Existential threats, and human superpowers.

coronavirus and the asteroid Dimorphos, compared

To be human these days is to have a lot to worry about. News media play into this mindset. Joel Achenbach’s recent post, appearing in yesterday’s print edition of The Washington Post Magazine, provides a particularly thoughtful and comprehensive example. Here’s his list of existential worries, compiled under the foreboding title What Doomsday Looks Like Today:

10. Solar storm or gamma-ray burst.

9. Supervolcano eruption.

8. Asteroid impact.

7. Naturally emergent, or maliciously engineered, pandemic plant pathogen affecting staple crops.

6. Naturally emergent, or maliciously engineered, pandemic human pathogen.

5. Orwellian dystopia. Totalitarianism. Endless war paraded as peace. The human spirit crushed. Not a world you’d want to live in.

4. Cascading technological failures due to cyberattack, reckless development of artificial intelligence and/or some other example of complex systems failing in complex ways.

3. Nuclear war (may jump soon to No. 1).

2. Environmental catastrophe from climate change and other desecrations of the natural world.

1. Threat X. The unknown unknown. Something dreadful but not even imagined. The creature that lives under the bed.

Cringeworthy indeed.

The doomsday piece was short on suggestions for global fixes. Achenbach closed with a focus on NASA’s recent successful attempt to impact and redirect an asteroid. He points out that this is less of a success story than a promising start, ending with these words: Sometimes you just celebrate the win – and get ready to fight another doomsday.  

Well said! A lot of work left to do, and we need to stay on our guard. But let’s admit it. Sometimes, confronting the challenges we face in today’s world, you and I wish that – like Tony Stark, or Thor, or Hulk – we could simply and naturally bring to bear a superpower to make things right.

Well, it turns out we all can and do. You and I – every single one of us – have a truly remarkable superpower, one that we call on each and every day, one that carries us through an unending series of life-and-death battles. Fact is, we don’t contend with a single enemy, but swarms of them. And they’re comparably super-powered, superbly equipped to do us in. Among their powers? They’re invisible. They enter our bodies unnoticed. Once in, they rapidly penetrate and spread. Even as they destroy and disable, they multiply in numbers, they feed, and they gain strength. They use us as launch pads to sneak up on and attack others.  They even take up permanent residence when given the chance. And it doesn’t end there; they also mutate. They’re constantly changing shape and form in a relentless effort to render themselves unrecognizable and/or more dangerous. Give these myriad enemies a single name, like Legion, or Pandemos, and we’d have the makings of an Avengers blockbuster film.

The real-life enemy? pathogens. Our comparable, contending superpower? The human immune system.

Over the course of history, the human race has suffered many casualties from these wars – most notably in the plagues and pandemics triggered by bacteria and viruses. To date we’ve always survived, and eventually emerged the stronger for the experience.

The recent covid experience is illuminating, and rather amazing when you think about it. Covid-19 encountered a world population of eight billion people. By official counts, some 6 million people died. (By studying excess deaths over the period, most public health experts conclude this figure is a serious underestimate. The true death toll so far likely numbers between 15-30 million.)

But most people’s immune systems enabled them to shake off the disease with little apparent difficulty; for them, the typical course was not that different from common influenza. Partially as a result, monitoring proved a challenge. Global statistics of confirmed covid cases come to some 600 million, or about ten percent of the population. But we’re told undiagnosed or unreported cases were most likely three or four times that figure. (And even this trivializes covid’s impacts. Research suggests that 40% of covid survivors experience long-covid[1].)

Three attributes contributed to this success.

1.Diversity in human immune response has helped the human race survive so far. Smallpox, the bubonic plague, and myriad other threats have ravaged society over millennia, but have always left survivors. As any particular pathogen mounts successive attacks, it encounters a population of those survivors and their descendants, whose immune systems just happened to be better suited to fend it off. In that way, populations repeatedly exposed to any given infectious disease tend to build up an inherent herd-immunity, rendering pandemic threats self-limiting over time. (That’s certainly proved true of covid. The repeated waves of the disease, though more contagious, have been less severe.)

2.But covid survivors aren’t merely more immune by default or heritage. The human immune system that protects us against pathogens doesn’t consist solely of a generalized, innate component; it also has a built-in adaptable piece. The latter can be trained by prior exposure to identify and destroy specific pathogens. Individuals, once exposed, can be much more disease resistant the second time around.

In effect, our immune system learns from experience.

3.Importantly, this ability to adapt and learn from experience at the biomolecular level has been hardwired into our individual physiology over millions of years of human evolution.

As a result, it is nearly universal (essentially everyone is included) and involuntary. It’s not something we consciously control – and it’s always “on.” You and I can’t choose to opt out – anymore than we can prevent others from bringing it to bear.

This threefold combination – preexisting population diversity, learning from experience, and inclusion and unity in the face of the threat – is the key to herd-immunity. Remove any one of these three attributes, and humanity would be far more vulnerable to pathogens.

Unfortunately, humanity possesses no comparable natural immunity to other “existential worries.” Or do we? And could attention to these three attributes hold the key to reduce other risks we face?

More next time.

[1] Lingering fatigue affected more than one in five. One in eight reported shortness of breath, insomnia, joint pain, memory loss, and other problems. A smaller group develop more severe complications and conditions such as heart disease, chronic kidney disease, and even chronic fatigue syndrome.

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