Predictable Evolution? A Virus Example

Influenza viruses: Photo 142396986 © Igor Zakharevich |

[Originally published in 2015 as Unpredictable Influenza Virus]

The Influenza virus is one of the best-known and studied pathogens in the healthcare industry. Infectious outbreaks of the virus, more commonly known as the flu, are legendary. The 1918 flu pandemic, nicknamed the Spanish flu, is estimated to have infected 500 million, eventually killing 50 to 100 million. The first influenza vaccine was approved for military use in 1945.

Evolutionary scientists, however, continue to be increasingly perplexed by the unpredictable Influenza virus.

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The Influenza virus is continuously changing, making it an excellent real-life model for studying its evolution and improving healthcare. These changes, however, reduce the effectiveness of the vaccine. To adjust to these changes, the World Health Organization recommended in 1999 that the vaccine should be reformulated each year. Despite advances in viral genetics, the pharmaceutical industry has not improved the vaccine―in fact, this year’s vaccine was this decade’s worst.


In early 2014, the prestigious Nature journal reported discovering the “clues on flu evolution” that could be used to “predict the evolution of the virus,” according to ScienceDaily. By applying physics and computer science, Marta Luksza, and Michael Lässig, physicists at the University of Cologne in collaboration with Columbia University, reported the development of

a fitness model… that predicts the evolution of the viral [Influenza] population from one year to the next.

Columbia University reported in a press release that

Luksza and Lässig [had] used Darwin’s principle: survival of the fittest… and touches on the question of how predictable biological evolution is.

Quanta science writer Carl Zimmer, reflecting on an interview with Lässig, speculated that “As we collect a few examples of predictability, it changes the whole goal of evolutionary biology.”

Luksza and Lässig’s computer-generated findings gained widespread attention. Like the Piltdown Man, anything evolution-like is believed as fact. Time Magazine published Alexandra Sifferlin’s article entitled “Scientists Can Now Predict the Flu.” Sarah Cobrey, Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, published an article entitled The Conversation: “Scientists Create Accurate Predictor of the Next Flu Virus.”

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University of California’s Evolution 101 speculates on the future of scientists’ prediction potential: “The days of a yearly flu shot may be numbered”―one shot for all seasons. “Beyond its practical value,” according to Zimmer, “Lässig sees profound importance to being able to predict evolution. It will bring the science of evolutionary biology closer to other fields like physics and chemistry.”

Even Bill Nye, the science guy, supports the newfound “predict evolution” group. In explaining his logic in his new book, Undeniable (2014), Nye speculates:

Like any useful scientific theory, evolution enables us to make predictions about the future.

This week the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Portugal is convening the first of its kind convention of international evolutionary scientists for the purpose of examining the scientific merits of predicting evolution.

“Evolutionary biology is changing its focus from reconstructing history to predicting future processes,” according to the Calouste Gulbenkian organizers. The convention is named “Can We Predict Evolution? International Scientists Debate Evolutionary Forecasting.”

This year’s flu vaccine, however, underscores how irrelevant evolution is to improving healthcare. While the effectiveness of the vaccine during 2010–11 was the best ever (60%), after more than a decade of evolutionary research, the 2014–15 Influenza strains were only 23%, according to the CDC―the lowest since the 2005-06 season.

Or, Unpredictable?

Evolutionary scientists are now split even further over the theory of evolution―predictable versus unpredictable. Stephen Jay Gould, the late legendary Harvard evolutionary scientist, advocated against a predictable evolution. Gould did not foresee evolution as predictable. In his 1989 book, Wonderful Life, Gould explained

“I believe that… any replay of the tape would lead evolution down a pathway radically different from the road actually taken.”

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ShahPremal Shah, leading a team of biologists at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees with Gould. Using computerized models, the biologists concluded:

“evolution… cannot be predicted.”

Shah’s findings were published (2015) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States and gained widespread attention.“Evolution is unpredictable and irreversible” was the title of ScienceDaily’s report on Shah’s findings. Science staff writer, Elizabeth Pennisi, reports “that evolution is not really predictable because too many chance events can knock it off course.”

The Calouste Gulbenkian conference organizers recognize the challenges of predicting the course of nature:

Given the complexity of factors that can influence this process, predicting how life will be like on Earth, millions of years from now, seems completely unrealistic.

Evolution scientists continue to be perplexed about how natural selection adapts using genetic changes while still remaining the same. This is seen with Influenza, HIV, and Ebola, and the development of antibiotic resistance. Predicting the evolution of a virus into a vulture is best suited for a Disney fantasy movie–not science.

Darwin’s dilemma intensifies.


The Genesis account predicts “kind-after-kind:” a virus will always remain a virus, a bacteria will always remain a bacteria, a fungus will always remain a fungus, and a frog will always remain a frog. Despite continuous genetic changes, Influenza will always remain a virus―no more or less than an Influenza virus.

Richard William Nelson profile 2013

Written by Richard William Nelson

Richard William Nelson earned a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Southern California following graduation from the University of California, Irvine, with a Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry. For more than a decade Dr. Nelson has been writing and speaking on the scientific merits of biological evolution. Dr. Nelson has spoken nationally and internationally to audiences in churches, schools, universities, and community organizations. As the author of the book entitled Darwin, Then and Now, The Most Amazing Story in the History of Science using more than 1,000 documented references, Dr. Nelson advocates using the scientific method to assess the merits of the theory of evolution.

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