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Did COVID-19 Virus Evolve by Natural Selection?

Michael Egnor

Darwinist biologist P.Z. Myers writes about various theories about the designed or natural origin of the COVID-19 virus:

I’ve been seeing some wild speculation that this pandemic is the product of genetic engineering — that it’s a biowarfare weapon that escaped from a lab somewhere. This is nonsense. I’ll refer you to an article in Nature MedicineThe proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2, which discusses a systematic analysis of the structure of SARS-CoV-2 in comparison to other coronaviruses.

There is good reason, the Nature Medicine authors note, to believe that the virus arose without human design. From their article:

While the analyses above suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may bind human ACE2 with high affinity, computational analyses predict that the interaction is not ideal and that the RBD sequence is different from those shown in SARS-CoV to be optimal for receptor binding. Thus, the high-affinity binding of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to human ACE2 is most likely the result of natural selection on a human or human-like ACE2 that permits another optimal binding solution to arise. This is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is not the product of purposeful manipulation.

Myers concurs:

Yeah, see, if I were a nefarious super-villain, we already have an even better RBD we could yank out of other viruses, and I would have used that to build a deadly virus. But instead, the SARS-CoV-2 RBD is some clunky variation that came out of nowhere, by accident, without any other signs of intentional manipulation. 

They also consider the possibility that this was an accidental variation acquired in a lab — if you pass a virus through a lot of host cells in a cell culture system, it will continue to evolve, and you might imagine the RBD might acquire a random variation that allows it to thrive in those cells, and then it accidentally escapes the lab. This is also unlikely, because it shares a lot of similarities with the pangolin coronaviruses. It’s more likely to have arisen from an existing pool of related viruses in the wild, then either acquired its novel binding site there, or after infecting humans and experiencing selection for better binding to human cells.

Myers concludes:

Sorry, conspiracy theorists. The best explanation is evolution and natural selection, not Evil Intelligent Design.

Design and Evolution

Myers, like the Nature Medicine scientists, uses the scientific inference to intelligent design to search for (and discount) human intelligent agency. Design science is at the forefront of research on the emergence of coronavirus. Based on the available evidence and using the inference to design as a scientific hypothesis, intelligent design of the COVID-19 virus seems unlikely. 

But there is another lesson about design and evolution to be learned from scientific research on this virus. Natural selection, if understood as undirected variation and differential reproductive success, is a destructive process. Natural selection destroys biological functional complexity — it produces diseases, cancer, and pandemics. It weakens and kills. Natural selection does to living organisms what rust does to a machine. Natural selection corrodes and destroys life, and plays no role in creating it.