The Inescapable Dilemma of Infectious Disease

Kyle Harper in the Boston Review:

The control of infectious disease is one of the unambiguously great accomplishments of our species. Through a succession of overlapping and mutually reinforcing innovations at several scales—from public health reforms and the so-called hygiene revolution, to chemical controls and biomedical interventions like antibiotics, vaccines, and improvements to patient care—humans have learned to make the environments we inhabit unfit for microbes that cause us harm. This transformation has prevented immeasurable bodily pain and allowed billions of humans the chance to reach their full potential. It has relieved countless parents from the anguish of burying their children. It has remade our basic assumptions about life and death. Scholars have found plenty of candidates for what made us “modern” (railroads, telephones, science, Shakespeare), but the control of our microbial adversaries is as compelling as any of them. The mastery of microbes is so elemental and so intimately bound up with the other features of modernity—economic growth, mass education, the empowerment of women—that it is hard to imagine a counterfactual path to the modern world in which we lack a basic level of control over our germs. Modernity and pestilence are mutually exclusive; the COVID-19 pandemic only underscores their incompatibility.

But to grasp the full significance of the history of infectious disease, we need more than ever to understand this recent success through the lens of ecology and evolution.

More here.