Sunday, June 12, 2005

Evolution saves lives

P4020756-Vi
Has Billy D. surrendered? Does he mean it when he says Got a Problem? — Invoke “Evolution”? No:
My own experience in reading the biological literature is that evolution has very little to do with nuts and bolts biology (e.g., genetics, biochemistry, anatomy and physiology). Biologists, by and large, try to understand existing systems and structures — what they’re made of, how they’re constructed, and how they function. How they evolved is largely beside the point.

Yet to read evolutionists about the scientific status of evolutionary theory, one often gets the impression of salesmen who are omitting crucial details about the product they are selling. Thus one reads that evolution is a fruitful scientific theory that is put into practice every day by scientists across numerous areas of biology and beyond.

A case in point was a recent trackback by Josh Rosenau to the article by Paul Johnson that I cited on my blog … . According to Rosenau, evolution is “a theory which has created cures for diseases and alleviated suffering.”

“Created cures”? The author of this extravagant claim provides no references. I try to stay on top of the field of biocomputing, which uses models inspired by Darwinian evolution to solve problems at the intersection of biology and computation, but I’m unfamiliar with drug companies using these techniques to design or create new drugs.

Moreover, even if these techniques are used to develop new drugs, this reference to “creating cures” actually vindicates intelligent design because these techniques, even if inspired by Darwinian evolution, require careful engineering and thus are design intensive….

My suspicion, therefore, is that Josh Rosenau meant something much more plebeian when he referred to evolutionary theory as “creating cures.” What I suspect he is referring to is that bacteria, through a process of natural selection, tend to acquire immunity to antibiotics. Thus, for infections to be treated effectively, drug companies need to design new drugs to overcome the increased immunity of these bacteria.

But, in that case, it is not the theory of evolution that provides insight into how to design new antibiotics that knock out bacteria that have developed an immunity to old antibiotics. Rather, it is the drug designer’s background knowledge and ability as a researcher that enables him or her to design appropriate new drugs that knock out these bacteria. All evolution is doing here is describing the process by which these bacteria acquire antibiotic resistance — not how to design drugs capable of overcoming that resistance.

To say that evolution is “a theory which has created cures for diseases and alleviated suffering” is therefore misleading. It is like saying that tooth decay has assisted in designing new methods of filling cavities. In both these instances, evolution and tooth decay are problems that need to be overcome by design.
This is why Billy isn't a biologist. Yes, many studies document the way things are, but biologists never ignore the question of how those things got to be that way. So the fact that he doesn't know better is not compelling.

Before digging into his idiocy, I need to make a point. No, I didn't make any references, because trackback is a crappy way of leaving comments. It is short and annoying to use. I would have left a longer comment explaining myself then, but he has a habit of deleting my comments and accounts, which makes that a useless procedure. This is the flaw in his little system for hiding dissent. It doesn't prevent disagreement, it prevents discussion.

Rather than (say) emailing me, or leaving a comment here asking for more information, he decides to create some straw men.

Was I thinking of biocomputing? In biocomputing, computer models of evolution and other biological processes are used to evolve a molecular structure that will be effective at treating disease. That's a great idea, but not what I was thinking of. The fact that an intelligence can use the results of those simulations for its own purposes is as silly as claiming that artificial selection proves intelligent design. The fact that a natural intelligence can use or manipulate evolutionary processes is no proof that a supernatural intelligence did manipulate the evolution of life on earth. Isn't that obvious?

Anyway, that wasn't what I meant.

Then he suggests that I might mean biotech companies which design drugs to get around antibiotic resistance. That's a nice idea, but again, not quite what I meant. It was close, and thanks for asking.

What I meant was that evolution crops up all over the place in biology and medicine. For instance, let's look at penicillin. Fungi in a certain genus have evolved a response to bacteria, a poison which kills bacteria but not fungi. Fungi are the closest kingdom to Animalia, so it isn't surprising that something safe for fungi is also safe for animals.

In World War II, hundreds of thousands of lives were saved by penicillin and sulfa antibiotics. The same is true of the anti-malarial drugs and anti-mosquito insecticides used to control disease in the Pacific. Most of those compounds were naturally produced molecules which had evolved to attack bacteria or insects, and all it took was mass-production to save lives (and the world).

Does using a naturally evolved compound support ID? No. It evolved either way, as did out intelligence. The combination of those two gave cures for disease, but who cares.

But even that may not be a really compelling argument.

I want to talk about national security. The FDA, by looking at the effects of evolution and our experience with it in the past, got worried about the use of Baytril, an antibiotic used in chicken farming. The problem is that it's chemically similar to ciprofloxacin, better know to anthrax worriers as Cipro™. The FDA found that resistance to Cipro was evolving in chicken farm bacteria, and moved to ban Baytril from use in chicken feed.

Doing that would have saved lives. Politics got in the way, but that's hardly an argument against evolution, or for intelligent design.

The ongoing campaign to reduce use of antibiotics is driven in large part by an understanding of evolution, and a concern that our bullpen of useful antibiotics is being depleted faster by evolved resistance than we're developing new drugs. That's evolution saving lives and alleviating suffering.

Maybe you don't like that. Fine, look at the immune system. Whenever you are given an immunization, your body puts its immune system through natural selection. The cells which produce useful antibodies survive, the others are more likely to die off. As a theory, evolution predicts the effect of that, and explains how the immune system works and how it fails. Treating auto-immune disorders relies on our understanding of the evolution within the body.

Or what about curing cancer? Cancers also go through evolution. Some cells are killed by chemotherapy, others might have a mutation which prevents their being killed. After a course of chemo, the surviving cancer cells will divide and produce more cancer, cancer which will now be less vulnerable to the chemo. Understanding how the cancer evolves can help us design new drugs.

Yes, I said design. We design something to match an evolved process. Understanding evolution helps us save lives using our intelligence. What's the problem?

Some pedants won't like it. "No, no, no," they'll say, "I disagree, give me a better argument." Fine. Here's my favorite argument.

Every drug is tested on animals. In Britain and America, it must be tested in two mammals before human tests, one of those must be in a large non-rodent.

Why test in mammals? Because humans are mammals. Understanding common descent helps us avoid poisons and ineffective medical treatments.

Why test in a non-rodent? Rodents are cheap to maintain and easy to handle, so they are an easy first test-bed. A large non-rodent will often be a primate, and companies choose them because of …

common descent!

So understanding evolution guides the development and testing of drugs which save lives and eliminate suffering.

These are some of the reasons that occur to me as I think about evolution saving lives. I'm sure others have their own list, and I hope that the Panda's Thumb and friends will post their own thoughts.

How did I know about all this crap? Because of the Evolution Project. I need to get back into that.

It's worth noting that at least one person has used the evolutionary research at the Evolution Project to cure a disease which had afflicted this person for 25 years. That's how I know that evolution is a theory that has cured disease and eliminating suffering.

What has IDC done for anyone, ever?

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It's Only Divine Right” by The New Pornographers from the album Electric Version (2003, 4:11).