This archived article was written by: Joshua H. Behn
When the H1N1 Swine Flu outbreak occurred last year, it sent a panic throughout communities. The government was concerned that this might be “the one,” an influenza outbreak that would jump the threshold, and mobilized quickly to develop a vaccine. Within a few months they succeeded and the first shipments were being shipped across the country.
As it turned out, H1N1 was a relatively mild epidemic, leaving health officials breathing a huge sigh of relief. Given the history of the last great Influenza Pandemic, they had good cause to worry.
In 1917 the Spanish Influenza killed around 50 million people worldwide (this coming on the heels of a world already traumatized by a horrific war waged through mechanization and chemical means), zoning in on young and healthy adults.
While incredibly relieved, health officials began to notice a disturbing trend that the American public was not fully participating in obtaining any of the two types of vaccines available. A surprising number of Americans were expressing concerns with how quickly the vaccine had been developed and appeared mistrustful of the chemical makeup.
This may have in part been fueled by numerous chain e-mails that had been circulating citing (among other things) the inclusion of mercury (the heavy metal, not the amorous God). The end result remained the same: a predominantly unvaccinated public and stockpiles of vaccine.
Not that I buy into the mercury toxicity theory … the Mad Hatter aside, the heavy metal isn’t exactly an uncommon component in medicine and measuring devices (dentists used it frequently in fillings) and in trace quantities seems to be relatively harmless.
That being said, while I admire the medical prowess that we yield, I have a hearty respect for the automatic mechanisms of natural selection and the ability for small pockets of a population to survive against all odds.
In 1859, Charles Darwin shocked the scientific (and may I add religious) world with the publishing of his theories of evolution. I won’t bore you with details, but of particular interest (let’s just forget the Simian macro-evolution connection for a moment and focus on micro-evolution) was the idea that traits which had an advantage in nature would perpetuate to the benefit of an individuals’ offspring.
The converse was also true, that undesirable traits would eventually be permanently removed from an organism. This could express itself as simply as the gradual loss of a limb or as catastrophically as the extinction of a species.
As humans, we’ve advanced so far that it could probably proudly be boasted that for the first time in the history of biology, an organism has advanced so high that evolution no longer applies. The truth couldn’t be more apparent, in particular in medicine.
Yes, we have been able to subvert nature in the fighting of diseases that would normally have wiped us out, but nature is still a wiley foe with a vast arsenal at her disposal. In using our mind to find cures, we are submitting to an evolutionary advantage that continues to benefit us above all other species; our intellect.
Deep down within our DNA, there are genetic mutations rising every day that may or may not be beneficial some time down the road. We are discovering more and more just how far reaching mutations have in protecting our offspring from future disease.
When the Bubonic Plague wiped out an estimated 1/3 of the population of Europe in the Middle Ages, some of the survivors who fought off the disease were protected by an odd gene known as CCR5-Delta 32. Today, those who have inherited the Delta 32 gene still are afforded protection … not from the Black Death, but from Human Immune-deficiency Virus (HIV).
Those who have natural abilities to fight off disease are often healthier and more resistant to other forms of illness. Case-in-point was the Native American populations who were decimated by the introduction of European diseases. Those who were able to develop resistance survived. Those who didn’t were eliminated.
We live in an amazing world, one in which we now can control our advancement and have a choice in our fate. No longer are we at the whim of nature or her cohorts. Evolution is still occurring in our lives … but no longer at the great cost to humanity.
Our attempts at vaccination are rudimentary and one generational at best, but so important to the survival of billions on this planet. The day we are able to create inoculations that will offer extended protection and are built into our own genes so that the protections are passed onto our offspring, is the day where genetic manipulation will finally rival nature.
The only question that will remain and will finally be put to the test: is it necessary for negative traits to be removed from a population through natural selection or can they truly remain and kept in balance? Or will our genetic code become so watered down with the old that we will no longer have substance?
We may play King of the Mountain as much as we like, but need to remember the precipice upon which we stand is very high.
It’s a long drop down.