Darwinian biologist P.Z. Myers has replied to my observation that the coronavirus pandemic is a dramatic example of the destructive power of natural selection. Natural selection is analogous to entropy — it degrades functional complexity.
Myers disagrees, and insists that the COVID-19 virus is a fine example of the constructive potential of random variation and natural selection:
What was undergoing natural selection here was the virus, not us, and it has acquired attributes that make it wildly successful — it is now colonizing vast fields of billions of human beings, producing uncountable numbers of progeny, infecting more people at an accelerating rate. The virus is stronger and thriving thanks to those features, and doing very well thank you very much. Humans are now possibly undergoing a round of natural selection in response.
These are truisms for the most part. Obviously, if the virus weren’t “wildly successful,” generating “uncountable progeny,” we wouldn’t be talking about it. Undeniably, it “thrives” by “thriving.” But Myers misunderstands Darwin’s theory and he misunderstands the dynamics of whatever minimal evolutionary change can occur by undirected processes.
Darwin didn’t “discover” heritable variation and differential reproduction. Men have known since prehistory that offspring vary and some are more successful than others. Breeders mimicked the essentially metaphysical fact about nature — possibilities can be actualized — and they imitated nature and selected and bred the best of their herds. It was not news to them that something like breeding may happen naturally. They learned to breed by observing nature.
What Darwin Claimed
What Darwin proposed was far more radical. He proposed that all adaptation is the result of mundane unintelligent variation and selection. Darwin proposed that nature did what breeders do — breeders already knew that — but Darwin made the radical and astonishing claim that nature did it all without purpose. Darwin claimed that what breeders did deliberately in a human lifetime to their herds nature did in eons to all of life, except that what nature did was without design.
We need to remember what Darwin actually claimed and what Darwinists actually believe. Darwin didn’t propose a theory that populations change by heritable variation and differential reproduction. That’s a trivial observation known to all. Darwin proposed that life can be fully explained by heritable variation and differential reproduction and nothing else. He proposed that heritable variation and differential reproduction was the only cause of evolution of a microbe in a “warm little pond” into a fish and a bird and a mammal and a man. He proposed that heritable variation and differential reproduction is the origin — the only origin — of species.
In terms of our present viral pandemic, what Myers and other Darwinists claim is that all life’s diversity arose by the same mechanism that this pandemic arose — chance mutation and undirected reproductive wildfire. In other words, to Myers, evolution is pandemics, all the way down. Randomness and survival of survivors explains all.
Yet a careful look at the coronavirus shows why viral evolution is not an example of evolution of new species nor an example of how life’s complexity evolves. It is doubtful that a virus is even a living thing. The coronavirus is essentially a non-living parasite. It depends wholly on the biological mechanisms of immeasurably more complex living organisms — us and bats — to persist and replicate. Without humans (or bats), coronavirus disintegrates in hours or days. Whatever its exact (as yet unknown) lethality, the coronavirus doesn’t succeed when it kills. A virus that kills its individual host has failed, because the virus disappears if its host dies. Viruses need living hosts for their very existence. The coronavirus does kill some hosts, but since hosts usually survive it is on the whole “successful.” And if a virus isn’t alive, then viral mutation and differential reproduction is not an example of the evolution of life anyway.
The coronavirus’s evolution — the pandemic — depends on the living specified complexity of humans and bats. Intelligent design in nature is the prerequisite for all natural selection — nature without teleology would be chaos, and no evolution at all.
A Buried Treasure
Aristotle saw this in his definition of chance in nature — chance is the accidental conjunction of purposeful events. Without purpose there can be no chance. His example is instructive: he considered a farmer who ploughs his field and by chance discovers a treasure buried by someone else. The treasure is discovered by chance, but everything else — the farmer’s ownership of the field, his decision to plough it, the accumulation and burial of the treasure by the other man — is purposeful, and in fact the only reason the accident of discovery happened is because it is embedded in a world of purpose. Chance can’t happen — the word has no meaning — in an entirely accidental world. Chance presupposes design.
The novel coronavirus evolved (it appears) by chance and necessity — by mutation and natural selection — but evolution by mutation and natural selection presupposes a framework of purpose and design. Moreover, the virus depends entirely on the design of more complex living organisms (like us and bats) for its existence, and the virus would not and could not evolve or even exist were it not for the intricate specified complexity of its living hosts.
Undirected natural selection can’t lift itself by its own bootstraps — accidents can’t happen in nature except in a sea of design. The evolution of the COVID-19 virus is a clear and terrible example of the undeniable teleology in nature. Darwinian random variation and selection, when it happens, is parasitic on biological and natural design.
Photo: A coronavirus, by CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM / Public domain.