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What Intelligent Design Research on COVID-19 Would Look Like

Michael Egnor
Photo credit: US Navy Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sara Eshleman, via Wikimedia Commons.

Adam Shapiro, whom we’ve wrangled with before, is a historian who uses his modest scholarship to mislead about the history of Darwinism. As noted here already, Shapiro has an essay in American Scientist magazine taking ID scientists to task for not pronouncing the COVID-19 virus an undesigned product of natural selection. Shapiro: 

The COVID-19 pandemic could have been a crowning moment for intelligent design, but instead the crisis has really revealed its ultimate irrelevance. With some U.S. political leaders speculating that the novel coronavirus was created in a Chinese lab, a way to prove whether this claim is true or false would seem to be just what is needed at this time.

Shapiro assumes COVID-19 design research would show that COVID had a natural origin:

Intelligent design’s advocates claim that through analysis of the genetic information encoded in the DNA of living species, one can determine whether an organism arose through the process of natural variation and selection or whether it was the product of intentional design by some deliberate creator. Here at last is an opportunity to demonstrate the usefulness of an intelligent design theory in molecular biology without any of the supernatural, legalistic, or culture-war baggage that have embroiled the idea for the past 30 years… And yet, intelligent design advocates have largely missed the call.

The Principle of Irreducible Complexity

Let’s look at what intelligent design research on the origin of COVID-19 might look like.

According to the principles of fine-tuning and specified complexity, the specified functional complexity of a biological system can only be attributed to random (undesigned) natural selection if each step in the hypothetical evolutionary process produces a phenotype favored by selection. ID researchers could apply something like these principles to what is known of the molecular structure of the COVID-19 virus, the natural occurrence and natural variation of this viral structure, and the specific circumstances of the emergence of the COVID pandemic. ID research on COVID-19 would be, like all scientific research, an evidence-based inference to the best explanation. For COVID-19, the scientific question to be answered is this: Is there evidence for intelligent human agency in COVID-19, given its structure and what is known about its emergence?

There are two distinct questions here: (1) Do viruses in general indicate some form of intelligent design underlying their overall structure and functions? And (2) Does the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself show evidence of human design that distinguishes it from other known naturally occurring viruses? As to the former question (1), we have already addressed it at Evolution News and answered in the affirmative (see here and here). My colleagues and I have also written a few posts clearing up some misunderstandings about the implications of viral pandemics for our understanding of evolution.

But obviously it’s the latter question (2) that Shapiro and so many others care about at the moment. This ID question and these ID methods, Shapiro seems not to have noticed, are what the entire scientific community has been addressing and using in every lab in the world that studies the emergence of the virus. This design science is, quite naturally, the cornerstone of all of the design research currently underway at the CDC, the NIH, the WHO, and in virology labs across the globe. This is implicit ID research, and it has been conducted with unparalleled vigor. I will say more on the subject tomorrow.