Increasing intentional deaths vs natural deaths and the “nature is the worst bioterrorist” meme

Throughout human history, and even before we became truly human, we’ve been killing each other. In simple hunter-gatherer groups, death by murder is a common occurrence among males. Our history as a species has not demonstrated any decrease in this behaviour over time. Indeed, as our technology has improved, so have the number of victims of aggression. Yet, there are 7 billion of us. How to reconcile these two facts?

As we all know, technology can be used for good or evil. It is usually used for both. However, on balance, more lives are saved by decreasing natural deaths than are lost as a result of aggression. This is why our numbers continue to increase despite increasingly effective weapons. Put simply, our natural deaths are decreasing more rapidly than our intentional deaths are increasing. But neither is static.

I first saw the phrase “nature is the worst bioterrorist” attributed to Malik Peiris, a flu biologist, some years ago. But recently I have seen this phrase attributed to a number of pundits and scientists. It’s a misleading statement. Before the invention of the spear, our ancestors could say “nature is the worst killer with sticks”. After the invention of the spear, this was no longer a true statement. Before the invention of the slingshot, our ancestors could honestly say “nature is the worst killer with stones”. After the slingshot was perfected, this was no longer a true statement.

For most of our existence as a species, we had no understanding or control over microbes. We were simply helpless victims. Within the past couple of hundred years our understanding has increased. This has allowed us to vastly increase human life expectancy with technologies like sanitation, antibiotics and antivirals. However, only within the last few decades have we acquired the ability to manipulate microbes. Only now can they be weaponised. Hence, the statement “nature is the worst bioterrorist” is disingenuous. Only nature could use this weapon throughout most of human history. Now humans can use it too.

Are there any examples of a technology that could be turned into an effective weapon that was not? I know of none. Viruses such as influenza can now be weaponised. Will they be?

Take an honest look at human history and decide for yourself.

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