By Jeff Havenner
Ralph Winter once asked whether pathogenic microorganisms represented "evil intelligent design." My initial thought considering that question was that a "yes" answer gave the devil too much credit. That was my off the cuff response, having never thought much in terms of evil regarding microbial pathogens. My response was like that given in a word association game. Someone says a word and the respondent answers with the first word or phrase that comes to mind. The patterns of immediate answers give clues to the way a person's mind works.
Before we can understand evil with respect to pathogens, we must ask more basically whether science recognizes evil at all. Most practitioners in the sciences have been taught to believe that everything exists as a result of a natural or material cause. Such causes are assumed morally neutral. The understanding of facts or conditions in terms of evil or good is outside of the realm of science. For the microbiologist, the presence of pathogenic microorganisms simply is fact. The fact of pathogens existence and the diseases they manifest represents, at most, some form of species coevolution. Neither God nor the devil are viewed as being behind them.
This view works in an academic sense. Ironically, when pathogenic microorganisms begin interacting badly with human populations and causing epidemic diseases, our attitude changes. Humanity begins to respond to those pathogens as if they are an evil to be combatted and subdued. Just as with word association, our immediate response to disease, our desire to cure it with an antibiotic or other drug or to prevent it by vaccination or even to eradicate it entirely gives us a clue as to how our collective mind seems to work. Whether we admit it or not, we act as if evil does exist as a force that must be fought with intellectual and physical effort.
Eradication programs are global responses to diseases that are perceived to be evil on a multinational level. The impulse to eradicate disease seems to come from the desire to eliminate a seemingly purposeful enemy of our human existence. This runs counter to what one might expect from a purely Malthusian and Darwinian frame of reference.
Thomas Malthus, an English cleric and 18th Century social theorist, believed that natural disaster, including famine and diseases were acts of God, beneficial in the overall sense to prevent the overpopulation of the planet. The naturalistic view of Darwinian thought was drawn from Malthus and asserted that whatever purely environmental forces do not kill off a species, end up leaving that species stronger over time and can give rise to a whole new species.
The human response to diseases, however, inclines toward preventing and curing them so as to free humanity from their ravages and the deaths they cause. Rather than the reference frames of either Malthus or Darwin, our response to disease thus bears more resemblance to that of Jesus, who, as the Gospels tell us, came into the human world to heal and to cast out evil.
Jeff Havenner graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with Bachelor and Master of Science degrees in microbiology. He worked at the Frederick Cancer Research Center in oncogenic virology. Following that he was directly commissioned in the US Army and worked at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Department of Rickettsial Diseases. After leaving the Army he continued his career working in the field of radiation safety and safety management.