Microbial pathogens and diseases were our first and are our oldest enemies. They are a direct threat to human survival. COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS are familiar reminders of how pathogenic pandemics can threaten humanity. These are not exceptions in the human experience; they are the rule. Pathogens are formidable enemies that have been honed since life began by natural selection to elegantly and efficiently do their jobs. They spread from host to host by turning victims into vassal vectors for their own spread, success, and survival. Life against life—no different than humans battling megafaunal lions, tigers, and bears to dominate our planet. Invisible pathogens, in contrast, attack the respiratory, digestive, and reproductive systems of hosts not by chance, but tactically to maximize their spread and survival. Pathogens are as impressive at being pathogen selfish gene machines as we are at being human selfish gene machines.
Our understanding of our place in nature is often flawed because an anthropocentric focus on dominance and aggression, biased by human experiences and beliefs. From microbes to blue whales, life is a battle between selfish gene greed and cooperation. Selfish genes have led to a dystopian global environmental crisis, while cooperation has been the driving force for all major evolutionary turning points in the history of life on earth, beginning with the symbiotic origin of eukaryotic cells. Selfish gene greed has created the pathogens that can lead to disease pandemics as well as a global tragedy of unchecked resource overexploitation and environmental degradation driven by human selfishness. Cooperation, in contrast, has generated rules that can diffuse self-centered resource usage.
Diseases and pandemics have always played an oversized role in human history, cultural evolution, and the development of civilization. Diseases spread by the Silk Road decimated political and social structures of medieval Europe, leading to the enlightenment. Pathogens paved the way for the displacement of indigenous Americans by European settlers and led to the extirpation of isolated New World and Pacific Island cultures when exposed to novel pathogens. The ubiquity of sex in plants and animals is even thought to be an adaptation to keep up with the rapid reproduction and evolution of microbial pathogens. Successfully mobilizing human cooperative and cognitive ability to defeat pathogens through social distancing and epidemiological models is possible only because pathogens are a direct existential threat to our selfish gene interests and human survival. Pathogens and disease are our clear, unambiguous enemies.
In contrast to disease pandemics, battling environmental degradation and collapse is a fundamentally different and uniquely challenging problem. The reason for this is simple—we are our own enemy. Environmental crises are driven by human selfish gene greed, not a clear enemy. Because we are the enemy, overcoming the current global environmental crisis will require an action unprecedented in the history of life on Earth—overruling our self-centered genetic hardwiring. We are the only organism on Earth with the cerebral capacity to contemplate and the ability to accomplish this altruistic goal. Nonetheless, it remains a difficult if not impossible problem to solve because it violates our selfish gene core principle and its ubiquitous product, human greed.
Mark Bertness is Robert P. Brown Professor of Biology emeritus at Brown University. A widely published and highly regarded marine ecologist, he is best known for his work on the community ecology of marine shorelines.