On complexity and seemingly good ideas.

On complexity and seemingly good ideas.

Elizabeth Kolbert’s lovely essay in the New York Review of Books, “Chemical Warfare’s Home Front,” describes Fritz Haber’s contribution to the use of toxic gas in war.

Haber orchestrated the use of chlorine to suffocate all animal life – including soldiers – downwind of his nation’s troops. And his plan succeeded. After unleashing 300,000 pounds of chlorine gas, huge numbers of people died. Soldiers– some of whom suffocated, some whose lungs burned, some who committed suicide when enveloped by the gas – as well as horses, cows, chickens, wildlife.

Chemical warfare is horrible, but Haber’s battlefield “experiment” was considered a success. Military researchers then concocted more dangerous chemical agents, like DNA-crosslinking mustard gas and muscle-clenching Sarin nerve gas.

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Fritz Haber’s other ideas were seemingly more beneficial for humanity. Haber was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for making synthetic fertilizer.

Synthetic fertilizer let us grow more crops.

We could feed billions more people!

The global population soared.

If we hadn’t invented synthetic fertilizer, the global population would still be under four billion people.

Climate change would still be a huge problem – the most outrageous polluters haven’t been the most populous nations. Climate change was caused primarily by the United States and other wealthy nations, whereas overpopulation will first devastate equatorial nations.

A seemingly good idea – more fertilizer! – has greatly exacerbated the scale of suffering.

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Kolbert discusses the invention of chlorofluorocarbons, which seemed like great coolants. With CFCs, Frigidaire could build cheaper refrigerators! Regular families could keep their ice cream cold without spending as much on electricity.

Unfortunately, CFCs also dissolve our ozone layer. More dangerous ultraviolet radiation began to reach us from the sun, causing horrible skin cancers.

CFCs seemed like a good idea — they do work great as coolants — but they caused awful problems as part of a bigger system.

Kolbert quotes the chemist F. Sherwood Rowland, who said, in reference to his studies of CFCs, “The work is going very well, but it looks like the end of the world.”

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Anthropologist Joseph Tainter argued civilizations collapse when overwhelmed by complexity.

Like the children’s nursery rhyme about the old lady who swallowed a fly — then a spider to catch the fly, then a cat to catch the spider — our complicated solutions can create new, perhaps worse, problems.

This is the theme of Jenny Kleeman’s Sex Robots and Vegan Meat. Kleeman investigates several industries that purport to solve our world’s problems – You can eat meat without killing animals! You can make a baby without a mother’s body! – without addressing the fundamental causes of these problems.

Describing her travels, Kleeman writes:

I head back to my hotel as the reassuring cloak of darkness falls on Las Vegas. I’m exhausted. Music is thumping out of huge speakers mounted on the building’s exterior: throbbing, pounding beats that are supposed to entice gamblers into the hotel’s casino. I wipe my key card and flop down on the giant bed.

On the bedside table, there’s a metal dish full of individually wrapped pairs of earplugs: wax ones, foam ones, silicone ones – a profusion of solutions supplied by the management to the noise pollution problem caused by the management.

They could just switch the music off, of course, but they have provided a little piece of technology instead so they don’t have to.

My head is full of Eva, [a prototype interactive sex doll] who has the body of a real woman, but can be beaten without feeling a thing. Rather than dealing with the cause of a problem, we invent something to try to cancel it out.

Perhaps we should eat different foods. Perhaps our attitudes about sex or the importance of a sociable community are making our lives worse. Perhaps if we addressed these issues directly, we wouldn’t need sex robots or vegan meat.

Clean meat is one of many possible futures of food, so long as we continue to eat meat. We will always have the power to not want it anymore, or to want it much less.

That is where the real power lies: in harnessing our desires, rather than in mastering technology. Until we do, we will be even further removed from where our food comes from, and will feel even less responsible for it.

We will be perpetuating the kind of thinking that caused the meat mess in the first place.

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In April 2020, I described two major drawbacks to our efforts to “slow the spread” of Covid-19 instead of providing targeted protection for the people at high risk of severe illness.

1.) Immunity to most coronaviruses lapses within a matter of months. Keeping the virus in circulation longer increases the total number of infections and makes it more difficult to shield people at high risk from eventual exposure.

2.) Each infection encompasses some number of viral replications and thus genetic drift. If a population of 20 people transfers a virus between themselves one by one, rather than all catching it from the same initial carrier, the virus has 20-fold more generations to mutate and better evade our immune systems.

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Admittedly, my April 2020 prediction about the timeline for vaccine development was quite wrong – I thought this might take three to five years. I’m thankful that I was wrong. I’m obviously grateful for the fantastic work done by vaccine developers so far.

For these vaccines to effectively staunch viral transmission, we’ll need to vaccinate large numbers of people – immunity from prior infections won’t necessarily help much because immunity to this particular virus lapses so quickly, and because people’s prior infections were staggered in time. (Indeed, we’ll probably need to vaccinate large numbers of people repeatedly, because some of our data suggests that vaccine-derived immunity to this also lapses on a timescale of months.)

Unfortunately, we live in a country where large numbers of people distrust the medical establishment. Even if we had sufficient doses of the vaccines available today, I don’t know what percentage of our population would choose to get them.

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Masks definitely reduce viral transmission. It was obviously a good idea for everyone to wear masks anywhere that high risk and lower risk people share the same space.

Cooperation definitely makes for a better place to live. In places that enacted mask orders, it’s obviously a good idea to follow them.

It’s worth remembering, though, that any fix – even something as simple as this piece of cloth covering my nose and mouth – can have unintentional consequences. New virus variants – which our current vaccines may be less effective against – are a predictable result of our effort to “slow the spread” with masks.

And yet.

I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners, an organization that sends free books to people who are incarcerated. We’ve included a sheet of information about Covid-19 with each package recently, helping to explain that Covid-19 is not a hoax, that it’s a dangerous respiratory disease, that masks and social distancing can help people reduce their risk.

I’m currently revising this information sheet – it was put together months ago, when we understood less about this virus – and I’m still recommend that everyone wear masks.

Not just because prisons are places where many low risk and high risk people are confined together — although, they are. Outrageous sentencing practices have led to a large number of elderly people being stuck in prison.

But also, anecdotal evidence suggests that people are more likely to develop severe illness from Covid-19 when they are exposed to a large number of viral particles at once.

Viruses reproduce exponentially – you can get sick if you inhale even one capsid. But you’re more likely to get seriously ill if you inhale a whole bunch of viral particles. If you’re initially exposed to a small number of particles, your body will have more time to fight off the infection before it makes you feel sick.

Research studies from military bases have shown that Covid-19 will continue to spread even when everyone wears masks and tries to stay six feet away from each other. But we haven’t tested – an experiment like this would be totally unethical – whether we’re more likely to see asymptomatic or mild cases when people’s initial exposure is to a small number of viral particles.

It’s quite likely, though.

So, although I think our efforts to “slow the spread” weren’t the best plan last year, I’ll still be recommending masks.

On ants and infection.

On ants and infection.

I live in a college town. Last week, students returned.

Yesterday’s paper explains that dire punishment awaits the students who attended a Wednesday night party. In bold letters atop the front page, “IU plans to suspend students over party.

In the decade that I’ve lived here, many parties have led to sexual assaults, racist hate speech, and violence. The offending students were rarely punished. But this party was egregious because “there were about 100 people there.

IU officials “have seen a photothat shows a large group of young people standing close together outside a house at night, many of them not wearing masks.

I’ve seen the images – someone filmed a video while driving by. There they are – a group of young people, standing outside.

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Science magazine recently interviewed biologist Dana Hawley about social distancing in the animal kingdom.

When spiny lobsters are sick, their urine smells different. Healthy lobsters will flee the shared den. Leaving is dangerous, since the lobsters will be exposed to predators until they find a new home, but staying would be dangerous, too – they might get sick. To survive, lobsters have to balance all the risks they face.

My favorite example of social distancing in the animal kingdom wasn’t discussed. When an ant is infected with the cordyceps fungus, it becomes a sleeper agent. Jennifer Lu writes in National Geographic that “as in zombie lore, there’s an incubation period where infected ants appear perfectly normal and go about their business undetected by the rest of the colony.

Then the fungus spreads through the ants body, secreting mind control chemicals. Eventually, the fungus will command the infected ant to climb to a high place. A fruiting body bursts from the ant’s head and rains spores over the colony.

Infection is almost always lethal.

If an ant notices that a colony member has been infected, the healthy ant will carry the infected ant away from the colony and hurl it from a cliff.

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The FDA will approve any Covid-19 vaccine that cuts risk by half. It’s very unlikely that a Covid-19 vaccine will cut the risk by more than about two-thirds, and the vaccine will work least well for people who need protection most.

Most likely, the Covid-19 epidemic will end before there’s vaccine. The herd immunity threshold seems to be much lower than some researchers feared – our current data suggest that the epidemic will end after about 40% of the population has immunity.

The herd immunity threshold isn’t an inherent property of a virus – it depends upon our environment and behaviors. In prisons, we’ve seen Covid-19 spread until nearly 90% of people were infected. In parts of New York City where many essential workers live in crowded housing, Covid-19 spread until 50% of people were infected.

In a culture where everyone kissed a sacred statue in the center of town each morning, the herd immunity threshold would be higher. If people wear masks while interacting with strangers, the herd immunity threshold will be lower.

In a world that maintains a reservoir of the virus, though, someone who hasn’t yet been exposed will always be at risk.

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The New York Times recently discussed some of the challenges that colleges face when trying to reopen during the epidemic.

Most schools ban socializing outside “social pods” – the small groups of students that some colleges are assigning students to, usually based on their dorms.

Most administrators seem to believe that a rule banning sex is unrealistic, and are quietly hoping that students will use common sense and refrain from, say, having it with people outside their pod.

In 2012, The Huffington Post published a list of the “Top 10 sex tips for college freshmen.” Their fourth piece of advice (#1 and #2 were condoms, #3 was not having sex while drunk) is to avoid having sex with people who live too close to you. “Students in other dorms = fair game. Students in same dorm = proceed with caution.

I had a big group of friends for my first two years of college. After a breakup, I lost most of those friends.

This is crummy, but it would be much worse if I’d lost my friendships with the only people whom the administrators allowed me to spend time with.

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We can slow the spread of Covid-19, but slowing the spread won’t prevent deaths, not unless we can stave off infection until there is a highly effective vaccine. That might take years. We might never have a highly effective vaccine – our influenza vaccines range in efficacy from about 20% to 80%, and we have much more experience making these.

Our only way to reduce the eventual number of deaths is to shift the demographics of exposure. If we reach the herd immunity threshold without many vulnerable people being exposed, we’ll save lives.

A college would best protect vulnerable students and faculty by allowing the students who are going to socialize to host dense parties for a few weeks before mingling with others. This would allow the virus to spread and be cleared before there was a risk of transferring infections to vulnerable people.

I’d draft a waiver. Are you planning to socialize this semester? If so, come do it now! By doing so, you will increase your risk of contracting Covid-19. This is a serious disease – it’s possible for young, healthy people to die from it. But, look, if you’re gonna socialize eventually, please just get it over with so that you don’t endanger other people.

With this plan, some young people might die of Covid-19. But some young people will die of Covid-19 even if everyone practices social distancing – slowing the spread of infections doesn’t save lives, it delays deaths. And fewer young people would die of Covid-19 than die of influenza each year.

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When confronting cordyceps, which is almost always fatal, ants throw sick colony members off cliffs.

When ants confront less lethal fungal infections, they protect the colony by shifting the demographics of exposure and by ramping up to the herd immunity threshold as quickly as possible.

Malagocka et al. discuss demographics in their review article, “Social immunity behavior among ants infected by specialist and generalist fungi.”

Outside-nest foragers, who have the highest risks of acquiring pathogens from the environment, have limited access to the brood area with the most valuable groups, and are recruited from older individuals, who are less valuable from the colony survival perspective.

Konrad et al. discuss intentional exposure in their research article, “Social transfer of pathogenic fungus promotes active immunization in ant colonies.”

When worker ants encounter an infected colony member, they intentionally inoculate themselves. “Social immunization leads to faster elimination of the disease and lower death rates.

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It feels disquieting for me to defend the behavior of frat guys. Personally, I’d like to see the whole fraternity system abolished. And in March, when we knew less about Covid-19, I was appalled that people went out partying over spring break. But I was wrong. Perhaps inadvertently, those young people were behaving in the way that would save most lives.

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Erika Meitner’s 2006 poem “Pediatric Eschatology” begins

the nurse called back and told us to use bleach
on anything we touch, she said wash everything
in hot water
, insisted we won’t treat you if
you’re asymptomatic, we won’t
, and made us
an appointment anyway. so we waited and waited
with the dog-eared magazines and recall posters

It’s horrible to face the end. It’s almost worse to know that the things you fear are harmless to others. All the asymptomatic cases are like a slap in the face to those whose friends and family have died.

Braun et al. recently published a study in Nature showing that a large number of people who’ve never encountered Covid-19 may already have significant immunity. Parts of the Covid-19 virus are similar to the viruses that cause common colds, and exposure to those viruses might provide the immunity that lets people recover without ever feeling sick.

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I believe we should be doing more to protect young people. Gun control, ending farm subsidies, fighting climate change. Enacting privacy laws to reign in the surveillance capitalists. Breaking up monopolies. Providing good careers despite automation. Making sure that everyone has clean air to breathe and clean water to drink. Getting nutritious food into our nation’s many food deserts. Providing equitable access to health care.

But, punishing young people for socializing?

We’re not making them safer. And we’re not making ourselves safer, either.

Seriously, I know we humans are selfish, but we have to be able to handle an epidemic better than ants.

Red ant: photograph by William Cho