Meditations on Man and Microbe

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The closing lines of The Plague by Albert Camus's "the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city," just about sum up the attitude of a medicalised society which treats all of germs , pathogens , microbe , lonely, lost strands of RNA are its sworn enemies.

During the last couple of days, I have come across articles in respectable journals wherein the Covid-19 crisis is being termed as a man vs microbe thing. I too did it in a post in order to spite the scientific hubris of man.

Humans as we are, we can’t but think in human ways. The us vs them binary is the commonest way of explaining our predicament, our need for enemy is explainable in terms of the essentialist definition of human - from Aristotle to Aquinas, from Hegel to Husserl - in opposition to the animal, where man is in possession of logos, spirit, subjectivity, etc. while the latter has none.

In his The New Ecological Order, Luce Ferry (I hasten to add 'deep ecology' is not my cup of tea) mentions a very interesting fact that pre-scientific man was fair to a fault: he put even troublesome beetles and leeches on trial, and the rats of Autun were issued summons, as late as in the 16th century. Francis Bacon’s injunction ‘nature must be hounded into yielding her secrets,’ was duly picked by the new science of Newton and together with Descartes “a perfect model of anthropocentrism was put in place in which all rights went to man and none to nature." Man invented an existence for himself, as the jewel of the crown of creation, as the master of all he surveyed.

But history of evolution of life forms suggests otherwise. Microbes have been here for as long we have the recorded history of earth while mammoths and mastodons, the dinosaurs and big reptiles, stellar sea cow and Tasmanian tigers stunning, successes in their own days have come, dominated the scene for a while, and then disappeared. But the viruses are sticking it out.

Would the viruses, lords and masters of the earth, for the last 4.5 billion years, be interested in picking up a fight against a species that is just a million years old, is essentially fragile and has been dangerously lurching from one threat of extinction to another, and sooner or later will do itself in, with or without much outside help?

Stephen J Gould says in Time’s Arrow: "What could be more comforting, what more convenient for human domination, than the traditional concept of a young earth, ruled by human will within days of its origin. How threatening, by contrast, the notion of an almost incomprehensible immensity, with human habitation restricted to a milli microsecond at the very end!"

Man and microbe, no matter how highly men think of themselves, live by the same rules; are governed by the same laws of natural selection. We are swimming in a sea of bacteria and such other life forms, which constitute a large part of the biomass. But frankly speaking most of these microscopic creatures have no interest in human beings, they mind their own business, many of them are in fact friendly, the ones which inhabit the root nodules of plants, the others that are furiously busy in our guts for our benefits.

Viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites from unicellular animalculae to 80-foot-long tapeworms take up residence inside animals, but we’re safe from these things. Mostly, these disease-causing agents stick to one host species. Migration from one to another is not an easy business. Many barriers stand between each of us and that previously unknown infection hosted by an unfamiliar animal. Breaking down of the barriers between animals and people, a zoonosis is a rare occurrence. Jarred Diamond in his Guns Germs and Steel has written an extended history, drawing upon a wide variety of geographical, ecological and historical sources from, of past 11 – 12 thousand years when man first domesticated animals.

That was also the beginning of zoonotic diseases. The human (Chinese?) taste for exotic meet of Bat and Pangolins and snakes led ultimately the coronavirus to jump from its original habitat in the bats to man. So the Covid-19 did not come with a belligerent intent to wipe out the human race, it was invited in, so to say. It is our hedonism that has brought us to such a pass. It is our essentialist concept, our attitude towards nature in which we tend to treat nature as our zoo, vault and park that is at the root cause of our trouble. We radically need to change our way of thinking followed by our way of living but what we are furiously seeking our redemption in a vaccine.

Wrong again. We can never match the ingenuity of the shape shifting virus. SARS1 came in 2004, it released in an updated cleverer version in 2019 and it will come again, and again, and again.


India Today magazine once referred to Manoje Nath, a 1973-batch IPS officer, as being fiercely independent, honest, and upright. Besides his numerous official reports on various issues exposing corruption in the bureaucracy in Bihar, Nath is also a writer extraordinaire expressing his thoughts on subjects ranging from science fiction to the effects of globalization. His sense of humor was evident through his extremely popular series named "Gulliver in Pataliputra" and "Modest Proposals" that were published in the local newspapers.

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