GRAPEVINE—There has been much talk about “evolution” of the coronavirus. A Google search for “COVID-19” and “evolution” yields 180 million results. Media outlets from The Washington Post to The New Yorker have addressed the evolution of COVID-19, and a team of scientists at the Scripps Research Institute stated that the virus may be “the result of natural selection.”
So is the present pandemic evidence for Darwinian evolution? Hardly, say scientists and philosophers who have spent their careers critiquing naturalistic evolution. They urge Christians to carefully evaluate media references to COVID-19 “evolution” because the term has multiple meanings.
“People just need to be discerning when they watch the media and even read articles,” said Georgia Purdom, a molecular geneticist with the creationist ministry Answers in Genesis. While some commentators may attempt to cite the coronavirus as “evidence for molecules-to-man evolution,” COVID-19 actually arose from “change within a particular virus, not a mechanism that over time could lead the virus to becoming something else.”
COVID-19 has caused some 800,000 infections worldwide and nearly 40,000 deaths. It is part of a larger family of viruses known as coronaviruses that cause diseases in mammals and birds.
The evolutionary picture “really falls apart” when scientists attempt to explain the origin of COVID-19, said Paul Nelson, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, a Seattle-based think tank which argues the universe is the product of intelligence rather than chance. “This is a major puzzle in evolutionary theory right now. The origin of viruses is totally unsolved.”
Nelson, a philosopher of biology, explained that COVID-19 arose through microevolution as RNA viruses mutated in ways that enabled them to bind more effectively to human cells and integrate into the respiratory system. But that is a far cry from molecules-to-man macroevolution.
Appealing to the concept of “irreducible complexity,” Nelson said viruses must possess multiple complex components to function. For a virus to originate, those components must all come together at the same time—a phenomenon that cannot occur through the random, undirected processes asserted by Darwinian evolution.
“The most powerful evidence the coronavirus is designed comes from the absolute impossibility of telling the step-by-step Darwinian story of how it could have arisen,” Nelson said.
But if something as deadly as COVID-19 was designed, does that suggest the designer was evil? Not necessarily, said Scott Minnich, a microbiologist at the University of Idaho and a fellow at Discovery’s Center for Science and Culture.
COVID-19 may have come into being through the loss of genetic material from a virus with a good purpose in the universe’s design, Minnich said. That is similar to the development of bubonic plague, which has killed more than 300 million people in recorded history. In a 2007 article, Minnich offered a counterargument to prevailing scholarly opinion when he suggested bubonic plague’s deadliness stems from the loss or mutation of genetic material from a more mild disease.
“Natural evil is derivative of good,” Minnich said. “It’s a perversion of good. It’s a perversion of the original design we still see in creation. From a Christian perspective, you would expect to see that in a fallen world.”
Purdom agreed that viruses “have been created by God, and originally they were very good.”
“The vast majority” of bacterium and viruses “still perform a lot of really good functions” like breaking down nutrients for plants and animals, she said. “Some viruses that are inside DNA in some mammals are responsible for the ability to reproduce.”
Although Christians and other proponents of design are at odds with Darwinists about the origin of COVID-19, they can still find common cause in combatting the deadly virus, said Barry Creamer, president of Criswell College and a philosopher of science. Compassion and self-sacrifice might appear inconsistent with the Darwinian tenet of survival of the fittest, he said, even while evolutionists themselves believe in helping suffering people.
“I want everybody to be saved,” said Creamer, who does not himself believe in evolutionary theory. But “if an evolutionist is out there saying, ‘Hey, we ought to be caring for those who are weak among us,’” Creamer says he appreciates “the moral value of that altruism.”
Christians and Darwinists should unite behind the science calling for social distancing, hand washing and limiting social gatherings to combat COVID-19, Nelson said. “The wise thing in this broken world is to take your knowledge” of science, “couple it with” Scripture’s teaching on love “and then behave yourself.”
Yet even as Christians partner with evolutionists to combat the coronavirus, they should remain leery of claims the pandemic validates Darwinism.
“The term evolution can mean lots of things,” Nelson said. “Be very careful when you use this word.”