Creating Coronavirus

Are mutated viruses a challenge for those who deny science?

David MacMillan
Mar 18, 2020 · 9 min read

Over a third of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago. Most of these follow young-earth creationism, a widespread science denial movement which teaches that biological evolution is a hoax and that the earth, solar system, and universe are only a few thousand years in age. The nexus of young-earth creationism in the United States is an organization called Answers In Genesis, the subject of the 2019 critical documentary We Believe In Dinosaurs. As a former creationist who once wrote for Answers In Genesis before earning a degree in physics, I appeared in the documentary to help shed light on the impact this type of pseudoscience can have.

These beliefs are not limited to the fringes of society. Vice President Mike Pence, who currently heads the Coronavirus Response Team, has expressed doubts regarding evolution and indicated sympathy for the young-earth movement. The same is true of Texas Senator Ted Cruz. Former Rep. Paul Broun, who was a member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, claimed in 2012 that the earth is only a few thousand years old, and HUD Secretary Ben Carson has expressed his belief that the theory of evolution was invented by Satan. Nor are these ideas missing in academia and research; hundreds of researchers, professors, and engineers have supposedly signed on to statements challenging the theory of evolution, despite overwhelming evidence and a near-universal scientific consensus for the theory of common descent.

In the face of a public health crisis like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, what role do pseudoscience and denialism play?

In 2012, shortly before I came out as an ex-creationist, science educator Bill Nye argued vocally that creationism and similar forms of science denial inhibit America’s ability to be scientifically and technologically competitive. His remarks led to a back and forth with Answers In Genesis president and provocateur Ken Ham, ultimately culminating in a 2014 debate at Kentucky’s Creation Museum where Ham and Nye each argued that their view was the only valid scientific possibility. Many in the scientific community questioned Nye’s decision, worrying that it legitimized the pseudoscience. I only cautioned Nye about underestimating his opponent.

When I was a creationist, statements like the ones made by Nye in 2012 always galled me. It just wasn’t true that creationists were incapable of performing research or making discoveries. Answers In Genesis provided a long list of scientists and engineers with impressive contributions to science and technology. My own father, a dedicated creationist, was a brilliant inorganic chemist with multiple patents. There was no reason why a creationist couldn’t be entirely successful in science, engineering, and technology; in our view, this proven success was an affirmation that our beliefs weren’t crazy after all.

SARS-CoV-2

The pathogen responsible for the current COVID-19 pandemic most likely crossed via mutation from native bat populations to infect humans at a market in Wuhan, China. The mutations allowed it to rapidly infect human beings by attacking epithelial lung tissue. Because the infected are highly contagious for an extended period of time before showing symptoms — in fact, some testing programs showed at least half those infected never show any symptoms at all — the pathogen has spread like wildfire. For those who become symptomatic, on the other hand, the virus has a death rate between ten and forty times that of seasonal influenza and swine flu. But the coronavirus that began in Wuhan last November is not the same virus spreading across the globe now.

Source: Nextstrain, 3/18/2020

SARS-CoV-2 is evolving rapidly. The above diagram shows the genetic sequencing from 681 positive COVID-19 test samples taken from around the world as the virus travels and mutates. This same science, in turn, can be applied to the geographic distribution of the testing to show exactly how the virus spread:

In fiction, the mutation of a virus is a momentous event. Viral mutations are blamed for outbreaks in films like World War Z, Zombieland, and Outbreak as well as novels like The Stand and I Am Legend. Often, a single mutation causes incredible changes. Mutations in fiction are frequently credited with tremendous physiological alterations, such as the superhuman mutants of the X-Men universe.

That’s not how things work in real life. As shown by the above diagrams, viruses mutate constantly, losing and gaining and changing genetic sequences with almost every jump from person to person. This mutagenesis is not linear, either, but takes place in massive parallel, with different branches undergoing different modes of evolution. Most of these genetic changes have little or no impact on the pathogen’s function, but others do; all can be used to trace the path from victim to victim as the pandemic spreads. This is evolution happening in front of our eyes: real, actionable science.

What would a creationist say?

A few days ago, one of the directors from We Believe In Dinosaurs emailed me to ask me about the virus:

Just curious, David — if you were still a creationist, would you have a different understanding of the coronavirus? Or since it is all simply based on mutations and a leap from an animal virus to humans, would the creationist understanding be pretty equivalent to mainstream science’s understanding?

Young-earth creationists believe that all diseases, including those caused by viruses, are the result of decay from an original, “perfect” creation, so they would leap at the novel coronavirus as proof of this idea. At the same time, they’d be uncomfortable with the idea of the virus “evolving” as it spreads.

Here’s approximately what I would have said, years ago:

“It’s misleading when evolutionists talk about how viruses and other pathogens ‘evolve’ because this is an example of microevolution, not macroevolution. Mutations can allow a virus that previously only infected animals to cross over and begin infecting humans, but those mutations also make the virus less likely to survive in the animal population so it represents a LOSS of information. Macroevolution requires an INCREASE in information which has never been proven. Viruses are still viruses, they are not changing into bacteria or fungi or some other KIND of organism.

“In addition, if evolution was true, no one would survive coronavirus. The fact that our immune systems are able to recognize a completely new virus and fight back is PROOF of God’s design, since complex systems like our immune response cannot evolve by random chance.”

As cringeworthy as it feels to write the above paragraphs, it’s important to recognize that creationists don’t deny all science. They only deny the parts of science they need to deny in order to make their ideas sound plausible. Things that are too obvious to be denied, like the mutation of SARS-CoV-2, are explained away as “not evidence of evolution” rather than denied outright. Creationists working on a vaccine or antiserum take the exact same steps and make the exact same plan as anyone else, presuming they actually have credentials and know what they are doing. Despite Bill Nye’s concerns, creationism doesn’t stop you from doing science.

Of course, my hypothetical answer — that the mutations which led to SARS-CoV-2 were just “microevolution” — is flatly wrong. The terms “microevolution” and “macroevolution” do not have clearly-agreed definitions within the broader scientific community, and are usually used only by creationists to obfuscate new evolutionary discoveries.

ACES2, Image courtesy Wikimedia Foundation

With SARS-CoV-2, the specific mutations which allowed the virus to begin infecting humans was located inside its genetic instructions for spike proteins, subcellular structures that grapple and penetrate potential host cells. The mutations altered the shape of the virus’s spike protein, allowing it to grip a human membrane protein called ACES2 (shown at left) and enter cells.

Researchers at Tulane, Columbia, and other universities determined based on these mutations that the virus did not originate in a laboratory, but had a purely natural origin:

The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein was so effective at binding the human cells, in fact, that the scientists concluded it was the result of natural selection and not the product of genetic engineering.

This evidence for natural evolution was supported by data on SARS-CoV-2’s backbone — its overall molecular structure. If someone were seeking to engineer a new coronavirus as a pathogen, they would have constructed it from the backbone of a virus known to cause illness. But the scientists found that the SARS-CoV-2 backbone differed substantially from those of already known coronaviruses and mostly resembled related viruses found in bats and pangolins.

“These two features of the virus, the mutations in the RBD portion of the spike protein and its distinct backbone, rules out laboratory manipulation as a potential origin for SARS-CoV-2” said Andersen.

Creationists love to claim that mutations “create no new information” and that “new genetic information” can only come from an intelligent designer. But speaking of “information” in these terms is nonsensical. What matters is whether new functions are able to evolve. Not only did SARS-CoV-2 evolve a new function, but the new function was so effective that researchers were able to use it to rule out any possibility of “intelligent design” for this new pathogen. We know what design — in this case, laboratory genetic modification — looks like, and we know what evolution looks like. This is evolution. If subsequent cycles of mutation result in a virus with new functions, that will be evolution via new genetic information as well. There is no imaginary barrier or limitation between “microevolution” and “macroevolution” at all.

The fruit of science denial

When I was a creationist, I was prepared to explain away any piece of evidence, no matter how damning. To accomplish this, I had to maintain a baseline distrust for the mainstream explanation of everything. We couldn’t be sure of anything, really; it was all just a matter of interpretation. As long as we could advance some sort of alternative interpretation, we could maintain our views.

Inevitably, this suspicion bleeds out beyond the immediate battlegrounds of universal common descent and deep time. Answers In Genesis denies anthropogenic climate change, and many creationists also question vaccine safety and support ineffective or dangerous alternative therapies. The tendency to distrust scientific authorities is evident in this Creation.com biography of “Dr.” Jean Lightner, a former USDA veterinarian who helped (confusingly) with the design of prehistoric animals on the creationist Ark Encounter:

“In the Masters program, Jean spent a lot of time evaluating research papers and discovered that the conclusions were often much stronger than the experiments justified. This seemed particularly so with research in human disease. Jean experienced this personally with her next pregnancy, when her doctor wanted to test her for a disease for which she had no risk factors. After Jean checked the research that supposedly justified this test, she declined it. Dr Lightner commented on how few papers in operational science pass muster when critically evaluated.”

The same distrust of the broad scientific community emerged March 6, with Answers In Genesis giving its take on COVID-19:

What most people are unaware of is that the flu has been averaging between 9 and 45 million cases per year with 12,000 to 61,000 deaths per year since 2010. But are you as scared about getting the flu or are you more scared about getting COVID-19? When put in proper perspective, you can see that this COVID-19 is not as bad as the headlines are making it. What we should learn from this COVID-19 outbreak is that life is short and we’re not guaranteed tomorrow. While we all live forever, some will spend eternity in heaven and others in a real place called Hell.

At a time when it is vitally important for Americans to follow CDC recommendations and take this pandemic seriously, creationism has taught a broad suspicion of science and public health that weakens officials’ ability to do their jobs. That’s the real shame here.

David MacMillan is a freelance writer, paralegal, and law student in Washington, DC. He writes about science, politics, and culture as he finishes his book about his departure from creationist science denial.

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David MacMillan

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Anyone with really good ideas will always be looking for better ones. Writing about law, fundamentalism, and science denial…book to follow.

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David MacMillan

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Anyone with really good ideas will always be looking for better ones. Writing about law, fundamentalism, and science denial…book to follow.

Age of Awareness

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