2007-01-18

A Warning

Recently, Winnipeg scientists have resurrected the H1N1 influenza virus of 1918 which killed 50 million people with a death rate of 2%. The procedure by which the virus was resurrected was impressive and hopefully will lead to a defence against H5N1 or other future influenzas. Nothing against the Winnipeg scientists nor their research, but it is reminiscent of a very dangerous scenario which must be addressed:

In the brilliant Terry Gilliam film '12 Monkeys' (torrent), a lab scientist working silently develops a virus to wipe out 95% of mankind while making the surface of the Earth uninhabitable. There is a sizable population of humanity who in light of the continued and seemingly inevitable destruction of Earth's biodiversity caused by one single species, would support a mechanism to eliminate that species and the threat by whatever means necessary. The only practical means of carrying this out would be the development of an airborne, highly infectious and deadly virus with a long incubation period. While your average misanthrope is not determined enough to wipe out mankind, a motivated biologist who not so abnormally values non-human life on the same scale as human life could very easily rationalise and carry out the decision to develop the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. I have met several people who in principle are not opposed to such an idea leading me to completely reconsider the likelihood of this event.

Biological science should not be stopped for fear of this scenario. While oversight should be strengthened especially where virus work is concerned, security and oversight in the field should not interfere with scientific progress.

Life on this planet will go on with or without humanity. Humanity surely has many thousands more species to eliminate forever, but the real question is whether humanity itself will survive. Ultimately, humanity's probability of survival is directly proportional to its degree of conservation and stewardship of other life on the planet. Given our current direction, I am betting on 12 Monkeys, this time without the time travel.

2 comments:

Mark said...

I do agree with the spirit of your posting. I agree that such scares need sensible preventions. I likewise have met a number of people who also have similar inclinations to wiping out the human species for the good of the biosphere. I had two extra observations on that subject.

First, while humanity has wreaked untold change and loss of biodiversity on this planet since it first managed language and the ability to manipulate complex tools and fire, the simple fact of the matter is that even a mere dip in the economic and social development of mankind would cause extinctions to merely accelerate. A complete extinction of humanity would damn hundreds if not thousands of species to extinction, as their existence is now completely restricted to a human-maintained menagerie. Some examples that stand out are Giant Pandas, Scimitar-horned Oryxes and Asian Lions...just go to the National Zoo in DC to see more. If human society collapsed, then these animals (and plants) would be too far from their native habitats and in too few numbers to survive. Their existence is now linked to ours.

As for killing off humanity with a single pathogen, it is a possibility, but as I see it an extremely remote one. The simple fact of microbiology and epidemiology is that a pathogen's virulence is inversely related to the intensity of infection: quite simply, pathogens that spread easily, like the common cold, do not kill easily. Yes, this could be manipulated by biologists, but I wonder just how easy it would be for a pathogen, even a windborne one, to reach 100% of humanity. Once again, the closer you get to killing off that last person, the cost of making sure every last person is killed exponentially increases. And, as Agent Smith says in The Matrix, humanity itself is like a virus....and probably like the 1918 even it can be resurrected...

Pace said...

You make a good point. Completely killing off humanity would take a cosmic extinction level event. Killing 99% would have a significant impact towards environmental restoration, but humanity would eventually rebound and potentially do the same as before if they had not learned their lesson. I hope that the resiliency of humanity will stick in the minds of any would be mass murderers.