Friday, October 21, 2005

Fear of Pandemic: An example of the process of evolution

Why are government health officials in the process of frantically putting together a national response plan to a possible, even though unlikely, pandemic of the bird flu? In a word, the answer is evolution.

What Darwin's theory addresses is not the origin of life, but rather describes the process of how life forms can change and even develop into new species, over time intervals that cover numerous generations of the organism in question. Seeing evolution in action is routine when it comes to single-celled organisms, including bacteria and viruses. The reason for this is that certain tpes of bacteria, for example, reproduce at incredible rates, with new generations forming perhaps every hour. In relatively short periods of time one can see the characteristics of dozens of generations. In addition, the way new types/species of bacteria or organism arise is through random mutations of the DNA and/or RNA insie the cell. Mutations can arise via random mistakes made during the transcription of DNA molecules, or it may occur from bombardment of the DNA with different types of chemicals or radiation. Whatever the mechanism, a genetic mutation, even to single genes, can in fact lead to a different type of offspring when compared to the parent. This is commonplace with single-celled critters. How often have you heard people saying that the use of antibacterial soaps has had an unintended consequence of helping lead to a new stran of the original baceria that is resistant to the soap? Or to medications? It happens all the time, to the point where each year the mix of flu vaccines we can get in the U.S. vary since the flu strains each year are a bit different. Evolution is absolutely a fact because we see it all the time in these systems. New offspring that have a genetic makeup that provides characteristics that are more conducive to survival in a particular environment allow that organism to in fact survive, while organisms with the original genetic akeup may in fact die off. Nature selects the better-suited organisms for survival over poorly-suited strains.

This is precisely the fear with the Asian bird flu. As the present strains reproduce and mutate, it is possible that a new offspring develops that can be transmitted from human to human, rather than the more likely (at least for now) bird to human through close contact or consumption. The main processes that are included in evolution, which include speciation and natural selection, take time (over many generations), which is why we won't likely see the process for multicelled organisms in the lab. This process has, however, mountains of hard evidence in the fossil record, comparative anatomy of all sorts of animals and plants, computer simulations, and by lookng at polymorphisms in the genetic code (is it simply chance that humans and chimps are something like 99% the same genetically? Probably not...). The processes involved in evolution are observed everyday in various situations, which is why scientists have almost universally agreed that the theory of evolution is actually fact (even Pope John Paul agreed that the physical evidence supports evolution as the correct model for understanding the development and variety of life), and it is evolution that has once again made the possibility of a pandemic real.


jo_jo said...

While I know that the risk is real, I get mad at the media for causing fear and panic. When I see the disease control guys on TV, I feel that they are using the media to get adequate funding, and I really can't blame them for it. It's the only way to get heard by the men in suits.

I think often about why creationists are so attached to their views. I used to think it was existential - putting God in the picture means evolutionists can never agree with them, and vice versa. But these days I tend to think it's about stability.

I believe that stability is an illusion, but a powerful one. If not too much changes, then people feel safer, more relaxed. When that stability is threatened, no matter how, the urge to get it back is very strong.

My limited understanding of quantum mechanics has led me to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a "fact" - it's a linguistic trick, like "free will". I don't share my views often, because they are deeply unpopular!

Mental flexibility and inquiry is only possible once we accept that we don't have the answers and we never will. Most people just don't want to live with this type of ambiguity. But I love it!

vonny said...

Good to hear from you, jo jo.

Fear is a powerful motivator, if not the most powerful, and it also sells as a political tool. Mr. Bush, for example, ran a campaign based on fear and that sold to many voters. I think there is a lot of "better safe than sorry" as far as a pandemic potential; if this ever were to happen, the results have the potential to be devastating, although the probability is small.

Speaking of probability, you bring up quantum mechanics. You know there is something strange going on when a basic rule of Nature is called the uncertainty principle. :-)

It is true that one can never know the exact condition of a particle, and I suppose that does mess wth a definition of 'fact.' Even with Newtonian physics, which assumes things like absolute time and space, we know that is not true either, as Einstein showed. When engineers do their work, numerous approximations are necessary to do the calculations, so 'facts' go out the window in everyday life, too. One of my pet peeves is when people think in terms of what we may call 'absolutism,' which is sort of like thinking with the brain blinders on. Why do evoluton and creationism necessarily have to be mutually exclusive? Culd a creator/supernatural designer not chose a process like evolution as the means to generate variety and randomness in life? Oh, let the philosophical implications roll! But, we leave the realm of science at this point, as we automatically do when creationism and intelligent design enter the discussion.

I appreciate your last comment as well. Supposedly there is a book out called "The End of Science." There is someone who has not yet accepted our ignorance yet.

Hope to hear from you again. :-)

James said...

Yes, isn't it delightfully ironic that the Uncertainty Principal is the so certain?

I know that humanity will never be free from doubt, so no "fact" is truly a "fact," as it is never free from uncertainty. However, I have faith that "facts" exist - the nature of reality is simply is the way it is and no human thought can change it. It's beautiful that humanity can even attempt at understanding the universe, and humbling that we will never come close to completing an understanding.