“I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.”

—Charles Darwin

Nature can be gruesome. Take the ichneumon wasps as an example.

These parasitic wasps inject their eggs directly into the body of the host. The wasps parasitize several different types of insects including butterflies, beetles, ants, and other wasps. Often the hosts are larvae or pupae. Once the eggs hatch, the wasp larvae eat the host alive from the inside out before the wasps pupate.

Entomologists have described 25,000 species of wasps that belong to the family Ichneumonidae. And many believe that this number comprises a fraction of existing species, with many more yet to be identified.

The Problem of Evil

For Charles Darwin, this ghastly behavior became an exemplar for the cruelty of nature and it persuaded him that the living realm must be the product of blind, pitiless, and indifferent evolutionary processes shaped by the “forces” of natural selection. If nature is not the product of evolutionary processes, then theists have a problem of “natural evil” to explain.

It was not only Darwin in his day but also many skeptics today who are troubled by the problem of natural evil. They view the problem as an insurmountable challenge for Christian theism. This challenge can be stated in this syllogism:

1. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good.
2. Therefore, we would expect good designs in nature.
3. Yet, nature is brutal and animals experience an undue amount of pain and suffering.
4. Therefore, either God does not exist or God is not good.

Skeptics argue that this observation about nature (no. 3) is logically incompatible with God’s existence or, minimally, with God’s goodness. In other words, because of natural evil either God doesn’t exist, or he isn’t good. Either way, Christian theism is undermined.

In my experience, the problem of natural evil evidenced by 
the seemingly gratuitous pain and suffering found in nature is one of the most common reasons nonbelievers offer for rejecting belief in God (and, hence, Christian theism).

Argument from Poor Design
Another common reason skeptics give for rejecting belief in God is the putative widespread occurrence of “bad” or “flawed” designs in biological systems. This challenge to Christian theism takes on the same form as the problem of natural evil.

1. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good.
2. Therefore, we would expect good designs in nature.
3. Yet, we observe flawed biological designs.
4. Therefore, either God does not exist or God is not good.

I’ll respond to these two syllogisms as they relate to wasps shortly. But first, we’ll take a brief look at the idea of bad designs. The quintessential example of bad biological designs is the widespread occurrence of so-called junk DNA sequences in the human genome (and genomes of other organisms). One of the most prevalent classes of junk DNA is the endogenous retroviral sequences (ERVs).

ERVs as Evidence of Evolution?
ERVs comprise around 8 percent of the human genome.

Many human ERVs are also found in the genomes of the great apes. Not only do these ERVs share many of the same sequence patterns, but they also appear in corresponding locations in the genomes.

Evolutionary biologists explain this observation by maintaining that the shared ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, for example, became infected by retroviruses, with the genetic material from the retroviruses becoming incorporated into the host genome. Later, these endogenized retroviruses underwent mutations that disabled them. Afterward, these ERV sequences were retained in the genomes of humans and chimpanzees as their separate evolutionary lineages diverged from the common ancestor. According to this explanation, the endogenous retroviruses shared by humans and chimpanzees represent the molecular artifacts of infections that occurred millions of years ago and left their imprint on contemporary genomes via this (presumed) shared ancestor.

For many people, the presence of ERVs in the human genome (and the genomes of other organisms) is impossible to explain from a creation model perspective—without a whole lot of intellectual gymnastics. In fact, several people have told me that the distribution of ERVs in the genomes of humans and great apes convinces them that humans evolved from the same ancestor that produced the great apes.

Skeptics ask: Why would the Creator introduce the same nonfunctional sequence elements in the same locations within the genomes of organisms that naturally group together (based on other biological features)? And why would he create these shared sequence elements to bear such strong similarity to viruses?

A Response to the Problem of Natural Evil and to Bad Designs
Just as both challenges share similarities in form, so do their rejoinders.

What if good reasons exist for animal death, pain, and suffering? What if these features of nature serve vital purposes?

As a case in point, ecologists have come to recognize that ichneumon wasps help control insect populations, thereby stabilizing ecosystems. Additionally, these wasps play a role in pest control, benefiting human agriculture. Many of the hosts parasitized by ichneumon wasps are agricultural pests. These pests would otherwise cause wide-scale crop damage if their populations were left unchecked. (For more details as to how a world characterized by animal pain, suffering, and death is fully compatible with the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God check out the articles listed in the Resource section.)

Along the same lines, I maintain that a rationale exists for so-called bad biological designs. It has been my experience that, inevitably, as we learn more about the biological systems deemed to be flawed, we come to understand that these systems need to be the way they are. If they weren’t, the system in question wouldn’t function efficiently if at all. In other words, greater insight into the structure and operation of “flawed” biological systems alters our view, time and time again, turning bad designs into good ones.

This revised understanding has been the case for junk DNA. The more we have learned about junk DNA, the more we have come to recognize that the various junk DNA classes serve indispensable roles. To put it another way, junk DNA sequences—such as ERVs—are functional and they serve 
a vital role in genome biology. Furthermore, a rationale exists for their similarity to viral genomes. (See the Resource section for a list of articles that describe recent work assigning function to ERVs.) Thus, it becomes reasonable to think that human genomes are, indeed, the Creator’s handiwork.

EVEs Serve a Vital Role in Parasitic Wasps
In an ironic confluence of discoveries, recent studies demonstrate that endogenous viral sequences (EVEs) found in the genomes of the ichneumon and closely related brachon parasitic wasps play a critical role in the reproduction cycle of these insects by making it possible for them to successfully parasitize their hosts.1

As is the case for ERVs, biologists believe that EVEs reflect the remnants of an ancient viral invasion of the genome of the shared evolutionary ancestor of these two wasp groups. They also believe that the identity of the viral invader was a nudivirus. Unlike the genome of retroviruses, which consists of single-stranded RNA, the nudivirus genome consists of double-stranded DNA.

Researchers have learned that these EVE sequences are expressed in the nuclei of the calyx cells, found in the ovaries of female wasps. The expression of these sequences leads to the production of circular pieces of double-stranded DNA which becomes encapsulated into viral particles. Over time, large numbers of virions (complete virus particles) accumulate in the nuclei of the calyx cells. Eventually, these cells lyse (break down), releasing vast quantities of virions into the lumen of the calyx.

When these wasps lay their eggs, the virion particles are also injected into the host. These virions can’t reproduce themselves because they lack the genes they would need to replicate, but, as it turns out, the virions do play a critical role in the reproductive cycle of the wasp.

The insect hosts are not passive victims when wasps inject them with eggs. Instead, their immune system is designed to kill the wasps’ eggs. Immune cells called hemocytes recognize the wasp eggs as foreign invaders. After the eggs are identified, they become encapsulated and then destroyed by the host’s innate immune system through a variety of distinct mechanisms.

The virions, however, carry genes that they express shortly after they are injected (along with the wasp eggs) into the host. These genes encode proteins that inhibit the protective functions of the hemocytes. This inhibition allows the wasp eggs to evade the host’s innate immune system, persisting within the host’s tissues.

In effect, the virions function as a gene delivery vector that carries the necessary wasp genes into the host and makes it possible for the wasp to override the host’s innate immune defenses. This mechanism is highly reminiscent of the technology used in gene therapy, which relies on genetically modified viruses to serve as the vehicle to deliver healthy, intact genes to target cells and tissues. (A detailed discussion of the use of viral vectors for gene therapy can be found in the book I coauthored with Kenneth Samples, Humans 2.0). In fact, viral vectors made from a genetically modified adenovirus are used to deliver the genetic material that codes for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in the J&J and AstraZeneca COVID19 vaccines.

Toward this end, the same characteristics that make viruses infectious agents also turn out to be the very properties that make them ideal as vectors for gene delivery.

EVEs: Common Descent or Common Design?
Although most life scientists regard the shared biological features—including DNA sequences—possessed by organisms (that naturally cluster together) as evidence for their shared evolutionary ancestry, it is possible to advance an alternative explanation for biological similarities. Instead of evincing common descent, they could be interpreted as shared biological designs with the mutual features as manifestations of a common blueprint—an archetype that arises out of the Creator’s mind.

Accordingly, the RTB creation model interprets the shared features in the genomes of organisms as manifestations of genomic archetypes. On this view, the genetic similarities—including junk DNA sequences—in the genomes of humans and the great apes were intentionally introduced by the Creator. To justify this interpretation, the shared genomic features must serve a function. And, indeed, this is the case for EVEs (and the other types of junk DNA).

The gene delivery role that EVEs in the wasp genome play is largely possible because of the similarity between these DNA sequences and the genetic material of nudiviruses. This requirement explains why a Creator would introduce genetic elements into the human genome (and the genomes of other creatures) that share sequence elements with viruses.

Even though the human genome was sequenced in the early 2000s, we still have much to learn about its structural and functional features. As scientists gain greater i
nsight into the design of genomes, we are discovering more and more functions for so-called junk DNA sequences, in line with the central prediction of the RTB creation model for genome biology.

Just as there are good reasons why an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good God would create a world where parasitism exists, there are good reasons why a Creator would design genomes with sequence elements (ERVs and EVEs) that bear similarity to viral genomes.

Resources

Thinking about Evolution by Anjeanette Roberts, Fazale Rana, Sue Dykes, and Mark Perez (book)

Who Was Adam? 2nd exp. ed., by Fazale Rana with Hugh Ross (book)

The Cell’s Design by Fazale Rana (book)

Humans 2.0 by Fazale Rana with Kenneth Samples (book)

Why Would God Create a World with Parasites?

Is Cruelty in Nature Really Evil?” by Fazale Rana

Why Would God Create a World Where Animals Eat Their Offspring?” by Fazale Rana

Why Would God Create a World with Parasites?” by Fazale Rana (article)

Why Did God Create the Thai Liver Fluke?” by Fazale Rana (article)

Scientists Uncover a Good Purpose for Long-Lasting Pain in Animals” by Fazale Rana (article)

Of Weevils and Wasps: God’s Good Purpose in Animal Death” by Maureen Moser (article)

Animal Death Prevents Ecological Meltdown” by Fazale Rana (article)

Animal Death before the Fall: What Does the Bible Say?” by Lee Irons (article)

Animal Death and the Atonement” by Krista Bontrager (article)

Life from Death” by Fazale Rana (article)

Endogenous Retroviruses Have Function

Koala Endogenous Retroviruses (ERVs) Protect against Retroviral Infections” by Fazale Rana (article)

SARS-CoV-2 Biology Points to Endogenous Retrovirus Design” by Fazale Rana (article)

Endogenous Retroviruses (ERVs) Protect Early-Stage Human Embryos” by Fazale Rana (article)

Questioning Evolutionary Presuppositions about Endogenous Retroviruses” by Anjeanette Roberts (article)

A Common Design View of ERVs Encourages Scientific Investigation” by Anjeanette Roberts (article)

Use of Viruses for Gene Delivery

A Cornucopia of Evidence for Intelligent Design: DNA Packaging of the T4 Virus” by Fazale Rana (article)

Viruses and God’s Providence Revisited” by Fazale Rana (article)

The Historical and Philosophical Case for Common Design

Archetype or Ancestor? Sir Richard Owen and the Case for Design” by Fazale Rana (article)

Duck-Billed Platypus Venom: Designed for Discovery” by Fazale Rana (article)

Does Old-Earth Creationism Make God Deceptive?” by Fazale Rana (article)

The Negative Impact of the Junk DNA Concept on Scientific Advance

Does the Evolutionary Paradigm Stymie Scientific Advance?” by Fazale Rana (article)

Evolution’s Flawed Approach to Science” by Fazale Rana (article)

Does Evolutionary Bias Create Unhealthy Stereotypes about Pseudogenes?” by Fazale Rana (article)

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes

1. Gaelen R. Burke and Michael R. Strand, “Polydnaviruses of Parasitic Wasps: Domestication of Viruses to Act as Gene Delivery Vectors,” Insects 3, no. 1 (2012): 91–119, doi:10.3390/insects3010091.

About The Author

Dr. Fazale Rana

I watched helplessly as my father died a Muslim. Though he and I would argue about my conversion, I was unable to convince him of the truth of the Christian faith. I became a Christian as a graduate student studying biochemistry. The cell's complexity, elegance, and sophistication coupled with the inadequacy of evolutionary scenarios to account for life's origin compelled me to conclude that life must stem from a Creator. Reading through the Sermon on the Mount convinced me that Jesus was who Christians claimed Him to be: Lord and Savior. Still, evangelism wasn't important to me - until my father died. His death helped me appreciate how vital evangelism is. It was at that point I dedicated myself to Christian apologetics and the use of science as a tool to build bridges with nonbelievers. In 1999, I left my position in R&D at a Fortune 500 company to join Reasons to Believe because I felt the most important thing I could do as a scientist is to communicate to skeptics and believers alike the powerful scientific evidence - evidence that is being uncovered day after day - for God's existence and the reliability of Scripture. [...] I dedicated myself to Christian apologetics and the use of science as a tool to build bridges with nonbelievers. Fazale "Fuz" Rana discovered the fascinating world of cells while taking chemistry and biology courses for the premed program at West Virginia State College (now University). As a presidential scholar there, he earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry with highest honors. He completed a PhD in chemistry with an emphasis in biochemistry at Ohio University, where he twice won the Donald Clippinger Research Award. Postdoctoral studies took him to the Universities of Virginia and Georgia. Fuz then worked seven years as a senior scientist in product development for Procter & Gamble.



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