Thanks for asking

“Are there any technological advances that have been made because of a belief in evolution?”

pig.jpgSo asks an essay published by Answers in Genesis, an organization promoting their soon-to-open Creation Museum. The museum directly challenges modern scientific understanding, so Answers in Genesis is justifiably concerned that the enterprise may be seen as “anti-science.” Their response to this concern includes the same empty rhetoric that evolution-deniers have been trotting out for ages: evolution isn’t relevant, because none of the scientific technologies of our time have anything to do with evolution.

Nonsense, of course. In medicine alone, the case for the importance of evolution has been made again, again, again and again. But why not have another go at it? This week in PNAS, researchers describe how they tracked the evolution of a deadly Staphylococcus bacterial strain in a single patient using genomics technology. The problem of antibiotic resistance and how it evolves is old news, but unfortunately it remains both grave and immediate. But that’s what’s so exciting about this article, which demonstrates a method of identifying adaptations in bacterial strains evolving in real time in real patients. By characterizing the pathogen as it mutated, these scientists were able to determine which new changes increased its lethality. Now, other Staphylococcus strains can be screened in other patients to predict how they will respond to antibiotic therapies, potentially increasing patient survivorship and constraining evolution of antibiotic resistance.

The paper describes how the Staphylococcus aureus bacterium is a serious threat to public health, as it is both prevalent and highly evolvable. Some strains have acquired so many adaptive mutations that they are essentially invulnerable to antibiotics. These deadly strains are called multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. But until now, exactly which mutations confer drug resistance has been virtually unknown. To identify those changes, scientists took sequential blood samples from a patient with a Staphylococcus infection and sequenced the entire genome of the bacterium. At first, the bacterial strain was susceptible to vancomycin, the antibiotic the patient received to fight the infection, but over time, susceptibility to vancomycin decreased as resistance evolved. A total of nine samples were taken, and genotyping revealed that 35 mutations occurred between the first and last sample. By correlating genotypic changes with changes in the susceptibility to vancomycin along the stepwise progression, the researchers were able to specifically identify which of the 35 mutations conferred resistance. Armed with this knowledge, physicians will be able to identify MRSAs in other patients and monitor the emergence and spread of these deadly bacteria. The good news is that the large-scale genotyping technology that made this methodology possible is becoming more efficient and more affordable every day. Therefore, by applying genomics techniques to evolutionary theory, we may soon have a powerful new technology that will improve our public health management of bacteria-borne diseases.

So there you have it. I don’t think I could imagine a technology that relies more on evolutionary theory. Would this research have been done if the scientists rejected evolution? Not hardly. Is it self-evident that the authors of this paper believe in evolution? Just about. But I will concede one point: it’s not technically necessary to have a belief in evolution to conduct good science. No, it’s not belief, but understanding that is critical. This technology was developed with a careful, thorough understanding of the complex process of evolution. Introduce me to a creationist who respects the investment in learning evolution to understand the mysteries of biology and I’ll work alongside them any day. And together we’ll watch pigs fly!

9 Responses to “Thanks for asking”

  1. Sophisticat Says:

    There is a good layman-oriented publication issued by the American Society of Naturalists that is in large part devoted to explaining the importance of evolutionary biology in biology, other sciences, and practical applications:

    Evolution, Science, and Society: Evolutionary Biology and the National Research Agenda

    Another good article is J. J. Bull and H. A.Wichman, “Applied Evolution,” Annu. Rev. Ecol. Syst. 2001. 32:183–217

  2. AS Says:

    This is a great point to keep making. Perhaps creationists will pledge to refuse drugs and medical techniques that are “fruit of the poison tree.”

  3. brightmoon Says:

    evolution is the basis of most of modern medicine. All of the following were medical breakthroughs directly possible because of common descent:

    smallpox vaccination -cowpox is a non lethal close relative
    insulin treatment of diabetes- originally cow and pig insulin was used
    some cardiac surgical techniques- done on dogs and primates
    natural antibiotics- mostly derived from fungi, who are close relatives to animals, to work on bacterial infections

  4. Webster Says:

    Brightmoon, none of that has anything to do with evolution. Creationists, generally, do not deny that *some* species are related to each other, natural antibiotic efficacy is based on bacterial characteristics, not the relationship betwen differenty hosts, and similarity between different living creatures is just as amenable to a “common designer” argument as to a “common ancestor” one.

    To show that a particular advance was “caused” by evolution, you have to surpass two hurdles. First of all, one has to show that the scientist’s belief in evolution led to the discovery, and secondly, one has to show that no *other* origins belief would have led to it.

  5. JTK Says:

    Actually Webster, you are wrong. Flat out wrong, with a cherry on top. Seek an education that does not come from a priest.

  6. SquidDNA Says:

    Erm, actually, I have to agree with Webster. While Brightmoon’s examples WORK because of common descent, they were not discovered because of BELIEF in common descent. In other words, the theory of evolution describes those mechanisms very well, but it was not necessary for the discovery of those phenomena.

  7. ABP Says:

    Despite the language used in this post (and elsewhere on this blog), my strongest objection to Webster’s comment is against the word “belief.” To say that I (as a biologist) “believe” in evolution is incorrect; rather, I understand it.

    Consequently AiG’s challenge to name a technological advance based on a belief in evolution is fundamentally flawed.

    Biology is an incredibly broad discipline and evolution is relevant to every aspect of it. Dobzhansky said it best: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.” The researchers who worked on the MRSA bacterium, like those who developed the technologies brightmoon lists, were only able to do so through a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of biology.

    For people whose beliefs prohibit an understanding of evolution, these achievements would not have been possible.

  8. SquidDNA Says:

    It’s a fine point about “belief” and “understanding” that I’m not sure actually helps the discussion. Yes, one can blindly believe in any idea without understanding it, but that’s clearly not what Webster means in his response.

    I’m looking at brightmoon’s list and I’m thinking about evolution and I honestly don’t see what they have to do with each other. Every one of those advances could have come (and indeed some of them did) without the knowledge that things were actually related by descent, and were instead merely similar. While it’s certainly true that the concept of evolution has helped biology a great deal, I really don’t see it as a critical starting point for anything brightmoon listed.

  9. Dan Says:

    I’m really intrigued, JTK, by your response to Webster. In observing interactionist between those who accept Creationism and those who reject it, it’s invariably the anti-Creationists who are the first to bring up the subject of religion, while vehemently denying that there is any religious basis to the question.

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