“Blinding New Evidence!”

I have a weakness common to many bloggers–I like to check my site meter to see who’s coming to my blog, and from where. Often I wind up discovering intriguing sites run by people whose interests run along the same lines as mine, such as evolutionary biology. Today, however I was surprised to see a lot of traffic coming from Answers in Genesis, a creationist web site.

First off, greetings to all visitors who come through the link. I hope you find some interesting things here.

I decided to investigate the source of the link, and the results were interesting. It turns out that today Answers in Genesis put a new page up in which a writer attacks a recent post of mine about HIV. I explained how recent research on a virulent new strain of the virus relied on evolutionary biology to investigate its origins, and how understanding natural selection helps scientists put together strategies for vaccines, antiviral treatments, and other ways to fight the disease. And I pointed out that creationism appears nowhere in this research, providing no help in understanding this particularly nasty aspect of the natural world.

Answers in Genesis takes pity on me for not having come to them for enlightenment. "Had Zimmer checked this website first, he would have known that far from creationists ducking for cover at this ‘blinding new evidence’ (as his article, especially its title, implies), we wrote an article years ago Has AIDS evolved which, in principle, raised and dealt with the points his piece makes."

It’s important to address some of the erroneous claims raised in the piece, but it’s not easy because they are mixed together with non sequiturs and other distractions. "Blinding new evidence"–quote unquote? Do those words appear in my blog? No. Does the writer attribute them elsewhere in his piece to someone else? No. He’s just putting quotation marks up arbitrarily.

And then there’s the claim that the piece he refers to raised and dealt with my points "in principle." The HIV research I’m discussing was published in 2005. The piece in Answers in Genesis came out in 1990. Did the folks at Answers in Genesis know then that this paper on HIV would be coming out in fifteen years? Could they foretell its contents so well that they could explain how creationism would actually guide the research? Again, no.

What Answers in Genesis actually said in 1990 was this: when scientists observe evolutionary change in viruses such as HIV, they have not found proof that viruses evolved into people. "Viruses can have no evolutionary relationship to any other form, and so whatever may have happened to say, the AIDS virus, has no relevance to the supposed history of truly living organisms in any case," Answers in Genesis claims.

To those who find this claim impressive, I would point out a couple things.

First of all, it evades the actual point of my post, which was that scientists who are working on HIV and other pathogens do not base any of their work on creationism of any flavor, including intelligent design. You can look in medical journals all you want, but it’s just not there. Mutation, natural selection, genetic drift, and the adaption to new host species are what’s there. (See my follow-up post for some research on the deep history of HIV.)

Second of all, it’s just flat-out wrong to say that "viruses have no evolutionary relationship to any other form." Scientists have documented many cases in which the DNA in viruses and the DNA in a bacteria, animal, or some other organisms show an evolutionary link. In some cases, viruses have permanently patched themselves into host genomes, including our own. In other cases, viruses appear to have evolved from a segment of DNA from some organism, having acquired mutations that allow them to break free and infect other hosts. In still other cases, the viruses have grabbed host genes along the way, turning into a veritable genetic mosaic. Viruses appear to have been present since the earliest stages of life on Earth and may have given rise to some of our most important celular machinery. A quick search of the scientific literature brings up a wealth of papers addressing the intimate role of viruses in our evolution–here are just a few gems:

I heartily suggest that people read the Answers in Genesis piece on viruses–not for any scientific enlightenment, but as an example of the bait-and-switch tactics and omission of evidence that’s necessary to create the impression that there has to be some "blinding" line dividing small and large scale evolutionary change. (Quotation marks mine!)