    It would be interesting if we could isolate a single bacterial cell and let it make a family in a petridish. Then if we sent the subcultures to grow in different media, and show how the bacterial colonies diverged from each other, one fermenting lactose; another colony not fermenting lactose but becoming resistant to antibiotic X; and so on. Because we started with a single individual, nobody would be able to say that all those variations were there in the single cell.

    It all depends on getting hold of an individual bacterium though; does the technology exist for that ?

  10. #10 TimB
    July 10, 2006

    Revere, I’m glad you mentioned that this post was filed under sarcasm. I missed that part and was really scratching my head trying to figure out what this post was about. Jokes on me. “ding” light bulb turned on. To much to comprehend on a Monday morning. LOL

  11. #11 hank
    July 10, 2006

    Oh, my. The tiny grain of truth in this is important not to lose. Many people do write ‘mutation’ when they just fail to understand the long experience plants and animals have in surviving varying conditions, that allows adjusting — that’s ‘natural selection from existing variation.’

    A change in the frequency of an allele is not mutation; as climate changes the genes best suited to survive will increase in frequency, as long as some ancestor survived those conditions.

    But someone should show the columnist the wonderful invention called the ‘Microscope.” Rearrangement of genetic material is mutation; so is loss and so is duplication of bits of genetic material. You don’t have to show creation of a new gene, just change (on which selection operates — I think — but am not sure that by definition it’s only a mutation if the cell manages to replicate; else it’s just damage).

  12. #12 LHD Epi
    July 10, 2006

    I wish that I found this funny rather than frightening. Science Literacy seems to be decreasing at a frightening rate and too many people misunderstand the true limits (and dangers)of both science and technology as solutions to our problems.

  13. #13 revere
    July 10, 2006

    hank: I believe the mutation has to be a genetic change that is heritable and while mutations can be lethal, we usually are concerned with those that are fixed in some way in the population (but may die out).

  14. #14 Dr Philip
    July 10, 2006

    ok, sorry. Now I should congratulate you on a funny article. As they say “My bad”. I will use the excuse posted earlier. I was drinking my first coffee of the week so wasn’t quite up to speed. And it was my first visit here but I’ll be back to visit the sarcastic blogs in the future!

  15. #15 Lori
    July 10, 2006

    “If changes can be found in the population of a species they are proclaimed by those who believe in evolution as proof of the theory.”

    Believe in evolution? As opposed to…? Do I now also have a choice as to whether or not I BELIEVE the earth revolves around the sun? Can I say I don’t want to believe that the earth is round? Can I appeal to my local school district that I do not wish my children to exposed to such heretical ideas as a round and revolving earth? There is probably someplace here in the US that would listen to such idiocy.

    The way they frame the “debate” is insidious and genius. What great lengths people will go to hide and distort facts that frighten them.

  16. #16 Jason
    July 10, 2006

    Hmm, there’s a bit of word play here, but doesn’t it actually have a bit of truth in it?

    The same logic is used in telling us that mosquitoes have “mutated” to become resistant to DDT. But the fact is, before the use of DDT, a small group in the total mosquito population was already resistant. When the insecticide was applied, the resistant insects survived while the unresistant died. The resistant then reproduced forming a strain (a group with common ancestry) of resistant mosquitoes. This an example of population shift, not of mutation in the Darwinian sense.

    Now this is true isn’t it? Any random mutations responsible for the resistance most likely occured well before DDT was introduced as a selection pressure. In this one passage above, the author is rightly complaining about the usage of the verbs “mutated” and “mutates” in common parlance.

    WRT the virus, we don’t know when the mutation occurs so we don’t know if it happened a month ago and that strain just hasn’t spread yet so we haven’t seen it, or it mutated “yesterday” and spread quickly thereafter. I disagree with the writer about the pandemic strain being the same one as the strain already seen in humans. That’s just silly.

    Am I wrong, just tell me.

    All the other stuff trying to use this as an excuse to deny evolution(ism) is silliness though.

  17. #17 Marissa
    July 10, 2006

    Actually it might be even more interesting. The pandemic H5N1 strain will perhaps obtain its final “mutations” from another flu strain (not subtype). What do the journalists call that? Oh, its only gene swapping, not to be confused with wife or husband swapping, which has more unpredictable consequences. ;-)

  18. #18 Stephen Uitti
    July 10, 2006

    I thought the date on my calendar was wrong, though i had the feeling that April was over. Gots to reads the fine print. sarcasm. My understanding has evolved.

  19. #19 qetzal
    July 10, 2006

    Jason,

    I agree with you. The mutations always occur prior to the selection. Even if the selective pressure predates the mutation, it can’t act on the mutation until after it occurs.

    Halo Thane,

    Are your questions serious, or sarcasm? (Hard to be sure, sometimes.) In case of the former, it’s quite easy to isolate an individual bacterium. One simple way is to take a liquid culture and dilute it until there are only, say, 500 cells in one milliliter. Then, spread 0.1 mL (containing ~ 50 cells) on an agar plate. As long as the bacteria in question don’t tend to aggregate, each individual cell will almost certainly end up being well separated from the others on the plate. Allow time for the cells to grow, and they form distinct, separate colonies that you can see and manipulate. At that point, of course, you no longer have single cells, but you do know that all the cells in a given colony arose from a single starting cell.

    As for your subculturing suggestion, it’s been done. Google “coli evolving”, for example. Some studies have been following bacterial evolution in the lab for decades.

    Apologies if you know all this, and your post was meant in the spirit of the sarcasm category.

  20. #20 Man of Misery
    July 10, 2006

    Lori wrote:

    Can I appeal to my local school district that I do not wish my children to exposed to such heretical ideas as a round and revolving earth? There is probably someplace here in the US that would listen to such idiocy.

    You’re in Kansas now, Lori.

  21. #21 revere
    July 10, 2006

    Just got off the plane after flying from the worst airport on the face of the earth, Boston Logan. Looking back over the comments its seems to me that I could have been more careful with my sarcasm. I did take the trouble to categorize it as sarcasm, but there is so much weird stuff around these days that one could believe almost anything. My apologies to those who took it seriously. Unfortunately, these days it’s all to plausible.

  22. #22 traumatized
    July 10, 2006

    I’m in Kansas now too lori (blech, thweyiou…ugh). Apologies. Note the sunflowers while you’re here…

    The Greelian journalist is completely out of his gourd, of course–but an important point noted nonetheless!
    Evolution is NOT teleologic! Viruses don’t mutate out of spite. However, many a none-sciency (lay?) person have come to that conclusion in the past. Scientists are to blame. Especially the ones that write “pop” science books.

  23. #23 M. Randolph Kruger
    July 11, 2006

    Come to Tennessee folks where the mosquitoes are as big as B-52’s, cant be shot down with a Patriot missile or hit with a 40 mm without it bouncing off. YOU WANT SARCASM, YOU CANT HANDLE SARCASM!

    They are so big here that the little ones refuse to take you to the woods to suck you dry. Why? Because the really big ones will take you away from them!

  24. #24 mary in hawaii
    July 12, 2006

    I hate to spoil all this with a serious question, but it’s along the lines of what Jason said. Although changes in the genetic sequences of H5N1 are undeniably occuring at a rapid rate and wholly spontaneous, I wonder to what degree we have been selecting for the survival of some by the use of widespread vaccinations of poultry that will prevent the replication of certain of these subtypes while allowing others?

  25. #25 revere
    July 12, 2006

    The mutations are occurring right along so, as has been said, they “pre-exist” the selective environment, including vaccination. We don’t know if vaccination will produce a strain that is more or less harmful (or not harmful at all), so that doesn’t seem llke a reason not to vaccinate. At this point it is impossible to predict virulence or whether the selective pressure from vaccination will increase it or decrease it or be independent of it. It’s a good question for which there is no answer at the moment.

  26. #26 Abel Pharmboy
    July 12, 2006

    Seems that Mr Martin needs a lesson in the genetic bases of intrinsic vs. acquired resistance to drugs/pesticides, etc.

Current ye@r *