Is the coronavirus intelligently designed? If so, does that show the evil of its intelligent designer? Or is it the unintended product of a natural world created by the beneficent intelligent designer, in which viruses generally have a good role to play?
Some people believe that the coronavirus was bioengineered in a U.S. military bioweapon laboratory. It was introduced into Wuhan to cripple China's economy, to advance "the New World Order globalist cabal to implement the Super-Vaccination Agenda," and to achieve the depopulation of the Earth. Some scientists in India have reported that COVID-19 has HIV (AIDS) virus-like insertions that are not found in any other coronavirus. If this did not come from random mutations, the conspiracy theorists claim, then it must be "by purposeful and malevolent design."
Another conspiracy theory promoted by Senator Tom Cotton and Fox News is that the coronavirus is a biological weapon designed in a Chinese military lab just outside of Wuhan that somehow found its way into the Wuhan food market.
The viral social media spread of these conspiracy theories about the coronavirus has become a mimetic epidemic.
If the coronavirus was created not by human intelligent designers but by a divine intelligent designer, then we would have to wonder whether such an intelligent designer is evil in designing microbes that kill human beings. Or can we see the overall goodness of an intelligently designed natural world, which nevertheless allows for the unintended evil of some viruses that evolve in ways that make them deadly threats to human life?
Michael Behe is a microbiologist who has been one of the leading proponents of Intelligent Design Theory, who is known for his argument that some biological mechanisms (like the bacterial flagellum) show the "irreducible complexity" that is the signature of an intelligent designer rather than Darwinian evolution. I have written about his arguments here and here.
In his book The Edge of Evolution, Behe claims that many of the biological causes of human disease and death--such as the HIV virus and the malarial parasite--show the signs of intelligent design. This leads him to doubt the goodness of the intelligent designer. He concludes that "an intelligent designer deliberately made malaria," and thus it seems that the intelligent designer deliberately decided to kill millions of human beings, including innocent children (237). When we see how "horrific" life on earth really is, Behe suggests, we must wonder: "Maybe the designer isn't all that beneficent or omnipotent" (239). After all, the intelligent designer is responsible for creating "nature red in tooth and claw" (43). The intelligent designer might actually be an evil demon (238). This is a disturbing possibility for someone like Behe, who is a devout Catholic.
Now, Behe has said (here) that the COVID-19 virus is clearly intelligently designed. It must be well designed to succeed in invading human cells.
A protein on the surface of the virus must bind specifically to a receptor protein on the surface of the cell--like a key that fits into a lock and opens it. Viral mutations can change the shape of the key at random, and sometimes this random variation stumbles upon a key that fits the lock. Sometimes a viral key that binds to an animal protein (perhaps in a bat) mutates and becomes able to bind to a similar human protein. The virus can then jump from the animal to a nearby human and become very virulent. Apparently, this is what happened in the Wuhan food market.
"So, do I think viruses were designed? Yes, I most certainly do! The viruses of which we are aware--including the coronaviruses, Ebola, and HIV--are exquisitely, purposively arranged, which is the clear signature of intelligent design. Well, then does that mean the designer is evil and wants people to suffer? No, not necessarily. I'm a biochemist, not a philosopher. Nonetheless, I see no reason why a designer even of such things as viruses should be classified as bad on that basis alone."
". . . if we were on a ship in a powerful storm, we might be excused for thinking storms are bad. But in calmer moments we understand that on balance the ocean is very good and that, given an ocean and the laws of nature, storms will arise from time to time. What's more, we just might get caught in one. In the same way, most viruses do not affect humans and may well have a positive, necessary role to play in nature of which we are currently unaware. (I would bet on it.) From time to time a storm arises in the virosphere and affects humans. But that's no reason to think either that viruses weren't designed or that the designer of viruses isn't good."In saying the viruses may have a good role to play in nature, Behe cites the research of Marilyn Roossinck (2011, 2015), who argues that viruses should not be seen as just pathogens, because in fact they are often beneficial to their hosts in ways that sustain life as we know it. Viruses are often critical symbiotic partners in the health of their hosts. For example, the gastrointestinal tracts of mammals--including humans--are full of viruses (as well as bacteria), and they probably have important functions in their mutualistic interactions with their hosts.
Behe's reasoning, therefore, seems to be that the intelligent designer could have designed the general structure of viruses and the mechanisms of mutation so that viruses can serve some vital functions in nature, and so viruses are generally good, which was the intention of the designer. But the natural process of random mutation can create viruses like COVID-19 that are deadly to human beings, which is a bad outcome that was not intended at the beginning by the intelligent designer.
Does this allow the religious creationist to see the coronavirus as an evil product of nature in a world that was created by an all-good intelligent designer?
Notice that Behe concedes that the COVID-19 virus can be explained fully as a product of Darwinian evolution that does not require the intervention of the divine intelligent designer in nature. The designer of the COVID-19 virus is evolution by natural selection working on random genetic mutations not God!
In The Edge of Evolution, Behe makes it clear that while he believes that intelligent design is required to explain the emergence of the higher taxonomic levels of life--kingdoms, phyla, classes--Darwinian evolution explains the lower levels--order, families, genera, and species. So the evolution of the human species from common descent from primate ancestral species is fully Darwinian. Similarly, the evolution of viruses is by Darwinian evolution.
Although Behe seems to reject "theistic evolution" in two passages (210, 229), he generally seems to accept it, because he assumes that once the Intelligent Designer created kingdoms, phyla, and classes and set in place the general laws of nature at the beginning of the universe, He did not intervene into nature after that.
Consider, for example, the following passages. "The possibility of intelligent design is quite compatible with common descent, which some religious people disdain. What's more, although some religious thinkers envision active, continuing intervention in nature, intelligent design is quite compatible with the view that the universe operates by unbroken natural law, with the design of life perhaps packed into its initial set-up" (166). "The purposeful design of life to any degree is easily compatible with the idea that, after its initiation, the universe unfolded exclusively by the intended playing out of natural laws. The purposeful design of life is also fully compatible with the idea of universal common descent, one important facet of Darwin's theory" (232).
This allows Behe to say that the Intelligent Designer bears no moral responsibility for the evil of the COVID-19 pandemic, because this virus arose not by the intervention of the Intelligent Designer but by natural Darwinian evolution.
Houses of worship have been closed to large religious meetings because of the pandemic. When they reopen, and religious believers survey the death and destruction inflicted by the pandemic, will it be possible for the preachers to use this reasoning to say that God cannot be blamed, because He was unable or unwilling to intervene in nature to prevent the evolution of the COVID-19 virus?
Will the preachers also say that the Intelligent Designer allowed this to happen to teach us that preserving our mortal life in this world is less important than securing our immortal life in the eternal world to come--Heaven or Hell?
One of the leading medical scientists in the American government directing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a devout Christian--Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institutes of Health--who is a theistic evolutionist. I wrote about Collins (here) when he was first appointed by President Obama. As influenced by the theistic evolutionism of C. S. Lewis, Collins sees no conflict between evolutionary science and Christian faith. He thinks science can be a form of worship insofar as it means studying the wondrous work of God's mind in nature, which includes God's working through the natural evolutionary process. And he thinks scientists should respect theistic faith as a way of answering ultimate questions about the meaning and purpose of human life in the universe that are beyond science.
Peter Wehner has an interview with Collins at The Atlantic website. There is one point in the interview where Collins intimates how his faith helps him to face up to the sufferings of life like the COVID-19 pandemic:
"I think I've also arrived at a place where my faith has become a really strong support for dealing with life's struggles. It took me awhile, I think--that sense that God is sufficient and that I don't have to be strong in every circumstance. One of my great puzzles when I first became a Christian is that verse [Second Corinthians 12:8-10], 'My grace is sufficient for you, because My strength is made perfect in your weakness.' That was so completely upside down for me. Weakness? And now I embrace that with the fullness of everything around me when I'm realizing that my strength is inadequate, whether its coronavirus or some family crisis, God's strength is always sufficient. This is such a great comfort, but it took me a long time to get to the point of really owning that one."He also says that as a young man, his atheism was challenged when he was a third-year medical student, and he began treating patients who were dying, whose faith sustained them: "Many of these people were deeply committed to faith. I was puzzled and unsettled to see how they approached something that I personally was pretty terrified about: the end of their lives. They had peace and equanimity, and even a sort of sense of joyfulness that there was something beyond. I didn't know what to do with it."
Collins founded the organization BioLogos to promote the idea that science and Christianity are compatible. Recently, the folks at BioLogos have been producing podcasts and blog posts on the coronavirus pandemic exploring how the evolutionary science of viruses can help Christians see how the evil of the coronavirus pandemic can be reconciled with their belief in God as the good and loving Creator of nature.
Jim Stump, Vice President at BioLogos, has written an essay on "Coronavirus and the Problem of Evil." If God is good, benevolent, and omnipotent, Christians might ask, why doesn't He protect us from evils like this pandemic? Stump's answer is the one suggested, but not fully elaborated, by Behe: God does not intentionally design natural evils like viral pandemics, which actually arise as unavoidable side effects of the naturally good world that God has created.
Traditionally, as Stump indicates, some Christians have solved the problem of natural evil by saying that it's a consequence of the Fall. Adam and Eve were created by God to live in a naturally good world, but when they yielded to the temptation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden, they sinned, and God's curse on them for their sin included a curse on nature, so that human beings would henceforth suffer and die from natural threats to human life, including deadly viruses.
I agree with Stump that this fails for two reasons. First, the punishment doesn't fit the crime: extending the curse on Adam and Eve to include a curse on all of nature for the rest of human history on earth seems excessive. The second problem is that evolutionary science leads us to believe that viruses came into existence millions of years before the first human beings. (I have written about reconciling Adam and Eve with evolutionary science here and here.)
Stump proposes a better way to solve the problem of natural evil. The theistic evolutionist can argue that God has chosen to use the natural processes of evolution to create a good world that sustains human life, but these generally good conditions for life have unavoidable side effects that are bad. Viral pandemics illustrate this. Human life as we know it would be impossible without viruses. Most viruses on Earth are infecting bacteria and thus slowing down their reproduction, so that rapidly reproducing bacteria do not overwhelm us. But for viruses to do that, they must mutate rapidly, and that rapid mutation can sometimes create viruses--like COVID-19--that are dangerous to human beings. Evolution creates trade-offs in which we have to take the bad with the good.
We should also see that the same evolutionary process that creates dangerous viruses also endows human beings with the intelligence and motivation for scientific understanding of viruses and viral epidemics that can teach us how to fight those viral threats to human life, which is what we are trying to do now.
I have written about intelligent design theory, scientific creationism, and theistic evolution here, here, here, here, and here.
I have written about Heaven and Hell here and here.
Roossinck, Marilyn. 2011. "The Good Viruses: Viral Mutualistic Symbioses." Nature Reviews Microbiology 9 (February): 99-108.
__________. 2015. "Move Over, Bacteria! Viruses Make Their Mark as Mutualistic Microbial Symbionts." Journal of Virology 89 (13): 6532-6535.