Evolution and DDT

Tim Lambert over at Deltoid links to this article, by Aaron Swartz, about the relentless right-wing smear campaign against Rachel Carson. Carson was the author of the 1962 book Silent Spring, where she argued, among other things, that pervasive use of pesticides such as DDT was leading to long-term, harmful effects on the environment. DDT was eventually banned in the US in 1972, in part because of the influence of Carson's book.

More recently, DDT spraying has been adopted as a cause celebre among many politicians and journalists. Swartz writes:

“What the World Needs Now Is DDT” asserted the headline of a lengthy feature in the New York Times Magazine (4/11/04). “No one concerned about the environmental damage of DDT set out to kill African children,” reporter Tina Rosenberg generously allowed. Nonethe-less, “Silent Spring is now killing African children because of its persistence in the public mind.”

It's a common theme--echoed by two more articles in the Times by the same author (3/29/06, 10/5/06), and by Times columnists Nicholas Kristof (3/12/05) and John Tierney (6/05/07). The same refrain appears in a Washington Post op-ed by columnist Sebastian Mallaby, gleefully headlined “Look Who's Ignoring Science Now” (10/09/05). And again in the Baltimore Sun (“Ms. Carson's views [came] at a cost of many thousands of lives worldwide”--5/27/07), New York Sun (“millions of Africans died . . . thanks to Rachel Carson's junk science classic”--4/21/06), the Hill (“millions die on the altar of politically correct ideologies”--11/02/05), San Francisco Examiner (“Carson was wrong, and millions of people continue to pay the price”--5/28/07) and Wall Street Journal (“environmental controls were more important than the lives of human beings”--2/21/07).

Swartz goes on to explain in some detail why this is all terribly oversimplified, to put things mildly. It will be familiar and depressing reading to anyone who has been following how the right-wing propaganda mill in America has managed to corrupt public debate on key issue after key issue. I recommend reading the whole thing.

For obvious reasons, this was the part that caught my eye:

DDT use has decreased enormously, but not because of a ban. The real reason is simple, although not one conservatives are particularly fond of: evolution. Mosquito populations rapidly develop resistance to DDT, creating enzymes to detoxify it, modifying their nervous systems to avoid its effects, and avoiding areas where DDT is sprayed -- and recent research finds that that resistance continues to spread even after DDT spraying has stopped, lowering the effectiveness not only of DDT but also other pesticides (Current Biology, 8/9/05).

“No responsible person contends that insect-borne disease should be ignored,” Carson wrote in Silent Spring. “The question that has now urgently presented itself is whether it is either wise or responsible to attack the problem by methods that are rapidly making it worse. . . . Resistance to insecticides by mosquitoes . . . has surged upwards at an astounding rate.”

Small wonder the right-wingers are so passionate about this issue!


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Geez, when will you atheist evolutionists stop trying to force your immoral naturalistic philosophy on the rest of us? As anyone can see, God designed mosquitoes to resist DDT in order to punish Africa for being an obvious counterexample to our righteous claims that AIDS is God's designed curse on homosexual immorality. So the "evidence" for both your arguments is really all just God's plan.

Oh, and this is all an example of God's bountiful mercy and love. He even murdered his own son just for you, ya know? How could you not like the guy?

Celebrating Rachel Carson's 100th Anniversary -- The Alternative Version

Ronald Bailey | May 23, 2007, 10:52am

The 100th anniversary of the birth of Silent Spring author and environmentalist icon Rachel Carson is this Sunday. But not everyone wants to celebrate. Republican senatorial curmudgeon Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is blocking a congressional resolution by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) that aims to honor Carson's "legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility."

Since I have written a bit on Carson's legacy and her "scientific rigor," I was called by a reporter from an alternative news site, the Raw Story, for my thoughts on Carson and Coburn. My first thought was "oh please don't put me on the side of Coburn." I did tell him that while it might be OK to celebrate Carson's "poetic sensibility," her "scientific rigor" left something to be desired. Subsequent decades of research have conclusively shown that Carson was excessively alarmist about the environmental and health effects of trace exposures to man-made chemicals. Part of the explanation for Carson's mistakes is the primitive state of toxicology and cancer research 40 to 50 years ago. However, Carson's fault is that, like many of her ideological descendants today, whenever she encountered data she always chose to interpret it as exemplifying the worst possible case.

Now Coburn is a man with whom I fundamentally disagree on the policy implications of many scientific findings. Nevertheless, I outlined to the reporter my objections to the misleading science in Silent Spring. It turns out that I needn't have worried overmuch about the Coburn connection; the Raw Story article accurately quotes a couple of my throwaway lines in which I struggled to find something nice to say about Carson. To wit:

Ronald Bailey, the science correspondent for the libertarian magazine Reason, has been critical of the quality of Carson's scientific research and favors the limited use of DDT for anti-malaria purposes. He told RAW STORY in a phone interview Tuesday that there had nevertheless been some positive benefits from Silent Spring.

"To a certain extent, she launched a movement based on bad science that nevertheless had good results," Bailey argued, explaining that Carson had essentially become a 'myth.'

"Let's face it, Americans needed to be alerted to problems of pollution, and there's value in that," he added.

All true as far as it goes, but the quotations make me seem a bit more pollyanna-ish about Carson than I am. So as a way to join--in an alternative way--the 100th anniversary celebration of Carson's legacy, may I invite you to take a look at my analysis of Silent Spring on its 40th anniversary here. For more of my adventures in the war over DDT take a look at my article "DDT, Eggshells and Me" in which I comprehensively review the scientific papers on DDT and its effects on birds here.

In that article I conclude:

In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson asked, "Who has decided�who has the right to decide�for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight? The decision is that of the authoritarian temporarily entrusted with power."

Banning DDT saved thousands of raptors over the past 30 years, but outright bans and misguided fears about the pesticide cost the lives of millions of people who died of insect-borne diseases like malaria. The 500 million people who come down with malaria every year might well wonder what authoritarian made that decision.

The good news is that 35 years after DDT was banned in the U.S. as a result, at least in part, of Carson's polemic, that the World Health Organization has approved it for use in controlling malaria mosquitoes again.

For more excellent reporting on the legacy of Rachel Carson, see my colleague Katherine Mangu-Ward's Wall Street Journal op/ed here.

Posted by: Wes | September 22, 2007 10:26 PM.

Obviously Wes does not realize that God purposely provided for minute changes, called micro-evolution by men, was designed into EVER life form, including man. Wes should be thankful, without this non-evolution change ability, his neighbor and every other male on the entire earth would look EXACTLY like him.

Thanks you Lord!

By James Collins (not verified) on 24 Sep 2007 #permalink

Re James Collins

I think that Mr. wes was being sarcastic.

Yea, kafka, though DDT would decrease mosquito populations temporarily for malaria relief, it would be more beneficial to fund treatments and research into more effective and less costly medicines then fight a losing battle with nature. But instead of spending on health and welfare of the people, governments like to spend on war and slush.


Part of the problem are if is really scientific the rigorous control to test drugs by before authorize use them in humans or in environments populated by men.!Beware of comercial drugs companies who want make bussiness without care of health!.As pesticides an chemical products used to obtain other products en food production.

Antibiotics are becoming useless as bacteria become resistant to them. Worse, these drugs are killing thousands yearly to Pseudomembranous colitis and anaphylaxis. Where is the Rachel Carson of Penicillin? Silenced by the big pharm lobby, fer sure.