2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

[ print ]

Consultant; Adaptive Optics and Adjunct Professor of Anthropology, University of Utah; Co-author, The Ten Thousand Year Explosion

Germs Cause Disease

The germ theory of disease has been very successful, particularly if you care about practical payoffs, like staying alive. It explains how disease can rapidly spread to large numbers of people (exponential growth), why there are so many different diseases (distinct pathogen species), and why some kind of contact (sometimes indirect) is required for disease transmission.

In modern language, most disease syndromes turn out to be caused by tiny self-replicating machines whose genetic interests are not closely aligned with ours.

In fact, germ theory has been so successful that it almost seems uninteresting. Once we understood the causes of cholera and pneumonia and syphilis, we got rid of them, at least in the wealthier countries. Now we're at the point where people resist the means of victory—vaccination for example—because they no longer remember the threat.

It is still worth studying—not just to fight the next plague, but also because it has been a major factor in human history and human evolution. You can't really understand Cortez without smallpox or Keats without tuberculosis. The past is another country—don't drink the water.

It may well explain patterns that we aren't even supposed to see, let alone understand. For example, human intelligence was, until very recently, ineffective at addressing problems causing by microparasites, as William McNeill pointed out in Plagues and Peoples. Those invisible enemies played a major role in determining human biological fitness—more so in some places than others. Consider the implications.

Lastly, when you leaf through a massively illustrated book on tropical diseases and gaze upon an advanced case of elephantiasis, or someone with crusted scabies, you realize that any theory that explains that much ugliness just has to be true.