tested throughout the living world. Newgenes or combinations of genes arespread by viruses in a complicated waymuch like new ideas spread throughoutthe human population.
Recovery fromEnvironmental Catastrophe
The living matter on Earth canrespond to a changed environment,both locally and globally, with incredi-ble speed. Life on Earth is able to recov-er almost instantly from environmentaloutrages, including, for instance, ourcompletely novel man-made antibiotics,or, on the larger scale, the quite frequentmeteorites and ice ages which, accord-ing to the fossil evidence, have causednumerous mass extinctions of speciesover the last few billion years.The everyday activity of viruses, com-bined with the great overproduction ateach generation, generates a continualsupply of new species. Under stable envi-ronmental conditions, the new speciesrarely get a foothold and are wiped out bynatural selection. However, with an envi-ronmental change or catastrophe, thecompetition from existing species is great-ly diminished, and the new freak speciesget their opportunity to blossom.Following a natural catastrophe suchas a meteorite collision with Earth, or anice age which can exterminate most of planetary life, the Earth is very quicklyrepopulated with a dazzling array of oldand new species. The fossil scientistshave termed this process—where longperiods of species stability are interrupt-ed by a global catastrophe, followed bythe dramatic emergence of totally newspecies—as punctuated evolution.Of course, there is almost no differencein the biochemistry and genetics of the setof species before and after the catastro-phe; the two sets just look different, likethe caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Lifeon the planet can take an extremely heavydepopulation, and even a loss of, say, half of the species, but simply shudders for theduration, and eventually marches on witha mixture of old and new species, as if nothing had happened. Thus, life on Earthhas a tremendous resilience and continu-ity, and has survived every catastrophe forperhaps 4 billion years.Now stand back from this intellectualdiscourse on viruses and evolution, andobserve a quite ordinary 16-year-oldboy maturing into professional adult-hood and challenging scientific ortho-doxy. This is creativity. Youth in general,if given an intellectual and experimentalworking environment like the one I wasgiven, and provided they are willing towork hard and study well, quite natural-ly become very creative and can truth-fully challenge deeply held beliefs, fun-damentally changing the way we thinkabout the world. This natural humancreativity comes not from special peo-ple, but from special conditions which agood society must provide to guaranteeits own well-being and future survival.
The Dark Side
I soon realized, with my enlightenedview of viruses, that their dark side was farmore dangerous than we had ever sus-pected. It still gives me nightmares. I wasworking in Australia alongside the scien-tists responsible for the biological controlof rabbits using myxovirus. Rabbits whowere innocently introduced in the1850s, had gone wild and com-pletely overrun Australia, eating outthe continent and threatening thesheep and cattle industries onwhich Australia’s well-beingdepended.My fellow CSIRO (Common-wealth Scientific and IndustrialResearch Organization) scientiststold me that in the 1950s, myxo-matosis wiped out 600 million rab-bits, 99 percent of the rabbits inAustralia. The CSIRO biologicalcontrol program had rescued thewool and meat industries and wasa national institutional hero.CSIRO was proud of its achieve-ment, but I was horrified, and start-ed to ring the alarm bells: Whatwas stopping a species-specificvirus from similarly wiping out 99percent of humans?I dug around and discovered thatthe 1918 influenza pandemic (theSpanish flu) had killed 20 millionhuman beings, some now say 100million,
when the world popula-tion was one third of today’s.Clearly, viruses serve to naturallycontrol “overpopulation,” main-taining the diversity of species andpreventing any species from over-running a territory. As the out-of-control rabbit population inAustralia demonstrated, it was just amatter of time. Avirus with mutatedgenes or a new combination of existing orrecombinated genes would sooner or lateremerge, and with surgical precision, wipeout the overpopulated species withouttouching the other species.This new understanding of the viru-lence of viruses was shocking in view of the huge increase in the human popula-tion made possible by modern agricultureand industrialization. Since any dreamsof eradicating viruses were now foolish,we were obliged to stay one jump aheadwith vaccines, drugs, public health meas-ures, and better ways of living.We could no longer tolerate the masspoverty and unhygienic living I had wit-nessed in my overland journey fromEngland to Australia on a very tight budg-et, seeing how the “other half” lived:Fellow human beings in the gutter; all theproblems of poverty quite solvable with asensible application of existing science88Fall-Winter 2006
Australasian Pastoralist’s Review,
from the Loir Collection,Adolph Basser Library, Australian Academy of Science
In this 1893 cartoon, Australia’s rabbit king is flanked by two banners, “King Bunny for ever” and “We hold the land.” The rabbit population explosion, decimated ground cover, leading to the demise of many native species and the destruction of cropland. It was the virus used to kill 600 million rabbits in the 1950s that gave this author food for thought about the potential dangers of viruses.