To evolutionists, radiation is like manna from heaven. It feeds the engine of Darwinian evolution — random mutation — providing variations that evolution’s Tinkerer, natural selection, can use to build new watches blindfolded. Well, the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 gave evolutionary biologists an unexpected natural lab to test their view, and this experiment has been going on for two years longer than Richard Lenski’s Long-Term Evolution Experiment with E. coli.
The recent HBO miniseries Chernobyl brought back memories of the event that seems synonymous with “disaster.” Experts had predicted a high death toll on all life as a result of the radiation bath. People were quickly evacuated from a 3500-km area, and the cities closest to the nuclear plant quickly became ghost towns (see the video “Postcards from Pripyat”). A 30-km Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ) was enforced. To everyone’s surprise, though, life in the CEZ is thriving 33 years later. Therein is a story worth investigating: which view of biology scored, Darwin or intelligent design?
Analyzing the situation requires some knowledge about nuclear radiation. Even though the CEZ will remain contaminated to some degree for thousands of years, not all the “hot” isotopes will last that long, and not all are equally dangerous. Toxicity depends on the emitted particles (alpha, beta, or gamma rays), the ratios emitted, and their respective energies. One of the most toxic radioisotopes of all, polonium-210, which was used to kill the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006, is only deadly when ingested; it is safe to hold in the hand. It also has a relatively short half-life, and its particles have such low energy they can be blocked by a sheet of paper. Inside the body, however, they make cells undergo apoptosis (cell suicide) as the hot particles are transported through the blood, tissues, and organs (Medical News Today).
The Chernobyl reactor released many radioisotopes into the atmosphere, some with relatively short half-lives. One of the biggest risks for humans from Chernobyl was radioactive iodine, which concentrates in the thyroid gland and can cause thyroid cancer. Its half-life is on the order of eight days, however, so within four years after the disaster, levels had dropped enough to make dairy products safe again for consumption. Cesium-137 and strontium-90 have half-lives of around thirty years, so they will remain a concern, but some of these can leach into the soil by rain and be transported by wind, and thus dissipate sooner. A United Nations report twenty years after the disaster says, “Although plutonium isotopes and americium 241 [half-life 432 years] will persist perhaps for thousands of years, their contribution to human exposure is low.”
One other consideration is that the biosphere is bombarded with ionizing radiation all the time, from radon in the soil, carbon-14 in the air, gamma rays from space, and other sources. It’s the increment above what experts consider safe levels, therefore, that determines the risk, and that diminishes with distance from the source.
We should not think of the CEZ as glowing hot for 20,000 years, therefore. But without doubt, the area received a highly dangerous dose of radiation at first. A few dozen people died within the immediate aftermath of the explosion. Experts estimate that about 4,000 people “could” die from cancer, but as years go by, it’s increasingly hard to attribute the cause to Chernobyl as radiation levels decrease. Many more owe their lives to the heroes who died to entomb the reactor shortly after the accident. Pine trees died, and animals within the hot zone died — but not all of them. And now, to the experts’ surprise, the area is doing remarkably well. Stuart Thompson, a plant biochemist, writes for The Conversation:
Life is now thriving around Chernobyl. Populations of many plant and animal species are actually greater than they were before the disaster.
Given the tragic loss and shortening of human lives associated with Chernobyl, this resurgence of nature may surprise you. Radiation does have demonstrably harmful effects on plant life, and may shorten the lives of individual plants and animals. But if life-sustaining resources are in abundant enough supply and burdens are not fatal, then life will flourish. [Emphasis added.]
Why Life Is Resilient
The subject of his article is, “Why plants don’t die from cancer.” Unlike animals, he explains, plants can work around damaged tissue. They can also grow most tissues they need anywhere. “This is why a gardener can grow new plants from cuttings, with roots sprouting from what was once a stem or leaf.” Additionally, plant cell walls act as a barrier to metastasis, should tumors arise. Even though dying trees near the accident created a “Red Forest,” the local ecology did not collapse.
Thompson retreats into Darwinism briefly, but he points out reasons why plants proved so resilient to the Chernobyl disaster. Are these not better explained by intelligent design?
Interestingly, in addition to this innate resilience to radiation, some plants in the Chernobyl exclusion zone seem to be using extra mechanisms to protect their DNA, changing its chemistry to make it more resistant to damage, and turning on systems to repair it if this doesn’t work. Levels of natural radiation on the Earth’s surface were much higher in the distant past when early plants were evolving, so plants in the exclusion zone may be drawing upon adaptations dating back to this time in order to survive.
Where did those extra mechanisms come from? Where did the “systems to repair” come from? Radiation has no power to bring forth complex systems. This is like saying a hail of bullets generates armor! No; if the systems were not already present, they could do nothing.
A Thriving Ecosystem
With plants rebounding (which presupposes the presence of worms, fungi and other ecological partners), mammals and birds quickly returned in force. Wolves, boars, and bears are now back in larger numbers than ever, and birds can be seen flying in and out of the sarcophagus built over the reactor, and even nesting in its cracks. Thompson shares another surprise: with the humans mostly gone, Chernobyl has become a thriving wildlife refuge!
Crucially, the burden brought by radiation at Chernobyl is less severe than the benefits reaped from humans leaving the area. Now essentially one of Europe’s largest nature preserves, the ecosystem supports more life than before, even if each individual cycle of that life lasts a little less.
Another surprise is that the people who refused to evacuate appear to be doing better than those who left. Forced resettlement wore evacuees down with anxiety, fear, and personal conflicts. The U.N. report says, “Surveys show that those who remained or returned to their homes coped better with the aftermath than those who were resettled.”
For more astonishment, read “What Bikini Atoll Looks Like Today,” at Stanford Magazine. The spot where a hydrogen bomb exploded 62 years ago is once again a tropical paradise, complete with “big healthy coral communities” in the surrounding waters, and schools of fish swimming through the hulks of sunken warships. Despite 23 atomic bomb tests at the atoll, “Ironically, Bikini reefs look better than those in many places she’s dived,” writes Sam Scott about scuba diver Elora Lopez. “It didn’t look like this nightmare-scape that you might expect,” she says. “And that’s still something that’s weird to process.”
The lesson from Chernobyl is this: radiation kills, but life comes prepared to defend itself. No newly evolved organisms emerged at Chernobyl. Billions of mutations were not naturally selected to originate new species. The same organisms rebounded because DNA repair systems, involving exquisite machinery, were prepared to find mutations and fix them. The systems might be overwhelmed temporarily, but will rebound as soon as the threat diminishes. Machines do not make themselves in the presence of threats. They have to be prepared in advance. Think of it: the DNA code includes instructions on how to build machines that can repair DNA!
The resilience of some life forms is truly remarkable. Common “water bears,” aka tardigrades, are some of the most durable animals known. These nearly microscopic arthropods might be found in your garden as well as in polar ice. They can survive the vacuum of space with no oxygen for days, endure temperatures from near absolute zero to boiling water, and survive radiation a thousand times stronger than levels at the surface of the earth. Some have been revived after a century in a dehydrated state! It wasn’t the conditions that produced these abilities; tardigrades had to already have these robust systems before the conditions arrived. Tardigrades never had to “evolve” in space; how did they pass that test? The answer is design.
Even some one-celled organisms are fantastically durable. A preprint at bioRxiv speaks of “Extreme tolerance of Paramecium to acute injury induced by γ rays,” due to “DNA protection and repair” genes. Some archaea and bacteria (thought to be the simplest life forms) can survive hot water above the boiling point in Yellowstone hot springs. Another ubiquitous microbe named Deinococcus radiodurans, “the world’s toughest bacterium,” is amazing. According to Genome News Network, “The microbe can survive drought conditions, lack of nutrients, and, most important, a thousand times more radiation than a person can.” It was discovered doing just fine in ground meat that had been irradiated for sterilization. How does it do it?
An efficient system for repairing DNA is what makes the microbe so tough. High doses of radiation shatter the D. radiodurans genome, but the organism stitches the fragments back together, sometimes in just a few hours. The repaired genome appears to be as good as new.
“The organism can put its genome back together with absolute fidelity,” says Claire M. Fraser, of The Institute for Genome Research (TIGR) in Rockville, Maryland. She was the leader of the TIGR team that sequenced D. radiodurans in 1999.
The fantastic resilience of life to threats, whether from ionizing radiation, temperature, or deprivation, shouts design. As stated in a recent post about homeostasis, only intelligence builds machines that can maintain the state of other machines. The recovery of Chernobyl’s ecosystem offers powerful evidence for life’s pre-programmed resilience.