Tag Archives: The Black Death

Why Biological Weapons Will Be A (MUCH) Bigger Threat In The Future

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It wasn’t too long ago that the biggest existential threat facing humanity was nuclear war. I’ve noted before how distressingly close we’ve come to a nuclear disaster and how the threat of a nuclear holocaust is still present. However, that threat has abated in recent decades, especially as nuclear weapons have gotten so destructive that their use is somewhat redundant.

More recently, people have become more concerned about the threat posed by advanced artificial intelligence. The idea is that at some point, an AI will become so intelligent and capable that we won’t be able to stop it in the event it decides that humanity must go extinct. It’s the basis of every Terminator movie, as well as an Avengers movie.

While I certainly have my concerns about the dangers of advanced artificial intelligence, it’s not the threat that worries me most these days. We still have some measure of control over the development of AI and we’re in a good position to guide that technology down a path that won’t destroy the human race. The same cannot be said for biological weapons.

If there’s one true threat that worries me more with each passing day, it’s that. Biological weapons are one of those major threats that does not slip under the radar, as evidenced by plenty of movies, books, and TV shows. However, the extent of that threat has become more understated in recent years and has the potential to be something more powerful than nuclear weapons.

By powerful, I don’t necessarily mean deadlier. At the end of the day, nuclear weapons are still more capable of rendering the human race extinct and turning the whole planet into a radioactive wasteland. The true power of biological weapons less about how deadly they can be and more about how useful they could be to potential governments, tyrants, or extremists.

For most of human history, that power has been limited. There’s no question that disease has shaped the course of human history. Some plagues are so influential that they mark major turning points for entire continents. The same can be said for our ability to treat such diseases. However, all these diseases had one fatal flaw that kept them from wiping out the human race.

Thanks to the fundamental forces of evolution, a deadly pathogen can only be so deadly and still survive. After all, an organism’s ultimate goal isn’t to kill everything it encounters. It’s to survive and reproduce. It can’t do that if it kills a carrier too quickly. If it’s too benign, however, then the carrier’s immune system will wipe it out.

That’s why even diseases as deadly as Ebola and Influenza can only be so infectious. If they kill all their hosts, then they die with them. That’s why, much to the chagrin of creationists, evolution doesn’t favor the natural emergence of apocalyptic diseases. They can still devastate the human race, but they can’t necessarily wipe it out. It would only wipe itself out in the process and most lifeforms avoid that.

It’s also why the large-scale biological weapons programs of the 20th century could only be so effective. Even if a country manufactured enough doses of an existing disease to infect every person on the planet, it won’t necessarily be deadly enough to kill everyone. Even at its worst, smallpox and bubonic plague never killed more than two-thirds of those it infected.

That’s not even factoring in how difficult it is to distribute these pathogens to everyone without anyone noticing. It’s even harder today because powerful governments invest significant resources into preventing and containing an outbreak. If large numbers of people start getting sick and dropping dead at a rapid rate, then someone will notice and take action.

That’s why, for the most part, biological weapons are both ethically untenable and not very useful as weapons of mass destruction. They’re difficult to control, difficult to distribute, and have unpredictable effects. They also require immense resources, considerable technical know-how, and a keen understanding of science. Thankfully, these are all things that extreme religious zealots tend to lack.

For the most part, these powerful constraints have kept biological weapons from being too great a threat. However, recent advances in biotechnology could change that and it’s here where I really start to worry. With recent advances in gene-editing and the emergence of tools like CRISPR, those limitations that kept biological weapons in check may no longer be insurmountable.

While I’ve done plenty to highlight all the good that tools like CRISPR could do, I don’t deny that there are potential dangers. Like nuclear weapons, this technology is undeniably powerful and powerful technology always carries great risks. With CRISPR, the risks aren’t as overt as obvious as fiery mushroom clouds, but they can be every bit as deadly.

In theory, CRISPR makes it possible to cut and paste genetic material with the same ease as arranging scattered puzzle pieces. With right materials and tools, this technology could be used to create genetic combinations in organisms that could never occur naturally or even with artificial selection.

Imagine a strain of smallpox that was lethal 100 percent of the time and just as infectious.

Imagine a strain of the flu that was as easy to spread as the common cold, but as deadly as bubonic plague.

Imagine a strain of an entirely new pathogen that is extremely lethal and completely immune to all modern medicine.

These are all possible, albeit exceedingly difficult, with genetic editing. Unlike nuclear weapons, it doesn’t require the procurement of expensive and dangerous elements. It just needs DNA, RNA, and a lab with which to produce them. It’s a scary idea, but that’s actually not the worst of it, nor is it the one that worries me most.

A doomsday bioweapon like that might be appealing to generic super-villains, but like nuclear weapons, they’re not very strategic because they kill everyone and everything. For those with a more strategic form of blood-lust, advanced biological weapons offer advantages that sets them apart from any other weapon.

Instead of a pathogen infecting everyone it comes into contact with, what if it only infected a certain group of people that carry a specifics traits associated with a particular race or ethnic group? What if someone wanted to be even more strategic than that and craft a pathogen that attacked only one specific person?

In principle, this is possible if you can manipulate the genetics of a disease in just the right way. Granted, it’s extremely difficult, but the potential utility makes it more useful than a nuclear bomb will ever be.

Suddenly, a government or terrorist organization doesn’t need a skilled assassin on the level of James Bond to target a specific person or group. They just need the right genetic material and a working knowledge of how to program it into a synthetic pathogen. It could even be made to look like a completely different disease, which ensured it didn’t raise any red flags.

It’s not the ultimate weapon, but it’s pretty darn close. Biological weapons with this level of refinement could potentially target entire groups of people and never put the attackers at risk. As a strategy, it can effectively end an entire conflict without a shot being fired. Those infected wouldn’t even know it was fired if the pathogen were effectively distributed.

It’s one of those weapons that both terrorists and governments would be tempted to use. The most distressing part is they could use it in a way that’s difficult to detect, let alone counter. Even after all the death and destruction has been wrought, how do you even prove that it was a result of a bioweapon? Even if you could prove that, how would you know who made it?

These are the kinds of questions that only have disturbing answers. They’re also the reasons why I believe biological weapons are poised to become a far bigger issue in the coming years. Even if it’s unlikely they’ll wipe out the human race, they can still cause a special kind of destruction that’s almost impossible to counter.

Unlike any other weapon, though, the destruction could be targeted, undetectable, and unstoppable. Those who wield this technology would have the power to spread death with a level of precision and tact unprecedented in human history. While I believe that humanity will eventually be able to handle dangerous technology like artificial intelligence, I doubt it’ll ever be capable of handling a weapon like that.

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Filed under biotechnology, CRISPR, Current Events, futurism, technology

Overpopulation, The Black Death, And Why Thanos Is WRONG

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We’re living in a golden age, of sorts. If you’re fan of comic books, superhero movies, and complex villains, you’ve got a lot to appreciate. Between the emergence of complex villains like Walter White and the dominance of superhero movies at the box office, “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War” being the latest, these are amazing times indeed.

It wasn’t that long ago that villains were barely distinguishable from a well-designed speed bump. Sure, there were memorable villains, but unless they came from the mind of George Lucas or Francis Ford Coppola, they weren’t that memorable. They only ever existed to make the hero more heroic.

That all changed when Health Ledger raised the bar as the Joker in “The Dark Knight.” That Oscar-winning performance, more than anything, proved that villains could be both compelling and have motivations that go beyond pissing off the hero. More recently, Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War” has set a new standard that would make the Joker’s grin even wider.

As wonderful a time this is for fans of heroes and villains, alike, that added complexity comes with a few uncomfortable side-effects. In order for a villain to be compelling, they have to have some kind of motivation beyond just wanting to kill the hero. They have to have a goal or desire that ordinary, non-villainous people can understand and empathize with.

Heath Ledger’s Joker was an agent of death and chaos, but he found a way to make that seem right in the twisted, crime-ridden world of Batman. Thanos did the same with “Avengers: Infinity War.” What he did was on a much bigger scale than the Joker, but why he did it is actually part of what made him so menacing.

He didn’t want to wipe out half of all life in the universe out of sadism, hatred, or vengeance either. He didn’t even do it for the same reason he did it in the comics, which involved him falling in love with the female personification of death. I swear I’m not making that up. It’s one of those rare occasions that it’s good that the movie didn’t follow the comics too closely.

As the action-packed spectacle plays out in “Avengers: Infinity War,” Thanos goes out of his way to justify what he’s doing. It’s monstrous, brutal, and outright genocidal. At the same time, however, he really thinks he’s doing the right thing. He genuinely believes that the universe will benefit more than it loses by killing half of all life.

The way he goes about justifying such an atrocity is part of what makes “Avengers: Infinity War” such an incredible movie, as I made abundantly clear in my review. His motivations are presented so well that it’s hard not to ask the disturbing, yet pertinent question. Is Thanos right? Even if it’s only in part, is there some twisted merit to culling an entire population at that scale?

They’re deplorable questions with even more deplorable answers. Nobody who isn’t openly pro-genocide can condone Thanos’ methods. Even so, it’s a question that’s hard to leave unanswered. Even if that question itself disgusts us, it’s still one worth asking.

With that in mind, I’m going to make a concerted effort to answer it. Moreover, I’m going to try and answer in a way that doesn’t skew too heavily towards heroic or villainous biases. I’m just going to try and assess the merits of Thanos’ idea that culling life on a massive scale is necessary to save it in the long run.

The answer for such a daunting question is not simple, but it’s not as complex as those posed by other villains like the Joker, Baron Zemo, or Erik Killmonger. There’s a short and a long answer. To start, here’s the short answer to that daunting question.

Thanos is wrong, even if his intentions are right.

I think most sane people would agree with that. “Avengers: Infinity War” did an excellent job of giving context to Thanos’ action. He believed overpopulation on his home world, Titan, would destroy it. He turned out to be right. He saw, with his own eyes, his entire world destroy itself. In terms of raw numbers, he’s not wrong. Half a world is still better than no world.

There’s even some real-world parallels. Granted, they rely on immense amounts of suffering, but the implications are hard to ignore. It didn’t happen with the aid of infinity gems or talking raccoons though. It happened through an aptly named period called the Black Death, a period in history that I’m sure would fill Thanos with glee.

Most people with a passing familiarity of history know what happened during the Black Death. A wave of disease, mostly in the form of Bubonic Plague, ravaged Eurasia. It was so devastating that it’s estimated to have killed between 50 and 200 million people. In some cities, more than half the population died over a five-year span. Even by Thanos standards, that’s pretty brutal.

At the same time, though, the consequences of the Black Death had a few silver linings. Those lucky enough to survive inherited a world in which the flaws of the previous order had been shattered. Thanks to the Black Death, the old feudal order ended. A new middle class emerged. Old traditions and dogmas that helped spread the disease collapsed. From the ashes of that destruction, a stronger, healthier society emerged.

Thanos himself pointed that out in “Avengers: Infinity War” at one point. A massive onslaught of random, chaotic death has a way of getting society to reorganize itself. That kind of devastation makes it much harder to cling to the old order, especially if it relies on a mass of disease-prone peasants to do hard-labor for subsistence resources at best.

That’s the benefit Thanos sees. That’s also the danger that influential scholars like Thomas Malthus saw when he noted the dangers of overpopulation. Unlike Thanos, though, Malthus didn’t favor unleashing waves of death. He simply favored encouraging people to restrain themselves from having too many children that they couldn’t sustain. There was no need for an Infinity Gauntlet.

Both Thanos and Malthus saw overpopulation and strained resources as a problem, one that has to be solved by either restraint or mass death. However, the crux of their philosophy still relies on a series of key assumptions that are inherently flawed. This leads directly to the longer answer to that distressing question I posed earlier.

Thanos is wrong because his sample size is too small and justifying his actions requires assumptions that are demonstrably false.

I don’t think the answer needs to be that long, but it’s worth further elaboration. Not long ago, I cited a man named Dr. Norman Borlaug, a man who is basically the anti-Thanos. Rather than using death to fight hunger, he channeled the power of science, compassion, and good old grit to create new tools to improve food production, thereby feeding a growing population.

It’s worth noting that while Dr. Borlaug was hard at work, there were a lot of doomsayers out there like Thanos, warning that a growing population would lead to war, starvation, and conflict. Paul R. Ehrlich was probably the most famous with his book, “The Population Bomb,” which might as well have been written by Thanos.

Unlike Thanos, though, Dr. Borlaug and men like him helped prove that idea dead wrong. Ehrlich, Malthus, and Thanos all worked under the same flawed assumption. The carrying capacity of the world was finite. Once life approached that finite limit, it would lead to conflict that included starvation and war.

In the case of a species that could make weapons, like humans, that conflict could potentially destroy the entire world. That’s what happened to Thanos’ world. It almost happened to humanity on more than one occasion. However, there’s a fundamental flaw in that assumption. It’s the idea that humanity, or some other advanced species, is incapable of finding ways to transcending natural limits.

Part of what sets humans apart from other animals, who are very much at the mercy of a land’s carrying capacity, is their ability to make tools and modify the environment to improve survival and enhance resource management. As flawed as humans are, that’s still one of humanity’s greatest strengths. It’s part of what has helped us become the dominant species on this planet.

The human race, especially with the rise of modern civilization, has created amazing new tools that have helped us transcend the limits that once ravaged our species. Old limits like famine, disease, and even large-scale war have either been eliminated or mitigated. Even as our population increases, thereby straining our resources, we keep creating new tools that help us progress.

For Thanos to be right, humans and other alien species have to be incapable of making such tools. To some extent, Dr. Norman Borlaug proved Thanos wrong before Thanos was even created by Jim Starlin in 1973 . By then, Dr. Borlaug had already received a Nobel Prize for his work in helping to increase food production in places vulnerable to famine.

Maybe Thanos’ people never had a Dr. Borlaug to help improve their ability to prosper. From his perspective, someone like that is impossible. He goes onto assume that if it’s impossible on his world, then it’s impossible on every other world in the universe. It’s a flawed assumption, a sample size fallacy mixed with a faulty generalization fallacy.

Like a true villain, though, Thanos also works under the assumption that his world, Titan, is somehow representative of all worlds. It’s inherently egotistical, something that a lot of villains deal with. From Thanos’ perspective, though, he’s still doing what he thinks is right. He can’t possibly imagine that any other world could escape the fate of his.

There’s one more element he and other doomsayers like him have to assume that’s impossible to know. It’s also an element that undercuts many of the benefits that devastating events like The Black Death might foster. Even if killing half a population results in short-term benefits, those benefits are only justified if those killed weren’t going to aid in the progress of a society.

Think back to all those who died in The Black Death. Think back to those who’ve died in other terrible atrocities. How many of those dead might have gone onto become a Leonardo Di Vinci, a Martin Luthor King Jr., or a Nikola Tesla? Sure, there might have been a few nasty personalities mixed in, but they’re far less common than those with ideas, ambitions, and dreams.

It’s another significant assumption, believing that some of those lost in the atrocity might have gone onto solve the problems that Thanos foresaw. However, the fact that it’s every bit as possible as the contrary is further proof that Thanos’ logic, and that of other population doomsayers, is inherently flawed.

While I doubt these arguments would convince Thanos he’s wrong, seeing how he is still a villain and has a reputation for being mad, they’re still worth scrutinizing. Even if it’s possible to understand and even sympathize with Thanos to some extent, it’s refreshing to remind ourselves how flawed his assumptions are and how wrong he is in the grand scheme of things.

If nothing else, it reminds us why we should keep cheering the Avengers on when they take on Thanos again in “Avengers 4.” It’ll make that moment when they finally triumph that much more satisfying.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, human nature, philosophy, superhero movies