Evolution and Bacterial Drug Resistance

I was participating in an online discussion the other day and the subject of the growing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics came up.  I commented that:

“The ironic part of that for creationists is that the gradual increase in resistance to drugs is an example of evolution in progress.”

I got the following reply:

“Most of the increase in bacterial resistance to antibiotics is not a result of Darwinian evolution and is not a problem for creationists. Well, it is a problem for everyone but not an intellectual problem for creationists. Surely you know that.”

No, I did not know that. In fact, I have read that bacterial resistance is an example of the process of natural selection, where individual bacteria with slightly different genetic content due to mutation are able to survive the antibiotic dose, and then replicate, multiply, and re-infect the individual, and then the drug doesn’t work. Worse yet, for diseases that are spread by airborne infection, those mutant guys can now migrate to other people, spreading the drug-resistant infection. So then, health services have to move on to another drug to treat the disease, and the process repeats. Slowly our antibiotics are being neutralized and the few remaining “last resort” antibiotics are now threatened.

I did a little research and found much to support this, but I wanted to know where this individual got his/her ideas. I went to a Christian apologist web site called Answers in Genesis and found an article titled “Does Deadly Antibiotic Resistance Mean Evolution Wins?” You can probably guess that the answer they give is not “no” but “HEAVENS NO!” The article is an infomercial. The first part gives a lot of technical information, but then it devolves into a sales pitch. It is clear from the name of the web site what they are selling. Here are some quotes that state their position:

“Despite the repeated use of the word evolution, nothing [in various scientific studies] demonstrates bacteria can evolve into something new. As we’ve said many times before, antibiotic resistance is natural selection in action, not evolution in action.”

“The battle against resistant bacteria is surely a battle against a nightmare at times, but not against an evolutionary one. Finding precise molecular targets at which various molecules attack pathogenic bacteria does not unveil evolution in action but just the ordinary, and unfortunately in this case very efficient, process of natural selection.”

Notice the distinction between evolution and natural selection. When creationists see the dreaded E-word it’s like a red flag to a bull. But they can’t deny that natural selection is real. The evidence goes back to Darwin’s finches, and has been collecting steadily ever since. Here is another quote:

“So where did all the genetic information in microbes come from in the first place? It came from our Creator when He created a perfectly good world (Genesis 1:31) about 6,000 years ago. Much has gone wrong in this sin-cursed world since then, yet even now most bacteria are still harmless and even helpful.”

Here’s the capper:

“But a biblical understanding of a good world gone wrong is consistent with the antibiotic resistance and bacterial pathogenicity we see in the world.”

So it’s our own sins that have caused these good bacteria to evolve…er, sorry…natural select into bad ones. As you can see, this web site is an advocate of “Young Earth Creationism” YECers believe that God created everything about 6000 years ago, and nothing has changed since then. Evolution is a hoax as far as they are concerned, but they cannot deny natural selection. The evidence is everywhere, so this is how they handle it…by separating the two.

The statement that all genetic information came from our Creator gives a clue to the problem here. It seems to deny the importance of mutations in the evolutionary process. In fact, it implies that mutations don’t happen! That all “genetic information” was supplied by the creator and is unchanged to this day.

I found this from a website affiliated with UC Berkeley:

“Natural selection is one of the basic mechanisms of evolution, along with mutation, migration, and genetic drift.* If you have variation, differential reproduction, and heredity, you will have evolution by natural selection as an outcome. It is as simple as that.”

Evolution by natural selection is both evolution in action and natural selection in action. Unless you are a creationist.

The main point of the article on the Answers in Genesis web site is to deny that the process of natural selection could have resulted in the development of homo sapiens. That is correct. Without mutations to provide genetic variance, evolution cannot happen. But mutations happen…and the result is evolution.

Okay, that is the creationist side of the story. What do evolutionary biologists and other scientists say about this?

Here’s a response from Dr. Douglas Futuyama, author and professor of evolutionary biology:

“[Natural selection] is a very simple natural mechanism that explains the appearance of design in living things. Before Darwin, the adaptations and exquisite complexity of organisms were ascribed to creation by an omnipotent, beneficent designer, namely God, and indeed were among the major arguments for the existence of such a designer. Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) concept of natural selection made this “argument from design” completely superfluous. It accomplished for biology what Newton and his successors had accomplished in physics: it provided a purely natural explanation for order and the appearance of design. It made the features of organisms explicable by processes that can be studied by science instead of ascribing them to miracles. The contemporary “intelligent design” movement is simply a repetition of the predarwinian argument, and of course it cannot be taken seriously as a scientific explanation of the properties of living things.”


“It is…completely untrue to claim that an example of natural selection isn’t evolution. If a new change in frequencies of alleles becomes permanent as of the result of natural selection, then you have a case of evolution on your hands; descent with modification, case closed. That natural selection doesn’t create new genetic material is irrelevant; we already have mutations for that.

“It’s also completely untrue that no evidence for new structures have been documented. Feathers have already been discussed. And there exist many other molecular homologies in keratinous skin appendages, such as hair, scales, claws, etc. The occurrence of new genes and proteins demonstrates that there is no barrier to the evolution of new structures and features.”

There is more evidence. Evolution makes predictions about what we would expect to see in the fossil record, comparative anatomy, genetic sequences, geographical distribution of species, etc., and these predictions have been verified many times over. The number of observations supporting evolution is overwhelming.

In response, some creationists claim that God planted the fossils and all the other scientific evidence to test our faith…or that Satan put them there to tempt us into unbelief. While such ideas suggesting that God is a trickster are laughable, they serve a noxious utility; they enable believers to discount all science that contradicts religious dogma…and to disparage science and scientists in general. That is the path back into the Dark Ages of ignorance and superstition.

The inescapable conclusion is that while natural selection cannot, by itself, result in genetic changes, it can, when combined with mutation and genetic drift, cause genetic changes that lead to evolution, speciation, and yes, to the origin of homo sapiens.

  • Genetic drift is when variant forms of a gene (allelles) increase or decrease due to random events. Example: An organism with a variation of a gene is localized in an area that suffers a natural event like a flood or earthquake.


Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan engineering school, and then pursued a career in software design.  He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects.  His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two.  Many of his writings are posted on his web site, bigelowbert.com.  You can contact him at bigelowbert@aol.com.

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