Arnon Grunberg



Is there a reason for everything? – Adam Rutherford in TLS:

‘Disease, and more specifically the invisible hand of microbiological pathogens, has sculpted human evolution, and the evidence is written in our genes. One of the casual errors of lay-fans of evolutionary theory is their overreliance on that very Darwinian principle of adaptation – the faculties of biology that have been selected to serve the body that hosts the genes carrying those advantages. Now that we have the capacity to scrutinize the genome with molecular precision, we can see which genes and traits have been selected, and which have come along for the ride. Much of our genetic code, it turns out, has not been forcefully selected by nature, but has instead drifted into its current form by being neither good nor bad for the bearer. Some evolutionary psychologists waste their time fantasizing about ultra-adaptive traits, particularly with regard to sexual competition: men have beards because it lessens the force of getting lamped on the jaw, new-borns wail at night to prevent the conception of a new sibling to vie for their attention (both real academic papers). We sometimes call these unevidenced speculations “Panglossian”, after Dr Pangloss from Voltaire’s Candide – the eternal optimist who suggested there was a reason for everything.’


‘The eradication of smallpox from Earth is one of our species’ greatest achievements. An estimated 400 million people died from this disease cumulatively over 3,000 years, with 300 million in the twentieth century alone. Other pathogens have resisted eradication via a combination of evolutionary change and a failure of public health policy; cholera and bubonic plague are still endemic in many parts of the world, polio is not fully eradicated (it clings on through human resistance to vaccination programmes), and of course Covid-19 is still with us. But the last naturally occurring case of smallpox occurred in Somalia in 1977. The linear version of how Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine, first administered in 1796, began the process of eradication is greatly enriched by Foreign Bodies. Schama shows us the development of inoculations over the course of the eighteenth century as messy, confused, experimental and vulnerable to exploitation. Hostility to vaccination is as old as vaccination itself. Schama tells us that “In June 1763 … Joseph Omer Joly de Fleury, the president of the Paris Parlement (a judicial not legislative body), banned inoculation pending a report from a committee of inquiry”, and was “all too ready to believe the fallacy … that inoculation was the cause of, not the answer to, smallpox epidemics”. But the severity of the disease helped the cause for inoculation: while the mood in France was hostile in the mid-1700s, at that time the national opinion in Britain shifted, with “each fresh wave of death and disfigurement”, from condemnation of vaccination as unnatural, and an affront to God, to a celebration of it as an act of Christian charity.’


‘Schama ends his account of smallpox with the public endorsement of inoculation by Marie Antoinette and the Tsarina-mother Catherine. The following sections of the book, about the treatment of cholera and plague primarily in the nineteenth and twentieth century, pay close attention to the careers of both the epidemiologist Adrien Proust (father of Marcel) and the Russian-French-Jewish bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine, and to antisemitism, which played a significant role in resistance to inoculation programmes. Schama is accurate, but also an original stylist. His chapter on fin-de-siècle bacterial infections opens, wonderfully, with the line “Goodness, but he is beautiful, the Vaccinator”.’


‘Schama is angry about the treatment by the right-wing US commentariat of the former US Chief Medical Advisor Anthony Fauci, who was variously compared to Stalin, Mussolini and Mengele by Fox News. Elon Musk thought Fauci should be prosecuted, though for what he could not say. The historical parallels are striking: Angelo Gatti and Haffkine, unsung heroes of smallpox inoculation and cholera respectively, were also accused of “conspiracy” and received many death threats. Schama’s optimistic conclusion, however, is that our battles with viruses and bacteria of the future may be contested with knowledge gained from an unlikely (and very disease-resistant) ally: the horseshoe crab, the blood of which is used to determine whether vaccines are free of dangerous endotoxins, and therefore safe to administer.’ (…)

‘Biologists who ignore history, and historians who ignore biology, do so at their peril, and ours. This is Jonathan Kennedy’s point. Governments would do well to remember it.’

Read the article here.

Never ignore history, but don’t rely it on too much.
That fear of vaccines is as old as vaccines and that antisemitism is always part of the mix should not come as a surprise.

And let’s stopping overestimate natural selection, some traits and genes just hopped on the train, and nobody kick them off. Good to remember. We are alive because somebody or something forgot to kick us off the train.

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