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Corona - Our Debt to Darwin

Monday 6 April 2020, by Pervez Hoodbhoy

CHARLES Darwin is a name Pakistanis are taught to hate. School teachers and university professors tasked with teaching his evolutionary theory usually skip the subject or, if they go ahead, first soften it with a ton of scorn. A commonly used biology school textbook rubbishes the theory, claiming that evolution of species is tantamount to assuming that “a motor car is evolved” when two rickshaws collide. Imran Khan, in his 2002 article, blamed the West’s follies upon, “Philosophers like Darwin, who with his half-baked theory of evolution had supposedly disproved the creation of men and hence religion, were read and revered”.

With the corona apocalypse looming ahead, it doesn’t matter that Darwin was a naturalist, biologist and geologist rather than philosopher. It also doesn’t matter that Darwin gets lashed regularly by Christian, Jewish and Hindu fundamentalists as well. Yet every hope for dealing with today’s rogue virus rests squarely upon Darwin’s 200-year-old discovery of the principle of natural selection.

In a nutshell: natural selection says that life on Earth didn’t come pre-purposed and pre-formed, as tradition insists. Instead, it holds that, whether for man or microbe, only those forms of life best adapted to a specific environment survive while all others die away. Most crucially, evolution maintains that new kinds of life and new molecules randomly appear. A few — like coronavirus — will chance upon some suitable animal or human cell and thrive.

Hopes for dealing scientifically with the virus rest upon Darwin’s discovery of the principle of natural selection.

Not convinced? Then get yourself some slides and a powerful microscope — actually, a million-dollar electron microscope would work best. Then wait and watch as cells reproduce. You will soon see some that are imperfect copies. While most bad ones die away, a few survive and then proliferate.

This, for example, is how cancerous cells form. Experiments at the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre show exactly how certain common species of bacteria respond when their environment is changed. This led distinguished molecular biologist, Harmit Malik, to remark that natural evolution is “the world’s definitive game of cat and mouse. Viruses evolve, the host adapts, proteins change, viruses evade them. It never ends”.

Darwinian selection is as fundamental to biology as Newton’s Law is to physics. Denying the theory of gravity will not cause gravity to disappear. However, it will certainly destroy our ability to do physics. Similarly, not teaching evolutionary theory won’t stop brand new forms of viruses from emerging. But then forget about any scientific approach to diseases and epidemics.

Without Darwinian selection one can’t even begin to understand microbial-host interaction, the evolution of pathogens, or start developing drug and vaccines. So go ahead and blame Darwin for inventing the notion that only the fittest survive. But then also punish Newton because apples insist on falling downward rather than rising upward.

Now the good news: most educated people are beginning to understand why scientific approaches work and unscientific ones don’t. Better still, even ultra-conservative and science-rejecting world leaders are now begging scientists to speed up the rescue work. For all their talks about faith and calls to bang utensils or clap from balconies, they end up pleading for anti-coronavirus vaccines and drugs. Bluff, bluster and bombast have limits.

Take Narendra Modi and his claims of ancient India’s vast medical expertise. For years he and his Hindutva crew have dwelt upon the therapeutic powers of gomutra (cow urine) while also extolling ayurveda and yoga. But India is not calling for emergency dispatches of ‘Cow-ka-Cola’ and dung to India’s most affected areas.

On our side of the border we have yet to order a shipload of Ajwa-Khajoor (dates from Ajwa in Saudi Arabia) touted as cure for all diseases by Maulana Tariq Jameel, Pakistan’s most popular preacher and a staunch Imran Khan ally. Nor is the government arranging sacrifices of a million kala bakras or mass importing olive oil and kalonji.

Instead, the mood is sober and reflective in all power centres. Last Saturday, Pope Francis held a dramatic, solitary prayer service at the Vatican. Speaking to an eerily empty square, 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 catastrophes to divine punishment.

Iran has learned a bitter lesson as well. Last month, its religious authorities recognised they had made a colossal blunder by initially allowing pilgrims to visit shrines in Qom and Mashhad. This permission was later rescinded but Iran has reported over 3,000 dead and the disease has spilled over into Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The shocker, however, was Saudi Arabia’s suspension of umrah, followed by an announcement that a decision on Haj will be taken soon. This is very wise. Getting millions together — who would subsequently spread the virus in their home countries — could be just as serious as dropping an atomic bomb on each Muslim capital. Consider, for example, that in the middle of the 14th century more than half the population of England died, and that 25m perished in various parts of Europe.

What if this year’s Haj was under Imran Khan rather than Mohammad bin Salman? Would he have waffled there as indeed he has in Pakistan? The PTI government has seriously downplayed the seriousness of the situation. Although Tableeghi Jamaat congregations have finally been banned, the damage has already been done. Shrine visits still continue.

Fortunately, the Sindh and Balochistan governments have shown more resolve. Moreover, the military seems to be taking orders from somewhere other than the government and is forcibly shutting down possible infection hotspots. Checkpoints now dot cities across Pakistan, somewhat inhibiting the free flow of people and the viruses they carry. Whether this will suffice remains to be seen.

Thanks to biological science — the foundation of which was laid by Charles Darwin — the coronavirus will eventually turn out to be a deadly but controllable affair. Its final worldwide death toll may run into many tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands. Still, compared to the toll exacted by pre-scientific era plagues, this will be small. Your life may well be saved by some yet to be invented drug or vaccine. All beneficiaries of modern medicine should surely forgive Darwin for his supposed transgressions.

The writer teaches physics in Lahore and Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, April 4th, 2020