Resisting an Overused Argument for Evolution
by Richard Peachey
The letter below was emailed to the Abbotsford Times on September 15, 2011. The Times chose not to publish it (perhaps due to word length). But we hope you'll find it helpful in your thinking about antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a proposed example of evolution.
Editor, the Times:
As Arnold Funk criticizes those of us who are skeptical of Darwinian evolution (Times, Sept. 13, 'Need to be awfully smart to spot wisdom'), he only cites one argument in its favour:
"Kim Campbell, our former prime minister, was recently appalled by a U.S. politician's disagreement with the theory of evolution, and pointed out to him that the development of 'superbugs' in biology are [sic] a clear example of the evolutionary process that we have witnessed."
The U.S. politician was Georgia congressman Jack Kingston, and the discussion took place during an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher back in January  (viewable on YouTube).
Kim Campbell very dogmatically and caustically asserted her support of evolution (and global warming as well). She used antibiotic-resistant bacteria as her trump card.
Jack Kingston countered, quite correctly, that antibiotic resistance in bacteria is more of an example of "adaptation" than a solid evidence for molecules-to-man evolution.
Your readers should consider the following points:
• Acquiring a resistance does not change a bacterium's species designation. For example MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) cells remain members of the bacterial species Staphylococcus aureus. In other words, no "speciation" has occurred.
• Antibiotic resistance is often received as a gift from another bacterium through a process known as conjugation. During this process a small loop of DNA called a plasmid is passed from one bacterial cell to another. This is referred to as horizontal gene transfer (HGT). In such cases, the DNA conferring resistance already existed; it did not newly "evolve" into being as a response to the antibiotic.
• Where resistance does arise through a new mutation (a change in the cell's DNA), there can be a downside: a serious "fitness cost." This means that the resistant cell, although it may do well in a specialized niche such as a hospital, will have a harder time surviving (will be "less fit") in a more typical environment.
• The biochemical mechanism for the resistance trait — how it works on a molecular level — often involves a loss of regulatory control, or some other reduction of function, rather than a new ability. This sort of thing cannot be considered a real advance that would take bacteria up to the next evolutionary level. (A parallel would be Darwin's famous example of beetles losing their wings on a windy island — a helpful change in that specific environment, but not a true evolutionary gain.)
In view of these realities, I submit to your readers that Mr. Kingston actually showed a better grasp of biology than did our Ms. Campbell!
Further resources on antibiotic resistance as an argument for evolution:
Anderson, Kevin L. 2005 (Mar.). "Is Bacterial Resistance to Antibiotics an Appropriate Example of Evolutionary Change?" Creation Research Society Quarterly 41(4):318-326. [technical]
Bergman, Jerry. 2003 (Apr.). "Does the acquisition of antibiotic and pesticide resistance provide evidence for evolution?" Journal of Creation 17(1):26-32. [technical]
Sarfati, Jonathan. 2005 (Apr. 8). "Anthrax and antibiotics: Is evolution relevant?"
Wieland, Carl. 1997 (Dec.). "Superbugs not super after all." Creation 20(1):10-13.