Corona – our debt to Darwin – Journal
CHARLES Darwin is a name Pakistanis have come to hate. School professors and college professors responsible for teaching his theory of evolution usually skip the topic or, if they go ahead, soften it first with a ton of contempt. A commonly used biology school textbook rejects the theory, claiming that the evolution of species is equivalent to assuming that “a motor car evolves” when two rickshaws collide. Imran Khan, in his 2002 article, blamed the follies of the West: “Philosophers like Darwin, who with his half-baked theory of evolution allegedly refuted the creation of men and therefore religion, were read and venerated ”.
With the corona apocalypse looming, it doesn’t matter whether Darwin is a naturalist, biologist, and geologist rather than a philosopher. It also doesn’t matter that Darwin is regularly flogged by Christian, Jewish and Hindu fundamentalists. Yet any hope of tackling today’s rogue virus rests squarely on Darwin’s 200-year-old discovery of the principle of natural selection.
In a nutshell: natural selection says that life on Earth did not come pre-determined and pre-formed, as tradition dictates. Instead, he argues that, whether for humans or the microbe, only the life forms best suited to a specific environment survive while all others die. More importantly, evolution maintains that new types of life and new molecules appear at random. A few – like the coronavirus – will stumble upon a suitable animal or human cell and thrive.
Hopes of treating the virus scientifically rest on Darwin’s discovery of the principle of natural selection.
Not convinced? Then get some slides and a powerful microscope – in fact, a million dollar electron microscope would work better. Then wait and watch the cells reproduce. You will soon see imperfect copies of it. While most of the bad die, a few survive and then proliferate.
This is how cancer cells are formed, for example. Experiments at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center show exactly how some common species of bacteria react when their environment is changed. This led Harmit Malik, a leading molecular biologist, to point out that natural evolution is “the cat and mouse’s definitive game in the world.” Viruses evolve, the host adapts, proteins change, viruses escape them. It never ends “.
Darwinian selection is as fundamental in biology as Newton’s law is in physics. Denying the theory of gravity will not make gravity go away. However, it will definitely destroy our ability to do physics. Likewise, not teaching the theory of evolution will not prevent the emergence of new forms of viruses. But then forget about any scientific approach to diseases and epidemics.
Without Darwinian selection, one cannot even begin to understand the microbial-host interaction, the evolution of pathogens, or begin to develop drugs and vaccines. So go ahead and blame Darwin for inventing the idea that only the fittest survive. But also punish Newton because the apples insist on falling down rather than rising up.
Now the good news: Most educated people are starting to understand why scientific approaches work and non-scientists don’t. Better yet, even ultra-conservative, science-rejecting world leaders are now begging scientists to speed up the rescue work. Despite all their faith talk and calls to bang utensils or clap from balconies, they end up advocating for coronavirus vaccines and drugs. Bluffing, bragging, and elation have limits.
Take Narendra Modi and his assertions about the vast medical expertise of ancient India. For years, he and his Hindutva team have delved into the therapeutic powers of gomutra (cow’s urine) while advocating Ayurveda and yoga. But India is not calling for emergency shipments of “Cow-ka-Cola” and manure to the worst-affected areas of India.
On our side of the border, we have yet to order a shipment of Ajwa-Khajoor (Ajwa dates in Saudi Arabia) touted as a cure for all diseases by Maulana Tariq Jameel, Pakistan’s most popular preacher. and a staunch ally of Imran Khan. The government also does not organize sacrifices of a million kala bakras or massive imports of olive oil and kalonji.
Instead, the vibe is sober and thoughtful across all power centers. Last Saturday, Pope Francis hosted a lonely and dramatic prayer service in the Vatican. Addressing a strangely empty place, he urged the world to see the Covid-19 pandemic as a test of solidarity. Three hundred years ago, the Church finally gave up attributing plagues and natural disasters to divine retribution.
Iran has also learned a bitter lesson. Last month, his religious authorities admitted to making a colossal error in initially allowing pilgrims to visit the shrines of Qom and Mashhad. That authorization was later revoked, but Iran reported more than 3,000 dead and the disease spread to Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The shock, however, was the suspension of Umrah by Saudi Arabia, followed by the announcement that a decision on the Haj will be made soon. It is very wise. Bringing together millions of people – who would later spread the virus in their home countries – could be just as bad as throwing an atomic bomb on every Muslim capital. Consider, for example, that in the middle of the fourteenth century, more than half of the population of England died, and that 25 million perished in various parts of Europe.
What if this year’s Haj was led by Imran Khan rather than Mohammad bin Salman? Would he have chatted there as he did in Pakistan? The PTI government has seriously downplayed the gravity of the situation. Although the Tableeghi Jamaat congregations were ultimately banned, the damage has already been done. Visits to the sanctuaries continue.
Fortunately, the governments of Sindh and Balochistan have shown themselves to be more determined. In addition, the military appears to be taking orders from outside the government to forcibly shut down possible infection hotspots. Checkpoints now dot Pakistan’s cities, somewhat impeding the free movement of people and the viruses they carry. Whether this will suffice remains to be seen.
Thanks to biological science – the foundations of which were laid by Charles Darwin – the coronavirus will eventually prove to be a deadly but controllable affair. Its final global toll could reach tens or even hundreds of thousands. Yet, compared to the toll imposed by the plagues of the pre-scientific era, it will be low. Your life could well be saved by certain drugs or vaccines yet to be invented. Surely all beneficiaries of modern medicine should forgive Darwin for his alleged transgressions.
The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.
Posted in Dawn, le 4 April 2020