The media spotlight on the H1N1 flu virus has everyone in Cayman thinking about sickness and vaccines these days. There’s something weird about all the attention, however. Virtually no one in the local media ever utters the dreaded “E” word that is central to this subject.
Yes, the term “evolution” is strangely absent in discussions and written reports about a virus that is a serious threat only because of evolution. It’s straightforward; if flu viruses didn’t evolve, then our immune systems could cope with them much better and coming up with effective flu vaccines would be relatively easy. Nonetheless, evolution never seems to come up in public discourse about H1N1. To be blunt, this is crazy. It’s like talking about hurricanes without ever once mentioning wind.
I can understand the omission by those who have never heard of the connection between evolution and dangerous viruses (drug-resistant bacteria too, by the way), but what about our health officials? They know that flu viruses are a significant challenge to medical science because of the rapid rate of their evolution. Why, therefore, don’t they ever mention evolution when speaking to the public or being quoted by journalists? And why do so many journalists consistently write about viruses that “change”, “mutate”, and “adapt” but never evolve?
I’m not picking on the Cayman Islands. We are hardly alone. The United States has the same problem. According to polls, about half of that population currently does not accept the reality of evolution. The American public is behind Europe and Canada, and more closely aligned with Turkey and Saudi Arabia when it comes to awareness of modern biology. Popular U.S. news reports and news broadcasts about evolving viruses and bacteria rarely include the “E” word. Meanwhile, science news media such as National Geographic, Discover, and Scientific American frequently include “evolution” in their article headlines, no less. The staggering inconsistency between mainstream media and science media is far from irrelevant. Sidestepping evolution in popular news coverage accommodates and helps perpetuate the problem of science illiteracy. The omission provides reassurance to those who hold the preposterous position that life does not evolve.
Amidst all the H1N1 attention, we are missing an opportunity to elevate Cayman’s science literacy. This is a real-life science lesson staring us in the face. Our health officials and journalists only have to use the word “evolution” whenever they speak or write about evolving viruses. If they did this, more people might finally realize both the reality of evolution and its relevance to our daily lives.
Perhaps there’s one bit of good news in all this. If we should find that our supply of flu vaccines falls short of the public’s demand, a simple solution is available. All we have to do is refuse it to those people who deny that viruses evolve. That should free up plenty for the rest of us. No, this would not be cruel or unfair. After all, anyone who doesn’t believe in evolution has nothing to fear from an evolving virus, right?