Many people have been wondering about the relevance of intelligent design (ID) or evolution to the new coronavirus reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. What follows is my view as a molecular biologist.
The new virus goes by several names. It was initially called 2019-nCoV by the World Health Organization (with “n” standing for “new”). Since its RNA sequence is similar to that of the coronavirus that caused Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses renamed it SARS-CoV-2 in March 2020. The disease caused by the virus has been called COVID-19 (with “d” standing for “disease”).
There are other coronaviruses (including MERS-CoV, the virus that caused the 2012 epidemic of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). To avoid confusion, I will refer to the latest coronavirus by its technical name, SARS-CoV-2.
Some people have maintained that SARS-CoV-2 is a product of human design. According to a February New York Post article, it may have escaped from a microbiology laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But I have seen no scientific evidence to support this claim.
On March 17, 2020, an analysis of RNA from several different coronaviruses was published in Nature Medicine. The authors concluded, “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.”
Jonathan Bartlett, who has studied the logic of design inferences in depth, subsequently argued that the scientists had ruled out only one design hypothesis, so design was still theoretically possible. But Bartlett did not maintain that SARS-CoV-2 is a product of human design.
Could SARS-CoV-2 have evolved from another coronavirus by mutation and natural selection? I don’t see why not, though there is only indirect evidence (from RNA sequences) to support the idea. If it had happened, however, it would not provide support for Darwinian evolution.
First, viruses are not living organisms: They are just pieces of DNA or RNA enclosed in a protein coat. They do not carry out metabolism (the chemical processes that are essential for life), and they do not reproduce themselves (only living cells — or skilled genetic engineers — can make copies of them). Second, even if viruses were considered living things, the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 from another coronavirus would be akin to microevolution — minor changes within existing biological species. (“Species” are not even defined the same way in viruses as they are in living organisms.)
But Darwin did not write a book titled How Existing Species Change Over Time. He wrote a book titled The Origin of Species. In other words, Darwin attempted to explain macroevolution — the origin of new species, organs, and body plans.
What, then, is the relevance of ID or evolution to SARS-CoV-2? As we have seen, their relevance to the origin of the coronavirus is unclear. But what about their relevance to combating the disease, COVID-19? According to Darwinist Theodosius Dobzhansky (who distinguished between microevolution and macroevolution in the 1930s), “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” In 2003, Texas Tech University professor Michael Dini wrote:
The central, unifying principle of biology is the theory of evolution. How can someone who does not accept the most important theory in biology expect to properly practice in a field [medicine] that is so heavily based on biology?
Yet the measures being taken against the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic owe nothing to evolutionary theory. The use of quarantine to block the spread of disease began in the fourteenth century. In the 1790s, Edward Jenner vaccinated people to protect them from smallpox. In 1847, Hungarian obstetrician Ignác Semmelweis demonstrated that proper hand washing lowers mortality from infectious disease. The administration of oxygen to patients with labored breathing was first reported in the years just following the publication of The Origin of Species, but the practice was based on physiological and clinical considerations, not evolution. And if any treatments are found to cure COVID-19 or lessen its effects, they will come from the intelligently designed efforts of virologists, biochemists, and clinicians — not evolutionary biologists.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on April 5, 2020.
Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Alexis Christian, via Peterson Air Force Base.