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February 9, 2009

Evolution Causing Disease Risk? It Can’t Be! Hitler Must Be to Blame!


Charles Darwin led a quiet life, with his only notable adventure as the naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. Yet he has also given us an idea at the foundation of modern scientific thinking. He has also unintentionally allowed a tongue-in-cheek theory to sprout wings and fly away from the Internet.


Godwin’s Law was first postulated in the early 1990s, when “going online” meant logging into bulletin boards rather than surfing the information superhighway. It was here that a fellow named Mike Godwin noted that the longer an online conversation persisted, the greater the odds that someone would eventually get around to comparing people he disagreed with to Adolf Hitler and/or Nazi Germany.


That has since spread throughout the Internet and has also left and, in part thanks to Darwin, has found a home in the national dialogue as a whole. A small but vocal minority regularly attempts to hitch Darwin’s evolution to Nazi Germany, implying that if the good, quiet Englishman had just kept his mouth shut, Dachau would have never happened.


Darwin is not the only quiet, reserved science thinker tied to the Nazis. Rachel Carson, whose book Silent Spring inspired a rethink of how America approaches pesticides, is frequently accused of being a mass murderer on par with Hitler, Pol Pot and Stalin over a worldwide ban on DDT that just simply doesn’t exist.


Paired together, the two thoughts have spawned a brand-new approach to agriculture pests that rely on natural controls rather than artificial ones, which pest insects develop resistance to thanks to natural selection. Today, for instance, scientists in the Midwest are developing controls for the emerald ash borer, a beetle that threatens to do to the nation’s ash forests what Dutch Elm Disease did to its elms. The most promising control right now appears to be a tiny wasp that is a natural predator of the ash borer, and which appears disinterested in doing the kind of collateral damage that insecticides do.


But it’s been in the last couple of weeks that a problem arose that didn’t exist before we developed an understanding of evolution. The nation’s medical community learned, with some horror, that this year’s dominant strain of the influenza virus is resistant to the front-line antiviral medicine.


While resistance is nothing new in the ongoing see-saw battle between people and disease, most drug resistance develops in the same way that mosquitoes become resistant to insecticides like DDT. Use a drug as a treatment a few times, and it stops having an effect on the intended target. Just as farmers stop using insecticides on pests that have developed a resistance to a spray, we’ve stopped using old front-line drugs, including the drug thought to have conquered disease – penicillin – on most illnesses.


What is remarkable about this new development is that it has apparently taken place independently of use. The drug in question – Tamiflu – is given infrequently because doctors have been conscious of the ability of viruses to rapidly evolve and develop resistance to treatments. The flu virus didn’t develop disease, it evolved with it already wired into its genetic makeup.


All of this has occurred despite the millions of Americans who resist Darwin’s idea. It’s now been more than three years since the last time it went on trial, in a small Pennsylvania town whose school board wanted to cast doubt on evolution in the classroom.


The trial was observed by one of Darwin’s descendents, who last week called puzzling that a substantial number of Americans would be hostile to evolution. This is worth placing into the context that many of those same skeptical Americans who could find themselves annually vulnerable to a virus whose vigorous demonstration of science they patently reject requires massive public expenditure to keep under control.


Perhaps, then, the best question to ask this week is this: How long before someone calls the flu virus the greatest mass murderer since Hitler?


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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