Illustration by Ronald KurniawanOrganisms are not the only things subject to evolutionary change. In the
ecology of ideas, scientific theories also undergo metamorphosis, evolving from
one form into another and gradually altering their shape and outline over time.
Probably no theory has been through more of an evolutionary process than the theory
of evolution itself, which, for all its Darwinian core, has seen several major
morphological shifts since the publication of the great scientist’s thesis a century
and a half ago. Just as Darwin spelled out how organisms compete against other
organisms within their local ecosystem for access to nourishment and the means
of survival, so intellectual ideas compete within the social ecosystem for nutrients
and sustenance. In today’s increasingly fundamentalist landscape, the theory of
evolution is facing an aggressive new competitor in the form of the Christian-inspired
theory of intelligent design. According to ID theory, life on Earth, and specifically
human life, did not result from a blind process of random mutations, but from
the conscious direction of a higher power. Billed as an alternative scientific
viewpoint, ID is flourishing like kudzu in communities and school boards across
the nation, threatening to supplant the teaching of evolution in our classrooms.
Next Monday, the first legal case regarding Intelligent Design comes before the federal court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. A politically diverse group of parents is suing the local school board of the town of Dover over the board’s decision to mandate that ID be taught in biology classes.Since the U.S. Constitution mandates the separation of church and state, Christian fundamentalists have wised up to the fact that they cannot push an overtly religious account of life’s origins into school curricula. Instead of invoking the Judeo-Christian God, intelligent-design theory appeals to the power of science itself. No specific deity is invoked; rather, ID holds that detailed scrutiny of living phenomena leads logically to the conclusion that many biological systems have been consciously designed to fit their purpose. Who or what did the designing is a question carefully evaded, creating the superficial impression that the “theory” is religiously neutral.But make no mistake about its origins: ID is the latest output of the creationist movement, and the second attempt by fundamentalists to formulate a quasi-scientific theory that harmonizes with their virulently literalist brand of Christianity. Unlike the previous incarnation — a generic pastiche known as “creation science” that gained little traction outside a few fundamentalist think tanks — ID has been an astounding success. An index of its increasingly deep-seated hold was the recent release of a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in which 64 percent of respondents said they were open to having a creationist account of life taught alongside evolution in school science classes. Thirty-eight percent went further still and would replace evolution with a creationist perspective.
Unlike the vague pronouncements of creation science, ID theorists get into
the nitty-gritty of molecular biology, picking apart bio-molecular systems to
look for evidence of conscious design. One of their favorite examples is the taillike
flagella of certain waterborne bacteria that propel these microorganisms like
miniature propellers. Flagella are one of the few natural systems in which we
may observe rotary motion (they are nature’s version of a tiny circular motor),
and according to proponents of intelligent design, there is no way this complex
system could have come into being through chance. Other instances they point to
are macromolecules such as hemoglobin (responsible for transporting oxygen in
our blood), and DNA itself, a phenomenally clever molecule whose origin remains
one of the greater mysteries of modern biology.
According to contemporary Darwinian principles, complicated structures such as flagella assemble over eons through the gradual accumulation of tiny genetic mutations, each of which confers on the creature an enhanced ability to survive and reproduce. IDers reject this view, claiming that such interdependent and interconnected sets of parts make sense only when seen from the perspective of the completed system. Until you get the whole, they say, the parts contribute no functional advantage. By focusing on end results, they insist there must have been a rational designer guiding the components toward a higher synthesis.But the end results of nature’s programs are not just ingenious mechanisms like flagella and hemoglobin, they are also ruthless killers. If life on Earth is being consciously designed, then what are we to make of the mind that would bring into being the new strain of avian flu virus rampaging through Southeast Asia? Called H5N1, this virulent form of flu has already killed millions of birds, mainly domesticated chickens and ducks destined for tables around the world. A hundred million more have been slaughtered in an attempt to stop this pernicious pathogen, resulting in billions of dollars of damage to the economies of Thailand and Vietnam. Most flu viruses are specific to certain species, but occasionally one will cross over to another species. During the past 18 months, H5N1 has crossed the species boundary with humans, killing almost every person who has been infected. In the latest installment of Mike Davis’ catastrophe series, The Monster at Our Door, this master chronicler of disaster charts the rise of H5N1 in Southeast Asia and warns of the global human pandemic that is certain to arise if this micro-fiend is left unchecked.What sort of higher power would consciously design a virus that kills its victims in a matter of days by overwhelming their immune systems? Or HIV or Ebola? Or, for that matter, the parasite Onchocerca volvulus, which causes river blindness — a particularly odious worm that generates nodules inside the brain before sending tens of thousands of larvae through the bloodstream, where they erupt from the skin, causing unbearable itching, and, when they exit through the eyes, often lead to blindness.
Proponents of intelligent design take comfort in the idea that nature has
been directed and that, consequentially, human beings are not the result of a
random series of genetic accidents. I take the opposite view: To me it seems appalling
to imagine a god who is sitting around dreaming up tapeworms. Darwin was troubled
by a similar thought. For him, the fiend that shook his faith was the ichneumon
wasp, which lays its eggs inside the larvae of the horntail wasp. There, the infant
ichneumon secretes a paralyzing agent while it proceeds to eat the living horntail
from the inside out. Darwin’s contemporaries also fretted about a marine organism
called the sacculine barnacle. Soon after it hatches, this parasite burrows beneath
the shell of a crab, making its home inside the crustacean’s body. Thus embedded,
it proceeds to grow tentacles around the crab’s veins and suck nutrients out of
its blood like an internal vampire. Carl Zimmer describes in his squeamishly gripping
book Parasite Rex how, eventually, the barnacle fills the entire carapace
of the crab, which becomes, in effect, a zombie. God works in mysterious ways,
but personally I’m with Darwin on this.
In their battle against Darwin’s work, IDers are increasingly insisting that evolution “is just a theory” (to quote from a notice pasted into science textbooks in the Deep South) and that intelligent design is a legitimate rational alternative, deserving equal time in science classrooms. To them I have one thing to say: When the H5N1 pandemic hits, do not line up for Tamiflu, one of only two antiviral drugs known to be effective against at least some substrains of the virus. As Davis reports at the end of his book, the world production capacity of Tamiflu is woefully inadequate. Moreover, he notes, because U.S. public-health policy on this issue has been seriously shortsighted, we will have to wait our turn for the drug, behind countries like England, France and Canada, which have placed orders for tens of millions of doses in preparation for just such a catastrophe.While IDers are denying that evolution is a fact, nature is quietly going about its business, combining and mutating viral genes. If not H5N1, then sooner or later some other viral strain will emerge from the evolutionary feeder of global agribusiness and wreak havoc with the human population. We can turn a blind eye to theory, but neither God nor his book will protect us from evolution’s inexorable march.THE MONSTER AT OUR DOOR | By MIKE DAVIS | The New Press | 212 pages | $22

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