American Scientific Affiliation
Creation/ Evolution Page
The Origin of Species and the
Origins of Disease:
A Tale of Two Theories
WILBUR L. BULLOCK
Professor Emeritus of Zoology
University of New Hampshire Durham, NH
From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 44 (March 1992): 36-44
The Germ Theory of Disease has provided a rationalistic explanation for many diseases, both individual and epidemic. Following its general acceptance there were some erroneous identifications of specific germs for some diseases. There were also suggestions that germs had replaced God. Likewise, the Theory of Natural Selection has proven a useful model for explaining much of the diversity of living organisms. However, it too has been involved in unjustified conclusions - scientifically, socially, and theologically. This paper examines the bases for both of these theories with the aim of illustrating the positive contributions and the inadequacies of human theories.
Charles Darwin's explanation of the origin of species by the processes of natural selection set off a controversy with which we are all familiar. Many people, not committed to a Bible-based Christian faith, saw this naturalistic/rationalistic explanation of origins as another proof that the Bible was wrong and that such a theory even gave evidence for the nonexistence of God. In reaction, some Christians turned to extreme literalism in their efforts to defend the Bible and to disprove evolution. Others have maintained that both extremes are wrong and that there are numerous alternative models for harmonizing science and Scripture. However, we are still a long way from final answers to even the basic sustaining processes God uses in his works of providence, to say nothing of our ignorance of much of the how, when, and why of his creative acts.
As a biologist, specializing in the study of para-sites, their identification and diagnosis, and the natural history of infectious diseases, I have been intrigued by some of the parallels between natural selection - as a theory to explain the origin of species - and infectious organisms - as a theory to explain the cause of disease. In both theories there have been theological as well as rationalistic attempts to relate cause and effect in an oversimplified manner. In both theories there have been far-reaching proposals on the relationship, if any, between "natural" events and "divine" intervention.
Many religions have accounts of how things began, often with tales of rivalries among numerous gods. Some postulate no beginning and an ongoing pantheistic perspective on the world around us. As Christians we have the simple and beautiful assertion that: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1), an assertion that is repeated in many forms throughout Scripture. There is one Almighty God: Creator and Sustainer of the universe - from galaxies in the heavens (Psalm 19) to the lowliest creatures on this earth (Psalm 146).
Likewise, to understand and explain sickness, disease, and disastrous epidemics, there have been - throughout recorded history - assertions that disease is caused by the action of God or gods. Furthermore, such divine action is often a punishment for human sin. In polytheistic, idolatrous cultures the occurrence of disease (in the individual or in the community) is frequently associated with gods, demons, witchcraft, curses and astrology. Divine intervention is clearly one major explanation of disease in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation: God often uses war, famine, and pestilence to judge nations, including his own people.
Rationalistic Explanations of Disease
In ancient Greece and Rome numerous scholars (from Hippocrates to Galen) developed rationalistic explanations of how disease developed and, in epidemics, how it spread through the population. As in other scientific theorizing, several major paradigms, with fascinating overlaps, developed. In various forms these views persisted in medicine and in the general public's thinking until recent times.
A. Humoral Theory
The humoral theory was the dominant concept among medical scholars and practitioners of the ancient world and it was still a major explanation of disease in the western world in the eighteenth century. It was based on the assumption that there were not different diseases but, rather, diverse imbalances in the sick individual. The primary factors were considered to be four basic substances or humors: Blood, Phlegm, Yellow Bile, and Black Bile. In turn, each of these humors was associated with a major organ of the body, as follows:
Blood - from the heart
Phlegm - from the
(Anatomy was not well understood!)
Yellow Bile - from the liver
Black Bile - from the spleen
It is generally assumed that the inordinate emphasis on the spleen, usually a relatively inconspicuous abdominal organ, is an indication of a marked pre-valence of malaria in the ancient world. In this insect-transmitted disease the spleen is usually enlarged and blackened with malarial pigment.
Under the humoral concept, treatment consisted of methods presumed to restore humoral balance. On the assumption that fever was related to too much blood, the most commonly used of these "treatments" was phlebotomy or bleeding. At times there were even arguments over the relative value of "artificial" versus "natural" bleeding methods: knives or scalpels for the former, leeches for the latter.
On the assumption that humoral imbalance was often related to too much of a poison or poisons, weird concoctions were used as purgatives and/or emetics. At times treatment was based on the objective of neutralizing such poisons by medication with another poison. Hence mercurous chloride (calomel) became a most popular form of therapy, even into the nineteenth century. Often both calomel and bleeding were used on the same patient! The chorus of a popular song (following the disastrous epidemic of yellow fever in New Orleans in 1953) alluded to this:
And when I must resign my breath,
Pray let me die a natural death
And bid the world a fond farewell
Without one dose of calomel!1
No wonder there has been considerable speculation as to how many patients died from the treatment and how many died of the disease!
B. Miasmatic Theory
Humoral theory was inadequate when it came to explaining epidemics. How do we account for large numbers of people who are sick or dead from a similar malady in a short period of time and in a specific geographical area? Theologically, divine wrath for real or imagined national sins was usually invoked. Rationalistic explanations for such dramatic involvement of large segments of a population tended to center around two major and often overlapping ideas of miasms.
explanations for such dramatic involvement
of large segments of a population tended to center around
two major and often overlapping ideas of miasms.
1. Miasmatic hypotheses primarily emphasized what we today would refer to as "environmental" factors. These were thought of as mysterious forces, as chemical or physical entities, or as "seeds." Some ancient writers described the epidemiology of disease as a form of balance between "good seeds" and "bad seeds." Hence Lucretius (1st century B.C.) could write:
Now what is the law of plagues, and from what cause on a sudden the force of disease can arise and gather deadly destruction for the race of men and the herds of cattle, I will unfold. First I have shown before that there are seeds of many things which are helpful to our life, and on the other hand it must needs be that many fly about which cause disease and death. And when by chance they have happened to gather and distemper the sky, then the air becomes full of disease. And all that force of disease and pestilence either comes from without the world through the sky above, as do clouds and mists, or else often it gathers and rises up from the earth itself, when, full of moisture, it has contracted foulness, smitten by unseasonable rains or suns.2
2. Other expressions of miasmatic theory focussed on objectionable odors from swamps or rotting garbage or other human wastes. Hence, during epi-demics, such as yellow fever or cholera, there would be measures to clean up the foul air, water or earth or to neutralize the bad miasms. Some of the methods frequently used included spreading lime on the streets and in the homes, firing cannons, burning tar, or wearing masks saturated with various aromatic substances.3 One way in which the vocab-ulary of miasm theory has come down to us today is in the name of two important diseases influenza (the influence) and malaria (bad air).
C. Contagia Theory
Somewhat intertwined with miasmatic concepts were various hypotheses that postulated the "bad seeds" as contagia. Such entities could be passed from one person to another through the air, water, soil, or fomites such as clothing, bedding, utensils, or other belongings of the sick. Hence the development of such measures as quarantine and the burning of the possessions of the dead during outbreaks of plague as well as other epidemics. Even in times when the medical scholars were theorizing and practicing humoral explanations of disease the general public seemed more inclined toward contagia principles, whether it be the isolation of lepers or deserting the sick in time of plague. Such thinking was also behind some of the attempts at germ warfare by a few American colonists as they left the clothing of smallpox victims in Indian villages. Smallpox became another weapon, because of the greater susceptibility of the Indians to this disease with which they previously had no contact.
could be passed from one person to another
through the air, water, soil, or fomites such as clothing, bedding, utensils, or other belongings
of the sick.
From the time of the great plagues of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries there were numerous suggestions of particulate contagia that had some of the characteristics of living creatures - such as reproduction. Acceptance of this concept by the medical and scientific world of the time was made difficult by preconceived notions. Before the advent of the microscope and other technologies, such "living things" could not be demonstrated. Their possible existence was, therefore, often ridiculed. Thus John Astruc, physician to Louis XIV (1638-1715), reviewed the numerous theories regarding the cause of syphilis and commented on "living contagia" as follows:
There are some, however, whom I forbear now to spend Time in imputing, such as Augustus Hauptman and Christian Langius, who think that the Venereal Poison is nothing else but a numerous School of little nimble, brisk, invisible living things, of a very prolific Nature, which when once admitted, increase and multiply in Abundance: which lead frequent Colonies to different Parts of the Body and inflame, erode, and exulcerate the Parts they fix on;<+>...<+>in short, which without any Regard had to the particular Quality of any Humour, occasion all the Symptoms that occur in the venereal Disease. But as these are mere visionary imaginations, unsupported by any Authority, they do not require any argument to invalidate them...if it was once admitted, that the Venereal Disease could be produced by invisible living things swimming in the blood, one might with equal reason alledge the same Thing, not only of the Plague, as Athanasius Kircher, the Jesuit, formerly, and John Saguens, a Minim, lately have done but also in the smallpox, Hydrophobia, Itch, Tetters, and other contagious Diseases and indeed of all Distemper whatsoever; and thus the whole Theory of Medicine would fall to the Ground, as nothing could be said to prove the Venereal Disease depending upon little living things which might not be urged to prove that all other Diseases were derived from the like little living things though of a different species, than which nothing can be more absurd.4 (Italics mine.)
be urged to prove that all Diseases
were derived from the little living things,
than which nothing can be more absurd."
Furthermore, even when such creatures could be seen, as in the case of parasitic worm infections, the general acceptance of the concept of spontaneous generation led many to the conclusion that these things were the result of the disease and not the cause. Such "chicken or egg" confusion continued in many circles even after the microscope entered the picture.
D. Germ Theory
After numerous tantalizing suggestions that living organisms could be responsible for disease, the germ theory became firmly established during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Following in the footsteps of some of the lesser lights of the seventeenth century, scholars so ridiculed by Astruc, disease investigators became more accepting of the possibility that disease could "[depend] upon little living things." By the middle of the nineteenth century John Snow, in his classic studies on the epidemiology of cholera, concluded that this disease was caused by a specific poison, that the poison particles were dispersed in the water with sewage, and caused cholera by multiplying in the next victim after ingestion in contaminated water. By these hypotheses and the development of microscopic and cultural techniques by Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and others, the Germ Theory of Disease became the major paradigm in the medical world and in the thinking of the general population. Few people would have any problem with Ogden Nash:
A mighty creature is the germ
Though smaller than a pachyderm.
His customary dwelling place
Is deep within the human race
His childish pride he often pleases
By giving people strange diseases.
Do you, my poppet, feel infirm"
You probably contain a germ.
So we arrived at the point, only a century ago, where much of the sickness and disease in plants, animals, and humans could be attributed to various infectious organisms or "germs": bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Just as "natural selection," at this same time, seemed to be answering questions regarding the origin of species, so "germs" of various types were answering questions regarding the origin of disease.
E. Too Many Germs and Other Problems
But following the establishment of a theory there is often the tendency to claim more than the theory justifies. At the time of Pasteur and Koch, whose work was mainly with bacteria, there appeared claims for the presumed discovery of the bacteria that caused various diseases. Most of these discoveries - such as those for cholera, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and leprosy - were correct. Others, however, were wrong. Thus Haemophilus influenzae was proclaimed as the cause of influenza, a disease later shown to be caused by a virus. Likewise Bacillus malariae was championed as the cause of malaria until it was clearly demonstrated that this affliction was a mosquito borne disease caused by several species of protozoans of the genus Plasmodium. Furthermore, we accept the fact that medical investigators have identified numerous diseases that are not caused by infectious organisms: diseases that may result from hereditary defects, from poor nutrition, from environmental factors, etc.
the establishment of a theory there is often
the tendency to claim more than the theory justifies.
In this process we often find that the rationalistic theories of the ancients were not 100% wrong. Thus, while we accept the reality of a diversity of very different diseases and different causes, we have also come to appreciate the intricate balances (homeostasis) that are involved in normal biological processes and that diseases - infectious or noninfectious " - are usually associated with an upset in these balances. But, of course, there are more than a mere four humors to balance!
"Disease is the result of a combination of geographical circumstances which bring together the disease agent, vector, intermediate host, reservoir, and man at the most auspicious time."
In addition to disease production by environmental factors such as asbestos, benzene, tobacco, and lead we have come to appreciate that a complex network of the components of the environment plays a significant role in the occurrence and the course of infectious, "germ" related diseases. G. Melvyn Howe summarizes this interplay of a variety of factors.
One of the intriguing features of the microorganisms which attack man is their natural history and the ways in which they, the disease agents, are transmitted from person to person. It is here that relationships between disease agents, the diseases they cause, and the physical and human environment are particularly evident ... Whether it be causative organism (virus, bacterium, spirochaete, rickettsia), intermediate host or vector, each element in the disease complex has its own specific environmental requirements. Each element, including man himself, is inescapably ... bound up with the geographical environment. Disease in any given loc-ality is the result of a combination of geographical circumstances which bring together the disease agent, vector, intermediate host, reservoir, and man at the most auspicious time. Knowledge of these relationships and of each element in the complex is a prerequisite to a true understanding of infectious disease, its distribution and control.5 (Italics mine.)
And the human component was emphasized by Henry Sigerist:
Religion, philosophy, education, social and economic conditions - whatever determines a man's attitude towards life - will also exert great influence on his individual disposition to diseases and the importance of these cultural factors is still more evident when we consider the environmental causes of disease.6
So, in considering disease from a rationalistic perspective we now recognize a variety of specific diseases, interrelated to normal biochemical balances, and influenced by a variety of environmental factors. We've also come to appreciate the role of the emotional state in the ability of an individual to respond to infectious agents. We now must deal with a "germ theory of disease" that has many more factors - at both the individual and the community levels - than just a germ and a person made sick and a simple "bug/drug" association for prevention or cure.
The Origin of Species
As with the determination of the cause of disease, explanations of the nature and origin of the diversity of plants and animals have also involved numerous theological and rationalistic hypotheses. Ancient theorists associated the living world with a bewildering array of fertility gods, often related to specific animal species such as bulls, cats, crocodiles, etc. Some of these views obviously were related to the polytheism that dominated ancient religions; others tended toward the pantheism we associate today with eastern religions and New Age theorizing. In the historical development of modern, rationalistic views there were several concepts that played roles which are significant in understanding some of the evolution/creation controversy.
A. Spontaneous Generation
From the ancient Greeks to the nineteenth century it was commonly assumed that various living organisms developed spontaneously from specific environmental situations. Thus crocodiles developed from the mud of the Nile River, birds appeared suddenly from swamps and marshes, frogs from mud, maggots from flesh, and mice from various types of filth. The experiments of Francisco Redi in the seventeenth century proved that maggots were the larval stages of flies that laid their eggs on flesh. Spontaneous generation almost disappeared as a viable rationalistic option until the development of the microscope led to revival of this type of thinking for at least the tiny forms of life. But then the work of Pasteur and others convincingly disproved this explanation of the origins of even microscopic living things.
B. Fixity of Species
With the advent of global exploration, the collecting of large numbers of specimens lead to
Living things were sorted and assigned to groups in systems that resembled the sorting of mail at the post office...
attempts to systematically catalog the vast array of plants and animals. Living things were sorted and assigned to groups in systems that resembled the sorting of mail at the post office or as we might classify motor vehicles into a hierarchy of concept-related categories. In the eighteenth century the Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus formalized classification, especially in his 1758 publication Systema Naturae. From this work developed not only the highly useful binomial system of nomenclature, but also the hypothesis that each species has remained very much as when originally created. Hence we get two related terms: "fixity of species" and "special creation." (It is important to remember regarding the latter concept that "special" does not refer to divine purpose but rather to the creation of particular "species.") Such a concept, supported by Linnaeus and others, appealed to many Christians, and the "species" of science became equated with the "kinds" of Genesis. However, anyone with any experience with the taxonomic process quickly realizes that "species" is a manmade category of convenience: biologists are still arguing over the definition of "species" (some of the dogmatic statements to the contrary in popular literature notwithstanding.)
Concurrent with the attempts, on the basis of the developing species concept and the description of hierarchical schemes for establishing inter-species relationships, was the accumulation of a fossil record and indication of large time spans. The occurrence of a vast array of fossil plants and animals stimulated discussion of these time relationships. How and when did these fossils get in the rocks and how are they to be related to the living world of today? One view of this phenomenon that gained popularity among both scientists and theologians was that of catastrophes. Some sought explanation in a single catastrophe, usually based on the biblical flood. Others saw the fossil record as indicating a series of catastrophes with subsequent re-creations. Still others de-emphasized the importance of "catastrophes" and, especially after Darwin, focussed on a gradualism through long periods of time. In recent years, some paleontologists have, by the hypotheses of "punctuated equilibria," modified steady gradualism with interspersed periods of relatively rapid change. Furthermore, meteoric impacts have been blamed for the catastrophic demise of the dinosaurs.
D. Natural Selection
Amidst the various attempts to explain species diversity on the basis of spontaneous generation, fixity of species, and catastrophism, there were numerous suggestions that somehow life forms as we know them today may have at least some ancestral relationships. Species within a given genus, or genera within a family, may have had common ancestors and at least some of these ancestors could be represented in the fossil record. Such ideas had been postulated by some of the ancient philosophers. Jean Baptiste Lamarck, early in the nineteenth century, suggested that individually acquired characteristics could be passed on and developed further in succeeding generations. However, none of these mechanisms appeared viable as a basic theory to explain species diversity. There was no substantial evidence for the inheritance of these acquired characteristics.
Then in 1859 appeared Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. This mechanism for an "evolution" quickly became accepted as the major explanation of species diversity and interrelationships. As with many dramatic and sweeping theories, controversy soon erupted. However, as documented by David Livingstone7 and James Moore8 this was not simply a conflict between scientists and theologians, as it is so often erroneously portrayed. Some of Darwin's most vigorous opponents were scientists such as Louis Agassiz; some of his supporters were conservative, Calvinist theologians such as Benjamin Warfield and James Orr.
Some of Darwin's most vigorous opponents were scientists such as Louis Agassiz; some of his supporters were conservative, Calvinist theologians such as Benjamin Warfield and James Orr.
But what is this "natural selection" First we need to be aware of what it is not. Some evolutionists and some anti-evolutionists imply that natural selection is opposed to supernatural selection or special creation. However, if one even skims Darwin's volume, it is obvious that natural selection is primarily in contrast to artificial selection, a process much used in Darwin's time (and before) for the selective breeding of plants and animals. Such a process has been developing even further in recent years through genetic engineering.
...In Darwin's volume, natural selection is primarily in contrast to artificial selection, a process much used in Darwin's time (and before) for the selective breeding of plants and animals.
Darwinian "natural selection" is based on several basic principles that are of a relatively noncontroversial nature. It is the extrapolation to a sweeping general evolutionary theory that becomes more questionable.
1. High Reproductive Rates
While it may be an encouragement to recognize that insignificant people or ideas can accomplish much, the observation that "mighty oaks from little acorns grow" has limitations. Anyone who has an oak tree in their backyard realizes that if all of the acorns produced were to survive, the earth would be completely buried in oak trees in a short time. A single female mackerel produces 400,000 to 500,000 eggs each year; an Atlantic cod can develop 9 million eggs; and a freshwater carp almost 2 million. The human intestinal roundworm (Ascaris) releases up to 200,000 eggs per day and, on the basis of its longevity, a single female can produce 73 million eggs during its life span.
2. Limiting factors
Although the earth experiences occasional episodes of overpopulation, such as hordes of locusts or gypsy moths, plants and animals usually exhibit relatively stable population levels. The numbers of individuals are controlled by a variety of factors: limited food supplies, predators, and parasites. So, in these situations of high productivity, only a small percentage of eggs or seeds reach reproductive maturity. Even in species with more modest reproductive potential a majority of offspring do not survive.
3. Genetic Diversity
Except for identical twins and clones, no two individuals are exactly alike in their inherited characteristics. While many hereditary features, especially new ones (mutations), are harmful - and hence lower chances of survival under normal circumstances - others can be helpful if changes occur in the physical or biological environment. Any feature that would enhance disease resistance, the ability to flee or hide from predators, or make use of another food supply would enhance the chances of survival of a given population.
The interplay of overproduction, genetic diversity, and the various limiting factors became the basis of Darwin's proposal for the "origin of species by natural selection."
E. Too Much Natural Selection
Like the Germ Theory of Disease, "natural selection" tended to become the ultimate answer to questions concerning species diversity and phylogenetic relationships. Natural selection, together with the fossil record, was soon developed, by Darwin and others, into the general theory of evolution. Such a concept was readily accepted by an increasingly rationalistic society as an explanation which made divine control or origin unnecessary. There was some scientific opposition to Darwin's ideas of evolution by natural selection on the basis of Darwin's erroneous ideas regarding the mechanisms of heredity. Several scientific and theological writers used this faulty understanding of genetics in their attempts to discredit natural selection in particular and evolution in general. There was some theological opposition on the basis of literal interpretations of Genesis and a fear that "natural" was eliminating "supernatural." However, natural selection soon received recognition as the major, if not only, method of all of evolution.
Germ Theory of Disease, "natural selection"
tended to become the ultimate answer to questions concerning species diversity and
Furthermore, the emphasis on limiting factors and species survival led to concepts such as "the survival of the fittest," which for many portrayed only "nature, red in tooth and claw." Totalitarian political philosophies along with an extreme free enterprise capitalism led to "Social Darwinism." Such nonscientific, philosophic speculation and theorizing became the basis of the evolutionism that dominates current attitudes towards the natural world. "Nature" and "Evolution" are obviously the gods of many of the otherwise educational, awesome, and spectacular TV programs (and of their narrators) that describe what for Christians must be thought of as God's creative and sustaining handiwork. This same "Nature" is even the god of some of our TV meteorologists!
Where does God and Scripture fit into all this rationalistic theorizing and theological interpretation" Christians have taken various positions on natural selection and on broader evolutionary theory. Some have denied both: some have accepted theistic neo-Darwinism: many have taken numerous other positions from among those outlined by David Wilcox9 and Craig Nelson.10 On the other hand, we have too often allowed our over-rigid commitment to one interpretation of Scripture to be the means of evaluating the current fad theory in science. Such either/or approaches and stiff-necked rigidity hinder us from moving toward both scientific and theological truth.
Any biologist who has had hands-on experience with the identification and classification of "species" knows that the criteria for defining "species," "genus," "family," etc. vary with the experts and change from year to year. For example, the major group of parasitic worms which I have studied since graduate student days is the Acanthocephala, or spiny headed worms. During the lifetime of my major professor their status changed from genus to family to class to phylum. The major reason for such tentativeness is that "species" or any other category of living things exhibit remarkable diversity and explanations of such diversity are often difficult.11
On the basis of laboratory and field studies, natural selection can be accepted as a major factor in plant and animal diversity. Microevolution or special evolution should be no problem to any Christian, even those committed to recent creationism. Further changes that appear to require long periods of time (macroevolution or general evolution) may also take place, at least in part, through natural selection. But these interrelationships are impossible to firm up with certainty and the suggested pathways are constantly changing. Other still unknown mechanisms, some perhaps no longer operating, may also have been involved. As Christians, while it is still basic that God did it, we can still speculate on how he has done it as we study what he is doing now. To accept natural selection does not deny God. To insist on God as the explanation for only the unknown is an unbiblical God-of-the-gaps deism. To ignore God in natural processes (natural selection or infectious disease) is also unbiblical.
natural selection does not deny God. To insist on God as the
explanation for only the unknown is an unbiblical God-of-the-gaps deism.
To ignore God in natural processes
(natural selection or infectious disease) is also unbiblical.
In the Germ Theory of Disease I have not found much Christian opposition to these naturalistic explanations of how living organisms get sick. In accounts of community response to serious epidemics there has been some tension between the emphasis on practical procedures, such as sanitary improvements or quarantines, and spiritual activities such as fasting and prayer. Some of this tension has not always been accompanied by Christian love and compassion and has certainly been as negative a witness as some of the heated, emotional evolution/creation debates. For example, an editorial in the Western Sunday School Messenger during the cholera epidemic of 1832 stated:
Drunkards and filthy wicked people of all descriptions are swept away in heaps, as if the Holy God could no longer bear their wickedness, just as we sweep away a mass of filth when it has become so corrupt we cannot bear it. The cholera is not caused by intemperance and filth, in themselves, but it is a scourge, a rod in the hand of God.12
And another writer thanked God that the cholera remained, "almost exclusively confined to the lower classes of intemperate dissolute and filthy people huddled together like swine in their polluted habitations."13 It is sad that we have heard similar cruel and self-righteous comments from some Christians in regard to AIDS victims, all of whom are not homosexuals or drug addicts. And even when they are, Christian compassion may lead some of them to repentance and salvation.
But Christians have often been in the forefront of care and compassion for the sick, even in disastrous, personally dangerous epidemic situations. William McNeill could write:
One advantage Christians had over their pagan contemporaries was that care of the sick, even in time of pestilence, was for them a recognized religious duty. When all normal services break down, quite elementary nursing will greatly reduce mortality... The effect of disastrous epidemic, therefore, was to strengthen Christian churches at a time when most other institutions were being discredited. Christian writers were well aware of the source of strength and sometimes boasted of the way in which Christians offered each other mutual help in time of pestilence whereas pagans fled from the sick and heartlessly abandoned them.14
In addition to these social/theological implications of disease, there have been some theoretical theological implications of germ theory. While not so prominent in scientific/theological controversies as evolution and creation, numerous speakers and writers on disease have, in this author's experience, often implied that it is either God or germs. Just as natural selection and genetics have given us rationalistic explanations of the origin of species that make theological interpretations unnecessary, so our understanding of germs (bacteria, viruses, etc.) often remove God from individual sickness and from epidemics. As one anonymous writer put it: "In the nineteenth century man lost his fear of God and acquired a fear of microbes." Howard Haggard expressed similar conclusions when he wrote:
In the nineteenth century a search that had been going on for more than one hundred and fifty centuries ended. The spirits which primitive man had thought responsible for pestilential disease were finally seen and identified as bacteria.15
In contrast to Christian suspicion of rationalistic, nontheistic descriptions of the origin of species, it seems that perhaps we all too often treat individual sickness and even epidemics on a purely rationalistic, even nontheistic basis. We talk only in terms of immunization procedures, antibiotics and the latest chemotherapy. We need to avoid the harsh condemnation of the sick as quoted above or as spoken by Job's unhelpful "friends." We need to reaffirm that our Creator and Sustainer controls the disease processes, whether personal or community. Perhaps the AIDS epidemic and its obvious dependence on human sin will help us to remember the role of Almighty God in the processes of speciation and mutations, whether in the "origin of species" - or in the origin of epidemics. Our God, who controls the heavens, the winds, and the seas, is certainly in control of climate changes (even man-induced!) and species variation. Our God, who inflicts war, famine, and pestilence on sinful humans, certainly controls the occurrence and behavior of bacteria, amebae, worms, and viruses. For both Natural Selection and Germ Theory we need to humbly remember God's sovereign rule as well as the limitations of human theories.NOTES
1Duffy, John. 1966, Sword of Pestilence: The New Orleans Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853, Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, p. 153.
2Lucretius. On the Nature of Things, Book VI, Section 8 "Plague and Disease."
3 Duffy, John. op cit. Also Rosenberg, Charles. 1962, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849 and 1866, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
4Haggard, Howard. 1929, Devils, Drugs, and Doctors, Cardinal Giant paperback edition (1959), p. 258.
5Howe, G Melvyn. 1977, A World Geography of Human Diseases, New York, Academic Press.
6Sigerist, Henry E. 1943, Civilization and Disease, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, p. 3.
7Livingstone, David. 1987, Darwin's Forgotten Defenders, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans.
8Moore, James R. 1979, The Post Darwinian Controversies, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
9Wilcox, David. 1986, "A Taxonomy of Creation", Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation 38:4, pp. 244-250.
10Nelson, Craig. 1986, "Creation, Evolution, or Both", in: Hanson, Robert (ed), Science and Creation, New York, Macmillan.
11Bullock, Wilbur L. 1969, "Morphological Features as Tools and as Pitfalls in Acanthocephalan Systematics", in Schmidt, Gerald D. (ed), Problems in Systematics of Parasites, pp. 9-45.
12Rosenberg, Charles. op cit, p. 44.
13Rosenberg, Charles. op cit, p. 42.
14McNeill, William. 1976, Plagues and People, New York, Anchor Press/Doubleday, p. 121.
15Haggard, Howard. 1959, op cit, p. 373.