A recent PBS Frontline documentary spotlighted “Superbugs” – bacteria resistant to antibiotics, a growing menace. Despite some great victories in our war against germs, the fat lady hasn’t sung yet. We could still lose in the end.
Why? Both this hour-long documentary, and a recent Daily Show segment on the same topic, said the problem is over-use of antibiotics. It sounded as though the drugs are just wearing out, like an old pair of shoes. But I was struck by the fact that in both shows, one word – the true explanation – was never uttered.
That word is E V O L U T I O N.
Bacteria are evolving, exactly as Darwinian “survival of the fittest” natural selection predicts. Normally evolution is fairly slow. But antibiotics have introduced an element of extreme selective pressure. An antibiotic might kill 99.9% of an infection – with that one bug in a thousand surviving because it has some unique genetic feature making it resistant. And that one, with all the other bugs gone, will reproduce merrily to replace them. Soon that genetic feature will be found in more than one in a thousand bugs. Much more.*
That’s why over-use of antibiotics is such a problem; every time we kill 99.9% of a bacterial population, we create a great opportunity for the 0.1% survivors (much harder to kill) to proliferate.
Why did both TV shows studiously avoid this clear, fundamental evolutionary explanation of the very problem being discussed? I am no conspiracy theorist; but I can’t help thinking it was a conscious decision, because half the American public disbelieves evolution, and would shut their ears if it’s mentioned.**
Shutting of ears is almost non-metaphoric here. I’ve been reading Peter Watson’s The Age of Atheism, an intellectual history of the past century-plus. Naturally Darwin comes up a lot. While many people had great difficulty accommodating Darwinism in their belief systems, that was something most recognized they had to do. They couldn’t close their ears to Darwin. Even religionists who gave it any serious thought could see that evolution was obviously true.
But then, in America, something bizarre happened. A substantial societal segment decided they could simply close their ears to it. A whole industry rose up, catering to them, supplying pseudo-scientific cover. They even built a museum, in Kentucky, a monument to ignorance. And ignorance it is, willful ignorance – a will not to know.
For me, it’s enough work striving to know what is true. I can’t imagine how much work it would take to refuse to know something that’s true. But I guess it can be done if you set your mind to it. Or close your mind.
While evolution (and climate) denial are mostly right-wing things, the left is not free of equivalent scientific denialism. That defines opposition to genetic modification, a myopic and harmful stance. Likewise very harmful to public health is the anti-immunization madness, another mainly lefty fetish. I feel beset by irrationality from all directions.
A final point:
I am a strong advocate for free market economics. Critics mock and caricature this as holding markets should be trusted to do everything, and governments nothing. That’s ridiculous.
Now, part of the superbug problem is that pharmaceutical companies are not developing new drugs to fight them. It’s economics – it costs a huge amount of money to research, develop, test, and bring to market any new drug. And it makes much more economic sense to put that investment into a medicine that people will take for the rest of their lives, for a chronic condition, than a one-time-only drug for what is still a rather rare illness.
Drug companies aren’t charities, and that doesn’t make them villains. They serve a function, with products vastly improving life quality for millions; but they cannot serve every function you (or I) might like.
But that leaves us with a problem not just for the (still rare) victims of drug-resistant infections, but for society as a whole, because this could potentially explode to epidemic proportions. Maybe a charity like the Gates foundation could tackle it. But it seems to me uniquely the kind of thing government should do. That’s our vehicle for doing things, on behalf of society as a whole, that no individual or private entity can be expected to do.
* Frontline noted that, even more dangerously, such anti-drug genes can also be swapped among living bacteria.