Wednesday, 29 February 2012

A Plague on Both Houses!

Or at least on my house.  The hideous office plague finally caught me and I’ve ended up at home, nursing a cold for six days.  It turns out that Mercutio’s curse on the Montagues and Capulets [my title] could only be possible in a society practicing agriculture and sporting permanent settlements.
            Just before I fell ill, I had scooped up some reading material which had arrived at the public library.  Included in the pile: Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel.  I put a hold on it after attending a National Geographic Live presentation.  That evening featured Spencer Wells and NatGeo’s Genographic Project.   Although I enjoyed his presentation, I had the nagging feeling that I had heard it all before.  Tracing the human journey out of Africa and the use of linguistic data to track that migration—weren’t they were explored in Guns, Germs and Steel?  I decided to re-read the book, just to make sure that I wasn’t crazy.  But it’s all there—and GGS (published in 1997) is actually referenced in two of Wells’ books. 
            Back to plagues, however.  I read the section of GGS about disease with a little more interest this time.  Funny how being sick myself gave a sharper focus to that chapter.  And it turns out that my cold, caught from a co-worker, is a result of the development of agriculture ten thousand years ago.   The concentration of people in permanent settlements has given the advantage to the germs.  There are plenty of warm bodies close by, just waiting to be infected.  Hunter-gatherers don’t have the same concentration of numbers.  The resources of the land just won’t support large groups.  No doubt they still experience illness, but for them injury, especially if it inhibits movement, is a much more serious issue.  And of course, they can be exposed to disease while butchering and eating the animals which they hunt.  By and large, they are extremely healthy folk.
            At first blush, it looks like we should have it much better in our permanent homes and with our domestic plants and animals, but it turns out that all the germs that our domestic animals carry have evolved to try their luck at infecting us too.  Measles is closely related to rinderpest (a cattle disease) and influenza is a result of living closely with pigs and ducks.   Small pox is another cattle-derived disease—remember the stories that we were told in school about Edward Jenner’s discovery of the principle of vaccination?  That milk maids who caught cow pox during the course of milking their cows didn’t suffer from small pox, hence their legendarily lovely complexions.  They stood out in a society where everyone else was pock marked. 
            I must confess I like the society which I live in—every time I travel, I come home convinced that I live in the best place in the world.  And my co-travellers concur.  We regularly celebrate our lives in a place that has no volcanoes, no tsunamis, no hurricanes or typhoons, and only teeny tiny earthquakes.  I can live with a bit of snow and cold, the odd bit of flooding and the occasional blizzard.  And while civilization may have given us all of these “crowd diseases” that make life miserable from time to time, it has also given us the written word and the ability to express ourselves.  That, dear reader, is what a blog is all about and that I can celebrate any day of the week!


  1. Hi Wanda

    Sorry you were sick.

    I did read a far bit of GGS before I had to return it to the library. I quite enjoyed it especially the section on the origin of agriculture and his thoughts on the reason agriculture took such different paths in different areas. I did not read the guns part as I am fairly clear on the concept a more " advanced culture" shows up kills almost everyone infects the rest and takes over.

    While we still have to work on all the illnesses caused by huddling together we have progressed a bit and decided not to keep the livestock in the next or in some cases the same room anymore. I guess we can thank central heating for that.


    1. Yes, my Danish ancestors kept the critters on the main floor and lived upstairs. I think you are right that central heating altered that rather smelly way of life.

      Now we just live with pets, the animals we choose to share out homes with!