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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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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