Influenza viruses = evidence for design

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.

45 Replies to “Influenza viruses = evidence for design”

  1. If Designer had intended Man to fly, He would have given Man (and Woman too I suppose) wings. Humans have no wings. Therefore Designer exists.

    The Power of Negative Thinking.

  2. How does he explain drug-resistance in influenza? It smells like evolution to me.

    I’ve not seen Mims nor Wells address that, but Luskin (in his previous flu article) did discuss “microevolution” of influenza viruses. His response was that “they’re all still influenza viruses–the “but a cow didn’t give birth to a monkey!” argument.

    _Arthur, exactly. And it could be used for a million other examples as well. They assume that evolution means everything should be the same as everything else (“why are bacteria still around? Why haven’t they become eukaryotes? etc). Sadly, a lot in the general public buy it hook, line, and sinker.

  3. So the fact that a dangerous virus is resistant to a natural agent which might have neutralised it means that it was designed to be dangerous and stay dangerous to humans even in the presence of factors that could make it safer.

    Nice guy, this designer.

  4. Ah, Albion, but they’re not resistant–they’re susceptible. Andrea just made the same point over at PT–I’ll copy and paste what I wrote there:

    Flu viruses are still *killed* by UV, therefore God made them that way, therefore God loves us and is protecting us from the nasty pathogens (nevermind that they were “designed” in the first place with the ability to kill us). Or something along those lines, I think. Wells is such a crummy author it’s hard to say exactly what he’s getting at.

  5. Impala should have evolved wheels to escape cheetah. Impala don’t have wheels. Therefore they must be designed.

    See, because if something seems to be designed really well, thats evolution. But if it is designed not so well, thats design. Thats because designers always hate to go for the obvious solution–its too boring. Evolution, on the other hand, just has no sense of style and therefore does not exist. I call this the “obviousness” test for design. Look for it to revolutionize biology.

  6. The influenza virus is quite adept at finding hosts already it never needed to evolve. Has Wells ever addressed the idea of the ESS? He may as well ask why there are still turtles.

    I want to snicker, but these crap books scare me. They’re on the Biology/Chemistry shelf at Barns and Noble and the staff just shrugs about it.

    I can’t help but wonder at the motivation of people like Wells, to print such irresponsible, misinformed claptrap. Is he indeed honestly misinformed, or do Well & Co. have an agenda that involves not only winning the nation for Christ, but crippling R&D in this country? To what end?

  7. Kristine,

    What is ESS?

    I hope you did not misunderstand me I was not trying to support his theory I meant that the virus never needed to evolve to become resistant to UV light because it transmits just fine the way it is. Not to say that it never evolves at all.

  8. Kristine,
    As a volunteer book filer at B&N, it is very easy to correct the paid employees misfiling. You pick up the books in question and carry them over to the appropriate fiction section and file them accordingly. That will help keep the public informed as to the nature of these works. By the way, fiction is always filed alphabetically by authors name.

  9. What you cite is one of the standard strategies of creationists: predict that which was discovered years or decades ago. I dealt with this very topic a while back. On one email list, a friend by the name of Shalini wrote, “So far, no creationist on DebunkCreation has provided any scientific alternate theories.”

    She was refering to the email list:

    … to which she and I both belong.

    The following was my response, with some editing…

    Well, I think the first hurdle for them is simply the fact that they are afraid of having their “scientific theory of creationism” falsified — as this would result in the falsification of their particular belief in God. So, even when a creationist gets past the song-and-dance of preaching their beliefs or attempting to argue against evolutionary biology in particular or empirical science in general (rather than putting forward a positive empirical case for their own views), while they may attempt to put forward a “theory” which sounds scientific, it won’t actually be anything falsfiable. That is, the “theory” won’t be used to generate empirical hypotheses which may then be tested by means of as of yet undiscovered evidence or through experiments.

    Oftentimes, they will simply limit themselves to predicting only that which was discovered before they proposed their “theory” in the first place, so that they may tailor their “theory” to fit the evidence. This is entirely unlike the motivation which drives real scientists. Real scientists do everything the can to make their theories as testable and as falsifiable as possible. Real scientists make specific predictions about what has yet to be discovered, and try to make those predictions as risky as possible given the current state of our generally accepted knowledge, knowing that if they do so and win, then they win big.

    However, there is another hurdle standing in the way of any “scientific creationist theory.” They wish to claim that God is both omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful). However, to make specific predictions, they must assume that God is of a specific nature, that he is limited. Thus for example, when they claim that the reasons for the genetic similarities between different species is due to the fact that once God “found something which worked,” he “didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” they are assuming, at least implicitly, that God is limited in his powers of thought and action. He couldn’t “waste his time” or “resources” on the “discovery” of some alternate way of doing things and then implimenting that approach. Thus if they attempt to create a genuine scientific theory of creationism, their God becomes finite. But they would find this entirely unacceptable.

    Logically, they could say that God created the universe, but leave it to empirical science to discover how God created the universe. This would be the traditional Christian approach of the past two centuries. Alternatively, wherever empirical science arrives at an explanation in terms of naturalistic causation, they may choose to assert that the evidence for such explanations is illusory and that the actual cause was supernatural. For example, young earth creationists can simply claim that dispite all appearances to the contrary, the universe is young — and was created to appear as if it were ancient — this would be the Omphalos approach. Or they could claim that all evidence supporting the view that the universe is ancient was placed there by the devil. But the first recognizes the division between science and religion — and would leave science free to seek knowledge and people free to seek knowledge by means of science — and even hold different religious or philosophical beliefs — all of which Fundamentalists find entirely unacceptable. As such, Fundamentalists will of necessity opt for either of the two latter views.

    So this leaves them with the argument that while all science and all scientific evidence supports the existence of an evolutionary process and is highly likely to continue to do so as long as the world exists, this is a matter of appearance, illusion, perhaps as the result of the actions of God, but quite possibly as the result of Satanic deceit. In either case, they must reject the entire empirical enterprise — and if they are to get others to accept their views, as a matter of strategy, they must preach the rejection of this world, employ deceit — perhaps to counter Satanic deceit, or seek to impose their views by means of force through the establishment of a totalitarian theocracy — or perhaps all three. I myself strongly suspect their strategy is generally this last alternative: a truly unholy trinity.

  10. The Spanish flu appeared in 1917, killed more people than WW1 and then apparently evolved its way out of existence (poor phrasing here).
    If memory serves, examples of the Spanish flu shows that it is as virulent today as it was in 1917 and if the strain were to reappear, we would have a repeat of the 1917 pandemic or even worse. I suppose the Spanish flu proves ID because of its “planned obsolence” so it would not wipe out all humans? (I am trying to follow the ID train of thought here and keep getting derailed)

  11. Books like this don’t stay on the “biology” shelves at my local B&N very long. I reshelve every time I’m there. Darwin’s Box, anything by Wells or Dembski, all that crud I take over and reshelve under “Christian Inspiration.” No apologies. I figure if the staff–who I really do sympathize with–gets good and tired of un-reshelving the books all the time, eventually a change might come. I’ve given up expecting people to behave out of integrity–laziness and greed are so much more effective as motivators.

  12. Isn’t Mims argument akin to saying, “If evolution is true then why haven’t humans developed a resistance to bullets and swords?” Hell, for that matter why didn’t he just say “Why haven’t humans developed a greater resistance to UV light?” I’ve been burned several times by UV disinfection systems, both on construction sites and when working on aquariums. I suspect Mims doesn’t actually understand how UV disinfection works.

    I’m not sure that a virus could develop a mechanism to defend against UV disinfection. Influenza has enough resistance to spread quite successfully. What would be the selector mechanism in this case? There isn’t a pressure on the influenza population to adapt in this way. Nor, to my knowledge, can a virus form spores or cysts to resist UV.

    Many bacteria such as cryptosporidium certainly are resistant but not immune to most forms of disinfection when in the spore phase. But the vast majority of bacteria are not. It’s a good thing too because thousands of wastewater treatment plants use UV disinfection systems and more are converting to UV every year. Partly due to the dangers of keeping chlorine on-site and partly due to the decreasing effectiveness of chlorine disinfection. Which just might be linked to an evolving bacteria population.

  13. There is a Christian Science Reading Room in the basement of the building in which I work. I’m curious (in the train-wreck sense) as to whether they have any ID books on their shelves.

    Might be a good resource for old out-of-print creationist tracts, as well.

  14. Oh no, I understood what you were saying, Laura.

    Evolutionary Stable Strategy (ESS) = a strategy (or strategies) that cannot be “invaded” by a mutant strategy (or strategies).

    Certainly turtles continue to evolve, as everything does, but they are particularly ancient organisms, successful across a longer span of time in contrast to many other species. I just wondered why Wells has not claimed that turtles “shouldn’t be around,” since he’s so fond of proclaiming what evolutionary change “should” look like.

    I’ve been refiling the books, but thought that I was alone. (The fiction section is supposed to be filed by author, at least…creative refiling going on there lately… I guess we’ll see which strategy proves stable. I’ll keep on.)

  15. Note to Seattle area Aetiologists and PT readers: Wells is having an open-to-the-public book release party. All you have to do to attend is contact Annelise Davis at or call
    (206) 292-0401, ext. 153.

    When: September 7, 2006 4:30-6:00 p.m.
    Where: Rainier Square Atrium in Seattle 1333 Fifth Avenue
    Cost: Free

    Someone needs to go and present scientific criticism of the book. I’d do it, but I have to fly to the east coast that day.

  16. “Books like this don’t stay on the “biology” shelves at my local B&N very long. I reshelve every time I’m there. Darwin’s Box, anything by Wells or Dembski, all that crud I take over and reshelve under “Christian Inspiration.” No apologies”

    They’re probably going to find more readers in Christian Inspiration. I mean, I know they’re not science books regardless of what their designation is, but at least in the Science section they don’t get seen by many browsers.

  17. I thought I could share an exchange that took place last November between Casey Luskin, Forest Mims (indirectly) and I regarding this same E. Coli argument of Mims. I had been exchanging e-mails with Casey for a few weeks prior to this and I had tried to explain how important evolution is to my interest, river ecology. At the end of one of Casey’s e-mails he pastes another e-mail from Forest Mims that is indirectly addressed to me:

    “At the micro level, why haven’t the E. coli that float down your questioner’s rivers evolved a resistance to solar UV-B? This would be highly beneficial to them, for they are quickly killed by UV-B.

    At the macro level, why haven’t the Culex and Aedes mosquitoes that breed in the margins of your questioner’s rivers evolved the ability to tolerate UV-A. (Their spectral response peaks at about 340 nm in the UV-A and 515 nm in the green.) The photophobia of these very dangerous disease vectors is highly beneficial to us but not necessarily to them.

    Finally, there may be adaptation in riverine populations, but where is the Darwinian evolution? I’ve not yet seen a single cat fish or bass sprout legs, even randomly mutated ones.

    Please include my name should you pass these points along, as I am writing about these and related topics.

    Best regards,


    Forrest M. Mims III”

    I then responded, not to Mims, but to Luskin with the following:

    “I’m not particularly convinced by the words of Forrest Mims. I definitely respect him as a scientist [ughh…I can’t believe that I wrote that back then] and looking at his website, he is very gifted in physics and electrical engineering but I saw nothing on his website that would make him an authority on biology. His argument related to E. Coli seems like the standard straw-man argument that I’ve heard many times. You could use the same logic to humans and say why hasn’t evolution allowed humans to breathe underwater by now. There are so many of us that drown every year.”

    And then Luskin responds to me with these words:

    “Yeah, actually I agree with you about Mimms’ argument. It wasn’t very good at all.”

    So there you have it, Luskin is against Mimms…at least on this issue. For whatever that’s worth.

  18. quoth egbooth: “So there you have it, Luskin is against Mimms…at least on this issue. For whatever that’s worth.”

    Um, OK. So is that evidence for or against Mimm’s hypothesis?


  19. Neither. I just thought that it was kind of interesting that even Casey Luskin disagreed with Mims on this issue at one point in time. Who knows?…maybe he agrees with him now based on the flu post. You can never be completely sure what they believe…pretty much sums up the entire ID movement.

  20. Greg,
    I do the exact same thing at my local library (or any other library I happen to visit). Hasn’t made much difference yet, but maybe sometime it will, and in the meanwhile, it’good fun.
    BTW, the first time I saw an IDiot book in the biology section, I talked to the librarian about it. She shrugged, and said that if it has “biology” in the description on the back, it automatically goes in that section. Oh well, they’re just doing their jobs, I guess.
    Keep up the effort, so will I.

  21. commisarjs:
    Crytposporidium is a protozoa,
    not a bacteria.

    It doesn’t have a spore phase,
    it forms cysts.

    The effectiveness of chlorine
    disinfection is not “declining”;
    the redox potential of hypochlorite
    remains the same as ever.

    Wastewater UV disinfection is increasing,
    for engineering reasons (as you stated)
    but “evolving bacteria” is hardly the
    reason. Increases in “chlorine resistance”
    (to chlorinated hydrocarbon additives to
    detergents such as triclosan) found in some
    surveys of enteric bacteria is not the same
    as resistance to millimolar concentrations
    of hypochlorite in WW treatment,
    which remains highly effective.

    Spores do require higher standards to
    ensure disinfection. However, none of
    the Bacilli or Clostridium contribute
    to human disease through fecal/oral
    transmission while in the sporulated
    state, and no effort is made to ensure
    death of spores in any wastewater
    treatment protocol. (colonization of
    long term care patients by C. difficile
    is an arguable exception)

    That you suspect Mims doesn’t understand
    how UV disinfection works suprises me
    not at all.

  22. I concede the points about cryptosporidia being a protozoa and forming cysts instead of spores. It’s been a while since my microbiology courses and that isn’t information I use very often. In hindsight I should have double checked myself before typing it out.

    Of course the redox potential of hypochlorite is the same. However resistace to chlorine disinfection has been observed.

    When I got home last night I did stop to think about evolving bacterial populations and something didn’t add up for me. The information had been passed to me from a coworker and I had not taken the time to stop and think it through. The population would need to be recycled through the water system, human beings, and the wastewater system for it to be evolving. Which does not happen. I looked up a few of the papers he had been talking about. The chlorine resistance he was talking about was based on population density and available food. However, resistance has been observed when successive generations are subjected to chlorine disinfection. So, yes it has been observed but no it’s not happening in the system the way I had originally thought.

    Unfortunately I did use the wrong terms to describe them, but I was using cryptosporidium as an example. Cryptosporidiosis is contracted from cryptosporidium cysts and is resistant to disinfection, just ask the people in Milwaukee. Efforts are made to kill cryptosporidium cysts both in wastewater and water treatment.

    But on the bright side I did get to learn that there are virii that have a mechanism to repair UV damage. So I do concede certain points but not all of them.

  23. If man didn’t evolve from apes, why does a monkey at the zoo have a crush on me? And she so does.

    Virus thing: If they were UV resistant, that would show design for UV resistance too. No possible evidence can disprove ID, and ID makes no predictions.

    It could be that there isn’t a possible mechanism that could evolve to make flu UV resistant. Man uses fire, but I’m not fire proof, oh no design, or was there…

  24. …some scientists are using ID heuristically to develop new hypotheses.

    Nice sneaking in that “heuristically” in there, as opposed to “scientifically”. The same people could as well use The Force heuristically to develop new hypotheses.

    Mims reasons that if ID is true, flu viruses should also be susceptible to UV from sunlight…

    Why would that follow if ID were true?

    It would be equally as valid to say, “if ID is true, flu viruses should not be susceptible to UV from sunlight”. Either way is the same as far as ID “theory” is concerned. There is no way to separate one from the other. All you have to do is imagine a designer with different motives.

    And maybe organisms have evolved schemes to meet the UV threat. But rather than developing some kind of genetic protector that lets them bask in the UV glow with impunity, they simply evolved to not be there whenever possible where the UV is. Didn’t these people watch The Karate Kid, Part II? The best defence against a punch says Mr. Miyagi, is not to be there when it comes.

  25. Best defense: don’t be there.

    Yeah, viruses use YOU for UV protection.

    Also, ID people say we cannot infer anything about the designer from the designs. Gets around His/her/its/their fondness for beatles.

  26. But this is also a simple logical falicy:

    “Mims reasons that if ID is true, flu viruses should also be susceptible to UV from sunlight…”

    IF A THEN B. B. Therefore, A. (FALSE!)

    So, when we find that viruses are suseptible to UV light (something already known) we should conclude ID?

    Hard to believe two “scientists” (Wells and Mims) who don’t know the first thing about boolean logic.

  27. Re: Viruses don’t die, therefore God? If ID, therefore UV susceptible viruses?

    Surely they would have to know something about the designer to be able to make either of those statements? Something IDists avoid.

  28. Ah yes, assumptions. Let’s see:

    1. Assumption – God has characteristic “A”.
    2. Characteristic “A” means he would design life with characteristic “B”.
    3. We see characteristic “B”.
    4. Therefore God (with characteristic “A”).

    1 (premise of argument) is the same as 4 (conclusion of argument) – unless I’m mistaken this is the definition of circular reasoning.

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