American Horror Story: Evolution

Out of all of the inspiring faculty talks, I found Dr. Mohamed Noor’s discussion of evolution and species formation to be particularly intriguing. He was an engaging speaker and really dove into the thought-provoking discussion of how the study of evolution interacts with modern society, in both good ways and bad.

Let’s start with the bad first. As Dr. Patek mentioned in her talk, many fields of scientific research are constantly criticized as obscure, pointless, and wastefully expensive to study, but no field faces fiery tirades of hatred as much as the study of evolution. Dr. Noor mentioned that the US shows one of the highest rates of disbelief in evolution at 28%, which is a shocking statistic when considering how developed and educated our society is. One of the main reasons for this is the discussion of how belief in evolution fits in with our religious beliefs, an interconnection that means something different for everyone and cannot be standardized. For some, believing in God and evolution are strictly mutually exclusive, but for others, they can find peace believing in both. But it’s still pretty taboo to talk about evolution in public settings; it’s just one of those topics that’s better left untouched if you don’t want to anger anyone. Dr. Noor described his visits to school board meetings, where representatives would shy away from taking a position one way or another on evolution in fear of backlash from both sides of the debate.

Here in the Research Triangle bubble, we can comfortably walk around and assume that at least 90% of our fellow Triangle citizens believe at least somewhat in evolution. But there are certainly pockets America where this number would be close to 0. This past spring break, I was walking in Charleston, South Carolina when a man came up to me and handed me a cartoony pamphlet “debunking the fake news of evolution”. Yikes! After ridiculing what are actually misconceptions about evolution (the typical “we came from monkeys” is a massive oversimplification), this pamphlet chastised regulations of some school districts that force teachers to teach evolution and claimed that evolution was a bunch of not-worth-studying, phony science. But Dr. Noor pointed out the very real and very important ways studying evolution helps humanity: understanding evolution is crucial for understanding antibiotic resistance and disease control.

Antibiotic resistance is a rapidly growing problem that is weakening the success rate of well-established antibiotic treatments, even rendering some treatments defunct. Take penicillin for example: Alexander Fleming’s accidental wonder cure of the 1940s, used to fight against a variety of bacteria. Penicillin was everywhere, until natural selection began to kill off the non-resistant strains of bacteria, thus allowing the resistant strains to live without competition for resources. Though still used today, penicillin is nowhere near as popular a treatment as it once was, all due to the natural process of species evolution.

On a happier note, the vicious spread of the mosquito-borne dengue virus in tropical areas has the power to be curbed with the understanding of evolution, and it all starts with a seemingly-unrelated bacteria. The Wolbachia bacteria is spread through mosquitoes, but uninfected females who breed with an infected male will produce no offspring. However, if an infected female breeds with an infected male, they can produce offspring normally. So, it pays to be infected, and as a bonus, natural selection quickly favors infected females as they are more able to pass down traits to their offspring. Uninfected females start to become less common as the infected females reign supreme. But here’s the best part: Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes can’t carry the dengue virus. So what if Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes were introduced into areas where dengue spread rampantly? The uninfected, dengue-carrying females wouldn’t produce offspring with the Wolbachia-infected males, and natural selection would work towards the gradual killing off of the dengue-carrying mosquitoes and promotion of the Wolbachia-infected mosquitoes. Change like this wouldn’t happen overnight, nor is complete elimination of dengue possible using this method, but in tropical climates where dengue spreads like wildfire, this could significantly reduce the number of dengue infections, all thanks to an understanding of evolution.

As you can see, studying evolution is so important to humanitarian crises, and isn’t just a pseudoscience propagated by anti-religion radicals. It’s a shame that “the e word” is still such a touchy topic, but with great scientists like Dr. Noor furthering research and promoting education on evolution, we will hopefully shrink that figure of 28%.

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