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Thursday, May 14, 2020


Meditations on man and microbe
The closing lines of The  Plague by Albert Camus s   the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city,  just about sum up the attitude  of a medicalised society which  treats all of  germs , pathogens , microbe , lonely, lost strands of RNA  are  its sworn  enemies. During the last couple of days, I have come across articles in respectable journals ,  wherein the Covid 19 crisis  is being termed as a man vs microbe thing.  I too did it in  a post in order to spite the scientific hubris of man.

Humans as we are, we cant but think in human ways. The us vs them binary is the commonest way of explaining our predicament, our need for enemy is  explainable in
terms of the essentialist definition of  human - from Aristotle to Aquinas ,  from Hegel to Husserl-  in opposition to the animal, where man is in possession of logos, spirit, subjectivity, etc. while the latter has none.
In his  The New Ecological Order, Luce Ferry(I hasten to add  ‘deep ecology’ is not my cup of tea) mentions a very interesting fact that  pre scientific man was fair to a fault: he  put  even  troublesome beetles and leeches   on trial , and  the rats of Autun were issued summons, as late as in the 16th century.  Francis Bacon’s injunction ‘nature must be hounded into yielding her secrets,’ was duly picked by the new science of Newton and together with  Descartes  “a perfect model of anthropocentrism was  put in place in which all rights went to man and none to nature.”  Man invented an existence for himself, as the jewel of the crown of creation, as the master of all he surveyed.

 But  history  of evolution of life forms suggests otherwise. Microbes  have been here  for as long we have the recorded history of earth while , mammoths and mastodons, the dinosaurs and big reptiles , stellar sea cow and Tasmanian tigers stunning, successes in their own days have come, dominated the scene for  a while , and then  disappeared. But the viruses are sticking it out. Would the viruses, lords and  masters of the earth , for the last  4.5 billion years, be interested in   picking up a fight against a species  that is just a million years old, is  essentially fragile and has been dangerously  lurching form one threat of extinction to another, and sooner or later will  do itself in,  with or without much  outside help ?  Stephen J Gould  says in Time’s Arrow. What could be more comforting, what more convenient for human domination, than the traditional concept of a young earth, ruled by human will within days of its origin. How threatening, by contrast, the notion of an almost incomprehensible immensity, with human habitation restricted to a milli microsecond at the very end!

Man and microbe, no matter how highly men  think of themselves live by the same rules , are governed by the same laws  of natural selection. We are swimming in a sea of bacteria and such other life forms , which constitute a large part of the biomass. But frankly speaking most of these microscopic creatures have no interest in  human beings , they mind their own business, many of them are in fact friendly , the ones which inhabit the root nodules of plants , the others that are  furiously busy in our guts for our benefits.
 Viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites  from unicellular  animalculae to 80-foot-long tapeworms take up residence inside animals, but we’re safe from these things. Mostly, these disease-causing agents stick to one host species. Migration from one to another is not an easy business .Many  barriers stand between each of us and that previously unknown infection hosted by an unfamiliar animal. Breaking  down of  the barriers between animals and people,  a zoonosis is a rare occurrence.  Jarred Diamond in his  Guns Germs and Steel  has written an extended history ,  drawing upon a wide variety of geographical , ecological  and historical sources  from ,  of past  11 – 12 thousand years  years when man first domesticated  animals. That  was also the beginning of zoonotic diseases. The human( Chinese ?) taste for  exotic meet of Bat and Pangolins and snakes led  ultimately the corona virus to jump from its original habitat in the bats to man .  So the Covid 19  did not  come with a belligerent intent to wipe out the human race, it was  invited in, so to say. It is  our hedonism that has brought us to such a pass. It is our  essentialist concept ,  our  attitude towards nature in  which we tend to treat nature  as our zoo , vault and park that is at the root  cause of our trouble. We radically need to change our way of thinking  followed by our way of living but  what  we are  furiously seeking   our redemption in a vaccine. Wrong again. We can never match the ingenuity of the shape shifting virus.   SARS1  came in 2004 , it released in an updated cleverer version in 2019 and it will come again , and again , and again. 

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