Blog | Friday, November 7, 2014

Design, intelligent or otherwise, in real time

Now that Ebola is here, it has captured the attention it arguably deserved from us long ago. Lapses in our public health system have been acknowledged, and a scramble to contain the damage, and prevent spread, are playing out as we look on, and worry.

That worry is home to both greater and lesser concerns. The lesser concerns are the more plausible. The patient in Dallas might have transmitted the disease. Others like him might find their way here. Our experimental therapies may fail.

The greater concern, rather less plausible, is that the Ebola virus could go airborne. What’s fascinating about this grim scenario is that those who know science best fear it least. As best I can tell, browsing cyberspace, this fear is most acute among those least schooled in microbiology. Whether or not that association is meaningful, the worry is obviously widespread. A Google search of “Ebola going airborne” retrieves more than 12 million results.

I will leave the prophecies of doom to others, and focus instead on something we can actually control: our relationship with science.

What would it mean if Ebola did go airborne, other than potential catastrophe? It would mean we were watching evolution by natural selection play out in real time.

Given the popularity of refuting evolution and natural selection in our culture, an overlap between this position and fear of Ebola going airborne is a fait accompli. In other words, we have people refuting natural selection and worrying about its consequences at the same time.

I imagine some may think that Ebola going airborne is only a trivial example of natural selection, because Ebola is “only” a virus. Perhaps the thinking prevails that this could happen to a microbe, but never to us. This, of course, is nonsense.

It is an established fact of biology that there is more genetic variation among microbes, notably bacteria, than among all the rest of the living Kingdoms combined. Penguins are genetically more like pine trees than some bacteria are like some others. Viruses are genetically simpler, but also represent more profound biological variation than we animals do.

So converting a virus that cannot “fly” as a means of transmission into one that can is, in fact, a profound alteration in biology. The organism involved is tiny, but not biologically trivial.

To illustrate the magnitude of the transformation, imagine a “mutation” that enabled humans to fly. If some of us suddenly sprouted fully formed, fully functional wings, it would certainly imply intelligent design. It won’t happen for many reasons, of course, but my point is, the process that would enable Ebola to go airborne is the same process. The biological requirements for airborne transmission are as apparently design-laden as those wings, albeit too tiny for us to see. We don’t seem to require intelligent engineering to account for it in Ebola’s case, just the forces of survival. What’s good for the goose, however, is good for the gander.

The example proves the general principle. Natural selection is enough to produce profound, and seemingly designed, biological change. It isn’t just real, it’s happening before our eyes.

I note, in passing, that the acknowledgement of natural selection as an established force of nature does not obligate any particular religious view. Who among us presumes to know the exact methods used by an entity so far above our pay grade? Scripture is silent on the details of methodology. With or without any particular deity setting it in motion, evolution by natural selection is an established force shaping not only our history, but our current events.

Why bother to care? Because dismissal and denigration of science conspire against us all. By denying the science substantiating both climate change and our role in it, even while propagating it using technology derived from the same scientific method, we allow it to progress to the point of calamity. By ignoring the implications of an evolved, biological balance, we dismiss the relevance of Ebola in other species until the inevitable jump to our own. We forestall public health advance routinely by favoring ideology over epidemiology.

The likelihood of Ebola going airborne, let alone doing so while retaining its current virulence, is remote. But as millions seem to recognize, it is possible. The worry alone is an acknowledgment of the power of natural selection.

That, in turn, invites a corresponding acknowledgement of the power of science. Imperfect though it may be, it is the best means we have to understand ourselves and the world. Forewarned is supposed to mean forearmed. If, however, we indulge routinely in misguided debate about the most reliable source of such warnings, we disarm ourselves.

David L. Katz, MD, FACP, MPH, FACPM, is an internationally renowned authority on nutrition, weight management, and the prevention of chronic disease, and an internationally recognized leader in integrative medicine and patient-centered care. He is a board certified specialist in both Internal Medicine, and Preventive Medicine/Public Health, and Associate Professor (adjunct) in Public Health Practice at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is the Director and founder (1998) of Yale University's Prevention Research Center; Director and founder of the Integrative Medicine Center at Griffin Hospital (2000) in Derby, Conn.; founder and president of the non-profit Turn the Tide Foundation; and formerly the Director of Medical Studies in Public Health at the Yale School of Medicine for eight years. This post originally appeared on his blog at The Huffington Post.