Flavin’s Corner
7-27-01

Pests

Ring around the rosies
pocketful of posies
atishoo
atishoo
we all fall down
Children's ryhme; England, c.1500.

Some take a perverse delight in making trouble for others, others annoy unknowingly, and then there are pests that seem designed to be a nuisance.  Pests may be human, vermin, or microbial.  Children, anti-globalization protesters, and many Republicans are bothersome, but seldom deadly.  Vermin, whether with two, four, or more than four legs, can inflict injury and often cause us to question our tolerance and how we interact with other life-forms.  Microbial pests (from the Latin pestis, a pestilence or plague) can and do kill us.  It’s a state of war few discuss.

In the wake of the plague: The Black Death and the World it made, by Norman F. Cantor (New York: The Free Press, 2001) is a shrewd overview of our current understanding of the Black Death and how it affected history.  A back-cover quote by the novelist Anne Rice (Interview With a Vampire, Lestat, etc.) reads: “In Norman Cantor, I have found the perfect historian.  His books are wondrously rich, yet immensely readable.  He sounds the depths of medieval history for truths that are always relevant to our times.”  Cantor’s publishers correctly assume fans of fantastic fiction would be interested in the horrors spawned by the Black Death.  That the deaths were real makes it all the more chilling.

It’s always been us versus them.  Microbes were the first forms of life on Earth and may very well be the last.  Estimates that “Fully 10 percent of our own dry body weight consists of bacteria, some of which, although they are not a congenital part of our bodies, we can't live without" changes the importance of what movie to see this weekend and reminds us just how vulnerable we really are.  It’s not a war we can win.  At best, we continue to fight.  At worst, we lose. [Note: the above quote is from Garden of Microbial Delights: A Practical Guide to the Subvisible World, by Dorion Sagan and Lynn Margulis (Dubuque, IO: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1995), and taken from Stephen J. Gould’s article, “Planet of the Bacteria,” available online here.]

Prof. Cantor (emeritus, New York University) argues the Black Death of 1348-1349 was most likely a combination of bubonic plague and a cattle disease, such as anthrax.  Such theorizing is necessary as both are still with us and remain a threat.  Though bubonic plague can be successfully treated in its early stages, I’m troubled at a recent report of an infected chipmunk near Lake Tahoe and the casual recommendations of health officials.  It’s the plague, damn it!  And anthrax?  That terrorists and some governments seem ready to use the disease as a weapon is a science fiction fantasy I hope never comes true.

In the wake of the plague deals with the human casualties of people of prominence, such as the young Princess Joan of England and the immediate impact of her passing, as well as the inhuman murders of innocent Jews who were regarded by many as responsible for the plague.  Cantor comes close, though doesn’t actually attribute the subsequent European Renaissance to the Black Death, but he does describe many historical realities (labor shortage, the emergence of the ‘yeoman’ class, and Jews moving eastward into Poland, as examples) which arose from the tragedy.  One result of the Black Death, if indeed factual, which I find particularly interesting: the plague may have imparted a natural immunity to HIV/AIDS in up to 15% of the Caucasian population.

Yes, it’s surreal.  Recent genetic studies suggest a mutant gene emerged some 700 years ago (around the time of the Black Death) which today prevents the HIV virus from replicating in some people, notably Caucasians.  Did exposure to Yersina pestis (bubonic plague) or Bacillus anthracis (anthrax murrain), both bacteria, somehow impart immunity to AIDS in a particular population?  Some scientists believe so.  Maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising, as humans gain natural immunity to certain diseases all the time, while other diseases mutate and gain immunity to our antibiotic efforts to wipe them out.  If true, this could be a blessing to the 15% of Caucasians whose ancestors survived the Black Death, and could ultimately lead to a cure or a vaccine against HIV/AIDS.  If untrue, we’re going to see some serious embarrassment among some major scientists!  Either way, I’d still recommend sheathing a willy with a rubber to be on the safe side. 

Plague and disease have shaped our history many times and will likely do so again.  Some patterns of dispersal are understood (smallpox brought by the Spanish to infect Native Americans), others are hypothetical (migratory birds distributing influenza), and a few are just plain silly (Hoyle’s scenario of intergalactic diseases dropping from the sky).  Prof. Cantor, in his In the wake of the plague, attempts to describe the impact of the Black Death on Europe without compartmentalizing into categories of good and bad, and I believe he succeeds.  He’s written an intelligent, insightful, and impartial account of an important period in European history with In the wake of the plague.  Just what one would expect from a good historian. 

Prof. Cantor and many other professionals associated with the scientific community posit an East African origin for humankind.  Contrary to conspiracy theorists who view AIDS as an artificial disease created recently, he and others believe the AIDS virus also originated in East Africa, perhaps being transmitted during the 1930s from the human consumption of infected monkey meat, and like bubonic plague and anthrax, emerged out of Africa to torment the rest of the world.  Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers have been all the rage of late and most are believed to have an East African origin.  What other pests await to trouble us, only time will tell.  Actually, we’ll be lucky if we survive the ones we already know about.

Getting out the fly-swatter,
Rick

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