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Pianka’s Prediction


While reading about Pianka I noticed one statement related to Intelligent Design that has been overlooked amidst the furor:

“Although [Ebola Zaire] Kills 9 out of 10 people, outbreaks have so far been unable to become epidemics because they are currently spread only by direct physical contact with infected blood. However, a closely-related virus that kills monkeys, Ebola Reston, is airborne, and it is only a matter of time until Ebola Zaire evolves the capacity to be airborne.” – Pianka

Not knowing what it would take for Ebola Zaire to become airborne I did a little searching:


There is no confirmed evidence of airborne transmission of Ebola Sudan, Ebola Zaire, or Ebola Tai between humans. There have been no clinically proven cases of airborne transmission between monkeys; however there was a recent report in ProMED that two control monkeys caged across the room from monkeys infected with Ebola Zaire died of Ebola Zaire. It appears that the Ebola virus might have been spread to the control monkies by an aerosol produced by someone cleaning the infected monkeys cage with a hose. It is hypothesised that the Ebola virus became “airborne” by being caught inside small droplets of water that the control monkeys eventually breathed. Further study is needed to clarify this.


3) Ebola is an RNA virus with a small non-segmented genome. Viruses of this type have high mutation rates due to a) the lack of error
correction during RNA synthesis and b) the possibility of recombination events. Influenza virus is an example of a virus with these characteristics.

3) The combination of the above three points suggests that if Ebola Zaire ever emerges in an outbreak of significant size in a densely populated urban environment, the evolution of an airborne variety may be a rapid event. Specifically, the argument is that a) this would provide evolutionary pressure for an airborne variety b) there is a closely related viral species which may be airborne and c) the virus has an intrinsically high potential for mutation.

4) Compounding the above scenario are indications that Ebola may be capable of entering rodent populations, from which it could spread via fleabites. It does appear to be extremely contagious via any possible blood-borne means. This could make an urban outbreak very difficult to completely quash… and a chronic, sub-epidemic Ebola presence in
an urban environment would provide exactly the evolutionary pressures most likely to evolve an airborne variety.

The above points do not make the case that the evolution of an airborne strain of Ebola Zaire is probable. However, they do suggest that the possibility is significant. Indeed, even a probability of 5% of such an event occurring should lead to serious consideration of contingency plans for its occurrence, given the potential consequences.


The virus is composed of ribonucleic acid (RNA). Such a structure unfortunately makes it prone to undergoing rapid genetic changes via one of three mechanisms: “1) nucleotide substitutions resulting from purportedly high error rates during RNA synthesis; 2) reassortment of the RNA segments of multipartite genomic viruses; or 3) RNA-RNA recombination between non-segmented RNAs…The Ebola virus can use only the first and the third mechanisms as it has only one segment of RNA by capsid”(9) (the protective coating of proteins). Thus, scientists have asserted that, with regards to concerns about the virus being airborne, the genome (RNA) would have to mutate to the point where the protein capsids are immune to adverse air qualities (i.e. dryness). Furthermore, the genome would have to mutate in a way that allows the virus to be transmittable via respiratory function. Scientists insist that the chances of the virus mutating to this degree are small, despite speculations about the airborne transmission of Ebola Reston.

Not certain based upon this limited information, but would Ebola Zaire gaining the capability to go airborne and “be transmittable via respiratory function” be constituted as the creation of CSI? If so, that’s a point of discussion relevent to the ID debate.

Not unless the relevant probability were less than the universal probability bound. Here's what's needed: specify the exact viral genome which would retain the Ebola killing properties while adding the environmental changes necessary for airborne transmission, quantify the difference between that genome and the existing genome, and calculate the probability of the one coming from the other due solely to point mutations. If said probability is less than the universal probability bound, then we don't have to worry about it happening sans intelligent intervention. So, if it does happen, someone made it happen. jaredl

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