If you look at the past 200 years, there are two kinds of animals that have done well from a Darwinian perspective. On the one hand there are those classified as humans, on the other hand there are those that are born and raised for the purpose of keeping human beings fed. Almost every other animal that walks this Earth is being pushed into extinction.
There are individual humans who push back against this trend, who go out of their way to defend the gorillas in the Congo cloudforests, or who try save the hedgehogs in the Netherlands from dying of hunger or thirst. The general attitude of our species however, is perfectly illustrated in the following tweet:
You believe yourselves to have some sort of unique special value, from the moment your eggs are fertilized by your semen. And all the other lifeforms that inhabit this planet exist for your enjoyment, or else they are a nuisance.
And you tend to behave as such. Take a look at Nigeria’s population chart, to see an example:
Humans alive today, are increasingly descended from those humans who had no desire to co-exist with the natural world. There are African tribes where women are discouraged from eating meat, to keep their body fat percentage low enough to avoid them becoming pregnant. But once humans are granted the tools that enable some of us to have eight or more children, our species gradually becomes composed of those who have no desire to co-exist with non-human species, this planet becomes inhabited by those who imagine themselves to be special, who imagine the world is lacking in people like them and their genes.
But no such thing is true. As the human population expands, it loses those specimens of our species with redeeming value. In Western nations we had many young women in the 20’s and 30’s who refused to marry. They knew they would have to be subservient to a dumb mediocre man and they would rather have time for their girlfriends. The people to be admired are not those who tend to have large families. Every Christian should agree. Your ideal figure of motherhood had just one child, your ideal figure of a man remained childless.
From the dark depths of Africa, the planet is disturbed time and time again, as new r-selected iterations of bipedal hominids leave the continent, exterminate the bipedal hominids they encounter elsewhere, kill off the megafauna and further decimate the natural world.
There was once a golden age, when our planet was covered in megafauna. Armadillo-like animals the size of small cars, mammoths, lemurs the size of gorillas, giant ground sloths that dug enormous tunnels you could ride your bicycle through, cave lions, the giant animals that once thrived are too numerous to mention.
Today almost all the large animals that survive live in Africa, for a reason: This is where primates first began to walk upright and use tools, before spreading out of Africa. Here nature had a very long time, to develop an arsenal with which to keep our species under control. Its favored weapon became malaria. Half of all humans who have ever lived, have died of malaria. With humans in sub-Saharan Africa kept in check, the megafauna could survive our hunger.
Unfortunately is it human nature, that guided by empathy we attempt to remove the forces that keep our population numbers in check. African tribes that had their population stabilized by STD’s were given antibiotics by missionaries and Western doctors. The women were cured of their STD’s, allowing fertility rates to climb above replacement level.
The humble malaria mosquito is pursued with DDT and other pesticides, until a death from malaria becomes a rarity. It was thought that rather than using natural mechanisms to keep the sub-Saharan African population in check, the same method could be used as in other parts of the world: Birth control. And yet, in the 21st century, a frightening pattern become apparent: Fertility rates do not go down voluntarily.
Population projections had to be revised upwards. The United Nations Procurement Division projected in 1998 that sub-Saharan Africa would have 1.52 billion people by 2050. In 2008 this was revised upwards, to 1.75 billion, then in 2019 it was revised upwards again, to 2.12 billion by 2050. As a consequence it became apparent the world’s population would not stabilize this century either. Unless something massively increases deaths, the population will continue to grow beyond 2100.
As our understanding of the world has grown, we’ve developed the tools that would allow us to co-exist with the natural world. We don’t need to eat cattle. We can eat seaweed, insects, shellfish, mushrooms and other forms of food that don’t place vast demands on nature. And yet, you can look around you and see that these tools are not being used. People actively revolt against the suggestion that the demands they place on nature should be reduced. The Dutch airport Schiphol this summer has record travelers once again, people show little desire to do anything other than to consume the last few bits of meat left on the corpse of the natural world.
And so we have to ask ourselves, considering there is no desire to make a global transition and considering that those people who don’t reproduce will simply be replaced by those who have no interest in sparing the natural world, how are we going to solve the crisis? How will we enable the non-human species to recover, before they are forever lost?
I believe in a chain reaction of pathogens. The main factor that has enabled our population to grow so much, has been the improvement in nutrition. People suffering malnutrition are both more prone to getting infected by a pathogen and to spreading it. As the quality of our diet improved throughout the 20th century and sanitation prohibited the spread of pathogens, infectious disease disappeared.
There are many illnesses still waiting in the starting gates to infect us, but they’re just below the tipping point, where they can infect more than one new person per person they infect. For monkeypox, the R0 was estimated at 0.83 in rural Congo. For dense Western cities, you can expect a higher R0. Every infection would cause 0.83 additional infections on average, which means that epidemics slowly burn themselves out. For the big Ebola outbreak in West Africa, it was estimated at 1.73. High enough to require intervention, but still manageable.
But now imagine for a moment, that a virus spreads around the world unimpeded, that impairs our immune system in some form, even if only temporarily. This is not unusual, many viruses do this. Influenza causes apoptosis in T-cells, everyone knows that HIV depletes the immune system, even measles causes temporary immunosuppression that sets you up for secondary viral and bacterial infections.
Imagine for a moment that SARS-COV-2 is such a virus too. I’m not going to try to convince you of this, you’re either willing to entertain the possibility or not. But imagine SARS-COV-2 does such a thing, it nibbles at the protective outer layer of our immune system, like mold at a peach. If you have a significant share of the population experiencing some degree of immunosuppression, what happens?
Well, perhaps until recently, we were dealing with an R0 for monkeypox of 0.95 in the Western world. The whole Western population experiences a big hit to our T-cell population from SARS-COV-2. The body recovers, as it does from so many insults, but it takes just a few months longer to recover from an infection, than it currently does for this virus to reinfect you with a different variant.
And so at a population-wide level, what begins to happen is that small holes begin to emerge in our protective shield against other pathogens. And for some germs this is not relevant, but for others, it turns out to be quite relevant. Monkeypox found itself at an R0 of 0.95. A big Delta wave and it found itself at 0.98. A Big BA.1 wave and it found itself at 1.01. Then came BA.2 and it reached 1.05. And so it has been silently spreading, but as time went by it continually found itself in new hosts, who took slightly longer to fight it off than the previous host and thus gave it more opportunities to infect other people, as successive SARS-COV-2 infections had bitten chunks out of their immune systems.
And so now it can spread. It’s not a very dangerous virus, it hasn’t caused any deaths so far. But what does it do? It suppresses the function of our Natural Killer Cells, which are also vital for dealing with SARS-COV-2 infections. And so after hundreds of millions of people have gotten monkeypox, another chunk has been bitten off our immune function, allowing a new SARS-COV-2 variant an opportunity to spread through our population.
Like plants helping each other to colonize a new island born from a volcanic eruption, the pathogens take turns, biting chunks off our immune function, to enable other iterations to join the party. SARS-COV-2 gave the first kick to the door, monkeypox the second, SARS-COV-2 then gave another kick and Influenza gave its best shot too. Droves of people now began to develop active herpes flare-ups from their compromised immune function.
And then Ebola bashed through the door. Ebola temporarily found itself endowed with an R0 high enough to prohibit our overburdened hospitals from nipping it in the bud. People were covered with sensitive sores on their genitals and mouths, from reactivated herpes and monkeypox scabs. And Ebola, which is now known to be capable of spreading through sexual contact too, found itself faced with an opportunity to spread from person to person.
The whole collective human immunological defense shield against pathogens had been tipped beyond the point where it can repair itself rapidly enough to protect itself against a next wave of attackers. It took four months to recover full immune function after a SARS-COV-2 infection, but the average person took three months to be reinfected. It was a very gentle nudge, but it was enough to tip the whole system over into self-amplifying instability.
As Western nations had their own hands full, droves of people in African nations lost access to retroviral drugs and the overall chaos meant that many people went hungry, causing a further decline in immune function. The terraformed bodies of those who had survived the previous waves of disease were now hit by a new contender: Hantavirus.
The story tells itself. It’s equivalent to the problem faced by the Roman empire. Once you’ve lost against one horde of barbarians, you’re more vulnerable to another horde of barbarians. Like a company with 1% profit margins, or a wolf that has to expend 101 calories chasing deer for 102 calories worth of food, we may be vulnerable to the pathogens that surround us.
If you don’t like the COVID angle, replace SARS-COV-2 with your own villain. The vaccines against SARS-COV-2 are without a doubt also an assault on our immune systems. Your T-cells are forced to migrate to the injection site, we know that those who are vaccinated have increased susceptibility to the virus during the first few weeks. We normally don’t inject hundreds of millions of adult human beings with junk like this three times a year. Has anyone considered what it might do at a population level?
If you don’t like fearing SARS-COV-2, nor like fearing SARS-COV-2 vaccines, you can call your villain “lockdowns”. The lockdowns temporarily prevented viruses from spreading, then once we ceased social distancing, those viruses got to play catchup and infected a bunch of people. If they suddenly all get to infect a whole bunch of people simultaneously, that means they get a chance to temporarily reduce our overall immunocompetence too. And such a thing may then prove sufficient to tip monkeypox from an R0 below 1, to one above 1.
Unprecedented experiments, can lead to unprecedented outcomes. There is one thing I know is strange: It’s strange that we’re seeing monkeypox now all of a sudden. We don’t have a good explanation. I don’t consider “Bill Gates is upto his usual antics again” an elegant explanation.
From the perspective of herd immunity against the entire pool of pathogens that surround us, in a world that is suffering under the collective weight from our species, a lot of strange things have happened in the past two years: A new virus from Wuhan, a vaccination campaign with new technology in adults of all ages, a temporary suppression of almost all respiratory viruses, followed by their rapid return once the social distancing experiment ended.
It’s entirely plausible for any of these events to have had some sort of subtle influence on the performance of our immune systems, thereby tipping an obscure African virus over to the point where it can spread without burning itself out.
There is also the underlying fragility that should not be ignored: A population that has grown gradually older and more obese, unprecedented population densities and unprecedented globalization, whereby people can fly from one country to another within hours. We live in times that are unprecedented, it would be foolish to turn a blind eye to the abundance of existential threats that surround us.