Viva Zika!

There’s this guy I knew, Dan Brooks. Retired now, an eminent parasitologist and evolutionary biologist back in the day. He did a lot of work on emerging infectious diseases (EIDs, for you acronym fetishists) down in Latin America. A few years back I wrote some introductory text for an online database he was compiling. Part of it went like this:

You will find no public health advisories about Lyme Disease in Costa Rica. On the face of it, this is perfectly reasonable; Lyme Disease has never been reported there, and none of the local tick species is known to carry the bacterium that causes it.

Some of those ticks, however, are closely related to those in other regions which do carry that bacterium, and many pathogens are able to infect a far greater range of species than they actually occupy; simple isolation is the only thing that keeps them from reaching their true infectious potential. Thus, while Costa Rica is free of Lyme Disease at present, potential vectors already occur in abundance there. The infrastructure for an outbreak is already in place: a single asymptomatic tourist may be all it takes to loose this painful, debilitating disease on the local population.

Lyme disease is by no means unique. Climate change alters movement and home range for a myriad organisms. Our transport of people and goods carries countless pathogens around the globe. Isolated species come into sudden contact; parasites and diseases find themselves surrounded by naïve and vulnerable new hosts. And so maladies literally unknown only four or five decades ago — AIDS in humans, Ebola in humans and gorillas, West Nile virus and Avian Influenza in humans and birds, chytrid fungi in amphibians, distemper in sea lions — have today become almost commonplace. Pathogens encounter new hosts with no resistance and no time to evolve any. In such a world EIDs are inevitable. They are ongoing. A month scarcely passes without news of some freshly-discovered strain of influenza trading up to a human host.

This month, it’s Zika. Spread by the tropical mosquito Aedes aegypti, so we northern folks (so they assured us only last week) don’t have to worry. Hell, even 80% of the people who do get infected never show any symptoms. The other 20% have to suffer through joint pain, fever, a mild skin rash before Zika gets bored and wanders off to bother someone else. Ebola this ain’t; it’s never even killed anyone, as far as we know. I’m guessing that’s why no one’s bothered to develop a vaccine.

The things it does to fetuses, though. Now that’s pretty horrific, even if WHO is back-peddling and admitting that no one’s yet proven beyond a doubt that Zika causes microcephaly. (If it doesn’t, someone’s going to have to explain the fact that Brazilian cases of microcephaly shot up by a factor of twenty-five since Zika debuted there last year— from a long-term annual average of 150 cases to well over four thousand, and climbing. That’s a pretty stark coincidence.)

OK, so correlation is not causation. Tell me what this is correlated with. (From ECDC.)

OK, so correlation is not causation. Tell me what this is correlated with. (From ECDC.)

Even granting the argument that rampant Zikaphobia has resulted in the erroneous tagging of garden-variety small-headed babies— of a sample of 732 diagnoses, only 270 (37%) turned out to be truly microcephalic— we’re still talking a tenfold increase over historical levels. (And that may be conservative; it implicitly assumes that even though so many recent cases were misdiagnosed, none of the previous decades’ baseline cases were.) Claims that Zika wasn’t confirmed even in the majority of the verified cases aren’t especially reassuring given that tests for Zika in the hot zone are “very inefficient“— not to mention the fact that French Polynesia experienced a similar correlation between fetal CNS malformations and a Zika outbreak just the year before.

Back last week— when we were all being told that we had nothing to fear because A. aegypti never got out of the subtropics— the first thing that came to mind was Dan’s work on EIDs, and the ease with which certain microbes can swap hosts. “Sure, aegypti won’t make it this far,” I told the BUG, “but what if if Zika hitches a ride with Anopheles in the overlap zone?” It was, for a science fiction writer and worst-case scenarist, an embarrassing failure of imagination. Because Zika has in fact found some new Uber driver to hitch a ride with over the past few days, and it isn’t a mosquito.

It’s us. Zika has learned to cut out the middleman. It is now a sexually transmitted human disease.

Our Hope and our Salvation.

Our Hope and our Salvation.

And call me Pollyanna, but I can’t help nurture the outlandish-but-not-entirely-impossible dream that we might be looking at our own salvation. We might be looking at the salvation of the planet itself.

Because there’s no denying that pretty much every problem in the biosphere hails from a common cause. Climate change, pollution, habitat loss, the emptying of biodiversity from land sea and air, an extinction rate unparalleled since the last asteroid and the transformation of our homeworld into a planet of weeds— all our fault, of course. There are simply too many of us, and— being mammals— we just can’t stop breeding. Over seven billion of us already, and we still can’t keep it in our pants.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. My money was on some kind of self-induced die-off: a global pandemic that left corpses piled in the streets, or some societal collapse that reduced us to savagery on the third day and a relict population on the three hundredth. Maybe a holy nuclear war, if you’re into golden oldies. The problem with these scenarios— other than the fact that they involve the violent suffering and extermination of billions of sapient beings— is that we’d wreck the environment even more on our way out, leave behind a devastated wasteland where only cockroaches and stromatolites could flourish. The cure would be worse than the disease.

Many well-meaning folks have pointed out that birth rates decline as living standards improve; since so much of the world still lives in relative poverty, the obvious solution is to simply raise everyone’s quality of life to Norwegian levels. The obvious fly in that ointment is that your average first-worlder stamps a far bigger boot onto the face of the planet than some subsistence farmer in Burkina Faso no matter how many kids she might have. Mammals like me don’t need a brood of children to wreck the environment; we do it just fine with our cars and our imported groceries and our giant 4K TVs. Elevating 7.3 billion people to levels of North American gluttony does not strike me as a solution to anything other than fast-tracking the planet back to Scenario One.

But look at Zika. It doesn’t kill you, doesn’t even present symptoms in most cases. The worst you have to fear is a few aches and pains, a rash, a couple of sick days.

All it really does is stop you from breeding.

In a way it’s almost secondary, all this hemming and hawing about whether Zika causes birth defects or whether it’s just mysteriously correlated with them somehow. Fear hangs in the air, and the benefits are already starting to roll in. Just two days ago, WHO declared Zika a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern“. Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, El Salvador and Venezuela have all publicly advised their citizens against getting pregnant— all the more remarkable for the fact that all but Jamaica are bastions of Catholicism, which normally champions the whole Biblical fill-the-earth-with-thy-numbers imperative. And now that this baby-monsterizing bug can be transmitted directly, human to human, through the very act of intercourse? Why, none of us are safe!

I look forward to a day when Zika— or at least, the fear of Zika— is everywhere. I look forward to a day when this benign baby-twisting bug inspires us to save ourselves, frightens us into necessary measures that mere foresight and intelligence could never inspire. There need be no societal collapse, no devastating pandemic or wretched nuclear winter. There need be no great die-off to save the planet. There need only be this additional cost, this danger, that makes you think twice before indulging your reproductive urges. In the space of a single generation, the numbers of this pest species could just… gently taper off. We could become sustainable again.

That is my dream. Of course, upon waking, I have to admit that now Zika is in the spotlight, the medical community will simply fall over itself in the race to find a cure. They will succeed. And we’ll be back where we started— albeit with some new proprietary and lucrative drug in hand, available only from Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson.

That’s the thing about being an optimist. You have dreams, and reality crushes them.

I could write an upbeat short story about it, at least. Too bad that none of those Shine-on Let’s do an SF anthology about positive futures! people have ever approached me, for some reason…

 

 

 

 

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday February 03 2016at 08:02 am , filed under biology, just putting it out there... . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

51 Responses to “Viva Zika!

  1. If you are really looking for other possible causes, I skimmed something about how the government in Brazil had, a few months before this started, implemented new rules about giving pregnant women some specific vaccine, and trying to link that… It was posted by a semi crazy anti-vax lady, though, so I didn’t actually read enough to get the details…

  2. Ive been thinking exactly the same thing but have been afraid to say it.

    Clearly this is brutal and tragic for the parents of babies afflicted and obviously its horrific on an individual scale, but there’s no question that Zika + warming planet + spread of Aedes + sexual transmission is a far, far gentler way to curb our numbers than a fatal influenza, ebola or other equally nasty pandemic.

  3. And let’s not forget that while birth defects are correlated with a spread of that virus, the numbers of infected parents is probably way higher. It seems plausible that only in a minority of cases, Zika leads to birth defects.

    So let’s say for the sake of argument that the POTENTIAL human reproduction capacity takes a small hit. To now count on reason (or rather: fear) to keep infected people from fornicating without preservatives in face of these considerations is just not going to work. It didn’t work with AIDS either, even though there the threat is much more salient. AIDS concerns YOUR OWN life and famously NOT that of your unborn child. It’s a stretch to think that the people that already ignored the abstract threat of AIDS will reconsider when it comes to the health of a potential unborn child.

    Sometimes I wonder if “Idiocracy” actually had a point.

  4. benthor: Sometimes I wonder if “Idiocracy” actually had a point.

    Oh c’mon man, don’t be that guy. Idiocracy was ruined for me by the damn fanbase

  5. Somehow, I still find that point of view very optimistic.

    In my opinion, a planet-wide Zica pandemic most likely wouldn’t affect birth-rates significantly in any country – except maybe for the richest ones that already have negative population growth and (relatively) high medical standard.
    Most people who have children _really_ don’t put much though into it. We reproduce accidentally, or without proper planning.

    Not to mention there’s already something quite similar to Zica – maybe not on a pandemic scale, but it’s there, it’s a common infectious disease, pretty harmless to adults, but can cause serious disfigurement or death in human foetuses. It’s Rubella.

    If a pandemic were to happen, we’d just have to get used to the sight of people with microcephaly, I think.

    Maybe next time.

  6. I wonder, given how perfectly this virus works for the anti-natalist, Jim Jones wannabe, NWO globalist types, what are the chances it was engineered? Bill Gates has been funding research into GMO mosquitos for years, ostensibly with the goal of ending malaria and dengue. Maybe he had a moment of buddhist clarity and decided preventing human life would be a more humanitarian good than preventing disease.

    Also, off-topic but still on biowar, did you hear about the recent flu outbreak in Ukraine that killed hundreds of people? Interestingly, according to Gregory Cochran, the Russians were into biowar well before it was cool (https://westhunt.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/war-in-the-east/). We surely live in “interesting times” as that chinese saying goes.

  7. Had a thought about a dystopian post Zika world, it goes like this:
    Zika infects 99.9% of humans, and all new babies born have sub par intelligence.
    After a couple generations there’s nobody smart enough to operate a shovel, never mind a digital watch. The End.

  8. Yeah, that profit motive coupled with fear keeps blowing up in our collective faces. Nobody to say no to big pharma.

  9. Gord Wait seems to have located the optimism that eluded me despite the decidedly upbeat tenor of this blog post (I was actually getting worried until the end there). Given our tendency to not give a shit about future generations, though, (or even present ones given the number of kids born with fetal alcohol syndrome, drug addictions, or who are just basically neglected) I’m guessing that the only people who might seriously hold back are the ones not planning on sending their line on into the future in the first place.

    Although, maybe “optimism” is a little callous of me given that our mentally enfeebled descendants will not go comfortably into that good night if they can’t operate the machinery necessary to feed themselves. It’ll just be a different form of the apocalypse that awaits us when we have twelve billion people and no oil to get the food to market.

    Still I take heart knowing we’re safe up here because those are tropical mosquitoes carrying the virus. The estimated 500 Rideau Canal builders who died of malaria in a part of Canada that seems to have about 10 months of winter each year does make me wonder a little, though…

  10. Nonsense. People have already had a disease that should have got them terrified of sex in my lifetime, nobody stopped having sex and these days only poor people die of it.

    If it makes a serious effort to spread north then serious money will be spent on finding a cure and the costs will be recouped by ensuring only the “right” people can afford it.

    Where people can’t afford it then zika will be one of those risks that they have to live with and some solution will be found to deal with all those brain damaged babies. Depending on local development this will be somewhere between a decent level of support and landfill.

    One thing you can be sure of is that people are not going to stop. By historical infant mortality standards this is just a minor blip.

  11. Never a cloud without a silver lining…

  12. Gord Wait:
    Had a thought about a dystopian post Zika world, it goes like this:
    Zika infects 99.9% of humans, and all new babies born have sub par intelligence.
    After a couple generations there’s nobody smart enough to operate a shovel, never mind a digital watch. The End.

    But they still manage to vote for [insert political party of your choice] every few years.

  13. It’s a nice idea, but it won’t work. A pandemic won’t save the planet – there’s no disease scenario that wouldn’t be accompanied by a nuclear exchange as a side-effect. All it would take would be for the Chinese or Russians to convince themselves that we’ve got a cure (or vice versa), and start taking out cities one by one until we cough up the ‘vaccine’. Then we’d just get a disease, AND nuclear winter, AND fallout.

    I’ve recently had the disturbing thought that if a) nuclear war is inevitable, and b) human population will continue to grow, that the most ethical course of action for a true humanist would be to encourage nuclear Armageddon as soon as possible – the longer we wait, the more people will be alive to suffer. Someone could write a nice story about a group of morally unimpeachable terrorists, who precipitate the end of the world so as prevent the greater suffering to come.

  14. Damn you David. Im working on one right now. David Benatar is their Bin Laden.

  15. This blog just got EDGY

  16. That’s the thing about being an optimist. You have dreams, and reality crushes them.

    Works for pessimists too. Pentti Linkola must have been deeply disappointed when the cold war and the prospect of sudden nuclear armageddon went away. With hindsight

    We don’t know yet whether past infection with Zika makes microcephaly riskier in future pregnancies, and whether being infected once gives you lifelong immunity to the virus.

  17. On a very slightly related note, what do we think about licensing parents? Ethicist Hugh LaFollette wrote this interesting paper arguing in its favour:

    http://www.hughlafollette.com/papers/lic-par.htm

  18. Didn’t take you for an optimist Mr. Watts.

  19. We don’t need Western levels of resource-hogging to lower birthrates. The birthrate in Brazil is only 1.77 per woman already- the same rate as Australia. Fear of Zika isn’t going to do Brazil any good.
    https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2127rank.html

    Alternatively, after having one microencephalic baby, people will have -another- baby, in the hopes that it will turn out healthy, causing a mini baby-boom. Or everyone waits until they’ve been exposed to Zika and gotten it out of their systems, and gives birth in 2017 or 2018 and there’s a larger mini baby-boom. The region settles down with an abnormally high (but maybe manageable) rate of birth defects as Zika sloshes around endemically, costing billions of dollars in lost productivity.

    The optimistic outcome is that the Americas eradicates Aedes aegypti for good.

  20. I know this isn’t a particularly funny topic, but I laughed out loud at your post, because my head went to a very similar place when I first read about Zika. Ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos? My first thought was that his imaginary, anti-fertility bacterium had finally become real. There are some uncomfortable parallels between that story and this reality. Incidentally, he was as positive about the potential ramifications as you are – he just chose not to imagine a handy cure ruining our shot at achieving peaceful balance.

  21. and we still can’t keep it in our pants

    Now that’s an interesting turn of phrase. What with you being a writer, probably not entirely accidental. So let me see… only a certain half of humanity is really guilty enough to die, already?

    Yes, certainly seeing the light here. What a paradise our post dieoff world will be! Just nature, beautiful nature… and billions of, uhm, innocent women.

    Sign me up!

  22. benthor: It didn’t work with AIDS either, even though there the threat is much more salient.

    Actually, I think it did kinda work with AIDS. Yes, some people continued to have unprotected sex; some people continued to die. But I get the sense that a lot of other people started taking precautions. And if, for example, you pass a seatbelt law and see an 80% drop in accident fatalities, it’s probably a stretch to say the law “didn’t work” because some people still refused to wear seatbelts.

    Unless you’re saying that the fear of AIDS didn’t inspire anyone to change their behavior, in which case I’d like to see the numbers on that.

    Ste: Most people who have children _really_ don’t put much though into it. We reproduce accidentally, or without proper planning.

    A lot of us do, I suppose. But I suspect that the prospect of being saddled with a child for 20 years (which most people are not especially averse to, even if the timing may leave something to be desired) acts as a significantly smaller deterrent than being saddled with a deformed, brain-damaged child for life. I hope I’m not giving our species too much credit for cost/benefit analysis here.

    Ste: Not to mention there’s already something quite similar to Zica – maybe not on a pandemic scale, but it’s there, it’s a common infectious disease, pretty harmless to adults, but can cause serious disfigurement or death in human foetuses. It’s Rubella.

    Hadn’t thought about Rubella. I guess it is a good analog in some ways, including the microcephaly angle. In other ways, maybe not so much (there’s a vaccine, for one thing, although no cure once infected).

    So what would be the difference here? Apparently there was Rubella pandemic back in the sixties; hell, according to Wikipedia it wasn’t even eradicated from the Americas until just last year. But I don’t remember Rubella inspiring federal governments to warn their citizens away from pregnancy (granted, I was only seven during the American pandemic). Zika seems to have sent up alarms in a way Rubella never has. I wonder why that is, if the two maladies are comparable. Shark Week syndrome, maybe?

  23. Gord Wait: After a couple generations there’s nobody smart enough to operate a shovel, never mind a digital watch. The End.

    See, that’s a happier ending than even I imagined.

    dpb: Nonsense. People have already had a disease that should have got them terrified of sex in my lifetime, nobody stopped having sex and these days only poor people die of it.

    Nobody stopped having sex? Really? Nobody?

    Again, I’d like to see the numbers on that. I mean, I’m as horny as the next guy, but if I thought my next fuck stood even a 50:50 chance of killing me I would definitely think twice.

    dpb: If it makes a serious effort to spread north then serious money will be spent on finding a cure and the costs will be recouped by ensuring only the “right” people can afford it.

    I can’t disagree with that, at least.

    R. James Gauvreau: But they still manage to vote for [insert political party of your choice] every few years.

    I hesitated to go there. But I’m glad someone did.

    David Clark: It’s a nice idea, but it won’t work. A pandemic won’t save the planet – there’s no disease scenario that wouldn’t be accompanied by a nuclear exchange as a side-effect.

    I don’t necessarily buy into your pandemic->nuclear war argument (it’s plausible certainly, but I don’t know about inevitable)— but I think it misses the point of the current discussion. My utopian scenario is that there is no pandemic in the conventional lethal, corpses-in-the-streets sense of the word (remember, Zika doesn’t kill you; it barely even makes you sick). The population would decline not because of a massive die-off, but because fear of downstream costs would motivate people to cut back on the whole breeding thing.

    Kasz:
    This blog just got EDGY

    I take it you’re a newcomer. Welcome.

    EthicsGradient: On a very slightly related note, what do we think about licensing parents?

    I think it’s a fantastic idea. Bring it on.

    Roy: The optimistic outcome is that the Americas eradicates Aedes aegypti for good.

    Right. Which then causes the extinction of a kind of insectivorous bird which had previously kept the levels of other pathogen-bearing insects to manageable levels. Which then causes those vectors to explode, and we all die of some mutant hybrid of River Blindness and ecephalitis.

    Yes, it’s all a rich tapestry.

    Matthew: Ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos?

    I loved Galapagos. Might be my favorite Vonnegut ever.

    Interesting factoid, Stephen J. Gould was also a big fan of that book. In fact, he cited Galapagos along with Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers as two of the very few fiction books that actually got the “nondirectedness” of evolutionary processes, that natural selection could make you stupid as well as smart if the conditions were right. (Gould always hated the whole “ladder of progress” thing.)

    To give credit where it’s due, though, Larry Niven made the same point at least a decade before either of those other books came out.

    U. Ranus: and we still can’t keep it in our pants

    Now that’s an interesting turn of phrase. What with you being a writer, probably not entirely accidental. So let me see… only a certain half of humanity is really guilty enough to die, already? … Just nature, beautiful nature… and billions of, uhm, innocent women.

    Um, I dunno what mammalian species you’ve got in mind— but at least in my experience most women have to take their pants off for sex too, or at least push them down a few centimeters. Unless they’re wearing those new Crotchless La Senzas the kids are wearing these days.

  24. @Peter:

    Somebody’s paying attention.

    UN: Zika Nations Must Allow Birth Control.

    @ or near U. Ranus:

    So let me see… only a certain half of humanity is really guilty enough to die, already? … Just nature, beautiful nature… and billions of, uhm, innocent women.

    Been years since I gave up my worldly possessions including my sizable graphic novel collection and joined the Franciscans *, but Y: The Last Man had some interesting stuff going for it IIRC along those lines. Not to be confused with our poster Y. I think.

    {* Probably not what actually happened.}

  25. “Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?”
    Albert A. Bartlett (1923-2013). Professor Emeritus in Nuclear Physics at University of Colorado at Boulder.

  26. “Science is essentially organised scepticism. I spend my life trying to prove my work wrong or look for alternative explanations for my results. It’s called the Popperian condition of falsifiability. I hope I’m wrong. But the science points to my not being wrong. We can rightly call the situation we’re in an unprecedented emergency. We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will. I think we’re fucked.”
    -Stephen Emmott, “Humans: the real threat to life on Earth”.
    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/jun/30/stephen-emmott-ten-billion

  27. “From the phenomenological and informational standpoint, we are without question the most complex species in the known universe. As such, we are nature’s greatest error. This is not misanthropy but biologic. We are the greatest thermodynamic (cultural and computational) anomaly in the cosmos and, at the same time, nothing but the sum of errors in the transmission of the genetic code over some four thousand thousand thousand years. We are, in short, the crowning error of errolution.”
    Peter Swirski, ‘From Literature to Biterature. Lem, Turing, Darwin, and Explorations in Computer Literature, Philosophy of Mind, and Cultural Evolution’.

  28. “Consciousness is an existential liability, as every pessimist agrees—a blunder of blind nature that has taken humankind down a black hole of logic. To make it through this life, we must make believe that we are not what we are—contradictory beings whose continuance only worsens our plight as mutants who embody the contorted logic of a paradox. To correct this blunder, we should desist from procreating. What could be more judicious or more urgent, existentially speaking, than our self-administered oblivion?”
    Thomas Ligotti, ‘The Conspiracy Against the Human Race’.

  29. Given the long-term trend of declining average global birthrates, it seems inevitable that at some point in the next century the second derivative will collide with the first and global population will begin to shrink. Relishing a disease that causes birth defects because of its likely immaterial effect on already declining birth rates seems unnecessary. On the other hand, anything that might discourage another potential duggar family can’t be all bad.

  30. whoever: Somebody’s paying attention.

    UN: Zika Nations Must Allow Birth Control.

    Shit. You know, although I certainly assumed that abortion would be hard to come by in the Catholic countries, it never occurred to me that access to simple contraception would be a problem. That was really stupid of me.

    Jesus: “Can you think of any problem in any area of human endeavor on any scale, from microscopic to global, whose long-term solution is in any demonstrable way aided, assisted, or advanced by further increases in population, locally, nationally, or globally?”

    Actually, I can think of two: cannibalism, and slavery.

    Anonymous: Given the long-term trend of declining average global birthrates, it seems inevitable that at some point in the next century the second derivative will collide with the first and global population will begin to shrink. Relishing a disease that causes birth defects because of its likely immaterial effect on already declining birth rates seems unnecessary.

    That’s the most optimistic scenario, certainly. There are others— and even the stability scenario shows us piling on another 3 billion before we hit the asymptote. Anything that shaves even a billion or two off that enormous weight is not something I’m going to dismiss out of hand.

    Unless I’m one of the billion, of course…

  31. Anonymous: On the other hand, anything that might discourage another potential duggar family can’t be all bad.

    You shouldn’t worry about the Duggars. Take Amish – they let their young ones taste secular life, and some thus left, but over time this process of ‘boiling off’ people who don’t like old-time farming and crafts has resulted in a population that is content with it.

    And still doubling every 20 years. They are immune to TV, women’s liberation and other contraceptives, and are taking over new territory.

  32. (A) The presence of pain is bad, and the absence of pain (in the absence of anyone who would have experienced the pain) is good. In other words: The presence of pain is bad (both for the one who experiences it, and also impersonally), and the absence of pain (in the absence of anyone who would have experienced the pain) is impersonally good.

    (B) The presence of pleasure is good, but the absence of pleasure (in the absence of anyone who would have experienced the pleasure) is not bad (nor, of course, is it good).In other words: The presence of pain is bad (for the one who experiences it), and the absence of pain (in the absence of anyone who would have experienced the pain) is good for the person who would have experienced the pain and does not actually exist.

    Whenever we fail to create an ordinary person, this is in one way good—due to the absence of all the suffering that person would have experienced. But this is not in any way bad—because the absence of all the pleasure the person would have experienced is not bad.

    This Asymmetry implies that when we procreate, we harm the created person but we do not benefit her.

    -David Benatar. “Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence”.

  33. Come come, Dr Watts, I thought your grasp of evolution was better than that.

    What’s the life-cycle of Zika in a single host? A week? Ten days? How many people does the average human have unprotected sex with over that period of time? Maybe one? It doesn’t work: there isn’t a big enough selective pressure for Zika to evolve into an STD, it just can’t spread in that mode. And yes, I know it’s been shown that it _can_ be transmitted sexually, but I also recall that back in the day there was a case of HIV being transmitted by kissing. Doesn’t mean that either is going to become the norm.

    Rubella may have been eradicated from the Americas (although I doubt it) but it’s still one of the standard childhood vaccinations here in the South Pacific, and despite what the lunatic fringe say, we don’t publically fund vaccines for no good reason. I don’t recall people putting off breeding before that vaccine was widespread (and it was only introduced in the early 90s here in New Zealand, as a combined mumps/measles/rubella shot).

  34. Chris: It doesn’t work: there isn’t a big enough selective pressure for Zika to evolve into an STD, it just can’t spread in that mode.

    Well, in my defense I did amend it immediately to “the fear of Zika”— and given that over half the folks south of the 49th either think we should “teach the controversy” or simply reject evolution outright, I don’t think the epidemiological facts on the ground would have much of an impact on the fear factor. Re Rubella, I don’t recall people jumping off the breeder train either over that one— but I don’t remember a bunch of panic-stricken federal governments advising them to, either. For whatever reason, the reaction to Zika seems… I dunno. More extreme, somehow.

    All the same, you’re probably right about it not working. It was just a brief and glorious dream…

  35. On a related note, why does everyone always blame the mosquitoes, it’s always mosquitoes kill more than tigers and lions and sharks put together blah blah blah but poor mosquitoes don’t do shit, Malaria is a separate organism, a gosh darned protozoan with it’s own thing going. And like our host mentioned, all those mosquitoes feed bats and birds and frogs and rich tapestry of life…

    So, instead of exterminating mosquitoes, why don’t we CURE mosquitoes. Instead of releasing sterile GM mosquitoes, why not release malaria/chagas/zika immune mosquitoes, that’s going to be easier to maintain since eventually mozzies will evolve the ability to discriminate sterile partners while presumably immunity to parasites is somewhat adaptive (they may be vectors but surely there’s some metabolic cost to carrying the parasites for the mozzies?)

  36. Peter Watts,

    Well, my guess would be that that was because Rubella was old news.
    Additionally, as long as early infection was common, the miscarriage risk was fairly low due to the consequential immunity. I’m unclear as to whether that’s the case with Zika.

  37. Once again someone will be wishing they could fling a brick at me through the internet, but it seems that Larry Niven (actually, probably mostly Steve Barnes) was almost prophetically accurate in the 1979 novelette “the Locusts”, which was a nominee for the 1980 Hugo.

    It starts with the classic line “[t]here are no men on Tau Ceti IV“…

    Why yes! I am almost as pessimistic as Dr Watts, if less um finely granular about it. :) Here’s how…

    When I saw my first image of a Zika Baby on the evening news, that story is the first thing that flashed through my poor damaged mind. I got to thinking about it… if you really hated what mankind was doing to the ecosystem, but didn’t actually hate the species and perhaps even had some sense of hope for it, and had the power or technology to do things, Zika or something comparable comes to mind.

    Not wanting to toot my own horn too loudly, but exploring this line of reasoning in a novel, I posited a weaponized virus causing widespread semantic aphasia as well as other things. Humanity survives without verbal language but mostly by farming in the former lawns between the ruins of former suburbias, at least in North America’s Mid-Atlantic and Appalachian region. Yet the population is more than decimated; it would surprise anyone if even one tenth of the former numbers survived the transition from a society based on the Word into a society based on the Pantomime. Humanity in the novel is no less intelligent but for the few generations it takes before immunity evolves and becomes widespread, cannot communicate across distance or time, and culturally cannot be much more complex than gorilla or chimps.

    What if Zika were to produce a generation that was predominantly microcephalic, in those individuals who survived to adulthood? Can we imagine a rapid decline of culture and civilization to a world in which a relatively small number of human beings are intellectually not much better than chimps, although they are genetically as human as any of their parents? Well, we won’t be writing its history, now will we… nor will anyone, one might guess. Certainly this is an alarmist viewpoint, and I daresay that it would be even more alarmist if we were to propose that someone got to messing around with CRISPR/Cas as was discussed here last year, and got to cleaning up our ecological wreckage by dumbing down the population at-large to the point where we can no longer be inventive enough to be a real problem.

    It’s so very tempting to want to slide into Magical Thinking and say “clearly Gaia got a bit tired of all of the abuse and is kicking our species’s collective arse”. I mean, talk about fine-tuning your cure! All of the misery of your usual plague is deferred into the next generation, where a generation of tiny-brained people can’t figure out how to bring forth plenty from the earth, but can certainly figure out that if you are the meanest individual around, you can eat other people’s food before they do. We intellectual and sensitive types can mope about cruel ironies but the hard part will be reserved mostly to the next generation.

    Well, as always, whenever I get sufficiently alarmist, it always turns out to be nowhere near as bad as I was fearing. Well, except for the global change and mass extinction bits, that is.

    This isn’t to say that there might not be chillingly prophetic SF stories to be written about a near future where the only way we avoid the “endless parade of idiocy” option is by getting very high-tech and serious about re-instituting the old tradition of Confinement for pregnant women. Since Zika seems to be more about birth defects than genetic editing, that ought to work. My magical thinking mode is warning me, though, that because we keep surviving skating on thin ice is no reason to keep doing it. Perhaps we should bring the population down to the point where we aren’t the primary target if only because of our numbers in the first place and the insulating diversity we keep extinguishing from the surrounding ecologies in the second place.

  38. Ste: In my opinion, a planet-wide Zica pandemic most likely wouldn’t affect birth-rates significantly in any country – except maybe for the richest ones that already have negative population growth and (relatively) high medical standard.

    Here’s a worrisome bit. In the Americas, there is a divide between the higher level of civilization — Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, the US etc — and the more retrogressive nations, such as El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, etc etc. If you wanted to point at a single cause of backwardness it’s the prohibition on birth control in certain nations. Brazil has fairly good national population planning systems but that doesn’t begin to compare to the way that modern Brazilian women are getting their tubes tied and declaring “the baby factory is closed from now on”. This is great, because among other things, they need to stabilize population so as to not denude “the lungs of the planet”. Brazil is also emerging from their version of Peak Crime, etc. But where you see the greatest crime, the highest level of violence, the most destructive associations of criminal heirarchy, etc., are those nations which by either religious fiat or economic failure have restricted birth control. And these are, and will be, ground-zero for Zika. I see possibilities for almost limitless horror in that area, everything from global unity emerging in a campaign of extirpation against ravening hordes of killer hydrocephalus survivors erupting out of the Isthmus, to some variation of Harry Turtledove’s “Sims” series of stories. Realistically, what could happen? Massive anti-mosquito campaigns, imposition of “Confinement” for reproductive purposes, but I also see massively increased pressures to migration out of the region where nonhuman vectors vastly outnumber humans and are hard to avoid. Migration towards the poles, already inevitable, will intensify. Get ready, Great Lakes Region and points north, when everyone is talking about how they got to go north, or their babies will be born with Monkey Head.

  39. @ Mr Non-Entity

    Decreasing productivity virally? Think you saved the planet.

  40. whoever: Decreasing productivity virally? Think you saved the planet.

    Our Gracious Host — at least until the blog entry following the one above– hasn’t been sapping my will to live as much as one might hope, and thus I was feeling benevolent. 😉

    More seriously, though: along the lines of Magical Thinking, “if enough SF writers ‘prophesy’ something, it is because it was going to happen in the future”. It’s a fairly popular notion “out there” in certain circles.

    I am curious, I wonder how many writers have had the notion of a sudden “sea change” sort of replacement of modern humans with, not superpowered mutants as in “Village of the Damned”, but rather with harmless little idiots? I’m remembering reading a translation of Pierre Boulle’s original Planet of the Apes, although he didn’t use a rapid replacement across a generation or two, but rather some unexplained phenomenon of “a sort of intellectual lassitude” that swept the planet, while at the same time the “mental agility and energy” of the apes increased. There’s also the old legend of the Changelings, which in many variations leaves a child on the doorstep that is going to eat you out of house and home and never amount to much as well as (in some tales) becoming violent as an adult. I wonder how many authors have fictionally touched on something like the very real current issue.

    About fears of diseases causing changes in sexual and/or relationship behavior? Well, the first coming of AIDS practically obliterated the “hypersexual” gay community in Washington DC, a catastrophe that can almost certainly be tracked back to one really epic (even by contemporary and local standards) weekend of back-room partying at one of the District’s best connected and ahem most prolific gay bars. Pretty much anyone who was into that scene and that sort of carrying-on was at that party and died within months. I can’t give you solid numbers but it had to be in the hundreds, if not quite a thousand… just from that one event (probably). The point is, even with very effective HIV “cocktail” treatments, almost nobody does “barebacking” and mob scenes are not just tres passe, they are effectively dead as are likely to be the people who engage in it. Comparably Hepatitis “C”… they have a treatment right now that is hellishly expensive but extremely effective against one of the several genotypes. The medical community is praying, and the survivor community is praying right along with them, that people will be treated as couples, and that those who have been or will become monogamous will remain monogamous, or will be incredibly scrupulous about partners. The treatment is effective, but this particular genotype is very well known for adapting rapidly to attempted treatments. I think those who survive will be those who can, and will, be very picky. I think it will be the same for any really problematic virus we see henceforth.

    As for Zika, if it gets well-established in the global warm areas, will the future see Canada, Siberia, and international Antarctica become the future birthplaces of the world? Because those might be the only places where prophylactic “confinement” could be affordable on a possibly-necessary scale, and also not be too claustrophobic to be endured without fetus-harming tranquillizers. And I think a future where half of everyone is Canadian by birthright and almost all of the other nations are effectively vanished because nobody can be safely gestated there, might be a fun fictional world for certain SF writers. :)

  41. And now it looks like it might not be the Zika virus causing the birth defects:

    Colombia: 3,177 Pregnant Women With Zika; No Microcephaly

    Some people are blaming insecticide..

    I guess we’ll see.

    Mr Non-Entity: Here’s a worrisome bit. In the Americas, there is a divide between the higher level of civilization — Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, the US etc — and the more retrogressive nations, such as El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, etc etc. If you wanted to point at a single cause of backwardness it’s the prohibition on birth control in certain nations.

    You’re ignoring the invisible monster in the room. The one polite people don’t even mention.

  42. Y.

    Y.:
    And now it looks like it might not be the Zika virus causing the birth defects:

    Colombia: 3,177 Pregnant Women With Zika; No Microcephaly

    Some people are blaming insecticide..

    Dammit, and I only saw this because I came running here to report that they’re blaming overreporting may be a problem as everyone piles on the bandwagon and additionally that there are (PDF) doctors in the affected area blaming a chemical that definitely causes (intentionally) maturational deformity in entire classes of insects.

    I guess we’ll see.

    You’re ignoring the invisible monster in the room. The one polite people don’t even mention.

    Is there a monster in the room? Couldn’t possibly be environmental contamination from all of the high-velocity lead traveling around with all of the coca-processing chemicals? Or were you referring to the combination of population explosion and a rather non-diverse gene-pool in the region? Or are there other monsters? Because two or three ought to be enough for any given room.

    For what it’s worth: I’ve had to resort to pyroproxyfen “used as directed” to deal with fleas that nothing else would kill, including the thrice-damned tunga penetrans which are immune to just everything ordinarily used as insecticide, thanks to evolution and third-world insecticide application techniques. (Gross overkill with no follow-through.) The stuff works but it does take time. It’s not something you’d want to ingest, though, almost certainly not while pregnant.

    Probably there are some studies, the tracking of which I shall leave to people with actual credentials, which could implicate, clear, or return a “can’t tell” evaluation re: pyroproxyfen, as it is extremely popular in those aerosol bug-bombs that people insist on trying against bedbugs on which it has zero effect. There might already be a mistaken association between bedbugs and microcephaly, which might be shown to be more likely rather due to unsuccessful use of these bombs containing “Nylar” ™.

    FWIW: if you’re trying to kill bedbugs with IGR, use Gentrol and forego insecticides entirely, since they don’t care about that but are instantly killed by isopropyl alcohol.

  43. The debate rages. No mention in this of insecticides or insect-growth regulators, but the whole Zika genome is isolated from the brain of a microcephalic fetus.

    New England Journal of Medicine Feb 10 2016: Zika Virus Associated with Microcephaly:

    “[…]
    In this report, we describe the case of an expectant mother who had a febrile illness with rash at the end of the first trimester of pregnancy while she was living in Brazil. Ultrasonography performed at 29 weeks of gestation revealed microcephaly with calcifications in the fetal brain and placenta. After the mother requested termination of the pregnancy, a fetal autopsy was performed. Micrencephaly (an abnormally small brain) was observed, with almost complete agyria, hydrocephalus, and multifocal dystrophic calcifications in the cortex and subcortical white matter, with associated cortical displacement and mild focal inflammation. ZIKV was found in the fetal brain tissue on reverse-transcriptase–polymerase-chain-reaction (RT-PCR) assay, with consistent findings on electron microscopy. The complete genome of ZIKV was recovered from the fetal brain.
    […]”

  44. AIDS didn’t have that effect, which is good news for those of us in favor of taking the Earth apart into space habitats.

  45. Mr Non-Entity: Is there a monster in the room? Couldn’t possibly be environmental contamination from all of the high-velocity lead traveling around with all of the coca-processing chemicals?

    No doubt the lead doesn’t help.

    I meant the monster you can’t talk about because a lot of very clever people have built an entire career upon the assumption the monster is not only invisible but also nonexistent. Not real, just a bugbear, or a flimsy excuse.

  46. Mr Non-Entity: Dammit, and I only saw this because I came running here to report that they’re blaming overreporting may be a problem as everyone piles on the bandwagon and additionally that there are (PDF) doctors in the affected area blaming a chemical that definitely causes (intentionally) maturational deformity in entire classes of insects.

    I thought overreporting could be ruled out, no? I ran some numbers and it looked like 30% of pregnant, infected women in Brazil gave birth to babies with microcephaly.

  47. Nestor: So, instead of exterminating mosquitoes, why don’t we CURE mosquitoes.

    That’s a good question, and I think the answer is, Because even if they don’t carry disease they bite us and make us itch. It doesn’t take a life-threatening disease to inspire us to speciecide; mild discomfort will do the trick.

    Take bedbugs, for example. I’d wipe those pernicious abdomen-puncturing little fuckers off the planet without a fourth thought.

  48. Aids didn’t do it, don’t see why Zika would. The effect it might have is to increase the population of people with small heads living potentially even more miserable lives,

  49. Do you think mosquitoes can suffer? I sometimes feel bad for squashing them.

  50. EthicsGradient,

    I think they can. A (western) teacher at a monastery in Dharamsala once told us that killing even mosquitoes is wrong, but Dharamsela is high in the Himal foothills so they don’t carry malaria. I’m not sure I’d advocate her approach in Arusha.

    On a train once a Jain told me that they don’t each root vegetables like potatoes and carrots because doing so requires killing the plant (as opposed to say beans, which leave the plant standing).

    This is why I’m condemned to return here – I’ll kill those blood suckers (mosquitoes, not potatoes) even before they’ve landed on me if I think they’ll get me later.

  51. It’s an irony that Zika virus comes from Africa and strikes at America but only continent with TFR more 3.0 and fast growing population is Africa. Birth-rate in all other parts of our world (maybe except India and couple muslim countries in south east Asia) already lower than self reproduce level. Different people have different problems. Willage where I live has population in four times bigger 25 years ago.