The Human Pandemic Plague
Fintan O’Toole’s article “THE WORLD HAS LOVED, HATED AND ENVIED THE U.S. NOW, FOR THE FIRST TIME, WE PITY IT” arrived in my email so, of course, I read it. I first read it as a political rant, then as a moral protest, and then as an “I am a morally more acute, sensitive, and discerning person, and upon this I am morally outraged, and this demonstrates that I am a very much better person than my target” claim. Buying moral and social capital by moral condemnation. http://beniciaindependent.com/irish-times-the-world-has-loved-hated-and-envied-the-u-s-now-for-the-first-time-we-pity-it/
O’Toole’s moral argument is based upon the value/sanctity of life as the supreme arbiter of moral values. In my earlier essay http://jackofafewtrades.com/2020/05/from-utilitarianism-to-an-evolutionary-morality-we-were-moral-before-we-were-civilized/ I took the contrarian stance that value of life cannot be set as a meta-morality in judgment upon the utilitarian cost of life. They have always been inextricably intertwined and are even more so as we are now able to deploy a vast array of medical advances thus increasing the cost of care astronomically. As recently as 100 years ago, during the Spanish Flu of 1918, we died cheaply. We now live or die expensively. Care costs. But the decisions between care or cost are difficult and nearly impossible.
O’Toole did get me to thinking that maybe epidemics have a positive value, and this short contrarian essay ensued:
The Virus Eye View of Human Civilization:
“What do cities and civilization look like to us? Why, a magnificent smorgasbord!! All those bodies with trillions of cells ready to produce billions more of us and quickly pass them around all over the place. If we had designed the perfect ecology for pathogenic viruses, we could hardly have done better than to confine you to cities with widespread trade with other cities. You are our breeding ground. We prove our infectiousness in one city and you quite obligingly carry us to other cities to infect them. You have greatly increased our fitness. Thank you so much!
“Cities have always been pest holes and demographic sinks. We’ve done our best to reduce your numbers and have had some but insufficient success. We’ve partnered with other pathogens and parasites to no avail. You have developed your own debilities and diseases: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, etc. to no avail. Many city dwellers have insufficient and monotonous diets, and suffer from deficiency diseases to no avail. You have over millennia increased your numbers despite our efforts.
“What thanks have we gotten for our efforts over the years? None at all. Rather, you have recently developed vaccines and killed off several of our fellow viruses, smallpox and polio are nearly gone. You brew antibiotics to kill infectious bacteria. You have killed off many parasites such as worms. Now you will try to kill a corona virus. Hopefully it will mutate faster than you can devise treatments. We have our own value of life, or rather, our right to reproduce, also. Why should your right to reproduce be of more moral value than ours? We do our best to do something essential for you.
“You humans are slow learners. We have tried to tell you over about 10 millennia that there are too many of you living too close together in one place for too long with too much interchange with far away groups, and living too closely with your animal commensals.
“Never mind viruses, bacteria, plasmodia, and other parasites. The real pandemic is humans who have successfully, so far, resisted all attempts by Nature to control their numbers. You humans have spread and infected all ecologies and geographies. Where you go, death follows. You are the ultimate predator, pestilence, and pandemic. You are the mammalian bacteria.”
Evolution has one significant limitation: it cannot control or limit reproduction to the exact carrying capacity of any one ecology. There is no way to control births, life spans and deaths to a steady demographic state in a variable ecology. If there are slightly too few births, the species will die and that set of genetic information will disassemble. The only possible option is to generate at least a slight surplus of births. That becomes an increasing exponential gain which will at some point overwhelm the resources of the local ecology.
If we reproduce too little, our species dies. If we reproduce too much, we eat ourselves out of house and home. We have no internal controls on reproduction. There are only external controls such as predation.
Predation is a great invention of evolution for it is an effective mechanism for population control. Predation: hijacking cellular reproductive mechanisms (viruses), living inside another lifeform stealing biochemicals and water for their lives and exuding toxins (bacteria), living in another lifeform and eating portions of that body (parasites), and eating another lifeform (animals and carnivorous plants) is fundamental and necessary given the overwhelming power of reproduction. Predation had to evolve.
I have laid out the general case for the evolution of predation – using another life form for the benefit of the predator with no compensation to the prey. As unpleasant as we experience it, (here again is our innate value of life morality), predation is an essential part of the evolution of reproduction. Will it be possible for evolution to devise a negative feedback system to control the rate of reproduction? No. “You cannot predict the weather, and we predators certainly cannot either so we don’t know how many to kill.” The carrying capacity of a given ecology is thus indeterminate and there is no way to match reproduction to ecology.
Will we devise our own population control system? Of course not. This deficit will be remanded for correction to some other agent, to one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Famine, Pestilence, Pandemic, and War. (Note that I modified the conventional list, replacing Death with Pandemic.) My virus voice would say:
“We have done our best for you. Dunno what else we can do but wait for a more capable virus.”
For the evolution of predation: http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141202-what-was-earths-first-predator
There is, as there so often is, another side of the story: the beneficial effects of our internal microbiomes. Our lives depend upon a wide range of a huge number of microbiota: viruses, bacteria, fungi and protozoa that perform various functions necessary to our lives.
A technical article on microbiome: https://depts.washington.edu/ceeh/downloads/FF_Microbiome.pdf
But beyond that is the role of viruses in transferring genes between species, even between distantly related species: transposition. This is a new area of study and I will only suggest that viruses transposing genes, large blocks of genetic information, may be a major driver of evolution.
For viruses transposing genes between species: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/12/171218120248.htm
Then a stray thought: if cities are ideal loci for the spread of viruses, and if viral transposition of genetic information is a major source of novelty in the genetic code of a species, then will the pace of our evolution increase due to the increased transmission of viruses in cities?