virus What struck me most while reading Demon in the Freezer was how elegantly tailor-made poxviruses are to individual species. Every species of life on Earth has its own poxvirus (or poxviruses) that rarely if ever affect other species. What’s more remarkable, poxviruses only flare up when the population concentration of their host reaches a certain critical level, and then quickly die down again and remain dormant once the host’s numbers have been reduced below that level. They are nature’s (or god’s if you prefer) perfect population control devices, the ultimate antibodies, ensuring biodiversity on Earth for the optimal good of all species.

Although we had the opportunity to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s, a combination of political paranoia and scientific curiosity has allowed significant amounts of this scourge to be retained for dubious “defensive” and research purposes. Due to the fall of the Soviet Union and the entrepreneurial zeal of weapons traders, large amounts of smallpox, anthrax and other diseases have disappeared. No one knows where these WMD are, which is possibly one of the reasons for the recent Iraq war.

But even without these caches of yesterday’s diseases, there are many more awaiting us in nature’s ever-adaptive arsenal. Nature abhors a vacuum, and punishes species that get out of line by introducing new parasites to feed on the excess and bring things back into balance. The plague and other pandemics have always hit populations that grew too close too fast.

And the antibodies that nature produces are entrepreneurial and opportunistic. Why would AIDS and Ebola limit themselves to rare overconcentrations of gorillas and chimps when a hugely overconcentrated species, homo sapiens , is available with a tiny Darwinian mutation to accommodate the 1% difference in the hosts’ DNA? Many, many undifferentiated water-borne bacterial diseases collectively remain the number one killer of humans, especially children. And now West Nile, Norwalk, Legionnaires’ Disease, CJD, and most recently SARS have made opportunistic leaps, no big deal really for a virus. SARS is now mutating faster than its anti-virus can be produced, and the CDC is acknowledging it is probably “here to stay”.

At the risk of further escalating the war between man and nature, a war which man can never win, I suggest that the recent proliferation of new diseases is just the tip of the iceberg. For all our frenzied use of antibiotics, bacteria remain a larger biomass on Earth than man, and they are also older, more ubiquitous, more agile and more resilient. If we continue to overpopulate the planet, we can expect many more, faster evolving and virulent viruses, bacteria and prions to eagerly join the battle against our runaway “human cancer”.

The only solution is a cease-fire. Only by returning our numbers to sustainable levels, where the stresses of overpopulation and overconcentration do not weaken our immunity to the opportunistic diseases just waiting in Darwin’s wings, can we hope to stop the endless escalation of this war on nature, a war that will one way or another lead to our demise.

The result of such a voluntary population drop would be not only greater health and well-being for the human race, but the same for all life on Earth.

Like the war on terrorism, we cannot win the war on nature with ever-more sophisticated weapons. We can only win by peacefully and aggressively dealing with the underlying causes. Because, as economist Peter Jay says in The Wealth of Man, “Darwin always wins in the end.”

Postscript: Edmund O. Wilson’s latest book, The Future of Life , lays out exactly how such a “cease-fire” with nature could be accomplished.

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2 Responses to IS SARS DARWINIAN?

  1. Rob Paterson says:

    Great article.I agree with your basisc thesis that the size and rapid growth of the human population is the most dangerous feature of our time.I suspect that SARS bd AIDS are part of the Darwinian push back

  2. Marie Foster says:

    In a way, I also think that War is a social response to over population. But this is just an intuition or a suspicion.

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