The Things That Eat Us
Humans are trading large monsters for microscopic ones
Humans have always lived in close quarters with two terrifying types of predation. The first is by large organisms from the outside in; the second by small organisms from the inside out. In our conquest of the physical planet, we are increasingly exchanging the former — the friendlier — for the latter — the absolutely devastating. This is an existentially dangerous development.
We probably evolved on savannah to be reflexively mortified of large, toothy creatures like lions. Cognition of a large cat shimmying its hips in the grass sparked a chemical chain reaction that landed in our feet. Culture has extended this psychic addlement to vilify a menagerie of colossal organisms that kill us when we invade their environs. Man-eating pythons, corpse-twisting crocodiles, even the hippopotami that are not meat eaters but annually perpetrate thousands of deadly human maulings. Our worst nightmares are of these critters chomping our appendages, roping out our innards.
The worst part is that we can’t ascribe human emotions to these monsters. They rend us and remain alien. Robert Shaw’s character Quint drunkenly imparts in the film Jaws, “You know the thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes.” There are no calculations, on the beast’s part, when you’re being eaten except to sate a hunger evolution has irreversibly programmed into it over millions of years. It lacks human emotions — greed, avarice. You can’t reason with it. You can fight back and hope it leaves you alone, but it’s likely stronger and more agile than you. Find yourself in its mandibles and grow comfortable with your fate.
Of course, such horrors are extremely rare. Such beasts hardly pose a threat. These days what amplifies them to an existential level beyond what has been programmed into us is media who run irresponsible chyrons, another evolutionary mechanism. So we are killing them off by hunting and destroying their habitat. But any extinctions caused by humans before agriculture — and there were a number — were naïve of ecological perspective. Those genocides were regrettable side-effects of our penchant to explore, nothing more.
That changed when Eve bit the apple — a metaphor for when we harnessed the power of the ox and plow — and we realized we were at war with wild things. If we were claiming habitat to conjure our domesticated crops and to feed our domesticated animals, there would be fewer resources for wild birds, fish, ungulates. And if there was less habitat for them, their populations would decline. And if their populations declined, the large predators that previously ate them would have to supplement their diets with the domesticates we raised. And if we started doing it on a global scale, which we did, we would have to rid the world of them.
The journalist David Quammen writes in his 1999 book Monster of God, in which he explores the relationship between humans and animals that eat us: “I have a small theory about all this. … My theory — really only a notion — is that the extermination of alpha predators is fundamental to the colonial enterprise, wherever that enterprise occurs. It’s a crucial part of the process whereby an invading people, with their alien forms of weaponry and organized power, their estrangement from both the homeland they’ve left and the place where they’ve fetched up, their detachment and ignorance and fear and … their sense of cultural superiority, seize hold of an already occupied landscape and presume to make it their own. … It’s one aspect of a campaign by which the interlopers, the stealers of landscape, try to make themselves comfortable, safe, and supreme in unfamiliar surroundings.”
Quammen’s book is a digest of some of the macabre ways modern humans have interacted with large predators. He examines Asiatic lions and tigers in Gir, India; saltwater crocodiles in Northern Australia; brown bears in Romania. Each species is a victim of royal exploitation for sport and, later, sportive abuse by capitalist bourgeoisie. The far left didn’t spare them either. Nicolae Ceausescu, the communist leader of Romania from 1967 to 1989 when he was violently deposed, had raucous fun killing off the country’s bear population, almost to extinction. He sometimes slaughtered dozens of bears a day and pickled newborn cubs for display in a national hunting museum. The crocs and the bears are perversely looked after nowadays — along with many other endangered species, including many here in Texas — in game preserves that sell tickets to blow the animals’ brains out so more can live. Because of this and the habitat destruction that comes with the human enterprise, large predators are dying off. Sharks, bears, lions, tigers — all are dwindling. Quammen expresses overt pessimism that they will last another century and a half.
This development — the global fall of apex predators — should inspire more existential fear in us than the specter of being lacerated and ingested or even having the same done to our cattle. The first reason we should fear this is that some ecosystems are collapsing in the absence of apex predators. An apex predator has the important job of controlling the populations of every species that exists in its range. Wolves control deer. Deer control undergrowth. Undergrowth provides habitat for birds. Birds control insects and rodents. Insects pollinate flowering plants, and rodents aerate soil and spread seeds. That’s why apex predators were for many years called “keystone species” (until sloppy naturalists ghoulishly press-ganged that phrase, applying it to every species in an ecosystem). Remove a crucial component, and nature’s Rube Goldberg machine changes. It falls apart. It rebuilds itself, but it takes forever. We rely on these ecosystems for natural resources. When we alter them, we also alter the abundance and health of those resources.
The second reason we should fear this instinct to conquer is thick with irony. Our conquest is rearing a more fearsome Grendel than any of those we have sought to destroy, that of zoonotic viruses. Zoonotic viruses are simply diseases that can jump from an animal to a human, and they comprise about 60 percent of all infectious disease. Ed Yong wrote in The Atlantic Wednesday the coronavirus jump to humans presents to people who are not epidemiologists as a freak event until they weigh all the information about it. “It seems unlikely that a random bat virus should somehow jump into a susceptible human,” Yong wrote. “But when you consider millions of people, in regular contact with millions of bats, which carry tens of thousands of new viruses, vanishingly improbable events become probable ones.”
Those words could have accurately been written in an essay about all viruses that exist in all animals that have frequent human contact. The problem is one of scale. The number of contacts we make with wildlife is directly correlated with our ubiquity in the physical world, which is then directly correlated with the scale at which we defeat it. Because nature’s subjugation encompasses ever more of the physical world, our contact with wildlife is becoming ever more likely and with it the transmission of zoonotic viruses.
“Spillover” is the term for when a virus first passes from an animal to a human. There are uncounted ways through which zoonotic viruses spill over into the human species. Domestic goats can pick them up by ingesting fruit discarded by vector bats and give them to us, as happens frequently in Bangladesh. We can get them directly from exotic animal markets, as may have happened with coronavirus (this has not been proven but is plausible). We can mistakenly smear a cut with guano, as is conceivable with the Marburg outbreak of 1980. We can be bitten by vector insects. We can be spat on by vector monkeys. We can get them from horses that interact under shade trees with vector bats, as happened with Hendra in Brisbane in the 1990s.
Once that happens and a zoonotic virus is inside a human, the game becomes precarious and panicky. Humans are nomadic creatures, and we have created an amazing web of connections in which it’s easy for any human to touch another human before a virus incubates. A potent side-effect of our global economic system, whose ideals of commerce and leisure require international travel, is the spread of infectious disease. Quammen, who is almost annoyingly intrepid, penned a book in 2012 titled Spillover — after the phenomenological term — in which he quotes virologist Stephen S. Morse on a stunning quality of viral disease: “Viruses have no locomotion, yet many of them have traveled around the world.” Quammen steps in as narrator: They can’t run, they can walk, they can’t swim, they can’t crawl. They ride.”
Societies have developed official responses to this, which fall into three generic categories: 1) Planning and preparedness, in which governments mobilize the implementers of pandemic response plans, surveille human and animal vectors, stockpile epidemic response supplies, and prepare health infrastructure for a wild ride; 2) Emergency and preemptive response, in which social distancing is imposed and alerts for deployment of response plans are disseminated; 3) Minimizing impact, in which gatherings are illegalized, schools and public places are closed, and victims are treated. If a government is competent and blessed with luck, the second two phases may not be necessary. Many governments — particularly developed ones — in the current pandemic were neither lucky nor competent, illustrating that the only sure way to prevent some such things from happening in the future is to stop delving so deeply into the natural world.
A deadly zoonotic virus stalks the earth. But, like its brethren, it’s not doing it out of some alien malevolence; it’s doing it out of the same influence that inspired humans to take over the earth. That is the intrinsic instinct to propagate the species. Some species are very good at this. It’s arguable that humans are the best animal at doing this that has ever existed. We are unrivaled, even arguably by microorganisms in our effect on the planet. We are changing its temperature, its chemical makeup, the selfsame things that make it identifiable as earth. No wonder we have the power to spur the quick evolution of a virus capable of shutting down the entire human enterprise. A worse one might fully kill us all off.
The dread this event has inspired in the socially evolved animal Homo sapiens — vice the individual nomad in contest with a giant sabertoothed marsupial — feels outsize, but when seen through a long lens is inadequate. On a social level, we are not as afraid of disease as we should be. There are palpable metrics of this fact.
During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, “half of Americans refused the vaccine,” Joshua Epstein, who runs the Agent-Based Modeling Lab at New York University, told On The Media this week. “We have tremendous levels of vaccine refusal worldwide and in the United States,” Epstein told host Brooke Gladstone. “The WHO last year declared vaccine refusal to be one of the top-10 threats to global health.”
Public bodies, too, are not frightened enough. In governments, in corporations, in churches, in all the largest and most visible representations of modern society, we worry most about the disease altering our way of life and the structures that govern us.
This is not to discount or downplay the millions of people in demographics that do feel existential dread in this pandemic. Soldiers. Delivery drivers. Grocery store workers. Harvesters. Butchers. The working homeless. The jobless homeless. People who those larger structures have deemed essential but have historically devalued and who we currently choose not to protect with PPE, provide with adequate health care, treat with kindness in public places. They feel existential dread.
But this existential dread has not trickled up to institutions that continue to slaughter large predators that can gobble individual humans — but would rather avoid us. These are governments whose lands contain large stores of natural resources and international corporations that want to strike deals to exploit those resources. In fact, the global spread of an infectious disease is one of dozens of proliferating existential threats that face humanity.
An unhelpful meme has been going around that “humans are the virus.” But whereas viruses seize opportunity on the fly when presented with a juicy host, or bears attack humans out of desperation, human conquest of the natural world is an intentional thing. We do not do this on accident. Our perverted intention in doing this is not to recognize how close we are to nature but to separate ourselves from it.
If you’re a misanthrope, you might find some delicious irony in that the very mechanism we used to kill off things with large fangs is the same mechanism unleashing viruses. But I only sense tragedy.
But there is a silver lining, Quammen notes in Spillover, which is a lesson: “These zoonoses, for all their bad effects, they serve one valuable purpose: They remind us of the connectedness between humans and other species.