The Fittest Species: Who is Winning the War for Survival
Most of the world's genetic diversity lies in viruses. The longest living
beings are bacteria. No wonder that these microscopic organisms kill more
humans than any other animal. (Technicalities: viruses are not
life forms, since they cannot replicate without a host cell; bacteria
are living organisms, perfectly able to replicate on their own, but they
are limited to one cell).
Viruses are particularly dangerous because they don't seem to serve any
useful purpose for us (unless you count "selecting the fittest humans" as a
It is estimated that there are 10 to the 31st power viruses on this planet,
compared with 10 to the 10th human beings. We are outnumbered big time.
If you have trouble killing all the dozen flies that fly into your living room
when you leave the patio door open, imagine trying to kill your quota of
10 to the 21st viruses.
It is foolish to think that we could kill all viruses.
There could only be two winning strategies: 1. quarantine humans from the natural
world (e.g. confining cities inside artificial domes),
2. engineer such a strong immune system that the human body will resist
virus attacks of any kind.
Ironically, human society has been moving in the opposite direction. On the one
hand we are traveling more than ever, and thereby coming into contact
more viruses than ever before.
On the other hand, by keeping alive millions of children
who would have died of all sorts of diseases and by "protecting" people with
all sorts of vaccinations, we are creating an immune system that is now
vulnerable to anything, from the dirt in your backyard to the water
of mountain creeks.
In other words, we have the worst of both worlds: the human body is getting
weaker, and it is getting easier to spread diseases.
Bacteria are far less dangerous than viruses. In fact, most bacteria are
useful to us (the "commensal bacteria").
Our body contains many more bacteria cells than human cells,
and we need them: they carry out vital functions such as helping us digest
food and even... fighting viruses.
Unfortunately, we tend to kill them by the millions
when we use (and abuse) antibiotics.
"Antibiotic" basically means "anti-life": it kills life. An antibiotic
does not discriminate between friend and foe: it kills all bacteria in your
body. In the old days you would replenish your body simply by breathing them
in the air and by drinking natural water (no, the water that is labeled
"natural" at the supermarket is not "natural" at all). These days we so
kill bacteria in the air and in the water that there is virtually no way to
replenish them in our body after having exterminated them with antibiotics.
(See also Revising the Myth of Longevity ).
Whatever term you want to use for the beneficial work of bacteria, it's
being weakened generation after generation.
Meanwhile, the process of vaccinating people from childhood to old age is
certainly saving a lot of lives but it is also making everybody's immune
system much weaker. The immune system works like a muscle: the more you use it,
the stronger it gets. Vaccinations that prevent the spread of a disease have
a downside: de facto they prevent your immune system from "exercising". This
lack of exercise makes your immune system more vulnerable to the particular
kind of disease that the vaccination treats, and that, in turn,
means that vaccinating further becomes even more vital.
This situation is an infinite loop:
the less prepared your immune system is, the more you need to vaccinate, the
less prepared your immune system will be.
Ultimately, our strategy can be summed up as: we are smarter than them and
we will find ways (medicines) to defeat them. This is a strategy that works
with animals that are similar to us, whose lives are controlled by brains:
smarter ways to tame them, domesticate them, repel them, contain them, and
sometimes kill them and eat them. When the battle is
between brains, human brains win.
However, the longest living beings on the planet have no brain: bacteria and
trees. That in itself could be an important clue. Framing the problem as
a battle between human intelligence versus virus/bacteria intelligence might
be completely misguided: they don't have any. This fight is not about who is
smarter, just like a lion can be misguided if it thinks that the fight with
the villagers that chased it away is about physical strength.
Your brain does not help you live a long life: it was designed to help you
seduce a mate, feed your offspring, and then quietly fade away.
For reasons that are obscure to us,
brain-less beings have been designed to live a long life.
Our brains, designed for short lifespans, are fighting an uphill battle against
organisms designed for a long lifespan.
Our strategy to defeat viruses and bacteria by devising ever smarter medicines
might be as misguided as the strategy of a group of lions trying
to fight humans on the basis of physical strength.
(Proof-edited by Alexander Altaras)