Darwin Day reflections: Why ignorance of evolution can kill

This is a Darwin Day column co-written by Dan Dan Thio and Xue Jianyue. Picture above: The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919, which killed millions and happened before the discovery of antibiotics.

This week, many humanist and scientific groups celebrate Darwin Day around the world. Charles Darwin deserves this honour. Without the English naturalist, we would not have achieved such a clear understanding of all life on Earth and the purpose of our existence.

Unfortunately, certain groups around the world continue to argue that evolution is “just a theory” and oppose its teaching in schools. Despite vigorous efforts by scientists to address misconceptions about evolution, well-funded efforts by creationists to spread falsehoods about evolution continue, even in Singapore.

Until now, these falsehoods have seemed harmless. When sneaked into schools, they spark some hoohaa and usually, most people shrugs their shoulders and get over it. To them, it is just a religious or cultural dispute at most.

But ignorance of evolution is not harmless. Today, we want to argue that ignorance of evolution can bring devastating consequences. Devastating.

Last month, many global news outlets have reported that an American woman has been killed by a superbug that that has proved resistant to every antibiotic available in the US. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 different antibiotics were tested in vain before she died in September last year.

Antibiotic resistance has been going on for quite a while, is of great concern to Singapore. Our status as an air and medical hub exposes us to many types of infectious diseases that could be antibiotic-resistant. Always nimble towards global developments affecting its survival, Singapore is developing a national action plan to tackle the problem of resistant bacteria, which could include stepping up the monitoring of antibiotic use. A Singaporean student also did her country proud by producing this award-winning video about antibiotic resistance:

However, antibiotics are often consumed orally by individuals at home, making any antibiotic abuse difficult, if not impossible, to detect in time. For those reading this article, touch your heart and ask yourself: How many times have to you failed to complete an antibiotic course, or eaten antibiotics irregularly?

To curb antibiotic abuse successfully, the authorities must foster a sense of personal responsibility among Singaporeans in the fight against antibiotic resistance. This must be achieved by improving public understanding of evolution — the main mechanism driving antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

Evolution by means of natural selection is the process by which traits that enhance survival and reproduction become more common in successive generations of a population of an organism. These traits arise from the random mutation of genes.

Traits which enhance the survival of bacteria, such as antibiotic resistance, will become more common in successive generations of bacteria due to unnecessary or incomplete antibiotic treatment. If left untackled, the increasing antibiotic resistance could bring us back to the pre-antibiotic era, with high death tolls from bacterial infections:

Instructions from the doctor and warnings from the government against antibiotic abuse will not be effective if there is no comprehensive buy-in from the patients. The problem with many antibiotic users is that they often treat antibiotics as supplements or simply medicine to be eaten only when there are symptoms.

To improve public understanding of evolution, facts about evolution should be displayed at households, schools and workplaces. They should also be given out alongside antibiotic prescriptions at hospitals and clinics.

Surveys should also be done to assess how much the average resident actually understands antibiotics, its proper use and the long-term consequences of abuse.

Once Singaporeans understand these evolutionary consequences, entire families will think twice about disrupting an antibiotic course or taking antibiotics unnecessarily during a viral infection.

The specter of seeing their loved ones suffer from antibiotic resistance bacterial infections, or condemning their future generations back to the pre-antibiotic world, will provide enough incentive to consume antibiotics responsibly.