Tag Archives: Weapons of Mass Destruction

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

How Nuclear Weapons Have (Kind Of) Had A Positive Impact On Society

There are just some ideas in society that cannot and will never be justified. Concepts like sexual assault, spousal abuse, and the premature cancellation of “Firefly” usually come to mind. Some things are just so awful that the world would be objectively better if they didn’t exist.

Well, I’m going to put on some extra layers and change the locks on my doors this morning because I’m about to justify the existence of something that many rightfully dread and for entirely understandable reasons. I imagine my position will upset a certain crowd of people, especially the peace-loving hippie types that are fond of the sexier, more decadent stories I’ve written.

That’s because I’m going to spend this article justifying the existence of nuclear weapons. Given how I’ve covered just how close we came to nuclear annihilation about 35 years ago that may seem like a complete reversal. I promise there’s a logic to it, albeit a distressing kind.

First off, let me make clear that I find nuclear weapons abhorrent. The fact we have weapons that powerful and no killer aliens/superintelligent apes to justify them reflects the sad, chaotic state of affairs of our civilization. The idea that just one of the handful of nuclear armed countries can slaughter millions on the whim of an itchy trigger finger is nothing short of terrifying.

However, and this is where I’m sure I’ll lose the hippie crowd, they may also be responsible for our growing ability to avoid war and cooperate with one another. Please set the pitchforks down for a moment. Let me explain myself, at least as much as any aspiring erotica/romance writer can on such a sensitive topic.

Most of people alive today don’t remember a world without nuclear weapons. Sure, they’re terrifying in their destructive potential, but we’re kind of used to their presence. Most people today don’t give them a second, a third, or a tenth thought. The fact they’ve only ever been used twice in a conflict limits the impact of that terror.

Even if entire generations are numb to it, that doesn’t change the inherent horror or the destructive capabilities of these weapon. These weapons don’t just kill a few hundred or a few thousand people. They kill millions, and even billions, of people. At a time when any event that kills more than tens of thousand people is considered a global crisis, most people can’t even wrap their heads around such horror.

It’s because of that horror, though, that nuclear weapons incurred such a significant impact on the world. It’s not the kind of impact that we feel every day, but it’s one that has shaped the mindset of our society in the late 20th and 21st century. How it did that requires a little perspective that’s not easy for anyone under the age of 75 to understand.

Despite what cable news and conspiracy theories/performance artists may claim, the last 50 years have seen an unprecedented decline in war. That may evoke some heavy scoffs from those who hear terrible news out of Iraq and Afghanistan at least twice a day, but the data doesn’t lie.

Since 1945, there hasn’t been a major world war involving major world powers. Sure, there have been smaller proxy wars like Vietnam, Iraq, and Korea. However, those wars never even came close to the staggering death toll of World War II. Fittingly enough, that was a war ended by nuclear weapons, but it’s really the events that played out in the decades after that war that showed the impact of those weapons.

Now, thanks to weapons that could wipe out entire continents, nations couldn’t wage war on the same level they had for centuries past. Before the 20th century, a nation going to war with another was seen as standard business practices. You couldn’t call yourself a powerful nation without going to war and sending thousands of young men off to die on a battlefield. Some even tried to paint that kind of thing as glorious.

With nuclear weapons, there’s nothing glorious about incinerating entire cities in the blink of an eye. There’s no room for heroism, gallantry, or warrior spirit. One second you’re a live, flesh-and-blood human. The next, you and everything around you is a pile of radioactive ash. That fundamentally changes the image of war.

Suddenly, nations have a very good reason to not go to war, especially with a country that has nuclear weapons. It’s not just their soldiers that will die. It’s every city, town, and village within their borders. Even the most brutal, sociopath-like ruler can’t overlook the high cost of such a war. Most rulers enjoy the perks that come with ruling. Going to war is the quickest way to lose it all.

That’s the biggest impact that nuclear weapons have had, as a whole. They’ve made large wars on the level of World War II impossible, if not downright suicidal for all those involved. Say what you will about the ineptitude of modern nation states, but in general, they want to survive.

Making war that untenable is an objective good, on some level. Granted, that good is only achieved through the sheer terror and destructive potential that nuclear weapons possess, but the result is still the same. Going to war is no longer a viable means for a nation to grow. Instead, nations grow through economics and instead of war stories, that gives us smartphones, cars, and exotic music like K-pop.

Regardless of how you feel about K-pop, it’s much less destructive than any war. It could be argued, and I would tend to agree, that the lack of a major war is a big reason why the 20th and 21st century has seen the hugest economic growth, as well as the greatest reduction in global poverty, in recorded history.

Beyond just making nations too reluctant/terrified of going to war, nuclear weapons have had another impact on how global powers function. In the past, major nations went to war for stupid, petty reasons all the time. Why be diplomatic about anything when war is so much sexier? That’s how the British Empire got to be one of the largest empires of all time.

Then, nuclear weapons come along and suddenly, nobody can afford to be that petty anymore. Now, fighting a stupid war that could escalate for stupid reasons runs the risk of seeing your glorious empire reduced to ash in the span of a day. Nuclear weapons are just that powerful.

Fear, being such a powerful motivator, makes nations more inclined to talk a problem out rather than sending in the army. It requires them to make more of an effort to talk to rival nations, make mutual deals with them, and not rely so much on bully tactics because one might have a larger army. When nuclear weapons are involved, the size of an army means less than the size of their shoes.

That’s why, despite a fair amount of bravado on the geopolitical stage, modern nations generally prefer diplomatic solutions over war. When the alternative is nuclear annihilation, even the most petty rulers will opt to negotiate. As chaotic as the world might be, the presence of nuclear weapons makes war untenable and diplomacy indispensable.

Whether out of sheer terror or begrudging pragmatics, the advent of nuclear weapons has changed the way that modern nations conduct themselves on the global stage. By nearly every measure, that method is an improvement over the bloody wars of the past.

Most people who aren’t kings, despots, or related to one can’t appreciate the benefits of a world where war is so untenable, due to the presence of real doomsday-level weapons. Perhaps that’s for the best. So much of our time as a civilization has been spent dreading when we’ll be conscripted to fight a bloody war for some ambitious king/tyrant/emperor. Not having to live our lives with that fear counts as an improvement.

Now, as beneficial as this on some levels, it doesn’t discount the true danger of nuclear weapons. Make no mistake. These things can and will destroy us all if we use them, even on accident. The stakes literally cannot be higher when such weapons are involved, but if they help us function better as a species and a society, then I think that gives at least some merit to their presence.

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Filed under Current Events, Jack Fisher's Insights