“They were, I now saw, the most unearthly creatures it is possible to conceive.” Encased in their gargantuan metal tripods, armed with both “Heat-Rays” that instantly incinerate and a mysteriously fatal “Black Smoke” like a vaporized Grim Reaper, H.G.Wells’ chilling Martians in The War of the Worlds were an extra-terrestrial force with which humans could not reckon. Yet it was a seemingly prosaic and evolutionarily ancient terrestrial creature that ultimately struck the final blow to save humanity. Bacteria have been around for over 3 billion years, but in the short amount of time in which our existence has overlapped with theirs, these and other unicellular microorganisms have changed the course of human history time and time again.
Wells muses on the morality of the Martians by comparing their visit to Earth to the “war of extermination waged by European immigrants.” While the novel depicts the colonizing Martians succumbing to an attack on their immune system, historically, it has been the colonized who encountered new biological threats, decimating native populations. Thought to have originated in Northeast Africa 10,000 years ago, smallpox was not introduced to the Americas until 1509, when European settlers brought it to the Caribbean islands and then to the American mainland a year later. In the mid-16th century, a virus brought by Spanish conquistadors decimated the Aztec population. In both cases, these infinitesimal viruses fundamentally altered the future of those civilisations.
Why were native populations so vulnerable? When we get exposed to foreign microbes, our bodies generate an immediate and general response
as well as a later, but more specific antibody response. We rely on this specificity to effectively clear pathogens from our system. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond posits that due to the dense conditions of city life and their multigenerational proximity with livestock, Europeans had, over time, acquired immunity to many livestock-associated pathogens. Native societies, whether in the Americas, Australia, or Africa, typically revolved around hunting and gathering. Thus, these indigenous communities never had a chance to develop immunity against the pathogens carried by European colonizers. This novelty overwhelmed their immune systems, and as societies clashed, epidemics became pandemics.However, this was not necessarily one-sided. A common theory posits that Europeans brought syphilis to the Old World during the Columbian Exchange. Beginning in the late 1400s from France, syphilis began to spread, becoming endemic to Europe.
It is a tale as old as time. Or at least as long as we have been around. Much like the narrator in Wells’ novel feeling “a sense of dethronement” when faced with the sheer brute force of the Martians, humans have historically struggled to gain and maintain the upper hand in our constant arms race against microbes. By the time The War of the Worlds was published in the late 19th century, the world had already seen outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, and the bubonic plague. Although “these germs of disease have taken toll of humanity since the beginning of things,” Wells’ narrator also notes that “by the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth.” When “terror and disaster” do not blind us, humans have shown the ingenuity of scientific thought and cooperation. We have made massive strides in smallpox eradication and in the treatment of polio, leprosy, HIV,
Ebola, measles, HPV, and influenza, to name a few. Pandemics of the past have exemplified the human desire to protect our communities and families, but also highlighted inequities in our healthcare and sanitation systems, and most critically, have proven the fierce need for scientists and policy makers to remain transparent and accessible to the communities they are trying to protect.
The leaps and bounds made by science have been marred a tragic and exploitative history. From Henrietta Lacks to the many Black men in the Tuskegee study to Dr.Waldemar Haffkine testing his bubonic plague vaccine on Indian prisoners in the late 19thcentury, science has often come at the cost of ethics. To act without impunity and accountability is akin to the violent and destructive behaviour of Wells’ Martians in the story. Ironically though, these aliens did not discriminate one human life from another; when it came down to it, a farmer was not different from a soldier. To move forward, we must acknowledge the inequities and ethical transgressions made in the name and pursuit of science so that as we deal with the pandemics of the future, we do not forget that “neither do men die nor live in vain.