Wendy Orent in Aeon (Photo by Stefano Rellandini/Reuters):
It was the great Australian virologist Frank Macfarlane Burnet who argued that the deadliest diseases were those newly introduced into the human species. It seemed to make sense: the parasite that kills its host is a dead parasite since, without the host, the germ has no way to survive and spread. According to this argument, new germs that erupt into our species will be potential triggers for pandemics, while germs that have a long history in a host species will have evolved to be relatively benign.
Many health experts take the notion further, contending that any coming plague will come from human intrusion into the natural world. One risk, they suggest, comes when hungry people in Africa and elsewhere forge deep into forests and jungles to hunt ‘bushmeat’ – rodents, rabbits, monkeys, apes – with exposure to dangerous pathogens the unhappy result. Those pathogens move silently among wild animals, but can also explode with terrifying ferocity among people when humans venture where they shouldn’t. According to the same line of thought, another proposed risk would result when birds spread a new pandemic strain to chickens in factory farms and, ultimately, to us.
But there’s something in these scenarios that’s not entirely logical. There is nothing new in the intimate contact between animals and people. Our hominid ancestors lived on wildlife before we ever evolved into Homo sapiens: that’s why anthropologists call them hunter-gatherers, a term that still applies to some modern peoples, including bushmeat hunters in West Africa. After domesticating animals, we lived close beside them, keeping cows, pigs and chickens in farmyards and even within households for thousands of years. Pandemics arise out of more than mere contact between human beings and animals: from an evolutionary point of view, there is a missing step between animal pathogen and human pandemic that’s been almost completely overlooked in these terrifying but entirely speculative ideas.
According to the evolutionary epidemiologist Paul W Ewald of the University of Louisville, the most dangerous infectious diseases are almost always not animal diseases freshly broken into the human species, but diseases adapted to humanity over time: smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, typhus, yellow fever, polio. In order to adapt to the human species, a germ needs to cycle among people – from person to person to person.