Monday, May 12, 2008

War of the Worlds

It seems that H.G. Wells was on the mark when he had Earth germs destroy the Martian invaders in his classic novel, War of the Worlds. However, it might be that the part he got wrong was "who" the invaders were.

We live on a planet of many worlds. For the ease of discussion, I'll divide them into two: Macrocosom and Microcosom. The world of humans and animals and plants is large - macro. Our senses readily perceive the large objects around us. But anyone who has seen one of those shows on microscopic insects, bacteria, and viruses, knows there is a world - a universe - all around us, unseen by the unaided eye. There are many more inhabitants of that microcosom than there are in the macrocosom (if we don't include the microscopic lifeforms in the macroscopic world). We're outnumbered by all counts. And it seems that we weren't the first to lay claim to the Earth. By most accounts, macroscopic life developed after microscopic life. That makes us the usurpers, the invaders - although the war isn't over.

H.G. Wells argued that humans had earned their place on Earth through countless deaths (building immunity to germs), where the Martians had not. That statement assumes that the battle between humans and germs has ended. I think we know better than that. If we apply the popular Nietzsche quote to micro-organisms, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger," then the bacteria and viruses are growing stronger. Perhaps a war is brewing.

In Laurie Garrett's book titled, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, she makes an argument that the microcosom is growing stronger, readying for another attack (though not consciously doing so). Admittedly, this book was published a number of years ago (1994), but she wasn't speaking in terms of one decade. Rather, she takes account of the entire span of life on the planet, and the endless conflict between macro- and microscopic organisms. One point she does make is that the variations on a micro-organism theme are increasing; new diseases are being found or are evolving out of prior diseases. Certainly popular news plays into this awareness, but with each passing day, more and more antibiotic immune bacteria are created. Think of all the antibiotic soaps and washes. Each use (maybe) kills bacteria, but it also runs the risk of making one stronger - one that reproduces and evolves at a rate far beyond the ability of humans. In evolutionary terms, it seems the microcosom has an advantage. In technology, the macrocomosm has the advantage. But what if the technologies being created are helping the "enemy" to adapt and subvert our immune systems? That's not my keen insight, it belongs to many experts in the field.

I'm not proposing a solution here. Not suggesting drug treatments stop (I'm an avid user of medication :> ); I'm simply speaking about a several billion year war that we've been fighting, and only now are we beginning to understand the enemy. All the while, the enemy (if it is an enemy) has been using DNA and gene splicing mindlessly. What a clever foe.


Jeff Edwards said...

William, I see you quoted Nietzsche as promised!

Several things come to mind. First, I have heard people speculate that our reliance on anti-bacterial this-and-that will come back to haunt us -- that we NEED to expose ourselves to bacteria a little more often in order to build up resistance. The last quote I heard on the TV news was, "Kids need to be able to eat mud once in awhile." I'm not sure I advocate THAT, though...

Second, there has been interesting news in the past two weeks about a health organization releasing proposals on triage during a pandemic. Apparently the elderly, etc, can't expect quick treatment when the superflu hits. And then we have the news in China.

Finally, good luck with VOODOO VIRUS this summer! I love how research for fiction-writing actually increases interest and knowledge of the "real" world.


Charles Gramlich said...

I've been warning of this coming war since the early 1990s in my classes. There will be a plague. probably multiple ones. The only question is when and how bad. But the humans that survive will be stronger. And fewer.

William Jones said...

Jeff - I knew I could work Nietzsche in there somehow.

You're right, the topic has been in the news quite a bit, and continues to be. What is alarming is that some of the events in smaller countries are typically not covered - these outbreaks are usually isolated to small villages, they are not often deemed news worthy.

As you point out, there isn't a global infrastructure to handle a "superflu." This was a problem in the early 1900s when Influenza (a superflu) killed millions of people. Imagine the panic today, and how much more quickly it would spread.

And thanks for the good wishes on Voodoo Virus. This has been a topic I've followed for a long while (I purchased the book I mentioned in hardcover in 1994). But sometimes it takes a while to get around to the topic. :)

Charles - I think you're right. Humanity will not become extinct - well, unless humans extinguish themselves by some means. And I'm certain Nietzsche would concede that point as well (had to work him in again). Nonetheless, there is an element of horror when we contemplate the probability of such a catastrophic event.

I wonder how your students react when you warn them. There is much faith is the science, and that it can move quicker than micro-organisms. I certainly hope so.

Jeff Edwards said...

William, you have definitely inspired me to read some Nietzsche. I loaded a copy of BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL on my Palm a few months back -- I just haven't had a chance to tackle it.

Speaking of news: I have been watching the BBC world news on a local PBS station over the last month or so. What a difference in coverage! I am so much better informed thanks to the BBC.


John Goodrich said...

Your analogy is a little flawed.

[i]War of the Worlds[/i] is essentially satire. At the time, there was a huge and popular genre concerning the conquest of the Dark Continent with a heaping helping of glorification if Imperialism thrown in. Wells turned that on its head, and had foreign invaders with their incomprehensible machines destroy European civilization.

And what happens to the European invaders that live in tropical climates? They discover malaria, dysentery, and a whole host of diseases that do not survive well in more temperate climates, and to which the invaders have little or no resistance.

That said, you're right about the real problems we're going to have with disease in the future. It will, for example, be a real bummer when global climate shift warms up North America and Europe, and those very unpleasant microbes find that they can survive at much more northerly climates.

This is in addition to the fascinating resistant diseases we're current breeding, as you point out. I think the writers on [i]House[/i] put it best: "This is our fault. Doctors over-prescribing antibiotics. Got a cold? Take some penicillin. Sniffles? No problem. Have some azithromycin. Is that not working anymore? Oh, got your Levaquin. Antibacterial soaps in every bathroom. We’ll be adding vancomycin to the water supply soon. We bred these superbugs. They’re our babies. And they’re all grown up and they’ve got body piercings and a lot of anger."

William Jones said...

John - Thanks! I wasn't really going for an analogy as much as a metaphor comparing the two. You're reading of War of the Worlds is certainly one of the several valid interpretations (I say several because someone will point out another if I don't :> ). And as time passes, new readers see other things in the work - take the recent film adaptation. It was about a different imperial power invading a low-tech population. :) (Including the new line: "Don't they know that occupations never succeed!" - by Tim Robbins). Either way, you make a good point. I was aiming for the "germs" being the "cool intellects" of Wells' novel, planning the overthrow of the "imperial" state. But I can't complete that as an analogy because that would mean the imperial state (humans) would win. And I wasn't going for either side winning.

My point also was to connect the novel's opening, the Martians watching us like microbes under a microscope - considering us "easy targets." We tend to do that with the microscopic world. "Not intelligent. No technologies. No means of strategic organization. What threat can microbes be?" In fact, I don't think most people would even consider there to be a "war" going on between the macro- and micro-cosoms. But it is a life and death struggle each day. But maybe not a conventional war as we think of it.

And you make several good points about the threat that we are possibly facing. (I did see that episode of HOUSE as well). It clearly was trying to make a point. I suppose we living in an economy that is partially based on drug sales (legal drugs that is), and to stop that would also cause problems. Factor in over-prescribing antibiotics, climate shifting, ease of travel around the world, and the stage might be set for a global disaster (although several horrific ones are occurring presently without micro-organisms).

Steve Buchheit said...

Well, conflict is an anthropomorphic projection on the microscopic organisms that are just co-evolving with us (at least those that affect us), that we are evolving resistance and they are evolving to overcome that resistance. With the poor use of anti-bacterial agents (soaps, cleaning solutions, and misuse of anti-biotics) we are imposing an artificial selection process on the diseases that affect us. Saying that we're in conflict is like saying lions and zebras are in conflict. One provides an evolution mechanism (predation) on the other. Zebras then evolve to be faster and have sharper hooves, which then causes the lions to evolve to be heavier (to withstand the hooves) and develop cooperative hunting strategies and hunt by stealth. It's not like the zebras are going to form the East Tanzania Crips organization to take back their neighborhood.

Also, it gets weirder. There is evidence that as beings with complex cells, that this complexity comes from multiple primitive cells living in symbiosis. Mitochondria (animals and plants) and chloroplasts (plants) are believed to have once been organisms of their own, which then developed a symbiotic relationship with the cells that engulfed them.

Or something like that. My wife has the PhD in biology (all errors and mistakes from listening to her are my own).