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Virus and Science

Illustration by Henrique Alvim Corrêa, from the 1906 Belgium (French language) edition of H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds", 1906. A scan from the book.

Like many, my life has been disrupted by this virus. Honestly, I don’t want to even acknowledge this virus. The only virtue of the Coronavirus is that should be widely apparent that we, humanity, are all in the same boat and that boat is fragile.

In the The World of the Worlds, written in 1872, HG Wells wrote about a technologically advanced species invading the earth and destroying its native inhabitants. No forces the earthlings could muster could stop the aliens and their machines. In the final hour, when all hope for the Earth was lost, the “Martians—dead!—slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.”

I just want to note that in the world of today we are the Martians. We are technologically advanced, bent on remaking the world, and yet somehow unprepared for the task.

I believe we are unprepared because our political, business, and cultural systems have not kept up with the advances of technical change. I do not believe we should go back to living like hunter-gatherers or the Amish (even the Amish get vaccinated these days). I do believe we should take a breath and catch up with our creations.

The Coronavirus was not created by technology (in spite of the conspiracy theories). Mother Nature is just doing what she always does, evolving her children and looking for opportunities for genetic code to succeed. This is evolution in action and we see it with antibiotic resistant bacteria and the rise of insulin resistance in modern humans. One is caused by how quickly microorganism evolve and the other is caused by how slowly macro-organisms evolve.

We have the science and technology to handle pandemics as well as antibiotic resistance and all the rest, but we have to listen to scientists and doctors. I know that sometimes, science and medicine seems to go against common sense, contradict long and deeply held personal beliefs, and has a habit of changing as new data comes in. This makes science and medicine vulnerable to ridicule, misuse, and misunderstanding.

If we start listening to scientists and doctors, instead of second guessing and villainizing them, species-level problems like pandemics, antibiotic resistance, and global warming will not go away, but we will be able to flatten their curves. If we don’t stop acting like science is just one of many sources of truth, even through we are mighty Martians, we will be felled under the weight of our own ignorance.

In The Age of Louis XIV Will and Ariel Durant wrote about the rise of science from 1648 to 1715, “Slowly the mood of Europe, for better or worse, was changing from supernaturalism to secularism, from the hopes of heaven and fears of hell to plans for the enlargement of knowledge and the improvement of human life.”

Are we stuck in the 17th century or can we move on and accept that we’re living in the 21st?