Revenge of the Pangolins
(Or, The Epidemiology of Understatement)

I’ll admit I didn’t really see it coming.

I mean, sure: I’ve been harping on Dan Brooks’s epidemiological musings (and, as it turns out, those of the US DOD) for years now. I’ve written articles both magazine- and ‘crawl-based; ranted on panels from Sofia to Tel Aviv (and possibly Berlin, assuming international flights are still a thing a few months from now); given solo talks in Toronto and Montreal and Koszeg. I’ve incorporated them into scenarios I’m not allowed to talk about for companies I’ve signed NDAs with. Check out recent fiction like “Incorruptible” and “Cyclopterus” and you’ll find them exposited right there in the backstory.

This slide is from 2017. Just saying.

So you might find the scenario familiar: a warming world drawing old pathogens into new habitats, full of new and vulnerable hosts. A series of rolling pandemics starting to hollow out the world’s urban cores within the decade, characterized by low mortality but high contagion; societal stresses and fractures due not so much to die-offs as to sick days, a whole subsidiary cascade of collapse where the people who maintain the ATMs and drive the food trucks and take out the garbage start calling in sick, and their replacements call in sick—and before you know it the whole damn house of cards has collapsed with hardly anyone even dying, and the water’s off and we’re all sitting in our home-made forts, counting our remaining tins of Puritan Irish Stew with Formed Meat Chunks.

At first glance, COVID-19 certainly seems to be a terrific case of I Told You So, giftwrapped with a whole bunch of optional extras I hadn’t thought about much. Stock markets are imploding the world over. Half the conferences and festivals on the planet are either in jeopardy or been canceled outright. Italy has gone China one better and locked down the entire country. COVID is expected to overwhelm the US health-care system in about a month (assuming a 6-day doubling rate— although the sheer hilarious buffoonery of the US response might well render that prediction hopelessly optimistic). Oil prices have nosedived (at least partly due to reduced global travel which, I dunno, I can’t help but see as a good thing), even though airlines—teetering on the brink of collapse— have resorted to flying empty planes in and out of European airports to keep their flight slots. (They’ve also started demanding that imminent emission taxes be rolled back, claiming that they won’t be able to afford them when travel rebounds. Hey, just because the world’s in a panic over one crisis doesn’t mean we can’t gratuitously make another one worse.) The global economy has already, by some accounts, begun to implode; best-case scenario at this point seems to be global recession. And just as this post was going to press, the World Health Organization finally caved and used the P-word.

You are ableist and ageist if you share this graph.

On a dumber note, an inevitable contingent seems bent on press-ganging the outbreak into the service of pettier, more ideological goals. Over at Wired Roxanne Khamsi spends an entire article raging about “viral whataboutism”, and flinging terms like “ableist” and “ageist” at anyone who dares compare COVID-19 to other bugs with bigger kill counts. Facebook grows increasing infested with a meme claiming that the only reason we care so much more about Coronavirus than starvation is because COVID infects the rich—and not, just maybe, because starvation is a problem that’s been with us for millennia, COVID just popped onto the radar last Thursday, and we’re hardwired to react strongly to novel and unexpected threats. (At least such folks have been distracted for a while from complaining about the fact that Greta Thunberg is a privileged white girl.)

Here’s the thing, though: COVID-19 isn’t nearly as bad as what I’d been expecting.

I’m talking about the actual virus here, not the social impact. The Cassandra prognosis—admittedly a purely theoretical, what-if scenario—imagined a bug with a 10-20% mortality rate, ultimately infecting around half the world’s human population. COVID-19 isn’t anywhere near that lethal. Even the 3.5% kill rate you’ve seen bandied about must be way too high, because it ignores both active cases still pending (42% of the total at this writing, according to the Johns Hopkins Amazing Coronavirus Dashboard) and—more significantly—the proportion of infections that haven’t been detected because they’re asymptomatic. Asymptomatic cases could account for two thirds of the total according to Mizomuto and Chowell, based on the Diamond Princess outbreak (which provides an unusually comprehensive data set, since the entire population was tested for the virus whether they showed symptoms or not).

“Soon…only 98% of us will be left…” —Randy Marsh, following exposure to SARS-infected blankets provided by the Three Feathers Indian Casino

Yes, the prevalence of asymptomatic carriers increases the infection rate—but that’s a higher infection rate for a much more benign strain of the disease. (There are, so far, at least two strains of COVID-19, the younger and more virulent “L-Type” being responsible for most of the symptomatic cases. But L is already waning—probably because of active control measures— leaving the more benign “S-Type” to outcompete it in the wild). Once the dust clears and asymptomatic cases are fully accounted for, I’d be surprised if this bug racks up a mortality rate much higher than 1%—which, by comforting coincidence, is in the same ballpark as the 0.6% South Korea reported after daily testing thousands of their own citizens, symptomatic or not.

I suppose it’s possible that things are far worse than anyone’s letting on. I’ve heard one third-hand “inside information” rumor from virology circles that China may have been dealing with around fifty thousand new cases per day, back during COVID’s halcyon days in that country. Which would at least explain why they’ve been frantically building so many hospitals from the ground up to fight a bug with a measly 2% kill rate (and which leaves anyone under 60 pretty much unscathed). Still: if that were the case, you’d think we’d be seeing higher transmission rates in other parts of the world by now.

Actually, it turns out you can get COVID-19 from”Chinese Food”…

So most likely we’re faced with a far less-devastating disease than the one I was hitching my talks to. And yet, the social impacts have been just as catastrophic. A measly one percent mortality rate and entire countries get locked down.

But let us not forget the up sides. Carbon emissions can’t help but decline around the world (apparently China’s have already dropped by 25%). Surely, the sudden monkey-wrench thrown into all those international conferences should provoke massive investment in telepresence tech (right here in Toronto, the Collisions tech conference was canceled in real space but resurrected in virtual); hopefully that will lead to a persistent increase in online conferences and reduced air travel moving into the future. China’s just banned the eating of wild animals. Toilet paper manufacturers have never had a better year. Hell, given the imminent shit-kicking US medical infrastructure is in for—not to mention the inevitable political fallout—COVID-19 might even be enough to dislodge Trump from the buttocks of the western world. (It’s got a better shot than Biden in that regard, if you ask me.) All thanks to a bug which is turning out to be way more candy-ass than the one I’d been expecting.

So I’m conflicted. Do I trot out the same old line, describe myself as “delusionally optimistic” because the current implosion results from a kinder, gentler pathogen than I assumed? Or do I allow myself some real optimism, because a relatively mild pathogen— however nasty in the short term— might kickstart so many beneficial effects downstream?

It probably doesn’t matter. This isn’t a single big-name stadium concert after all, and COVID-19 isn’t the Main Act. This is a festival: an epidemiological Woodstock with no expiration date. COVID—like SARS and MERS and the various flus before it— is only the beginning. And if history is any judge, future acts will come increasingly thick and fast.

Brace yourselves. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

Almost four centuries of The Big Picture, ending in 2016. See a trend, maybe?

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday March 11 2020at 11:03 am , filed under In praise of biocide, scilitics . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

100 Responses to “Revenge of the Pangolins
(Or, The Epidemiology of Understatement)”

  1. if all those ‘pandemic’ games I played are any indication, Madagascar is the safest place in the world right now

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  2. There have been a lot of arguments than the single paper suggesting “types” of sars-cov-2 was badly done and no such distinction exists in reality. http://virological.org/t/response-to-on-the-origin-and-continuing-evolution-of-sars-cov-2/418

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  3. I’m conflicted, too. Most of what you related I’ve thought about for years, surrounded by friends and people who generally dismiss scientific predictions with, “You don’t KNOW that. It’ll be okay.”

    I’m not pessimistic. But I do think humans are the most frightening organism evolution’s ever created — on Earth, at least. Don’t know about other planets yet. Unless the Simulation Theory is true, which would mean we’re not “real” in the way we think anyway.

    That aside, this ain’t getting better. Let’s enjoy these happy green COVID-19 years before far worse starts emerging (smiley face).

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  4. Just so you know airlines regularly fly empty planes to fill up time slots regardless. And Trump has made some drastic moves since this blog post. Clearly governmental regulations aren’t going to help( and haven’t helped) the environment too much since they have a strong interests to stay in power. A carbon tax seems more reasonable you need a way for the market to reflect the externalizations cased to third parties. People right now can’t connect the problem of global warming to any concerns they feel are important. They wont till it bites them a few times and they learn to be scared of it. It is way too abstract for people as of now.

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  5. popefucker,

    Aaah Im betting on Greenland. Always the last country in my games 🙂

    Keeping in the spirit of Plague Inc, I noticed a lot of the headlines in our papers (Denmark – government has just shut down nearly everything) matches the game. “Denmark shuts down”, “Airline traffic halted”, “Quarantine measures”… The next thing will be Curfew I think.

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  6. PW aid… “Hell, given the imminent shit-kicking US medical infrastructure is in for—not to mention the inevitable political fallout—COVID-19 might even be enough to dislodge Trump from the buttocks of the western world.”

    For once, I may more pessimistic about an outcome than you Peter. Well played. I fear, given I agree with your analysis of the mortality rate that at the end of this panic (viral panic on social media) will make Trump look more like a “stable genius ” in the eyes of those who see the cost of panic in MSM on the economy as proof that his announcement that everything will be fine was right; even though the actual WHO message is wash your hands, remain calm, and carry on (I’m paraphrasing here).

    The observation that rational debate ends as soon as labels are thrown around to delegitimize the person’s POV. I understand, and sympathize with the amount of work it can take to debate those with views one doesn’t share, but the use of social media to de-platform wrong think is polarizing people into opponents.

    I fear that the virulence of the arguments will lead to the outcome that those who don’t want the world to become more authoritarian will in fact enable those that do, who will take those that don’t understand that they are the Turkeys, and Christmas has arrived.

    Hopefully I’m wrong, I’m happy to be proved wrong.

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  7. Trump is toast, a double-whammy of ‘the other political party is more numerous and thinks I’m Satan’ and a poor election year economy – fucking up the COVID response is just icing on the cake.

    And yeah, I’ve been thinking happily about the climate effects as I stock up on meds. And wondering if the world economy could look a little saner in a couple of years, since pumping steroids into a roided-out shell in pursuit of another few percentage points of growth is about to bite a lot of fucking people in the arse.

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  8. I don’t think pandemics are going to ruin society, frankly they might strengthen them – Germany’s industrial output was growing even under Bomber Harris’ ministrations. And we have the technology to continue to exist under social isolation conditions. We’ll adapt, and if more come we’ll dig in and hopefully become less wasteful. Perhaps Greta’s camp can spin it as some sort of warning shot from Gaia.

    US politics wise, Trump has the reelection already, and this crisis may function as the war he, thank god, did not see fit to start to ensure his incumbence.

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  9. Nestor,

    I think you underestimate how much an economic crash(no matter the cause) affects elections. Trump will be blamed for anything bad that happens, doesn’t matter whether he’s responsible for not.

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  10. Interesting to see how much action 5% mortality over 2 years begets while a possible extinction over 200 barely registers. Really drives home the point about hyperbolic discounting.

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  11. I’m wondering how long it’s going to be before some COVID 19 cases get traced back to an Amazon distribution center?

    Some poor bastard too poor to take the time off coughs in his hands, sorts some packages, coughs some more, sorts some more and COVID is getting same day delivery across NA.

    How long does the virus last on a plastic/cardboard surface?

    How many people decided that self isolation wasn’t so bad because they have a Prime account?

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  12. popefucker,

    My point is that if people interpret this event like a war, it will strengthen the incumbent. Bernie with his healthcare for all aspirational message (Equivalent to the “build a wall” call to action for the other side) would win, but it doesn’t look like he’ll get the chance.

    Dammit, I feel a cough coming on. It’s almost certainly not Corona since I’ve been living in a remote location for the last 2 months and hardly talk to anyone, but damn if it’s bad timing…

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  13. Nestor,

    They won’t though. Or maybe more accurately, they’ll interpret it like a war they lost. Nobody likes to be on the losing side of a war.

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  14. The kids are calling it “Boomer Remover.”

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  15. Oooh, I been waiting for this! Couldn’twait to finally get your thoughts on this thing. We are officially living in the background newscrawl of … literally any of your books lol

    And now to actually read it.

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  16. Nestor: Germany’s industrial output was growing even under Bomber Harris’ ministrations.

    But Germany vampired on other countries’ economies (also on an individual level, plundering).
    With sars2 there is no planet to plunder. We’ll probably see some ugly national-egotistical actions, from leaders who want to be seen to do ‘whatever it takes’ for /their/ country.

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  17. RazorSmile,

    I’ve felt like I’ve been living in the newscrawl for several years now, and that’s just the point at which I started to pay attention.
    It’s a fucking uncomfortable feeling.

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  18. Lars,

    Too right, man, too right

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  19. Absent the coronavirus situation, Trump beats Biden. The pandemic is a wildcard, sure it can hurt him but like Obama said “Don’t underestimate the guy”, whether he really does play 4d-chess or he’s blessed by some idiot blind god, the dude just seems to manage to fall upwards consistently.

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  20. Well, I really believe, this is a situation which could lead to a better and more robust society which can handle even more threatening outbreaks in the decades to come.
    I am here in Austria and I see what our government is doing atm. The basically stopped everything which is not related to keeping up necessary infrastructure. Many companies are switching to home office. In addition, they started with a Mobilization today of military and former alternative civilian service servants. The goal is to protect infrastructure and provide service for old people. It is indeed kind of creepy, nobody has seen anything like this here since 1945…
    We will see if the economy can handle this switch to a decentralised, home office mode. It’s about time. So, I guess it’s a warning shoot to certain negative trends of the last decades. One way or another, it’s a turning point. I guess societies of social market economies have the best chances to get through this with only little damage. Even our more conservative government is taking a lot of money into their hands to stabilize the economy, saving companies, jobs and people who lose their jobs.
    If you look to Iran … this will destabilise the Arab countries and the 3rd world. There seems to be a very high rate of young people in critical condition…

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  21. It is astonishing. The medieval plague scythed down 30-50% of the people, and yet life went on pretty much as usual, with wars, and rulers etc.

    Now civilization seems poised to collapse from a bug with, at worst, spanish flu level of deadliness. It is eye opening to see how little resilience our way of life actually has.

    If push comes to shove, i am royally fucked, having no survival skills beyond being mildly amusing, and being asthmatic. Perhaps some warlords might need a court jester?

    I wonder which minority group we will blame and persecute this time with cries of “Wellpoisoner!”, now that the Jews have nuclear weapons (and good for them).

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  22. The K,

    Life most certainly did not carry on “pretty much as usual’ during and after the medieval plague (Black Death) – read Barbara Tuchman’s book A Distant Mirror for example. A lot of historians skip over the hundred years or so of European history from the first (there were multiple) outbreak of the plague in 1347, because it’s so depressing and doesn’t fit into the narrative of progress from the dark ages to the renaissance.

    Depopulation meant less food, which in turn meant no food available for emergencies in other areas even if they didn’t have the plague. More opportunistic violence to grab the stuff of those who’d died. Even more violence because governments weren’t functioning and hadn’t stopped the first incidents. Religious doomsday processions, which probably just helped spread the plague.

    And while I’ve done less reading, other parts of Eurasia didn’t fare any better. The Chinese dynasty collapsed, and civil war(s) broke out for example.

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  23. Andrew,

    Yeah, those kids are twats.

    Peter Watts

    You may have been too harsh to the Roxanne Khamsi lady; “viral whataboutism” is totally a thing for at least two reasons: 1) people use it as an excuse to do nothing (so they don’t have to change their lifestyle even it means being an Boomer Removal Agent) and 2) while the flu has killed more people, consider how much of a head start it has had — and also consider the mortality ratio in percentages as opposed to absolute numbers.

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  24. Yeah okay, i may have been way too tongue-in-cheek there. What i meant is that, despite astronomical death rates, wars, civil wars, unrest, and famine, society still rumbled on and didnt utterly collapse back into the stone age, where as a comparable plague today would end our civilization for good, and the following mass-starvation would reduce our world population by 90% or more.

    That book sounds interesting though, i´ll check it out!

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  25. The K,

    I don’t think so.. our modern western societies are far more robust then any societies before them. Look for example at the bronze age collapse. One problem was, that they were much more oriented towards centralized planning (similar to socialism) in regards of their whole social structure and agriculture. Todays market economies are much more decentralised. If one part dies off, others jump in to fill the gap.
    In addition, we have science, technology, modern administration and communication which helps to increase survivability. We are much less reliant on manpower (military & production, agriculture) so it’s easier to stay afloat. In addition, we get older and are more healthy in a later age which helps a lot.

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  26. Items 1 & 3 from your slide are looking likely. The governments of the US and UK seem to be engineering a situation in which they can act as reservoirs of infection for the foreseeable future.

    Those infection curves don’t top out by themselves. They have to hit some kind of limit in order to trend down. That limit is either constructed by responses or precautions, or it is the limits of the population available to infect. I see no reason to expect a downturn in US cases for at least 3 months given where the precautions and numbers stand now. (Three months of the number of cases doubling every three days would be a very large number of cases.)

    I spent much of day before yesterday reading Covid-19 papers on arxive.org. We ran out of butter while I was making dinner, so I went to the grocery store and came home with $500 worth of food. I realized while I was shopping that even with the best precautions, Canada has a very long border with the US which it is unlikely to close. And what those infection curves show about grocery shopping is that every time the number of reported infections doubles, the danger of going to the grocery store also doubles.

    This morning the price of gold is collapsing because so many of those apocalypse financial preppers who bought gold for the coming apocalypse need to pay their bills in the face of a stock market collapse.

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  27. Just listening to PM Justin Trudeau’s announcement and press conference, did anyone notice any reference to refugees or migrants? I didn’t. This is giving me a Maelstrom kinda vibe.

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  28. Sitting here having arrived recently from the UK and getting past customs personnel (who did not move to test me, btw), and coming home to empty cupboards, and lacking any means to get to the store because the car has been blocked by absent neighbours the entire weekend, to the point that I resorted to ordering groceries online (which arrived this morning SANS ALL THE ESSENTIALS, due to shortages)…

    And I thought “d’you know what? I’m going to go over to The Crawl.. I bet GiantSquid will totes be in his element now that that a slight whiff of (coron)apocalypse is on the wind”…

    :o)

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  29. Christopher:
    The K,

    I don’t think so.. our modern western societies are far more robust then any societies before them.

    I don’t think this is really true. Sure, we have improved technology and improved communication systems, but the price has been an increase in ideological thinking and a reliance on our institutions, which are more fragile than most people think. After all, what were the actual material causes of the 2008 recession? What famines or diseases caused that? Nothing. It was purely due to structural instability of the banking system. A similar event in the 30s brought the world economy to a complete standstill and kickstarted a decade of economic depression and then another decade of some of the most vicious warfare and horrible atrocities the world has ever seen. The world population has more than doubled since then, and the weapons have only gotten more deadly.

    Modern society is very good at growing, I think we can all agree to that. But it’s very, very bad at handling instability. A spooked market can cause a fascist coup down the line. The consequences of a real, material crisis can only be more dire. I would not call that robust at all.

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  30. superkuh: There have been a lot of arguments than the single paper suggesting “types” of sars-cov-2 was badly done and no such distinction exists in reality.

    Thanks. Will check this out. Also https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099(20)30195-X/fulltext. This whole thing is changing by the day.

    Michael: I noticed a lot of the headlines in our papers (Denmark – government has just shut down nearly everything) matches the game. “Denmark shuts down”, “Airline traffic halted”, “Quarantine measures”… The next thing will be Curfew I think.

    Yeah, that’s just happened here in Ontario. State of emergency declared, pubs and restaurants shut down, yadda yadda yadda. Our Bobble-head-in-a-suit PM went on air yesterday to announce that the gummints’ decision to deny entry to non-Canadian citizens was based on “science and evidence”, then said the restrictions wouldn’t apply to anyone from the US (which poses by far the biggest risk, due to half-assed countermeasures layered over a third-world healthcare system).

    On the one hand, we’re fucked. On the other, we deserve to be.

    Ashley R Pollard: I fear that the virulence of the arguments will lead to the outcome that those who don’t want the world to become more authoritarian will in fact enable those that do, who will take those that don’t understand that they are the Turkeys, and Christmas has arrived.

    Naomi Klein’s making the same basic point with her Disaster Capitalism scenario. Stuff like this just makes it easier for those in power to impose ever-more-draconian controls in the same of the Public Good, which somehow never get rescinded once the crisis has passed.

    The good news in this case is that we’re now officially in the New Normal: the crisis will never pass.

    asd:
    Interesting to see how much action 5% mortality over 2 years begets while a possible extinction over 200 barely registers. Really drives home the point about hyperbolic discounting.

    Point.

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  31. Greggles: How many people decided that self isolation wasn’t so bad because they have a Prime account?

    Apparently Amazon is doing absolute gangbuster business these days, for exactly that reason.

    Which didn’t stop Amazon-owned Whole Foods from telling its employees they should “share” their sick days, rather than expect the company to actually chip in.

    Andrew:
    The kids are calling it “Boomer Remover.”

    Speaking as a boomer myself (albeit a late-tail one), I approve of this label.

    Lars: I’ve felt like I’ve been living in the newscrawl for several years now, and that’s just the point at which I started to pay attention.

    I just wish there was some way to copyright newscrawl musings. Some decent royalties in that.

    Not that money’s gonna be good much longer, of course.

    Christopher: Well, I really believe, this is a situation which could lead to a better and more robust society which can handle even more threatening outbreaks in the decades to come.

    It could, but I’m not hopeful. It would require governments to actually interpret this as a harbinger of things to come, as opposed to a one-off that justifies relaxing environmental regulations and delaying climate-change initiatives because “in the wake of this terrible event the economy cannot afford the luxury of superfluous regulations”. You see this happening already, in the airline industry. You see it in the number of government “help” initiatives which basically just make it easier for people to go into debt to the Usual Suspects.

    If the powers that be don’t recognize that this is just the beginning, we’re left with “That which does not kill you makes you stronger”. Except it doesn’t. That which doesn’t kill you still leaves you weak and exhausted from surviving the last crisis, so the next one can finish the job that much more easily.

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  32. RazorSmile: You may have been too harsh to the Roxanne Khamsi lady; “viral whataboutism” is totally a thing for at least two reasons: 1) people use it as an excuse to do nothing (so they don’t have to change their lifestyle even it means being an Boomer Removal Agent) and 2) while the flu has killed more people, consider how much of a head start it has had — and also consider the mortality ratio in percentages as opposed to absolute numbers.

    Admittedly Khamsi’s no flake, judging by her professional bio. But I’m not objecting to her calling out those who misuse the math and indulge in invalid comparisons; I object to her exploitation of those failings for purposes of trivial identity politics. Sure, there’s a fucktonne of people out there who justify their own inaction and indifference with “it’s just the flu”; but it seems to me the most parsimonious explanation of that is that people are lazy short-term thinkers who don’t want to be pushed out of their comfort zone. Khamsi’s invocation of terms like “ableism” and “ageism” redefines basic human denial and laziness as active hostility against old and disabled people. It’s the kind of ingroup/outgroup groupthink that people invoke when they want to elevate their own social standing within the tribe.

    I mean, who knows: maybe all those flu-comparators really do hate the old and the infirm, instead of just being stupid and shortsighted. But I’d like to see an actual argument to that effect, as opposed to Khamsi’s evidence-free assertion. Without that evidence, she’s just using this crisis to signal her own Right-Thinkiness.

    Christopher: I don’t think so.. our modern western societies are far more robust then any societies before them. Look for example at the bronze age collapse.

    …[snippage]…

    In addition, we have science, technology, modern administration and communication which helps to increase survivability. We are much less reliant on manpower (military & production, agriculture) so it’s easier to stay afloat. In addition, we get older and are more healthy in a later age which helps a lot.

    Oh, wow. I profoundly disagree. Complexity=stability may be true in terms of ecosystem diversity, but that’s because every node in the mesh actually fills a useful role. I don’t think that maps over to Human societies very well.

    Do you really think, for example, that your average Bronze-age city dweller would be as helpless as your average Torontonian, post-collapse? Most of us can barely find the tinned beans when the local Loblaws changes its shelving scheme. Without power, most Canadians would just freeze to death come winter, assuming we hadn’t starved to death or died of monkey pox in the meantime.

    I mean, shit; go to your local supermarket and check out where most of our food comes from: places like Mexico and Peru. Our supply lines are far longer, far more attenuate, far more fragile than they’ve been in the past. Our populations live in much greater densities. We live in hives and depend on production half a world away to keep starvation at bay. And for generations we’ve outsourced our immune systems to vaccination programs— which are effective, no doubt about it, but which also means that we’ve sheltered ourselves from natural selection for the last century. As a species, our immune responses are far less robust than they’ve ever been in the past, just as we’re being faced with an unprecedented spread of novel pathogens into new environments.

    We’re sitting on a house of cards, man. A house of fucking cards.

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  33. Kathryn Cramer: This morning the price of gold is collapsing because so many of those apocalypse financial preppers who bought gold for the coming apocalypse need to pay their bills in the face of a stock market collapse.

    Well, hey. There’s a silver lining, at least.

    Leona: And I thought “d’you know what? I’m going to go over to The Crawl.. I bet GiantSquid will totes be in his element now that that a slight whiff of (coron)apocalypse is on the wind”…

    Hey, Leona, welcome back!

    When you say “SANS NECESSITIES”, are you saying that you can’t even order toilet paper online? Because we’re down to our last seven rolls, and I’m starting to get worried.

    (On the plus side, we’ve got enough ginger beer to see us through the next month at least…)

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  34. Peter Watts,

    I look at our crowded, highly technological society as a machine with many moving parts tightly interlinked. All it takes is a pivotal component to cease functioning and most of the rest grinds to a shuddering halt.
    Complex systems should be considered as having many “points of failure”. Everyone over 45 or so years of age remembers the Challenger space shuttle disaster. The engineer that was bullied into giving the multiple O-rings a quiet pass described the shuttle parts as exactly this. It’s become a watchword of mine when examining products and processes pertaining to the clients retaining my consulting services.

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  35. Carbonman,

    Carbonman:
    Peter Watts,

    I look at our crowded, highly technological society as a machine with many moving parts tightly interlinked.All it takes is a pivotal component to cease functioning and most of the rest grinds to a shuddering halt.
    Complex systems should be considered as having many “points of failure”.Everyone over 45 or so years of age remembers the Challenger space shuttle disaster.The engineer that was bullied into giving the multiple O-rings a quiet pass described the shuttle parts as exactly this.It’s become a watchword of mine when examining products and processes pertaining to the clients retaining my consulting services.

    What’s more, the same institutional failures that caused the challenger explosion were still in place for the columbia explosion. It was a case study in our engineering ethics class. Yes, we have ethics, just not the that whole “do no harm” type.

    Back to the current disaster, I really don’t like Premier Drug Fraud having the powers that state of emergency grants him.

    How long before curfew is implemented and people are going to be required to identify themselves (I don’t mean de facto which we already have but de jure) during the ‘present crisis’?

    I’ll tell you how long, one week. Lot’s of bored teens this weekend with overworked parents will be able to notice that some houses –despite the city being shut down– are pitch black at 8 O’Clock at night.

    A couple of high profile B&E’s and hey presto! Next step to a police state.

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  36. Greggles:

    I really don’t like Premier Drug Fraud having the powers that state of emergency grants him.

    Yeah, I find that more than a little worrying.

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  37. Peter Watts: …
    Our populations live in much greater densities. We live in hives and depend on production half a world away to keep starvation at bay. And for generations we’ve outsourced our immune systems to vaccination programs— which are effective, no doubt about it, but which also means that we’ve sheltered ourselves from natural selection for the last century. As a species, our immune responses are far less robust than they’ve ever been in the past, just as we’re being faced with an unprecedented spread of novel pathogens into new environments.

    We’re sitting on a house of cards, man. A house of fucking cards.

    When did you become a believer in eugenics? Do you have any evidence for this?

    I looked up death rates around the world for the last pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu. The Wikipedia secton “Around the world” is very interesting. The more industrial the country and interlinked the country, the better the survival rate percentages. It was the more isolated communities and countries, the more exposed to “natural selection”, who got hammered.

    The host immune system is no doubt the most important survival factor for squid and rabbits. For humans, I say it’s the care you get from other human beings that contributes most to your survival, and has been so for hundreds of thousands of years, not just the past century. And the more science and technology backing the care, the better.

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  38. Greggles: Back to the current disaster, I really don’t like Premier Drug Fraud having the powers that state of emergency grants him.

    Hey, he’s already banned public gatherings of more than fifty people. There’s plenty of justification, sure, but there won’t be any anti-government protests for a while…

    Hugh: When did you become a believer in eugenics? Do you have any evidence for this?

    Matter of fact, yes. Check out “The Stockholm Paradigm“, out within the past year. The first few chapters are pretty deadly, but there’s no end of case studies. (Also I believe it got effusive praise from some bigwig at the UN, which last I checked was hardly a hotbed of racism.)

    Far as I know, Hugh, Eugenics was a political movement that misrepresented the principles of natural selection to promote a racist agenda. I know it’s a small step from there to condemning actual evolutionary principles as racist—certainly there’s no end of postmodernist idiots over in the Humanities Departments of the world’s campuses who make that step— but you might want to think twice before you follow them over that cliff.

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  39. Peter Watts,

    When everything faceplants you’ll be glad of the ginger beer 🙂

    Also, old newsprint scrunched up and rubbed repeatedly in a sort of doing-the-laundry-by-hand motion yields a soft TP substitute. I should know. Your real problem is that print is dead, and those flyers they litter our mailboxes with are all color prints with a gloss finish (and often on card stock, too).

    I agree with you tho that it’s all going to get much worse before it gets better. But it should get better, if only because we’re a kottam virus ourselves. Right?

    RIGHT?
    Right.

    ps: how many tp rolls wld a person need to buy options in the coming height/reach advantage-based protection racket economy? Asking for a friend who has an excess and willing to trade…

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  40. Peter Watts,

    Sigh. I wrote a long comment on my phone and accidentally submitted without creds. Dunno where it went lol… but I was saying:

    1. Newsprint makes a great substitute for toilet paper (you just have to scrunch it up and rub it till it softens). I also splurged on ginger beer so I see nothing wrong with your priorities – gotta find happiness where you can. 🙂

    2. Humanity will survive this if only because it’s a virus itself. In spite of which:

    3. It will def get worse before it gets better. I wish more elected officials studied complex systems theory and got on top of this sooner, the right way.

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  41. Peter Watts,

    I’m aware that a statement / theory isn’t false just because the person making it has horrible beliefs. I’m also aware that a statement / theory isn’t false just because there could be horrible consequences if it were true. (Eg recent Dawkins tweet.)

    That civilization is undoing natural selection by keeping the unfit alive is one eugenics belief, but there are others which you don’t put forward. So I apologize for suggesting that you are such a person.

    Started reading The Stockholm Paradigm. Maybe it will change my current opinion that human immune systems work equally as well right across the planet, but it’s going to take a while.

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  42. Anonymous: When everything faceplants you’ll be glad of the ginger beer

    Until this morning at 7a.m., we had far more bottles of ginger beer than rolls of toilet paper.

    Now, fortunately, we have equal numbers of each.

    old newsprint scrunched up and rubbed repeatedly in a sort of doing-the-laundry-by-hand motion yields a soft TP substitute.

    These days we’re using cats. They’re self-cleaning.

    how many tp rolls wld a person need to buy options in the coming height/reach advantage-based protection racket economy?

    You talking weekly or monthly?

    Hugh: Started reading The Stockholm Paradigm. Maybe it will change my current opinion that human immune systems work equally as well right across the planet, but it’s going to take a while.

    It will. The first chapters are loaded with (not especially compelling) historical context, and IMO aren’t that essential to the bottom line. But I’m puzzled by your belief that “human immune systems work equally as well right across the planet”. Human immune responses don’t even work equally well within the same neighborhood; they vary between individuals, just like height and eye color and every other morphometabolic trait. Natural selection wouldn’t work without such variation.

    The take-home message is that populations that have historically been forced to rely only on their own inherent immune responses will have been subject to stronger selection pressure than those who were shielded from such pressures, and will develop stronger immune responses as a result. Populations who’ve been exposed to malaria for generations will be more resistant to malaria than naive populations. Populations who have been exposed to smallpox for generations will do better against smallpox than traditionally-vaccinated populations who’ve lost their access to vaccines.

    I’m honestly perplexed as to how anyone could regard these observations as racist.

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  43. Regarding toilet paper, living and traveling in the east a number of years ago I found water was generally used in place of tp, either from a bucket with a scoop, or a hose (versions of which you can buy at Home Depot and the like now). On the road, I’d just use water in a bottle (not one I would drink from). It’s a little simpler on squat toilets than the sit-down versions we use in the west, but either way it’s faster, cleaner, and cheaper than tp, and always available.

    I tried using cats. Maybe it works better when they’re declawed?

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  44. Peter Watts,

    Populations who’ve been exposed to malaria for generations will be more resistant to malaria than naive populations. Populations who have been exposed to smallpox for generations will do better against smallpox than traditionally-vaccinated populations who’ve lost their access to vaccines.

    The reaction norm is going to complicate that. So will individual changes in immunocompetence due to experience.
    Not so sure about these examples, to be honest. The strongest response against malaria is in those heterozygous for the sickle-cell allele, and its prevalence in populations in malarious areas is due to long-term selection on that particular allele. Overall resistance to malaria in the absence of the sickle-cell allele in a population is a lot more nebulous. And I’ve never heard of a population guarded from smallpox for generations by immunization suddenly being exposed to the disease after having lost their access to the vaccine, although I can see that possibly happening to anti-vaxxer communities in the near future. Assuming that a smallpox carrier could be found to go among them – isn’t the disease extinct in the wild?
    Don’t mean to sound critical, Natural Selection is coming up in the syllabus and I am preparing myself for all sorts of questions.

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  45. Phil,

    Try rabbits. Simple observation shows that shit doesn’t stick to their fur.

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  46. Lars: The strongest response against malaria is in those heterozygous for the sickle-cell allele, and its prevalence in populations in malarious areas is due to long-term selection on that particular allele.

    That’s kinda my point. Granted my education in this stuff is now decades out of date, but my understanding is that sickle-cell anemia persists in tropical populations because the heterozygous state confers resistance to malaria— i.e., there’s a net benefit even factoring in the cost of the double-recessive. That’s natural selection in action: a gene that would otherwise get weeded out, persisting in areas where it confers resistance against a local disease. Invading populations, lacking it, are more vulnerable to malaria. What am I missing?

    As for smallpox, yeah. Extinct in the wild, but last I heard there was still debate over whether lab samples should be destroyed because you never know whether some nasty sonofabitch has kept cultures in their secret government labs. I don’t know how (or if) that debate played out, and I did kinda pull that example out of my ass. But I don’t see how that changes the general principle that diseases tend towards high lethality in naive populations and lower lethality in those that have had a chance to develop resistance.

    I mean, it’s almost tautological. Swap out smallpox for any other infectious disease you like; are you really going to tell me that a population that’s been living with it for a few centuries won’t be more resistant than one that just ran into it for the first time last Thursday?

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  47. It will. The first chapters are loaded with (not especially compelling) historical context, and IMO aren’t that essential to the bottom line. But I’m puzzled by your belief that “human immune systems work equally as well right across the planet”. Human immune responses don’t even work equally well within the same neighborhood; they vary between individuals, just like height and eye color and every other morphometabolic trait. Natural selection wouldn’t work without such variation.

    The take-home message is that populations that have historically been forced to rely only on their own inherent immune responses will have been subject to stronger selection pressure than those who were shielded from such pressures, and will develop stronger immune responses as a result. Populations who’ve been exposed to malaria for generations will be more resistant to malaria than naive populations. Populations who have been exposed to smallpox for generations will do better against smallpox than traditionally-vaccinated populations who’ve lost their access to vaccines.

    I’m honestly perplexed as to how anyone could regard these observations as racist.

    I apologize again, I did not think you were a racist.

    Trying again, I do think you are putting way too much emphasis on our immune system.

    Yes I am aware of the variation in immunity responses across groups and populations, and how that is affected by natural selection. And yes groups affected by malaria for a long time, eg many areas of Africa, have developed more resistance than groups from other parts of the planet. (Although I gather sickle cell anaemia is not exactly fun.)

    What I am trying to argue is that the effect of differential immune responses is, for human beings, unimportant compared to cultural factors. Here’s a graph from the World Health Organization showing malaria deaths per 100,000 people at risk:

    In Africa the mortality has nearly halved. In ten years. That is not natural selection at work, it’s our modern culture introducing mosquito nets and draining pools and spraying insecticides.

    We are not squid or rabbits. Cultural and social practices have always strongly affected our survival from illness, even on the savannah with stone tools. If I get diarrhea, I might die due to my immune system, but the much bigger risk is if I don’t have family and friends to bring me water and keep the hyenas away while I’m recovering.

    Same goes for today and Covid-19. You complained in your blog post about Canada not closing the border with the USA. I assume this is not because you’re worried about unfavourable genetic traits showing up the Canadian population a couple of decades from now.

    Why do we have different mortality rates from Covid 19 in different countries? I doubt it’s genetics. Why are we talking about “flattening the curve” and mask production and ICU availabiliity? Because cultural factors (I’m including science and technology under this) are far more important.

    I see the same observations as you do, and don’t regard them as racist. I think we just differ on their importance.

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  48. I apologize again for suggesting that you were racist. That wasn’t my intention.

    Trying again, I don’t dispute that there is variation in immune system responses within populations and groups, and that these are affected by natural selection. What I meant by “equally well across the planet” is that there are not groups who are particularly disease prone, or groups who have demonstrably superior immune systems to everybody else.

    Yes, long term populations in Africa have more resistance to malaria than groups from other parts of the planet. But here’s a graph from the World Health Organization showing malarial deaths per 100,000 people at risk:

    https://www.who.int/gho/malaria/epidemic/deaths/en/

    The mortality rate has nearly halved in Africa. In ten years. That is not due to natural selection or better immune systems. It’s cultural factors, mosquito nets and draining pools and spraying. (And seriously, if you had the power would you cancel these programs and apologise to Africans?)

    For human beings, I’m saying cultural factors have always been important, even in our savannah stone age days. If I’m a hunter gatherer with diarrhea, I might die because of my immune system. I’m much more likely to die if I don’t have family or friends to bring me water and keep the hyenas away while I’m recovering.

    Same today for Covid-19. You complained in the original post about Canada not closing the border with the USA. I assume this not because you’re concerned about unfavourable genetic traits appearing in the Canadian population a couple of decades from now?

    I strongly doubt there are so many Covid-19 deaths in Italy because there’s something unique about their immune responses. All the discussions about “flattening the curve” and masks and tests and hospital ICU availability are cultural factors (I’m including science and technology under culture). Nothing to do with immune responses.

    I think we both observe the same things, but disagree on their importance.

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  49. Peter Watts,

    What am I missing?
    Well, nothing in essence, but I mentioned the reaction norm – plasticity is going to play a role in response to immunochallenges. The sickle-cell allele confers resistance to malaria in heterozygotes and there’s no question about this being the subject of natural selection in malarious areas. I was referring to homozygote normal individuals, however – there will be some variance in response to malaria even in the absence of the protective allele, and this will depend upon immune system experience and quite possibly upon some individual variation in innate immune system strength. Selection is going to have an effect, and a strong one, but it’s complicated by the reactive nature of the immune system.
    …are you really going to tell me that a population that’s been living with it for a few centuries won’t be more resistant than one that just ran into it for the first time last Thursday?
    No, you’re correct, I think. That wasn’t what I was trying to say, just that smallpox might not be a good contemporary example (obviously it would be a good one if you’re looking at the history of the Americas). Again, it was the reaction norm I wanted to bring up.

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  50. Peter Watts:

    It will. The first chapters are loaded with (not especially compelling) historical context, and IMO aren’t that essential to the bottom line. But I’m puzzled by your belief that “human immune systems work equally as well right across the planet”. Human immune responses don’t even work equally well within the same neighborhood; they vary between individuals, just like height and eye color and every other morphometabolic trait. Natural selection wouldn’t work without such variation.

    The take-home message is that populations that have historically been forced to rely only on their own inherent immune responses will have been subject to stronger selection pressure than those who were shielded from such pressures, and will develop stronger immune responses as a result. Populations who’ve been exposed to malaria for generations will be more resistant to malaria than naive populations. Populations who have been exposed to smallpox for generations will do better against smallpox than traditionally-vaccinated populations who’ve lost their access to vaccines.

    I’m honestly perplexed as to how anyone could regard these observations as racist.

    But Peter, you’re talking about natural selection, something that generally happens over longer time scales than what, 5 generations?
    Also, you need to show that we have alleles conferring resistance to smallpox in the first place.

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  51. Hugh: I think we both observe the same things, but disagree on their importance.

    Honestly, I don’t think we even disagree on that much. Go back and look at my original comment: I was disagreeing with the claim that complex interdependent societies are going to be more robust in apocalyptic scenarios than simpler ones (the Bronze Age had been invoked). My primary argument was based on supply line fragility: that food sources were hundreds to thousands of kilometers removed from the populations they fed, and that was a huge vulnerability when infrastructure collapsed. I pointed out that diseases spread more rapidly in crowded environments (hence the urban pandemic thing), regardless of immune response. I threw in the outsourced immunity thing as one variable among many— because our twenty-first century immune responses have been supplemented and sheltered in ways the Bronze-Age society we were comparing it to was hot— and not even the most important.

    For some reason, that was the variable you chose to put front and center. But that wasn’t me.

    Lars: No, you’re correct, I think. That wasn’t what I was trying to say, just that smallpox might not be a good contemporary example (obviously it would be a good one if you’re looking at the history of the Americas).

    Again, I wasn’t making arguments about specific historical events. I was citing examples to illustrate a general point that applies to any population of any species; as far as I can tell we all agree on that larger principle.

    Tran Script: But Peter, you’re talking about natural selection, something that generally happens over longer time scales than what, 5 generations?

    Definitively no. Natural selection happens with every generation: individuals vary within a population, and when resources or the physical environment becomes limiting in some way, those variants most suited to the changed conditions survive better and leave more offspring. If there’s a genetic component to the adaptive traits, they spread through subsequent generations as long as they remain adaptive.

    Maybe you’re thinking about “speciation”, which, yes, generally takes longer than five generations. But if you think that anyone here claimed that Bronze Age humans were a different species than we are, you haven’t been paying attention. (Also you need to clarify which definition of “species” you’re using. If you’re using the Golden Oldie definition of reproductive isolation, then yes, it takes many generations to speciate; but then you have to count lions and tigers as one species, since they interbreed. Same with killer whales and pilot whales. Also you have to describe chihuahuas and Irish wolfhounds as separate species. OTOH, if you define a species as “any population following an independent evolutionary trajectory”, then a single generation can do the trick so long as some founding population gets washed up on an island somewhere.

    Also, you may be laboring under some serious misconception about how natural selection works in the first place. I get the sense you think that a species encounters changed conditions and then adapts in response. This is exactly backwards: the adaptive traits (along with a whole shitload of other ones) has to already exist in the population before the change occurs: then the individuals manifesting that trait have an edge. The fish doesn’t say “Hey, the pond’s drying up: I guess I better evolve lungs”; Nature says “hey, the pond’s drying up. Lucky for that fish over there that he happens to have a fistula between his esophagus and his swim bladder. He’ll be able to use his bladder to breathe air long enough to wiggle over to that bigger pond. Shame about everyone else.”

    Also, you need to show that we have alleles conferring resistance to smallpox in the first place.

    No I don’t. Doesn’t matter whether we’re talking smallpox, the common cold, or the Andromeda Strain: if no one in the population has some heritable trait that confers resistance, then—barring lucky physical isolation or technological intervention— the population goers extinct. That’s natural selection too.

    Also I think you mean “gene” when you say “allele”. Allelles are alternative forms of a given gene.

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  52. Peter Watts:
    Definitively no. Natural selection happens with every generation: individuals vary within a population, and when resources or the physical environment becomes limiting in some way, those variants most suited to the changed conditions survive better and leave more offspring. If there’s a genetic component to the adaptive traits, they spread through subsequent generations as long as they remain adaptive.

    Ok let me try again:
    But Peter, you’re talking about an appreciable change in allele frequency, something that generally happens over longer time scales than what, 5 generations?

    Peter Watts:

    Also, you may be laboring under some serious misconception about how natural selection works in the first place. I get the sense you think that a species encounters changed conditions and then adapts in response.

    Lol, what the fuck did I say that makes you think this?

    Peter Watts: No I don’t. Doesn’t matter whether we’re talking smallpox, the common cold, or the Andromeda Strain: if no one in the population has some heritable trait that confers resistance, then—barring lucky physical isolation or technological intervention— the population goers extinct. That’s natural selection too.

    But isn’t your argument that vaccines are bad because it means our adaptive alleles toward certain diseases get lost/unselected? That’s assuming we have any in the first place. With malaria that is certainly the case but why should it be general? Also, the mutation in sickle-cell is literally in hemoglobin, not a protein associated with immunity.

    Also no, I mean allele!

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  53. Peter Watts: (and, as it turns out, those of the US DOD)

    Which is not surprising – I’ve already heard some wild speculation that years ago some variant of SARS broke free on some US military bases, as well as the fact that several scientists (including Chinese) have been working with these variants. It is still not clear if the presumable quarantine break would be intentional or by accident, if it was engineered or appeared by mutation, whether the world panic is generated by a single source or group thinking. What is important is how we are going to recover – if any measure of “recovery” can be calculated from now on.

    See, in opinion of some “economic expert” type people I’ve heard, the situation is not only a danger to a society, but also an opportunity. For example, and opportunity to get out of current recession, for example, by clamping down on speculative capital mechanisms of trade, contraband and labor movement. Proverbially speaking, governments are trying to slam on the brakes, to prevent economy going bad for them.
    https://www.technologyreview.com/f/615369/uk-dropping-coronavirus-herd-immunity-strategy-250000-dead/

    For the international corporations, it is becoming harder to conceal the fact that the growth is in recess for almost in decade, and thus the panic attacks on the market, which are written off as “consequences of pandemic”. But for government it is pretty obvious that they can seize the control at least for the relatively short time that this “pandemic” is in effects, and it is natural that more “conservative/totalitarian/not free” societies are better at it than “liberal/democratic/free” ones. But this is only for now. By the end of the Q2 this panic will most definitely blow over, and if China is still interested in staving off economic disasters, they will invest harder for a while.

    Thus I still believe that, as I mentioned in last comment, this is a temporary recession (even is a significant one), and there will be a short period of recovery, since these measures are still just slapped on top of the curve at last moment. Nothing really seems to change inside the society that believes that it is normal to import most of your food, goods and resources from other continents and also make them pay for that. These other continents have plenty of their own rich people now.

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  54. Tran Script: Ok let me try again:
    But Peter, you’re talking about an appreciable change in allele frequency, something that generally happens over longer time scales than what, 5 generations?

    Depends entirely on the strength of the selection pressure. If you’re talking about teensy selection pressure—say, a gene that confers a measly 0.001% fitness advantaged in the changed environment—then population-wide frequencies will take a while to manifest. OTOH, if you’re talking about resistance to (for example) that mutated airborne avian flu with a 75% mortality rate that was in the news a few years back, or anoxia-tolerance following a massive Cambrian mudslide, or even the ability to subsist on small amounts of detritus and carrion after a big rock smashes into Chicxulub—well, in cases like those, allele frequency changes pretty much overnight. Sun goes down, Trait X occurs in maybe 5% of the population; sun comes up, the absolute number of individuals manifesting Trait X hasn’t changed, but they now comprise 95% of the population.

    Lol, what the fuck did I say that makes you think this?

    Mainly that you seemed to think natural selection was something that only happened over long timescales, as opposed to something that happens all the time in every generation. But I’m willing to chalk it up to sloppy wording.

    But isn’t your argument that vaccines are bad because it means our adaptive alleles toward certain diseases get lost/unselected?

    No. My argument was that twenty-first century societies are more fragile than Bronze Age societies because their greater complexity and vastly more-distributed interdependencies make them more fragile (in the same way that hammers and quantum computers are both tools, but one is a lot easier to break than the other). I never said that vaccines were “bad”; I simply cited the outsourcing of our immune responses as one example of that fragility. The use of vaccines obviates, to some extent, the role of natural selection in conferring resistance. Whether you consider that “bad” or not, I suppose, comes down to how much of a fan you are of natural death tolls.

    That’s assuming we have any in the first place. With malaria that is certainly the case but why should it be general?

    Are you seriously suggesting that evolved immunity to pathogens plays no significant role in nature?

    Also, the mutation in sickle-cell is literally in hemoglobin, not a protein associated with immunity.

    What difference does the location of relevant mutations make? Natural selection doesn’t care where a gene is located; it only cares about phenotypic expressions that can be acted upon. If a gene confers resistance to a disease, then by definition it is a functional immune element.

    You seem to be implying that we should exclude everything that isn’t an actual antibody from consideration—in which case, I know a few WBCs who might like a word with you…

    Also no, I mean allele!

    If that’s what you meant then that’s what you meant. Not quite sure why you’d want to exclude monotypic genes from the discussion, though.

    listedproxyname: See, in opinion of some “economic expert” type people I’ve heard, the situation is not only a danger to a society, but also an opportunity.

    I have to admit I also see it as an opportunity. It’s a drag that it took a pandemic to get us off our asses, but by the time this is “over” we’ll hopefully have much better telecommuting infrastructure in place; at the very least that should put a big dent in our carbon emissions going forward, if we can only push back hard enough when the airlines and the auto manufacturers tell us that the danger’s past and it’s time for us all to get back into our cars and sardine ourselves back into Tourist Class and do our consumey best to restore The Economy.

    I’m not especially hopeful. But the odds have improved, I think.

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  55. Peter Watts said, “Naomi Klein’s making the same basic point with her Disaster Capitalism scenario. Stuff like this just makes it easier for those in power to impose ever-more-draconian controls in the same of the Public Good, which somehow never get rescinded once the crisis has passed.”

    You are right. Homeland Security, meant as a temporary reaction to 9/11 are still here 19 years later. Thanks for Naomi Klein’s name check, I will check her writing out.

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  56. Peter Watts: Are you seriously suggesting that evolved immunity to pathogens plays no significant role in nature?

    No, I’m just questioning the generality of that assertion.

    Peter Watts: What difference does the location of relevant mutations make? Natural selection doesn’t care where a gene is located; it only cares about phenotypic expressions that can be acted upon. If a gene confers resistance to a disease, then by definition it is a functional immune element.

    Is it though? It doesn’t change your immune system’s intrinsic response capacity, it just somehow makes it harder for the parasite to infect red blood cells or whatever.

    I mean, this is the quote I have issues with:

    Peter Watts: We live in hives and depend on production half a world away to keep starvation at bay. And for generations we’ve outsourced our immune systems to vaccination programs— which are effective, no doubt about it, but which also means that we’ve sheltered ourselves from natural selection for the last century. As a species, our immune responses are far less robust than they’ve ever been in the past, just as we’re being faced with an unprecedented spread of novel pathogens into new environments.

    Can you explain to me how the fuck our immune systems are “far less robust” because we’ve been vaccinating against a subset of diseases for 5 generations. Also, the wording seems to imply that we are also losing robustness to new pathogens, but why should this be the case except in cases where the new pathogen is some closely related variant to a pathogen we’ve been vaccinating against and (hypothetically) subsequent lost our adaptive alleles for?

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  57. Also what is that flu you mentioned with 75% mortality rate?
    If this was like 100 generations or if we were talking like MAD mortality rates a la the black death, then I’d be much more open to this argument but right now I’m not buying it.

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  58. Tran Script: No, I’m just questioning the generality of that assertion.

    If you’re question the generality of an assertion about the significance of an effect, you are questioning the significance of the effect. By definition.

    Is it though? It doesn’t change your immune system’s intrinsic response capacity, it just somehow makes it harder for the parasite to infect red blood cells or whatever.

    I think you’re getting way too hung up on the boundaries of what you call “the immune system”, to the point of somehow discounting any resistance that doesn’t arise from antibody activity. Natural selection doesn’t give a flying fuck about the labels we hang on body parts; all it cares about is whether an adaptive trait has a heritable element. A heritable trait that makes it harder for Plasmodium to get a foothold is a trait that confers resistance/immunity. That’s what matters.

    Can you explain to me how the fuck our immune systems are “far less robust” because we’ve been vaccinating against a subset of diseases for 5 generations.

    I could, but Brooks et al do it better:

    “Genetic load is a term referring to the reduction in the mean fitness of one population
    relative to a population composed entirely of individuals having optimal genotypes. It is an
    inescapable yet unintended by-product of the success of medical technology. When we
    intervene to help host selective response to pathogens, paradoxically we risk countering that very
    selection, both from the host and the pathogen’s perspective. Annual vaccinations are the easiest
    example to illustrate this point.

    Let’s imagine a host population made up of some individuals who are resistant to a given
    pathogen and others who are not. With respect to the genetic basis of resistance, the smaller the
    proportion of susceptible hosts the lower the genetic load. We expect selection to favor
    resistance, so we expect to find that most host populations have a distribution of variation
    relating to resistance and susceptibility to a given pathogen like the one shown in figure 8.2, in
    which the majority of hosts are resistant. Vaccination programs do not target those individuals
    directly, because they are already resistant. Therefore, vaccines target and selectively preserve
    hosts that are not genetically resistant. In this way, mass vaccination programs – if they are
    successful – will actually increase the genetic load in susceptible host populations (figure 8.2).
    An increasingly larger proportion of the host population will require the vaccination to survive.
    Mass vaccination programs are no longer just a good idea, they are essential. When that point is
    reached, high genetic load means that if we stop mass vaccinations, a far larger proportion of
    hosts will be in danger of disease than before we began the vaccination program.”

    why should this be the case except in cases where the new pathogen is some closely related variant to a pathogen we’ve been vaccinating against

    What, you mean like the way Avian Flu, Swine Flu, Canine Flu, Spanish Flu, Russian Flu, and Hong Kong Flu are all influenzaviruses?

    Also what is that flu you mentioned with 75% mortality rate?

    An H5N1 variant tweaked by Fouchier et al back in 2012.

    right now I’m not buying it.

    Imagine my dismay.

    And now it’s time for you to start doing your own homework on this subject. Me, I have an apocalypse to endure.

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  59. It seems to me, we’re applying different yardsticks to “survival” for modern societies and bronze age ones… we’re “collapsing” if we can’t have our favourite brand of cereal, or we run out of TP, meanwhile Bronze agers are fine if they’re still around in some form after an extinction event… I think apples and oranges apply here. Minoan civ. didn’t survive the volcanic eruption too good, no fleet of friendly NGO ships coming to give them aid turned up.

    I think that, if we’re discussing “any kind of biological feature” that protects you as immunity, the bigger the population the more resistant it is. If only people with a rare surfactant protein variant survive the next lung bug, then a 6 billion strong population is going to do better than a 400k bronze age empire…by that definition, our massive populations give us defense in depth.

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  60. Nestor,

    The concept of “pandemic defense-in-depth” is very interesting and gives a different spin on things than I’d considered before. Thanks for mentioning it.

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  61. Peter Watts,

    Covid-19 isn’t an influenzavirus. Human-hosted coronavirii are very different(and much rarer) than influenzavirii.

    Nestor,

    I think we’ll probably be “around in some form” after an extinction event, and probably not much else. What we’re experiencing now isn’t an extinction event, but the GDP is *plummeting* which does have real consequences besides not being able to afford nice things. It has real consequences like people becoming homeless, people being unable to procure food for themselves, breakdown of key supply chains. The fact that something as relatively small as a pandemic can cause this much damage is evidence that the system is very unstable.

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  62. Nestor:
    It seems to me, we’re applying different yardsticks to “survival” for modern societies and bronze age ones…

    [Snippage]

    If only people with a rare surfactant protein variant survive the next lung bug, then a 6 billion strong population is going to do better than a 400k bronze age empire…by that definition, our massive populations give us defense in depth.

    This is where I repeat the whole “one variable among many” thing. Certainly, a bigger population is going to supply a bigger reservoir of replacement/resistance than a small one… but seven or eight billion people deprived of their supply chains are gonna have a much harder time hunting and gathering than a 400k Bronze Age population. I would also suspect that—after the population of the Greater Toronto Area demonstrates its inability to survive off of grass, twigs, and chewy asphalt—the millions of bodies piled up in the streets might result in far worse downstream disease issues than you’d get in smaller population centers. (People in rural areas will be far better off.)

    We’re talking about the overall net fragility of modern societies vs simpler ones in the face of ecological disruption. I argue that we’re a house of cards for a variety of reasons, of which pathogens are only a subset.

    I’m starting to wonder, given the way people seem to be seizing on the disease angle to the exclusion of the others, if I might be seeing an allergic overreaction to the word “vaccination”. Justified rejection of the whole “Vaccines cause autism and SIDS” mentality might have generalized to a reflexive hostility to any argument involving a down side to vaccination, whether associated with the antivaxxer crowd or not.

    popefucker: Covid-19 isn’t an influenzavirus.

    Oops. Thanks. Fixed.

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  63. Peter Watts: I could, but Brooks et al do it better: *long quote*

    All fine and dandy. Now show that humans have genetic adaptions to e.g. the flu and tell me how quickly these alleles will change in frequency. Hell, the vast majority of e.g. corona virus victims are the elderly. How exactly does that exert a selection pressure?
    I mean, if we were talking e.g. vaccinations to malaria, then I think you’re completely right. The sickle-cell allele will decrease in frequency (slowly, because only homozygotes have notable adverse effects) and at some point you’d need to keep up the vaccine because if you let go, bam, everybody dies of malaria.

    It’s just the generality of the “far less robust” after FIVE generations thing I’m questioning.

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  64. Tran Script: All fine and dandy. Now show that humans have genetic adaptions to…

    I think you may have skipped over that bit about it being time to start doing your own homework…

    It’s just the generality of the “far less robust” after FIVE generations thing I’m questioning.

    If all you’re doing is bickering over FIVE generations, then you’re not arguing for reasons; you’re just arguing. And you’re not even arguing with me, because I never invoked five generations even in lower case. That was you. You’re arguing with yourself.

    And as I said, I have other things to do right now.

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  65. Peter Watts: It’s a drag that it took a pandemic to get us off our asses, but by the time this is “over” we’ll hopefully have much better telecommuting infrastructure in place; at the very least that should put a big dent in our carbon emissions going forward, if we can only push back hard enough when the airlines and the auto manufacturers tell us that the danger’s past and it’s time for us all to get back into our cars and sardine ourselves back into Tourist Class and do our consumey best to restore The Economy.

    Not to mention reports of QAnon types and antivaxxers self-medicating with bleach. Silver lining indeed.

    listedproxyname: and it is natural that more “conservative/totalitarian/not free” societies are better at it than “liberal/democratic/free” ones.

    From the evidence thus far, corralling the disease depends more on people’s attitudes and rational behavior than any measures the totalitarian/liberal government is (not) implementing.

    E.g. Iran, Italy and the US all botched their response to the pandemic for very different reasons. China and South Korea – very different systems – did well to contain the outbreak.

    Even the most draconian measures will fail unless folks are smart enough to obey them – you can’t put huge cities on total lockdown by sheer force alone.

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  66. Peter Watts: I’m starting to wonder, given the way people seem to be seizing on the disease angle to the exclusion of the others, if I might be seeing an allergic overreaction to the word “vaccination”. Justified rejection of the whole “Vaccines cause autism and SIDS” mentality might have generalized to a reflexive hostility to any argument involving a down side to vaccination, whether associated with the antivaxxer crowd or not.

    To be fair, you did have that one post where you flirted with what people misunderstood to be advocating against vaccines so that might be it.

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  67. wetcogbag,

    Yeah, and I probably wasn’t sufficiently articulate back then. I’d internalized the ideas of a book that was in the process of being written, filtered through several pints of ale. This time, at least, I had an actual quote from the finished work. Harder to fuck up the interpretation this way.

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  68. Peter Watts,
    So lets say there was a subspecies of humans that needed the other humans for food would they be able to withstand the amount of diseases populations were exposed to since domesticating animals. It seems like the diseases that jumped to them would make it very hard to hunt people successfully even with some resistance,

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  69. This may be a cobbler debating the finer points of theology with a bishop but here goes…

    First of all i must admit that my layman understanding of a vaccine was that it exposed the body to a pathogen so that it could develop the relevant antibodies before a full blown infection happens. Thus i find the claim that it weakens the immune system overall a bit odd.

    Now antibiotics may well have said outcome though as it kills the bacteria directly rather than teach the body to fight its own fight. And antibiotic resistance pretty much is natural selection writ large.

    That said, there are non-genetic factors to account for when considering the outcome of an infection. And once those are added in one quickly descend into the realm of things like just world philosophy and Calvinist predestination.

    As for eugenics i find myself drawing a distinction between passive and active variants of such.

    The passive being to let whoever dies die, and something i sometimes wish society would practice when some adrenaline junkie get stuck somewhere. And expecting to get rescued by a society they otherwise reject the rules of.

    The active kind is the kind we most associate with the term, and that has lead to such horrors as forced sterilization programs and Nazi death camps.

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  70. digi_owl: Thus i find the claim that it weakens the immune system overall a bit odd.

    As Peter quoted earlier from Brooks et al:

    “Genetic load is a term referring to the reduction in the mean fitness of one population relative to a population composed entirely of individuals having optimal genotypes. It is an inescapable yet unintended by-product of the success of medical technology. When we intervene to help host selective response to pathogens, paradoxically we risk countering that very selection, both from the host and the pathogen’s perspective. Annual vaccinations are the easiest example to illustrate this point.

    Let’s imagine a host population made up of some individuals who are resistant to a given pathogen and others who are not. With respect to the genetic basis of resistance, the smaller the proportion of susceptible hosts the lower the genetic load. We expect selection to favor resistance, so we expect to find that most host populations have a distribution of variation relating to resistance and susceptibility to a given pathogen like the one shown in figure 8.2, in which the majority of hosts are resistant. Vaccination programs do not target those individuals directly, because they are already resistant. Therefore, vaccines target and selectively preserve hosts that are not genetically resistant. In this way, mass vaccination programs – if they are successful – will actually increase the genetic load in susceptible host populations (figure 8.2).

    An increasingly larger proportion of the host population will require the vaccination to survive. Mass vaccination programs are no longer just a good idea, they are essential. When that point is reached, high genetic load means that if we stop mass vaccinations, a far larger proportion of hosts will be in danger of disease than before we began the vaccination program.”

    As I understand it, the claim wasn’t that it weakens the immune system in a particular individual but rather it allows for whatever genetic vulnerability the viral payload exploits to accumulate in future iterations of said individual’s species, to the point where, if for some reason the species could not be innoculated, they would all as a whole be significantly more vulnerable as opposed to if their ancestors were left to the usual method of “survival of the currently fittest”, because then the ones with the vulnerable genetic payload would have been weeded out and only those who could survive without being innoculated would survive.

    Now, I could be wrong in my understanding of said passage, or of the claim Peter made so feel free to tear me new ones if so.

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  71. No, that’s pretty much it. The salient points are

    1. We’re not talking about an individual’s immunity, but the genetic load of an entire population whose members show a range of immune responses; and

    2. It’s not that vaccines don’t work or that they “weaken the immune system”; the point is that they work too damn well, to the point of rendering the natural immune system increasingly irrelevant (and thus, less subject to the selective pressures that would otherwise decrease genetic load— closer to the “passive” eugenics that digi_owl is okay with.

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  72. By the way Peter, how’s the New Normal looking in Ontario so far?

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  73. We will see the urban versus rural situation pretty quickly, in Canada, I would guess.

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  74. Anonymous: So lets say there was a subspecies of humans that needed the other humans for food would they be able to withstand the amount of diseases populations were exposed to since domesticating animals. It seems like the diseases that jumped to them would make it very hard to hunt people successfully even with some resistance,

    We don’t have to hypothesize about that, actually. Cannibalistic societies are/were a Thing in our species; and while humans in general have had to deal with an increase in zoonotics originally acquired from domesticated animals*, cannibals also had to deal with diseases acquired directly from the humans they devoured. Prion diseases in particular; which is why cannibalistic societies had elevated genetic resistance to prion disease (see “Balancing Selection at the Prion Protein Gene Consistent with Prehistoric Kurulike Epidemics” by Mead et al, 2003, Science 300: 640-643).

    *Something else covered in The Stockholm Paradigm.

    wetcogbag:
    By the way Peter, how’s the New Normal looking in Ontario so far?

    So far, from the perspective of a midlist writer working at home, not much difference. The main differences are I see a lot more of my wife, and I have to get up at 6am to engage in single combat for rations of toilet paper down at the armory. Both of these are good things.

    I’m still waiting for people to discover my backlist and start calling me a prophet.

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  75. Peter Watts: So far, from the perspective of a midlist writer working at home, not much difference. The main differences are I see a lot more of my wife, and I have to get up at 6am to engage in single combat for rations of toilet paper down at the armory. Both of these are good things.

    I’m still waiting for people to discover my backlist and start calling me a prophet.

    To be fair, going by how people from the mainstream typically reacted to you in the past, they’re sooner to accuse you of enjoying this entire state of affairs since you wrote about it so you clearly want it to come to pass.

    .. then again, I wouldn’t blame you if you were enjoying yourself a little bit.

    I sort of am, mostly morbid curiosity, like watching water swirl down the drain or a massive pileup on the interstate.

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  76. Hey Peter, you’ve drawn me out of hiding once again. And for basically the same reason as before.

    Like Hugh and Tran Script, I’m objecting to this quote, but especially to the second sentence:

    Peter Watts: And for generations we’ve outsourced our immune systems to vaccination programs— which are effective, no doubt about it, but which also means that we’ve sheltered ourselves from natural selection for the last century. As a species, our immune responses are far less robust than they’ve ever been in the past, just as we’re being faced with an unprecedented spread of novel pathogens into new environments.

    Before I get into specifically what I object to, I want to say that I’m sure it’s weird to have at least 3 people all scrutinize the same two sentences you made in a comment (not even the OP!), that were part of a larger much less controversial point. For what it’s worth, I agree that modern societies are less robust than bronze age ones. If the grocery stores close and the supply lines fail, a lot of us are going to be fucked. The weird paranoid corner of my brain is wishing I had become a prepper 4 years ago. Or at least 4 months ago. It’s scary. That part of your claim is uncontroversial as far as I’m concerned. It’s the quoted part above that’s contentious. The reason it set me (and presumably the others) off is four-fold:

    1) Given the current context (and your previous comments) we’re all surviving through, it’s hard not to read it as you’re arguing genetic load is playing a part in our current pandemic. That 100 years of vaccination has made us fragile, undermining our immune system, making us susceptible to novel diseases, and it is culminating in this and future pandemics. This claim, I will say up front, is just flat wrong. But I can’t tell if you actually meant it or not. More on that below.

    2) You have recent history of misunderstanding Brooks’ arguments and inappropriately trying to apply it to vaccination and our present moment. I realize you have actual quotes this time, and you’re not trying to piece together a drunken conversation. But if you’re arguing what it seems like you’re arguing (point 1 above, more or less), then that quote doesn’t support your argument. Either way, your misplaced vaccine skepticism has precedent at this point, and for those of us that like you, enjoy your work, think you’re very wrong, and thought we dissuaded you once already, there’s a certain urgency to dissuading you again now.

    3) We’re all anxious, bored, and agitated while we shelter in place, watch the body count climb, and the economy implode.

    4) There’s probably (?) some basic semantic level miscommunication happening here. The claim in 1) above is contingent on some really fundamental misunderstandings of genetic load, selection pressure, vaccination, and immunology that you mostly aren’t making anywhere else. It seems like you understand this stuff. So, I think maybe you were being a little sloppy in making a point, because it’s a throw-away line in a random comment on your personal blog, and we’re scrutinizing it more than you ever expected.

    With that in mind, I want to tear down that one offending sentence and pinpoint what makes it, uh, offending.

    1) “As a species, our immune responses are far less robust”

    I think this is probably just a semantic thing. When you say “immune responses,” particularly in relation to vaccines, those of us at least somewhat versed in immunology think immediately of the immune system and specifically the adaptive (active) immune system. But you’re probably thinking about things that might reasonably or at least plausibly be included in the innate (passive) immune system. We’re thinking of white blood cells and antibodies, and you’re thinking about random adaptive kludges like sickle cell trait or decreased expression of random cell receptors. The key word here is “response”. Response implies reactive, but that’s not necessarily what you actually mean.

    2) “far less robust than they’ve ever been in the past”

    This is why Tran Script was harping on FIVE generations (I think you owe them an apology, frankly). You specify yourself (in the first half of the quote above) that a century of vaccination has resulted in shielding ourselves from natural selection. You’re drawing on the concept of genetic load, so the idea is that we’ve been neutering not just any evolved resistance we would’ve developed, but any we had at the beginning. What’s contentious about this is the timeline. A generation, typically defined, is 20 years, so a century is five generations. Five generations isn’t very long, evolutionarily. The quote from Brooks is a hypothetical that assumes widespread resistance to a given pathogen, and an indefinite timeline, but you’re trying to inappropriately apply it more broadly to our present. Recall that we don’t generally vaccinate against things we’re largely resistant to. We (mostly) vaccinate against things that, even if the mortality rates aren’t super high, cause serious crippling complications and mass suffering. There wasn’t a huge well of resistance-granting alleles for us to lose through genetic load, and the selection pressure exerted by the diseases mostly weren’t strong enough to elevate any low-frequency alleles out there in just five generations. I’ll second Tran Script here and say that if you were talking about 100 generations or very strong selection pressures (eg, 75% mortality flu) then this claim would make a lot more sense. But it’s also completely beside the point because…

    3) “…just as we’re being faced with an unprecedented spread of **novel** pathogens into new environments.”

    This is not how genetic load even works! Genetic load of vaccination, as described right there in that Brooks quote you provided, applies narrowly to our collective resistance against the disease(s) being vaccinated against. It DOES NOT apply broadly in terms of our overall immunocompetence. So after generations of vaccinating against Pathogen A, the population will have built up genetic load with respect to Pathogen A. Which in turn means we become dependent on our Pathogen A vaccines. What it won’t do is make our overall immune response less robust. It certainly won’t build up genetic load with respect to novel Pathogen X. We are inherently susceptible to novel pathogens! That’s, like, the whole danger of novel pathogens! We don’t have any collective resistance to lose to genetic load. This is why the expanding habitats of disease vectors and the emergence of novel pathogens is scary. Not because we have genetic load, but because we have no innate resistance to them. The scariness is completely unrelated to our history of vaccination.

    It could be true that if society falls apart now, and a new generation is born without access to vaccination, then that new generation would be more susceptible to all the things their parents and grandparents were vaccinated against. Suddenly rubella, diptheria, mumps, pertussis, and a bunch of other diseases are scary again. I’m a little skeptical of the timeline of it (1-5 generations, depending on the vaccine), but at least it properly applies the concept of genetic load. Maybe that was the argument you’ve been meaning to make all along?

    To wrap up, yes I just spent 600 words dissecting one sentence and a claim I’m not even sure you intended to make. Based on some of your other responses in this thread it seems like you get most of this stuff. You get that immunity is not just white blood cells and antibodies, and that genetic load can and would relate to other traits (eg sickle cell trait) that aren’t conventionally part of the adaptive immune system, yet confer resistance. You get that vaccinating against smallpox decreases resistance to smallpox, specifically. You seem to understand the specific concepts, but when you go to synthesize them into a takeaway message it somehow devolves into some version of “mass vaccinations make us collectively, immunologically, susceptible to novel diseases”. Which is wrong! Your more recent comment that “the point is that [vaccines] work too damn well, to the point of rendering the natural immune system increasingly irrelevant” makes me wonder if you actually even understand how vaccines or the immune system work, but you’ve seemed to understand both in the past, so that (like the original offending quote) can probably be chalked up to semantic sloppiness on your part and hypervigilance on mine. You do seem a little prone to hyperbole, and I’m certainly prone to hypervigilance. That’s why I said near the beginning I think this is largely a misunderstanding owing to semantics, your previous misadventures on the topic, and our present (*cough*) circumstances. Hopefully this helps you understand why so many people reacted strongly to those two sentences, and if I’m right it was just a misunderstanding, then hopefully it helps us all get on the same page. And if it wasn’t a misunderstanding, hopefully it helps you see where your reasoning is going astray.

    Apologies for my complete inability to keep comments under a thousand words.

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  77. Hi, MH,

    I’m not convinced we really disagree all that much.

    The way I think of it is: imagine two populations, A and B, which start out pretty much the same. A gets vaccinated against a wide range of diseases; B doesn’t, so individuals susceptible to those diseases get disproportionately filtered out. A and B travel into the future side by side, comparably resistant, but A’s resistance has been outsourced while B’s remains homeschooled.

    Now: let civilization collapse. A stops getting vaccinations. Which population is going to fare better?

    I’m pretty sure we agree on this point, if for no other reason than that you explicitly state as much:

    if society falls apart now, and a new generation is born without access to vaccination, then that new generation would be more susceptible to all the things their parents and grandparents were vaccinated against. Suddenly rubella, diptheria, mumps, pertussis, and a bunch of other diseases are scary again.

    That’s the point I was trying to make. And perhaps I was too sloppy with regards to your Point #3. When I said “spread of novel pathogens into new environments”, I didn’t necessarily mean novel as in “new pathogen previously unknown to science”; I meant novel in the the new environment (i.e. bugs spreading out of their traditional ranges into areas where potential hosts lack any acquired resistance, thanks to climate change and global transportation networks). I don’t know if that mitigates your objection, but more on that below in any case.

    You are skeptical of a century-long timeline. I’m guessing that’s because you have expertise in the infection specs of particular pathogens. I lack that specific expertise; but as I understand it, the time scales involved should vary depending on the bug. If something with a really high mortality rate burns through the neighborhood you don’t need five generations to change the complexion of the population. Hell, you don’t even need one generation. If 30% of a population lacks innate resistance to some bug, and half of them die in an outbreak, the resistant proportion of the population goes from 70% to 82% essentially overnight. And given how easily garden-variety bird flu can mutate into an airborne monster with a 75% mortality rate (in ferrets, at least), it doesn’t strike me as an especially implausible scenario, or an especially distant one.

    Which leads me to a question about something you said re genetic load. My understanding of the concept comes entirely from my reading of Dan’s book, and maybe I’ve totally misunderstood the concept—but “reduction in the mean fitness of one population relative to a population composed entirely of individuals having optimal genotypes” seems pretty straightforward, and I can’t see why it wouldn’t apply to novel pathogens so long as there is at least the potential for resistance in a host population. Sloppy fitness makes it likely that that such resistance pre-exists in some form, even absent selection pressure (for example, even if you have no explicit immunological response, some individuals might exhibit behaviors that minimize their odds of infection). (Of course, if there is no such resistance, the population goes extinct.)

    So suppose you have some bug tearing through a naive population, of which maybe 30% are resistant. Wouldn’t genetic load be measured against a hypothetical population consisting entirely of those resistant (“optimal”) genotypes? As the bug methodically takes out the other, nonresistant types, wouldn’t the proportion of those “optimal” genotypes in the population increase—both immediately (via mortality of the suboptimals) and long-term (via higher reproductive success of the optimals)? Would this not decrease genetic load?

    It’s probably not a huge sticking point here, because as you suggest we do seem to be more or less on the same page and you’re willing to accept that I properly applied the concept of genetic load (even if my delivery sucked). But your claim that “We don’t have any collective resistance to lose to genetic load” in the case of novel pathogens doesn’t parse to me: it ignores sloppy fitness, and “no collective resistance” seems to imply extinction. Genetic load does seem to be an applicable concept here.

    What am I missing?

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  78. Peter Watts: The way I think of it is: imagine two populations, A and B, which start out pretty much the same. A gets vaccinated against a wide range of diseases; B doesn’t, so individuals susceptible to those diseases get disproportionately filtered out. A and B travel into the future side by side, comparably resistant, but A’s resistance has been outsourced while B’s remains homeschooled.

    But this is assuming that the susceptible individuals all lack some allele conferring resistance to this specific disease, whereas they could have just as easily have died to random circumstances or because they have some unlucky combination of non-specific genetic variants or what do I know (which could e.g. persist in the population simply because weeding out alleles takes a while if only the homozygotes have negative effects, or maybe the heterozygotes could even have an advantage).

    Peter Watts: And given how easily garden-variety bird flu can mutate into an airborne monster with a 75%

    I did a bit of googling and I cannot find this number anywhere in either of the papers published by Fouchier et al. in 2012. The first one says that none of the ferrets died.
    https://science.sciencemag.org/content/336/6088/1534.full
    https://science.sciencemag.org/content/336/6088/1541.full

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  79. Tran Script: I did a bit of googling and I cannot find this number anywhere in either of the papers published by Fouchier et al. in 2012. The first one says that none of the ferrets died.

    Fuck. It looks like you’re right.

    I wrote that blog entry in January 2012, five months before Fouchier’s research was actually published (it had in fact been embargoed because everyone was so worried about the ease with which H5N1 could be tweaked into a massive airborne killer). The peer-reviewed stuff wasn’t available, but a number of news outlets had Fouchier talking ferret mortality rates of 50-75% (“He’s made the super flu. And the super flu seems to have roughly 75% kill rate, is highly transmissible, virtually all the animals got infected and transmissible the same way that regular flu is.”; “Fouchier went on to describe … the superkiller H5N1 emerged, spreading through the air rapidly, killing 75 percent of the exposed animals.”; “Only ten infection generations later the virus went airborne—while remaining as deadly as its field cousins (with a 75% case fatality rate).”; to name but a few.) Every science journal and blog on the planet weighed in with dire warnings about weaponized pandemics (some of which I linked to in the PyrE post). The involved parties put their work on hiatus while the dust settled—

    And then, half a year later, the paper comes out and none of the ferrets died.

    In between there were warning signs. Palese and Wang wrote a cautionary piece in PNAS in February, saying things probably weren’t that dire. More weirdly, Fouchier himself started contradicting his own earlier statements; there’s an interesting dialog on the Virology Blog, in which a bunch of other virologists are trying to make sense out of how the guy could have done such a complete 180 on his own results, and how on God’s Green Earth all those other advisory and regulatory bodies could have pushed so hard for embargo/suppression if they hadn’t even seen the data. There were suggestions that Fouchier had just hyped his own results in a bid for funding and then had to backpeddle.

    Of course, by that time I’d moved on to other things and never cycled back to see how the Airborne Killer Ferret Flu had shaken out. Now I feel dumb.

    Maybe I do owe you an apology, at that. Thanks for pointing this out.

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  80. “There were suggestions that Fouchier had just hyped his own results in a bid for funding and then had to backpeddle.”

    Damn, maybe she’s right! …

    https://ca.style.yahoo.com/kelly-brogan-doubts-existance-of-coronavirus-in-new-video-164034780.html

    Unfortunately the video’s been taken down. It might exist somewhere, but I haven’t looked. It’s a work of art…

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  81. Odd, I just got a notification that your cert is only valid for *shared.1984.is, but then when I re-load and look at the cert it’s for rifters.com.

    Did your VPS provider just try to phish me?

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  82. Peter Watts: but “reduction in the mean fitness of one population relative to a population composed entirely of individuals having optimal genotypes” seems pretty straightforward, and I can’t see why it wouldn’t apply to novel pathogens so long as there is at least the potential for resistance in a host population.

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  83. Peter Watts: I’m not convinced we really disagree all that much.

    Yeah, I think so too, now. I said originally that I thought this was probably mostly a misunderstanding and it seems like that’s mostly the case. And I want to reiterate that most of my last post was premised on rebutting an argument I wasn’t sure you were actually making. With the exception of the Five generations skepticism, I think we’re mostly in agreement but sort of arguing past each other. Hopefully I can break the cycle here.

    Peter Watts: I meant novel in the the new environment (i.e. bugs spreading out of their traditional ranges into areas where potential hosts lack any acquired resistance, thanks to climate change and global transportation networks). I don’t know if that mitigates your objection, but more on that below in any case.

    Right, that is the definition of novel disease (or pathogen), or at least the one I was using. So I don’t think it mitigates my objection. Maybe I’m missing something, myself.

    Peter Watts: You are skeptical of a century-long timeline. I’m guessing that’s because you have expertise in the infection specs of particular pathogens.

    I want to reiterate once again that I’m not an expert by any measure. I have B.S. degree in biology with a focus in genetics/evolution and microbiology, and am married to a pediatrician, but I’m not actually working the field anymore (and never as an epidemiologist!). I understand this stuff well enough to feel confident identifying when your reasoning is off, but I’m not, like, an actual authority figure.

    Anyway, I’m skeptical for a couple reasons. One reason is that we haven’t even been vaccinating against most of these diseases for more than about 60 years. The 1950s and 60s were the start of the big vaccination boom for the most part, with many other notable vaccines not arriving until the 1990s or 2000s. We’re not even talking about 5 generations of increased genetic load here, just 2 or 3.

    The other big reason is that I’ve got a pretty decent ballpark estimate of the infection specs, as you say, for the diseases we vaccinate against (and looked them up to confirm). Mortality rates are mostly on the low side, many well below 0.1%, with a few in the 5-10% range. We vaccinate against many of them less because they’re fatal, and more because they cause things like deafness, paralysis, or neuropathy. But mortality rates are just one factor. Incidence rates are also really important. Things like measles, rubella, and varicella DO infect just about everyone under 5 years old, but their mortality rates are all 0.01% or less. Things like meningeococcus, polio, and diphtheria that have higher mortality rates (5-10%) also have much lower incidence rates, so only a very small fraction of the population actually gets it. The point is that…

    Peter Watts: If something with a really high mortality rate burns through the neighborhood you don’t need five generations to change the complexion of the population. Hell, you don’t even need one generation. If 30% of a population lacks innate resistance to some bug, and half of them die in an outbreak, the resistant proportion of the population goes from 70% to 82% essentially overnight.

    … this is not what’s happening in real life. We’re not talking about high mortality rate diseases that infect everyone. We’re talking about low-ish mortality rate diseases that infect 0.1% of the population annually. Or diseases that infect everyone, but kill few (even in absolute terms). As you said right before this, the time scales depend on the bug. And that’s exactly what we’ve been trying to tell you. You need either a really devastating disease with a high R0 and a high mortality rate, or you need a lot of generations. We’re vaccinating against lower mortality diseases, or ones with relatively small incidence rates, so we would need a lot of generations for the effect size of increased genetic load to become significant.

    Peter Watts: “reduction in the mean fitness of one population relative to a population composed entirely of individuals having optimal genotypes” seems pretty straightforward, and I can’t see why it wouldn’t apply to novel pathogens so long as there is at least the potential for resistance in a host population.
    […]
    But your claim that “We don’t have any collective resistance to lose to genetic load” in the case of novel pathogens doesn’t parse to me: it ignores sloppy fitness, and “no collective resistance” seems to imply extinction. Genetic load does seem to be an applicable concept here.

    What am I missing?

    I had to actually go back to see what I wrote that you’re referring to here, and it seems to be this:

    MH: It [a vaccine against Pathogen A] certainly won’t build up genetic load with respect to novel Pathogen X. We are inherently susceptible to novel pathogens! That’s, like, the whole danger of novel pathogens! We don’t have any collective resistance to lose to genetic load.

    What I think you’re missing is the context: I’m talking specifically about changes in genetic load caused by vaccines. I was really only objecting to how I perceived you were applying vaccination to the spread of novel diseases. I meant we, as the naive population, didn’t have any evolved resistance to a novel pathogen that we could lose to vaccination. It’s certainly plausible that we could have some baseline sloppy fitness, as you put it, that offers some resistance to novel pathogens. An ensuing epidemic would then select for that trait, and increase its frequency in the population. Thus decreasing genetic load. At minimum, that’s a plausible scenario, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise, but I kind of see how I did.

    The point I’ve been obsessing over is that that genetic load (in relation to sloppy fitness and novel pathogens) will be completely independent of any pre-existing vaccine program. Vaccinating against diphtheria does not make us susceptible to novel pathogens, whether it’s “new to science” like Andromeda Strain or just new to us (in NA) like yellow fever (when the mosquitoes eventually get to us). If you don’t object to that statement than we’re on the same page on this, and any disagreement was just sloppy wording on each of our parts.

    I do think, though, that you’re thinking in kind of idealized scenarios, and then trying to apply your understanding to our messy reality. Even ignoring my poor wording, “no collective resistance” shouldn’t imply extinction, because There’s no bug that infects AND kills 100% of people. The selection pressures for those two traits, as I know you know, are at odds with each other. Earlier you seemed to envision that we vaccinate against high mortality, high incidence diseases, and the loss of the attendent selection pressures would dramatically increase genetic load in a generation or two. But the reality is the opposite. It also seems like, but I may well be wrong here, that you aren’t really accounting for things like effect sizes or the complexities of selection pressures and population genetics. This isn’t so much a substantive critique as a… heads up, I guess, that you might be getting a little lost in the theoretical.

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  84. OK no plagues from now on.

    Since I’m reading The Stockholm Paradigm on the recommendation of our host, here’s a quote from the summary at the end of chapter one:

    “Human beings, owing to their natural caution, have opted for biodiversity policies based on stasis and simplicity rather than change and complexity. We are too often paralysed by a natural fear of complexity…”

    So, survival of Bronze Age societies.

    Digging through my history books, bronze turns out to be a technology that introduces fragile long distance supply chains! If you’re in Egypt or Mesopotamia several thousand years ago and making things in bronze, you need copper, quite common, and a supply of tin. Which comes from Cornwall, England, thousands of kilometres away; or, maybe China, thousands of km away.

    Mining and forging iron is more complex than bronze, with more specialized roles and materials, and the metal isn’t really better than bronze for most purposes in a pre-industrial civilization. But iron ore is much more widespread, so the complexity gets you cheapness and redundancy of supply.

    For long term survival, the flip answer is that any political map of the world will show that Bronze Age societies haven’t. But that’s most likely because the most common ecological disruption faced by human societies is the arrival of other humans with a different culture.

    Hmm, Little Ice Age? Western European societies seem to have coped with various cold spells in the second millennium CE. The only society that collapsed AFAIK was the Scandanavian settlements in Greenland. Anyone know how, say, the central and south American civilizations fared?

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  85. Fun conversation – will definitely have to read Stockholm Paradigm starting this weekend.

    How’re you doing for media under the lockdown? I can highly recommend Chernobyl and the Expanse; they’re both pretty uplifting visions of humanity in their own ways. The Expanse even has a Peter Watts-style protagonist; he’s kinda half Lenie Clarke half Siri Keeton in his own way.

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  86. Phil: Damn, maybe she’s right! …

    https://ca.style.yahoo.com/kelly-brogan-doubts-existance-of-coronavirus-in-new-video-164034780.html

    Unfortunately the video’s been taken down. It might exist somewhere, but I haven’t looked. It’s a work of art…

    Jayzus. You gotta wonder how people with actual medical degrees can believe this shit.

    Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they’re just following the money.

    popefucker:
    Odd, I just got a notification that your cert is only valid for *shared.1984.is, but then when I re-load and look at the cert it’s for rifters.com.

    Did your VPS provider just try to phish me?

    Doubt it. They’re upgrading their servers, according to a couple of emails I received over the past few days.

    Come to think of it, though, that might explain why I’ve stopped getting email notifications of new comments here on the ‘crawl, and only discovered this latest batch when I dropped by in person to update the Oblivion list. Just in case anyone thought I was dead. Or worse, suppressing commentary.

    MH: We’re not talking about high mortality rate diseases that infect everyone. We’re talking about low-ish mortality rate diseases that infect 0.1% of the population annually.

    Got it. I was taking my inspiration (if that’s the right word) from bugs like MERS, SARS, Avian Flu et al, for which I’ve seen fatality rates in the 10-60% range (albeit coupled with relatively low communicability). Also from the (as it turns out) hyperbolic pre-publication claims of this Fouchier guy.

    I do think, based on things I’ve read and the occasional drunken lunch, that we’re in for a new crop of increasingly lethal bugs that hit way more than 0.1% of the global population before long. But time will tell.

    Hugh: Digging through my history books, bronze turns out to be a technology that introduces fragile long distance supply chains!

    I did not know this!

    I bet our supply chains are still more fragile, though.

    non-regular:
    Fun conversation – will definitely have to read Stockholm Paradigm starting this weekend.

    Again, be warned: those first chapters will probably be a slog. But there are valuable insights there, for sure.

    How’re you doing for media under the lockdown? I can highly recommend Chernobyl and the Expanse; they’re both pretty uplifting visions of humanity in their own ways. The Expanse even has a Peter Watts-style protagonist; he’s kinda half Lenie Clarke half Siri Keeton in his own way.

    Seen ’em both. Loved Chernobyl; The Expanse was touch and go for a couple of seasons (some of the acting left a lot to be desired) but improved a lot in S3 and S4. Sadly, we got through both of those long before the Apocalypse started.

    Absolutely entranced with “Devs” at the moment. Best thing Garland has ever done. The only reason I haven’t already blogged an ecstatic review is because I want to watch the whole series before weighing in.

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  87. Peter Watts,

    “Maybe they’re just following the money.”

    In the video she mentioned she’s not afraid to drink from the same cup as her kid when her kid has the sniffles. I wondered if that would apply to working with Ebola patients without protection. If it did, that would convince me she was ignorant rather than criminal.

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  88. Is Devs anything like Walter Jon Williams “This is Not a Game?” The synopsis gave off that kind of vibe.

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  89. It doesn’t seem to me that the ability of your average urbanite to survive a civilizational collapse is really a good measure of the civilization’s ability, as a whole, to survive shocks. I’d also point out the 2000 BC leathertanner doesn’t necessarily know more about surviving in the wilderness, away from the farmer’s market, than the average 2000 AD IT specialist.

    I don’t think our current societies are more fragile than Bronze Age ones. More complex and with interdependent parts, certainly, but that complexity also allows us to meet challenges those societies could not. For example, when COVID-19 hit Wuhan, they were able to command medical personnel and other resources from all over China to treat the infected. A Bronze Age society would probably be hard-pressed to even tabulate resources available to them, let alone coordinate and execute the logistics necessary.

    Let’s neglect scale for a moment and focus on complexity. All else equal, a complex society with more specialization can support a greater pool of knowledge and technology.
    If needed, a complex society can perform triage and pare down the luxuries for essentials. It can slowly drop down the gradient to the level of the Bronze Age… While a Bronze Age one doesn’t have much room down to go.

    One observation I have about our society though is that we’ve accreted so many layers of complexity that those who are supposed to serve as decisionmakers or consensus-builders interface with mostly people and other organizations – political truths. At the risk of getting too political, the selection process for these people (especially if it’s a stupid monkey brain popularity contest in likability) rarely selects for the ability to deal with material truths, but rather talent in managing expectations and optics. They’re good at controlling discourse, cajoling, and blame shifting… all of which is useless against the objective reality of a virus. And these people, insulated from ground truths, are also the ones doing sense-making and figuring out the future direction of society. This is a recipe for disaster.

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  90. “They’re good at controlling discourse, cajoling, and blame shifting… all of which is useless against the objective reality of a virus. And these people, insulated from ground truths, are also the ones doing sense-making and figuring out the future direction of society. This is a recipe for disaster.”

    Agree 100%.

    “I don’t think our current societies are more fragile than Bronze Age ones.”

    As you kind of point out, it’s really hard to compare. If COVID-19 appeared in Bronze Age societies, I doubt they’d even notice. There were probably few obese people, and no smokers. Those with underlying health conditions would have likely been taken out by that underlying condition before they got the corona, and those who died with the virus in their system would likely be thought to have died of what they already had (I haven’t seen any disambiguation on this score in the mortality counts breathlessly repeated by our media sources, for that matter). As for it killing the aged, I suspect there weren’t a lot of people around in their 70s back then to begin with. For almost everyone, they’d have had some flu like symptoms, and gotten on with it.

    With anything more severe, it must have been a lot easier to isolate people back then, not necessarily in your village (apparently there’s evidence of an increase of pestilence in bronze age cultures compared to previous ones), but between villages. Certainly, there would be no risk to the global population.

    Not that there is with this. If this thing did what Ebola does, but kept its current transmission signature, then maybe we’d need to be worried. But even then, after typhoid and the like got going from all the dead bodies created by the upgraded Ebola, and the economy had been toasted for reasons beyond human control, there’d probably be enough of us left, after the entire thing had burned through the 97% of us not fit enough to survive, to create a modern day bronze age culture.

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  91. In a much lighter vein: if you need something by which to occupy yourself during lockdown, Peter, this seems right up your alley:

    https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2020/04/03/you-can-dive-into-in-other-waters-extraterrestrial-oceans-today/

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  92. Well, this is a fascinating post to look back on, nearly a month later. Especially as someone based in South Korea, where a month ago we were in the middle of shit and were the No. 2 country in the world for COVID-19 but now we’re looking pretty spiffy.

    I would point out, though, that since you wrote your original post, Korea’s mortality rate has moved steadily upward, and now is around 1.8%. I’ve been working from home for about a month and wearing a mask when I’m in public around other people, but overall life here is pretty normal. No one in the malls and movie theaters now, but instead are all in the parks, which is probably a net positive (except that I don’t like having to deal with them).

    Stay safe, everyone.

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  93. Peter Watts,
    I think vaccination is not that good an example, because vaccines depend on the adaptive immune system; it’s basically the same response you’d get if the patient would have been exposed to the same bug or a similar bug and had survived, of course, vaccination is usually safer than an infection, so it can be used in patients who wouldn’t survive the real thing(tm), either due to genetic load or plain bad luck; usually you would have done fine with the influenza, it just happened after you came down with Dengue and were still weakened, or the other virus made for the wrong type of antibodies; geez, bad luck, don’t take it personal, not that you can since you’re dead.

    Also, modern vaccines can make for a better immune response, with thing like conjugate vaccines or adjuvants. And if much of the population is vaccinated, herd immunity means people who can’t be vaccinated are not as much in danger.

    Still, I think vaccinations in particular are not that much of a game-changer, I think it might just be that our adaptive immune system is just so damn good the other components of our immune system don’t matter that much and are thus not under selective pressure; since these are also the components that deal with first infection, giving the adaptive immune system some time to, well, adapt, they are under some selective pressure with “normal” infections; with vaccinations, not so much, still, I guess the difference is not that big.

    As for the other components, there is the innate immune system, where I’d also put processes like RNA interference against RNA viruses.

    There is are behaviours that seem to be somewhat innate, like disgust reactions, or maybe some theory of contagion that usually only shows as some aspects of magical thinking.

    (I’d also include learned behaviour, which would include things like cooking tea or modern medicine and hygiene, but the selective pressures on this type of learning are quite complicated; the best fit would be something akin to “superstition”, e.g. something that is learned once and never unlearned, even if not following it doesn’t kill you when there is no epidemic around)

    Last but not least, there would be other genetic adaptations, like the sickle cell hemoglobin with Malaria, or the CCR5 Δ32 allele with HIV.

    Thing is, yes, vaccination means there is less selective pressure on these components; but with bugs you can vaccinate against, even with no vaccination, people would still acquire immunity to it. You might loose a double digit percentage of children to smallpox, but some will survive; quite likely, it might be genetic make-up in some cases, but in some cases it might just be luck.

    The big exception are bugs you can’t vaccinate against (yet), like malaria or HIV. It’s funny but not surprising how those are also the bugs where the examples of genetic adaptations of human populations to bugs come from.

    (Funny side note, less selective pressure due to adaptive immune response might mean more genetic load, but it would also mean more genetic diversity and thus a higher change of some resistant individuals; CCR5 Δ32 is benificial in HIV, in infections where the immune response depends on functional CCR5, not that much, e.g. West-Nile virus)

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  94. Peter Watts,

    Actually, the vaccinated population might fare somewhat better even in the short term after vaccinations stop; with vaccination, there is some cross-immunity to related bugs, even Jenner didn’t use smallpox but cowpox, a related but different virus. OTOH, the unvacccinated population will not get each and every bug, so the adaptive immune system of the vaccinated population might detect some bugs not vaccinated against, while some individuals in the unvaccinated population would, too, while most wouldn’t.

    Of course, you wouldn’t see that one in the next generation, though TNG would see less epidemics with herd immunity and that, and so a greater number of the next generation would survive due to better care and thus be immune.

    TL;DR, the vaccinated population might have a little bit of a headstart.

    Personally, I don’t think vaccinations are that big of a gamechanger; they still rely on the adaptive immune system, though they are substantially less deadly than the original infection. Thus there is even less selective pressure on the innate immune system with them, or on cellular immunity due to things like RNA interferemce dealing with RNA viruses, somewhat inborn behavioural defenses like disgust reactions and the contagion aspect of magical thinking or even learned behaviour (the best learned behaviour dealing with epidemics would be something akin to superstition, e.g. it’s once learned and never unlearned, even if you don’t die when you don’t boil the water to drive the evil spirits[tm] out); but “natural” adaptive immune responses would lead to a higher genetic load with those, too.

    (Also, note epidemics are something of a evolutionary novelty for us; most only caught on after agriculture made for high population densities, and animal husbadry and like made for much interaction with herd animals)

    It’s funny but maybe not surprising that many of the genetic adaptions like sickle cell hemoglobine are against bugs like Malaria where we still have no vaccine; rhesus negative and Toxoplasma might be another example; CCR5 Δ32 against HIV is complicated by the fact we don’t know which selective factor was acting in favour of it. Else, you maybe loose a double digit number of children to smallpox, but some survice, maybe due to less genetic load, but maybe due to good luck, somewhat older when hit and better fed and thus more fit, somewhat younger and malnourished and thus not subject to cytokine storm, whatever.

    Now, we could talk about antibiotics, antivirals and like and their influence on genetic load, I guess there is some, though even chimps use medicinal plants, so that’s not that new, too.

    BTW, quite a few of those mutations leading to resistance I mentioned above are somewhat deleterious, e.g. CCR5 Δ32 makes for (at least some) immunity from HIV, but it makes for a more severe infection with the West Nile virus. I agree the medically treated population would have a higher number of those due to less selective pressure, so the population is more diverse.

    Comes our new bug, there are going to be some with the right mutation in the vaccinated group who will be somewhat immune; those got weeded out in the unvaccinated group.

    Whereas in the population without a history of modern medicine would die at an alarming rate till population density can’t sustain the epidemic through new infections, and the survivors don’t have that much more immunity.

    (Pleae note that one theory about the impact of smallpox and like on Amerindian populations depends on the founding population(s) crossing Beringia or the Pacific were something of a genetic bottleneck)

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  95. People in the bronze age were getting slaughtered regularly by diseases. Even till the mid 1900’s diseases killed more than one in 10 children over age 4 in Europe. It hasn’t been very long since there was such a small amount of disease and back then society still functioned just fine even with a much higher morality rate. If people were used to disease even if covoid was a 100 times worse and present all year round no one would bat an eye.

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  96. Dear Readers, just so you know, Trottelreiner did not spam the comments thread just now. Some kind of glitch during my ISP’s server upgrade kept swallowing his posts, and he kept trying, and then the logjam broke and the whole wadge of them came down at once. And since each comment contained slightly different info I left all but one of them stand.

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  97. Privateiron:
    Is Devs anything like Walter Jon Williams “This is Not a Game?”The synopsis gave off that kind of vibe.

    I do not know. Have not read Williams.

    KL: I don’t think our current societies are more fragile than Bronze Age ones. More complex and with interdependent parts, certainly, but that complexity also allows us to meet challenges those societies could not. For example, when COVID-19 hit Wuhan, they were able to command medical personnel and other resources from all over China to treat the infected. A Bronze Age society would probably be hard-pressed to even tabulate resources available to them, let alone coordinate and execute the logistics necessary.

    … While a Bronze Age one doesn’t have much room down to go.

    Yeah, these are good points. On the other hand…

    Phil: it’s really hard to compare. If COVID-19 appeared in Bronze Age societies, I doubt they’d even notice. There were probably few obese people, and no smokers. Those with underlying health conditions would have likely been taken out by that underlying condition before they got the corona, and those who died with the virus in their system would likely be thought to have died of what they already had (I haven’t seen any disambiguation on this score in the mortality counts breathlessly repeated by our media sources, for that matter). As for it killing the aged, I suspect there weren’t a lot of people around in their 70s back then to begin with. For almost everyone, they’d have had some flu like symptoms, and gotten on with it.

    With anything more severe, it must have been a lot easier to isolate people back then, not necessarily in your village (apparently there’s evidence of an increase of pestilence in bronze age cultures compared to previous ones), but between villages. Certainly, there would be no risk to the global population.

    …so are these. While we may have more complex and powerful infrastructures, I’m guessing your earlier societies had tougher individuals, on average, because the weaker ones tended to die off more than they do today.

    GM: In a much lighter vein: if you need something by which to occupy yourself during lockdown, Peter, this seems right up your alley:

    Yeah, but does it really hold a candle to Alyx? Which I can only assume is good because it’s taking me all week to download because all of a sudden The BUG is working from home and The Meez has been kicked home from McGill and The ‘Cro is doing “Distance Learning In The End Days” and they’re all fucking competing with me for our modest, non-fibroid bandwidth…

    Mark Russell: Well, this is a fascinating post to look back on, nearly a month later.

    Yeah. Gearing up for a follow-up post. Re mortality rates, everyone seemed to be agreeing on a surprisingly high (to me) mortality rate of 3.4%… but The Lancet just came out with a paper that knocks it back down to 1.4%.

    The fucking target just won’t stay still.

    Trottelreiner: I think vaccination is not that good an example

    Good example of what, though? Remember, I just cited it as one variable among many; if you’re arguing that there are more important factors, I’m not disagreeing.

    I think vaccinations in particular are not that much of a game-changer, I think it might just be that our adaptive immune system is just so damn good the other components of our immune system don’t matter that much and are thus not under selective pressure

    I’d be surprised by that, not because I have any great epidemiological expertise (I obviously don’t) but just on general principles: wouldn’t a complex, metabolically expensive system tend to atrophy over time with no selection pressure reinforcing it, the way cave fish tend to lose their eyes? Unless other components of the system serve multiple functions, the others of which are subject to selective reinforcement? Or maybe they’re just not especially expensive, and thus neutral traits? Or maybe they are subject to strong selection pressure under some conditions, but not the ones we’re presently observing?

    Funny side note, less selective pressure due to adaptive immune response might mean more genetic load, but it would also mean more genetic diversity and thus a higher change of some resistant individuals…

    Huh. Hadn’t thought of that, but yeah: the greater the variation in a population, the greater the odds that some members can withstand new and fresher crises down the pike. Good point.

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  98. Peter Watts: wouldn’t a complex, metabolically expensive system tend to atrophy over time with no selection pressure reinforcing it, the way cave fish tend to lose their eyes? Unless other components of the system serve multiple functions, the others of which are subject to selective reinforcement? Or maybe they’re just not especially expensive, and thus neutral traits? Or maybe they are subject to strong selection pressure under some conditions, but not the ones we’re presently observing?

    The adaptive immune system IS the complex, metabolically expensive system. Vaccines don’t replace the adaptive immune system, they prime it. From your immune system’s perspective, the difference between getting infected with measles and getting vaccinated against measles is negligible. It’s the rest of your body that notices the lack of symptoms. If vaccines exert a negative selection pressure on the immune system, it would be against the innate immune system. But different subsets of the innate immune system do indeed serve other functions, and others are not (I would imagine) metabolically expensive.

    And like trottlereiner says, it may be that the adaptive immune system is so good that the selection pressure on the innate immune system is negligible. You have to actually die before reproducing, afterall. So if your awesome adaptive immune system is adequately covering for your slacker innate immune system, is there meaningful selection pressures on the innate immune system?

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  99. Humans are also not exactly lacking in terms of food supply like cave fish are, so even in that idealized “immune system no longer necessary coz’ vaccines” situation, there’d be no selection pressure to lose immune system associated proteins, so it would be up to random mutation and genetic drift to do that, which would take a long time.

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