Only eternal vigilance can prevent evolution

Avian pox virus is on the rampage in the UK. A new strain of a bug that affects a number of small birds mildly is now causing severe problems for great tits, which are one of my favourite birds even though prone to be the punchline of dubious jokes. Conservationists, the article says, are urging the public to track the disease.

Becki Lawson, of the Zoological Society of London, said:

  “We can’t give medicine to free-ranging birds. We’d always recommend that people give particular attention to good hygiene at feeding stations to prevent the cycle of transmission of any particular disease agent that could occur there.”

People in Britain love wild birds, and so the reasonable low-key advice to avoid exacerbating the disease is reasonable, as is enlisting public help in scientific research. But it sounds as if she would advocate medication if it were actually practicable. Yet the article does not suggest any evidence that avian pox has been introduced or encouraged by human activity. The research is not aimed at undoing human ecological damage. So apart from pure research, what exactly is the problem?

For three billion years organisms have been evolving and their pathogens have been evolving with them. If James Shapiro is to be believed, viral DNA has probably been one of the main sources of genetic innovation for all three kingdoms of life. Pox virus evolves – that’s what it does. Great tits will either adapt or die out – that’s how organisms respond. It’s how the system works, and it seems to have done quite well in producing over 60 current members of the tit family alone.

There are sentimental reasons for wanting the biological status quo to continue (and I’m all for human sentiment, especially where my favourite species are concerned). But if this research were to lead to attempts to eradicate the virus or save the species it affects, you have to ask on what scientific basis that could be justified. If the wealth of life-forms on earth is the result of survival, or arrival, of the fittest (which is broadly the case on any understanding of evolution) then what gives man the duty, or even the right, to prevent that process happening? It’s no more than a vain attempt to keep life the same while the environment changes, to thwart adaptation.

 Of course in Bible terms, the right and responsibility, at least, are spelled out in Genesis 1. We are stewards of God’s creation because he made us so. Even then, one would have to think seriously about whether that role is really to prevent adaptation to change. Since secularists have no scientific basis for that overseeing role for humanity, you really have to wonder whether resources would be better spent on the problems we cause. Or even the problems that affect people directly, since disease affects us too.

Maybe, though, the God-given calling to rule and subdue the world is just too deeply ingrained in the human identity for the superficial gloss of unbelief to erase it.

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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