Sunday, March 05, 2006

Divine Epidemiology

Sweden has just discovered its first documented case of mad cow disease. The cow in question was 13 years old and had probably caught the prion long ago. Not much to worry about.

But it reminds me of some of the reactions back when BSE was headline news all over Europe. People would say, "No wonder this is happening, this is what you get when you Go Against Nature. Forcing cattle to become cannibal carnivores! We had it coming."

This is a deeply superstitious, or should I say, religious idea. It assumes that there is meaning and direction in the world. In fact, almost nothing in the world happens by design. Only intelligent beings plan anything, and even their plans rarely come out exactly right.

The fact is that cows happily eat the unsavoury meat-and-bone meal and grow well on it. The presence of the BSE prion in the stuff wasn't divine retribution (from Jehovah or Mother Earth or what-have-you), it was simply bad luck.

Which brings us, of course, to the subject of HIV/AIDS. Homophobes have been frothing about the mouth and yelling "Divine Retribution!" ever since the first gay men started dying of AIDS. Even sympathetic commentators have gone this way. Take for instance, Nicholas Shakespeare, author of a fascinating 1999 biography of Bruce Chatwin. Here's the opening quotation of the chapter on Chatwin's participation in New York's hardcore gay scene in the late 1970s. I found this passage really jarring in an otherwise highly recommended book.
"The Greeks have the idea that there were limits to the range of human behaviour and, if anyone had the hubris to go beyond those limits, he was struck down by fate. Well, one would agree."

Bruce Chatwin to Michael Ignatieff
No, Mr Shakespeare. Whatever Chatwin may have believed, the fact that AIDS killed off a lot of promiscuous gay men was not a fated comment on their behaviour from a disgruntled deity. It was simply bad luck. If the virus hadn't appeared, they would still be banging away happily at each other in ways you and I might not find to our tastes.

The AIDS epidemic is in fact just a demonstration of how a virus blindly exploits available vectors. HIV was lucky enough to find a group of animals that exchange white blood cells with each other to an uncommon extent: promiscuous gay men, haemophiliacs and intravenous drug addicts. And as we all know, hetero intercourse and childbirth also work as vectors. Look at Africa. The story of BSE is much the same, only there it's a prion, not a virus.

I wonder what moral lesson may be drawn from bird flu. Perhaps, "Thou Shalt Not Keep Ducks". It is Against Nature!

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Blogger Arkeologen said...

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05 March, 2006 16:28  
Blogger Arkeologen said...

Dessutom så har jag läst din artikel i PopArk, mycket intressant läsning :D

07 March, 2006 08:00  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hej Martin
Det här är Isapisa, Morellis syster som snokar runt lite överallt (fråga Mathimlen). Jättekul igår att läsa Popark om din artikel från Östergötland. Lyckliga dig som får jobba med sådant. Du vet jag bröt benet så jag kom av mig helt men nu i vår ska jag bege mig på expeditioner runt i Täby, det finns ju bl.a. en fornborg nära mina föräldrar som ej är utgrävd, det upptäckte jag aldrig som liten. Oj vad jag längtar till våren. Vi hörs, jag har lite marigt med din utmärkta engelska men det är bra träning för mig och länkarna du har kan verkligen vara av intresse. Hejsvejs från isa

07 March, 2006 17:54  
Blogger Stephen said...

Predestiny was doomed from the start.

The idea that HIV is God's punishment for misbehavior will change when HIV finds a new vector for spreading. There was that scare that HIV could spread by mosquitoes. Fortunately, it hasn't happened. With any luck, we'll have really good counter attacks for HIV by the time something like it does. Maybe the new vector will be handshakes.

On the other hand, irrational people do not change their minds when new facts emerge.

16 March, 2006 22:28  
Blogger Impatient Patient said...

I have a question- Is it really okay that cows eat cows? You seem to make light of this when you say that they happily eat what is before them and grow well. Unfortunately, I do not think that this is a good thing, nor do I subscribe to the divine retribution camp. I look at it as faulty economics catching up to us, and I think it is wrong that we feed herbivores meat- especially "self" meat.

Maybe I am misguided, but I am not sure about that. If an animal is made to digest plants- with four stomachs and all and cud chewing to boot- how does it follow that changing an animals diet to suit our need for "fast food" is a good thing?

Loved the questions your post raised for me.

17 March, 2006 01:51  
Blogger Martin said...

I.P.! You and I could thrive on a diet of ground-down human bone and cartilage, but I'd really rather not, for aesthetic reasons. Cows, however, have no concept of aesthetics. If they eat it and grow, then it's good. Just be nice to them while feeding them the stuff.

Faulty economics? I think it's great economics to find a use for all those cattle bones. Ugly but effective. The cows aren't complaining.

In my view, nothing in nature is made for a purpose. Evolution is largely driven by species finding unexpected new uses for old adaptations. Our ear bones were once gills. Cows can eat bone meal. Cows can't fly and we can't hear ultrasound, though, but that has nothing to do with any purpose.

17 March, 2006 08:54  

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