Half-assed prophecy

The Savior will be born somewhere in East Africa, most likely. He may already have been born; we have no way of knowing. In fact, chances are he will live and die unknown to the outside world – which is to say, the world of scientists, far-away governments, pharmaceutical companies and the international press. Within a wide circle of towns and villages, however, he may be fairly well known, though unrecognized as anything special. Most people will profess to hate him, but enough will love him to spread his unique and invaluable form of resistance throughout the region – and eventually around the world.

A few things we can know for certain. His sex and sexual orientation: a male heterosexual. His character: to be an effective savior, he will have to be at least moderately promiscuous. The more sex partners he has, the better it will be for the survival of humankind. So we know the type, yes? Or we think we do. Amoral and narcissistic, possibly even to the extent of being what psychologists call a psychopath or sociopath: an individual who is apparently constitutionally incapable of experiencing true empathy. Far from the anti-social ax murderers of the popular imagination, true psychopaths are much more likely to be extremely charismatic. They seem friendly and likeable – and why not? They are not burdened by the kinds of doubts and insecurities that haunt the rest of us, the 95% of people who worry about how they are perceived and actively imagine what others around them might be feeling. Many successful leaders are psychopaths: positions of power in most societies select for the very traits they possess in spades. Some psychologists speculate that power is the only real compensation for the emptiness that psychopaths say they habitually experience.

Of course, the Savior could turn out to be a relatively ordinary guy who likes having sex with a lot of different women. I am simply discussing probabilities. I should mention that there will need to be more than one of him. In fact, humanity will need a different savior for every deadly viral infection in the coming shit-storm of plagues that will likely kill between 80 and 90 percent of the human population: around 80 percent from outright infection, the remainder from circumstances related to the breakdown in social and political infrastructure. Mortality will be highest in the so-called developed world, where populations are densest and where citizens are most highly dependent on complex food, water and energy transport systems.

How does a species evolve resistance against a retrovirus like HIV-1? First, let’s recall how a retrovirus works. Basically, it tricks a cell into fusing with it, then, once inside, adds its own DNA to that of its host. Ordinary viruses employ the more direct method of conquer, pillage, destroy. Vaccines work on them because – unlike retroviruses – they don’t corrupt and disable the T cells needed for successful counterinsurgency by the host’s immune system. Vaccination – simply injecting a weakened form of the HIV-1 virus in hopes of strengthening the body’s defenses – is unlikely to work against AIDS. Retroviruses are simply too devious in their subversion of the immune system.

Some 30 million years ago, our primate ancestors survived a similar retroviral Armageddon. The details are unclear, but a record of sorts has been preserved right in our DNA. Roughly eight percent of the human genome, it seems, is of viral origin. The computer analogy is helpful: these are strands of code that have long ago been disabled by the removal of key parts that enabled their reproduction. They exist harmlessly in every cell in our bodies, including the hard drive – our germ cells. Right in the DNA of the sperm and the egg.

Actually, it is possible that these lines of code still perform some useful function, in blocking similar codes from re-infecting us. But 30 million years is a long time, and the new retroviruses are too different for this legacy to be of much use. Its presence does serve as a reminder of what the body is capable of, however.

Studies of a colony of mice in a barn in California back in the late 1980s provide clues about what may have happened, and what will need to happen again. When a team of pathologists from UC-Davis discovered the colony, it was in the throes of an especially virulent retrovirus that was being transmitted to infants as they nursed. But a small segment of the population had developed immunity, and the researchers quickly identified the genetic fix this group possessed. A single mutation in a single mouse had passed into the germ cells; the small group of survivors were its offspring.

Organisms, fortunately, are not very much like computers. We are not really “programmed” – much less “hard-wired” – by our DNA, because much of what happens in our development from one moment to the next, from fertilization onward, is guided by what the scientist can only describe as random chance. (Religious people may conceptualize it differently, of course. In fact, their conceptualizations are not only not “wrong,” but possibly highly useful in helping the mind/body fight off infections – at least from garden-variety viruses or fungal and bacterial infections. Sometimes even cancers. But probably not the most powerful retro- and lytic viruses.)

Mutations are one particularly important form of change introduced through random chance. Although the vast majority of mutations have negligible effects within a population, and some are highly disadvantageous (sickle-cell anemia, babies born with two heads), a low level of mutation is essential to the preservation of life on earth. A damaged or incomplete HIV-1 provirus (the DNA version of retroviral RNA) should eventually arise. It may arise more than once, but chances are it will arise soonest and spread most quickly in that part of the world currently most devastated by AIDS: East Africa. It will work, pathologists feel, by reproducing just the viral proteins that form receptor sites on the surfaces of host cells, without making copies of the RNA for intercellular travel and infection.

Viruses are a lot like multinational corporations: they aren’t really living organisms, but they act like they are. They are obligate parasites that possess merely a set of detailed instructions, a template for their replication. Unlike true life forms, all the energy and material necessary for their reproduction must come from elsewhere – from their unwilling hosts. Unlike a predator, they cannot be said either to love or to hate their prey. One doubts, in fact, that they possess any form of sentience whatsoever. They seem deathless, machine-like – immortal.

But just like corporations, they are fiercely competitive. Retroviruses, once established in a host cell, engineer it to make enough receptor-binding proteins to completely fill the receptors on the surface. Thus, new invaders will have nowhere to dock, no port of entry. If a mutation produces a defective copy of the retroviral DNA capable of locking out the original and all others like it, the host cells will be saved. If those cells include sperm or egg cells, the offspring of the parent organism will inherit an immunity to infection by the retrovirus. This is what happened among the mice in California and presumably among our primate ancestors as well.

Could such a mutation be manufactured in the laboratory and simply injected into AIDS patients? Perhaps. An article in the February 2004 issue of Natural History, “Fighting HIV with HIV,” by T. V. Rajan – my source for of most of this information – explores the possibility in detail. As Rajan envisions it, though, the procedure would be complex, high-risk, and hellishly expensive. Given the political and economic near-impossibility of providing the currently effective drug treatment to sufferers in the impoverished regions of the world where AIDS has the most impact, it is difficult to share the author’s enthusiasm for this treatment. And even if “present technical limitations” can be overcome, the treatment would rely on bone marrow stem cell inoculation. Only regular body cells, not germ cells, would be involved. Intentionally altering the human genome is considered beyond the pale – which is not to say, I suppose, that it couldn’t or won’t be done.

One can imagine a scenario quite different from our opening one in which “saviors” unwittingly originate successful mutant competitors with HIV-1, HIV-2 and other retroviruses soon to spread, through various means, among the grievously over-concentrated and over-consuming human population. In this alternate scenario, a fabulously rich individual – perhaps a psychopath also – himself becomes infected. He decides to break the unwritten rule and employs teams of molecular biologists and genetic engineers not merely to administer the stem-cell inoculation therapy on himself, but to insert a defective copy of the retrovirus into his own sperm cells. Much of humanity will die, he calculates, but everyone with my genetic material will survive. My genes, he thinks: mini me. The Master Race!

But he must be careful. Other powerful people, other amoral heirs to ill-gotten corporate wealth may be plotting something similar. Therefore he must also finance a world-wide network of agents to hunt down and eliminate the competition. He studies the history of past epidemics, like the Black Death of 14th-century Europe, and realizes that the retroviral Armageddon will only provide a brief breathing space, maybe a century or two. A narrow window of opportunity for his descendents to cement their control over increasingly scarce fossil fuels and other non-renewables. They will have the will to such power, of course, because they will be – many of them – just like him. But for those who might be a little soft, who might be tempted to share, he will have to create some social mechanism capable of inculcating his values and outlasting the centuries. A new religion . . .

Call it a fable, call it science fiction. I am only playing with possibilities, based on very limited knowledge. But if a hundred years of occasionally prescient futuristic stories and novels have taught us anything, it is that humans are not very good at anticipating the unforeseen. Most “realistic” scenarios are simply extrapolations from current technology, and become prescient in hindsight through a combination of blind luck – random chance – and strong insights into human nature. I’ll have to leave it up to the reader, then, to decide how well my guesses might approximate real human outcomes.

That there exist individuals sufficiently amoral for all of this we should not doubt. That neither one of my hypothesized characters would know of the other is also likely: they move, after all, in parallel worlds with little meaningful contact by virtue of the very bonds of extreme dominance and servitude that unite them. Being a mushy headed, religious-when-it-isn’t-too-demanding kind of guy, I like to imagine the Savior not in fact as a psychopath but as a good guy, deep down. Someone who actually, really likes women – a lot. And who is attractive to them not through an air of dangerous power but due to his fundamentally empathetic nature. It seems as least as likely as the alternative.

The second guy – he’s evil. He probably does sinister things, like have all his offspring marked at birth in some special, secret way that will allow them to recognize each other in later life as the Chosen. He will have an Achilles’ heel: his own arrogance will make him blind to the possibility that Nature is bigger, wiser and more powerful than all humanity put together. The priesthood he spawns won’t realize until it is way too late that their semi-mythical progenitor had competition, and that this competitor, by spreading copies of his superior resistance all over the place – for free! – has won the day.

But that’s why he, and not the evil rich guy, is the Savior. He will not, of course, benefit personally from the innovation in his genes. In fact, his body will likely be so riddled with the disease that his own life – and the lives of most if not all of his partners – will be incandescently brief. That’s why he needs to be so promiscuous in order to succeed at the unknown task that Fate has marked out for him.

As an afterthought, it seems to me that in the long run, for a social animal, selfishness and power-lust are just not advantageous traits. That’s why they’re relatively scarce in their pure form. Love, empathy, and the capacity to truly enjoy lots and lots of sex: these are advantageous traits. You can deride the bearers of such traits all you want: call them arty-fartsy, call them yellow, call them meek. But in the end it is they, and not you, who will inherit the earth.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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