Chronicle of the Future The Ends of the Earth
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The ingenious flu virus

There are other dangers arising from our new connectedness. Just as the computer virus sees a global network as a single, massive environment for itself, so the biological virus sees the connected human realm as a hugely expanded and very survival-friendly landscape. There are more of us than ever before, we travel more and we employ powerful antibiotics. The first two factors mean that viruses and bacteria can leap more easily from person to person, and the third means that we help them to evolve ever more virulent strains to compete with our technology. Aids was the warning. Here was an utterly novel virus that came apparently from nowhere to devastate young populations across the world. It was propagated through travel, drug use and promiscuity on a previously unknown scale, and was probably assisted by the suppression of immune systems caused by the excessive use of antibiotics.

If it can happen once, it can happen many times. The expanded, connected and liberated human realm is a novel biological environment, which inevitably will be vulnerable to novel plagues. Viruses and bacteria mutate all the time; even the Aids virus is genetically unstable, and so genomically ingenious is the flu virus that an effective inoculation one year is useless the next. Some new bugs will get into humans, and some may be disastrous. Or they may attack human crops, causing widespread starvation. Either way, the apocalypse could be caused simply by our new proximity to each other, our apparently benign desire to know each other better.

One other biological apocalypse may await us; this one is more subtle and even more difficult to confront than the novel plague. Looking back over the billions of years in which life on Earth has evolved, it is clear that millions of species have appeared, flourished briefly and died. Indeed, the one certainty in the life of a species seems to be the same as the one certainty in the life of the individual: death. Species may die because of competition from others, or because of a catastrophic change in the environment, such as the meteorite impact that is thought to have ended the reign of the dinosaurs. We may console ourselves that our ingenuity has given us ways of avoiding such events; we control nature too efficiently to permit serious competition or malign environmental change. And there is likely to be plenty of warning before the next meteorite impact - so we should be ready with the appropriate defensive capability.

But it is almost certain that many species die because of internal, not external, problems. Evolution is a messy, approximate business. Like the computer programmer, it does not start anew each time, but glues each new innovation on top of the last. As a result, our genetic inheritance is a weird and arbitrary patchwork, which may be full of its own versions of the millennium bug.

In fact, we already know about some bugs that are likely to be in our genome. Why, for example, do 2% of people suffer from schizophrenia at some time in their lives? The worst-afflicted are unlikely to have children because of their inability to form normal relationships. Now it is thought that schizophrenia is largely genetic. But if it is, why has it not been eliminated by evolution? It is widespread and it causes huge disadvantage to the individual. In theory, such malign genes should have vanished long ago.

There are many possibilities - as, indeed, there are with all genetic diseases.The latest theory about schizophrenia indicates how it may be a malign by-product of our success. Language was a stroke of evolutionary genius; it gave us an incomparable advantage over other species. Humans evolved language incredibly quickly. Nobody knows exactly how long it took, but it is clear that, once language appeared, development was incredibly rapid. Once we began to speak to each other, we lifted ourselves out of the cycles of nature and became masters, not victims.

But language involved organic changes to the throat and brain. In the brain the changes appear to have been radical. Inevitably, since they were rapid, there would have been side effects; the organic rewiring would not have been perfect. And so, the theory goes, schizophrenia is the price 2% of us pay for the gift of language.

This is speculative, but it warns us that we might not be as firmly placed at the summit of nature as we like to think we are. Humanity is not nature-perfected; it is a lucky botch-up that happens, for the time being, to work. But there are bugs in our genome. If over time they get worse or, like the millennium bug, are triggered by some external event, then the species could suddenly start to decay, with schizophrenia, physical handicap or infertility spreading among the population. It may seem unlikely but it has certainly happened to countless species in the past.

So the truth is that the apocalypse will never go away. On the one hand, we seem to be hard-wired to believe in the end time; on the other, our science tells us what a fragile phenomenon we are. Contemporary knowledge portrays us as little more than bad-tempered, jury-rigged assemblies of molecules clinging to a rock hurtling through the cosmos, a rock that will continue to hurtle whether we cling or not. And meanwhile, the human sense of the end will continue to fire our faiths and our imaginations with dreams and nightmares, with final battles and with days of judgment.

In this sense, the apocalypse can be seen simply as another expression of the peculiar extremity of the human condition. With infinite imaginations and all too finite and multiply incompetent lives, we find ourselves in an impossible trap. New apocalypses are no different from the old in that they pose exactly the same question: what are we to do with our brief and troubled existence? And perhaps they demand the same answer: we look for the virtues and meanings that define our common humanity.

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