Nicolas Casaux outlines the history of humankind, the domestication of animals, and how easily we share disease—the real origins of coronavirus. 

By Nicolas Casaux

There’s an apocryphal aphorism, often attributed to Rousseau, which states that “Civilization is a hopeless race to discover remedies for the evils it produces”. Every day that passes is a new chance to realize this.

The spread of pandemics such as that of the Wuhan coronavirus is one of the many threats to which globalized techno-industrial civilization inevitably exposes itself; one of the many potential disasters it generates and which threatens to destroy it. However, it is vital to consider the real origins of pandemics such as this.  As an article recently published on the website of the famous American History Channel points out, they constitute a recent phenomenon on the scale of human history, peculiar to “civilization”:

“Communicable diseases existed during humankind’s hunter-gatherer days, but the shift to agrarian life 10,000 years ago created communities that made epidemics more possible. Malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy, influenza, smallpox and others first appeared during this period.  
The more civilized humans became, building cities and forging trade routes to connect with other cities, and waging wars with them, the more likely pandemics became.”

Yale anthropologist James C. Scott details the reasons for this in his latest book, Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States:

“Before extensive human travel, migratory birds that nested together combined long-distance travel with crowding to constitute, perhaps, the main vector for the spread of disease over distance. The association of infection with crowding was known and utilized long before the actual vectors of disease transmission were understood. Hunters and gatherers knew enough to stay clear of large settlements, and dispersal was long seen as a way to avoid contracting an epidemic disease. (…)

The importance of sedentism and the crowding it allowed can not be overestimated. It means that virtually all infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years. Many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand. They were, in the strong sense, a “civilizational effect.” These historically novel diseases—cholera, smallpox, mumps, measles, influenza, chicken pox, and perhaps malaria—arose only as a result of the beginnings of urbanism and, as we shall see, agriculture. (…)

No account of the epidemiology of the Neolithic is complete without noting the key role of domesticates: livestock, commensals, and cultivated grains and legumes.

The key principle of crowding is again operative. The Neolithic was not only an unprecedented gathering of people but, at the same time, a wholly unprecedented gathering of sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, dogs, cats, chickens, ducks, geese. To the degree that they were already “herd” or “flock” animals, they would have carried some species-specific pathogens of crowding. Assembled for the first time around the domus, in close and continuous contact, they quickly came to share a wide range of infective organisms. Estimates vary, but of the fourteen hundred known human pathogenic organisms, between eight hundred and nine hundred are zoonotic diseases, originating in nonhuman hosts. For most of these pathogens, Homo sapiens is a final “dead-end” host: humans do not transmit it further to another nonhuman host. (…)

The multispecies resettlement camp was, then, not only a historic assemblage of mammals in numbers and proximity never previously known, but it was also an assembly of all the bacteria, protozoa, helminthes, and viruses that fed on them. The victors, as it were, in this pest race were those pathogens that could quickly adapt to new hosts in the domus and multiply.

What was occurring was the first massive surge of pathogens across the species barrier, establishing an entirely new epidemiological order.

The narrative of this breach is naturally told from the (horrified) perspective of Homo sapiens. It cannot have been any less melancholy from the perspective of, say, the goat or sheep that, after all, did not volunteer to enter the domus. I leave it to the reader to imagine how a precocious, all-knowing goat might narrate the history of disease transmission in the Neolithic.

The list of diseases shared with domesticates and commensals at the domus is quantitatively striking. In an outdated list, now surely even longer, we humans share twenty-six diseases with poultry, thirty-two with rats and mice, thirty-five with horses, forty-two with pigs, forty-six with sheep and goats, fifty with cattle, and sixty-five with our much-studied and oldest domesticate, the dog.  Measles is suspected to have arisen from a rinderpest virus among sheep and goats, smallpox from camel domestication and a cowpox-bearing rodent ancestor, and influenza from the domestication of waterfowl some forty-five hundred years ago. The generation of new species-jumping zoonoses grew as populations of man and beasts swelled and contact over longer distances became more frequent. It continues today. Little wonder, then, that southeast China, specifically Guangdong, probably the largest, most crowded, and historically deepest concentration of Homo sapiens, pigs, chickens, geese, ducks, and wild animal markets in the world, has been a major world petri dish for the incubation of new strains of bird and swine flu.

The disease ecology of the late Neolithic was not simply a result of the crowding of people and their domesticates in fixed settlements. It was rather an effect of the entire domus complex as an ecological module.

The clearing of the land for agriculture and the grazing of the new domesticates created an entirely new landscape, and an entirely new ecological niche with more sunlight, more exposed soils, into which new suites of flora, fauna, insects, and microorganisms moved as the previous ecological pattern was disturbed.”

It is therefore with the advent of civilization, several thousand years ago, that these problems emerged. Subsequently, it was with the beginnings of globalization, several centuries ago, that they gained in intensity, importance and danger. Ray Grigg, a Canadian author, explains it admirably in a short text that I will reproduce below, in full:

“About 250 million years ago, all the distinct continents on Earth existed as one large land mass called Pangea. Over millions of years, at a speed comparable to the growth of fingernails, the shifting tectonic plates of the planet fractured and separated Pangea into the different continents we know today. Some of the puzzle’s pieces still fit together, although many of the shapes are now deformed by various geological dynamics. The east side of South America, for example, fits nicely against the west side of Africa, and North America can be moved across the Atlantic so that the Caribbean snuggles into the northwest bulge of Morocco.

The division of Pangea into separate continents had huge environmental implications. First, and perhaps foremost, it meant that species could no longer move freely around one large land mass. The fractures that filled with oceans isolated them, the drifting segments slowly developed very unique ecologies, and distinctive plants and animals evolved in adaptation to those local peculiarities.

This was the situation encountered by humans as they began moving around the planet about 70,000 years ago. Just a mere 500 years ago, during a surge of exploration and colonization, Europe was sending ships to North and South America, to Asia, Africa and elsewhere. The continents, once ecologically isolated for millions of years, were now being reconnected – not geologically by the movement of tectonic plates but by the physical movement of humans transporting commercial products, plants, animals, viruses and their own particular cultures. The world would never again be the same.

Clearly, this process did not suddenly begin with the arrival of Columbus on a remote Caribbean island in 1492. Commercial products and ideas were travelling between Europe and Asia before then. The Bubonic Plague reached Venice from an eastern seaport a few years prior to 1348, before ravishing Europe in successive waves of pandemic death. But the diseases to which Europeans had developed some immunity – smallpox, measles, mumps, chicken pox, rubella, typhus and cholera – were transported to the New World by later explorers, with devastating consequences to the native populations. Think of this as the beginning of globalization.

Globalization is, in effect, a return to Pangea. In the blink of a geological eye, all the barriers that once separated the continents into distinct ecologies are now being dismantled by the international movement of goods, species and people. Norway rats reached most of the world’s ports on sailing ships, traumatizing every ecology where they arrived – sometimes remedial efforts compounded the trauma by introducing other species that were supposed to predate the rats. Eccentric immigrants imported rabbits to Australia and starlings to North America, both species inflicting devastating damage across their respective continents.
Indeed, globalization is a kind of ecological short-circuiting that throws biological systems into pandemonium.

More than 250 foreign marine species now inhabit San Francisco Bay, transported there by ballast water discharged by freighters from around the world. The same process has brought an estimated 300 exotic plants and animals to the Great Lakes. The Asian carp that now threaten the entire diversity of the Missouri and Mississippi River systems came from a few fish that washed away from nearby ponds during a flood – these voracious fish are now poised to reach the Great Lakes, expanding their sphere of ecological catastrophe. Atlantic salmon, which belong in the Atlantic Ocean, were deliberately imported to the Pacific for commercial reasons, with complex impacts that could damage an entire marine ecology.

Globalization has essentially removed the barriers of time and space that once protected ecologies from contamination and disruption. Diseases, fungi, insects, mammals, amphibians, birds and plants are all distributed helter-skelter around the planet by ships, planes, cars, luggage, souvenirs, shoes, bodies and just about anything else that moves. The various results are species displacement, population explosions and extinctions.
Ecologies that are wholly incapable of dealing with oil get blanketed in it as international pipelines and global tanker traffic disperse this crude energy from sites of supply to demand. AIDS, a world killer of millions, escaped from an isolated African village because of the mass movement of people around the planet. An obscure disease such as West Nile virus spreads across North America after it inadvertently arrives in a mosquito aboard an airplane arriving in New York from southern Europe. Deadly influenzas skitter around the world with the tides of international travellers.

This globalizing process is even wreaking havoc on distinctive human cultures, as travel, technology and media contaminate unique ways of thinking and understanding.

Well-adapted lifestyles are destroyed during this great homogenization process. Languages, essential to preserving and perpetuating cultures, are being obliterated at the rate of one per week. And globalization confuses and debilitates national and local politics as every trade agreement erodes the democratic process by shrinking individual autonomy and robbing resident people of self-determination.

Large as Pangea must have been, it had valleys, deserts, mountains and rivers that would have constrained the movement of species. But, in the New Pangea, no obstacle is great enough to halt the massive tide of movement that is sweeping over the planet. The ecological disturbances it creates are unparalleled in Earth’s history.”

Having highlighted the real origins of the coronavirus it should be obvious that the Covid-19 pandemic is only one logical and unavoidable consequence, among many others, of globalization. Civilization,is a way of life that is harmful to all life on Earth. It  has been constantly ravaging nature for several millennia. It is a culture which constitutes, both socially and ecologically, a real human and natural disaster.

The proper functioning of (industrial) civilization depends on (requires) the destruction of nature. The prosperity of humankind on Earth depends on establishing harmonious and respectful relations with nature. The survival of civilization is contrary to the survival of humankind and the natural world.

May covid-19 serve as an eye-opener.

May we find the strength, the will and the means to stop civilization in its tracks before it is too late.

Nicolas is a French environmental activist and member of DGR. He works as an editor and translator for the french publishing house Editions LIBRE, which he cofounded.

Featured image: Max Wilbert