Freedom from Religion

Book burning on the rise

Senior year in high school included the long-feared ‘senior paper.’ A project of English class, the paper’s thesis had to be approved first then the long drudgery of research would begin. The paper itself, to be footnoted and typed, would form a significant part of the final grade in that class.

I was no stranger to research and looked forward to hours at the local library, which was located only a block from the high school. Unexplored wonders could be found in that quiet place, books on the history of the world and the various exploits of human kind. As I sought further information to prove my thesis, I jotted my notes on 4×6 index cards, another requirement for the project.

My thesis asked the question: Why did existential thought that existed throughout the history of mankind suddenly become an overwhelming condition of modern mankind?

The material I explored included Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization, James Gutman’s Philosophy A to Z, John Killinger’s The English Journal, and a long list of citations from the Bible as well as ancient writings from world cultures. In reading these materials and processing the information into a coherent statement in proof of my thesis, I realized that much of what I had come to believe in my eighteen years was right: Christianity—indeed, all organized religion—was a construct of humanity meant to salve our existential despair.

The difference with the modern age, as so clearly delineated in philosophical examination, is/was that by the very process of advancing civilization, humans have cut themselves off from key partnerships that once provided balm to our woe: Nature, tribal life, our gods, and ourselves, the latter with our frenetic pace and endless amusements. With these alienations, we find ourselves utterly alone, a condition so difficult that we endlessly seek escape in intoxicants, entertainment, and work.

The paper earned me an “A.” I packed it away along with the notecards in their little clasp envelope. I’ve always remembered the paper and the education I gained in my research, but I never looked at those cards again. If the question ever arose, I would have guessed they had been tossed out a long time ago.

Not so. My mother saved them, and they once again entered my domain when a few years ago she handed me a couple of boxes crammed with souvenirs of my life—photographs of junior high and high school friends, letters home from California or the Philippine Islands, clippings of my various public activities through the years. And the notecards.

At first, I picked up the small packet of cards not knowing what it contained. On the outside, at some point my mother had written “Denele’s – what helped her turn away from God!”

Well.

Yes, insomuch as I indeed turned away from the Church of Christ’s concept of God, this project helped. But what my mother could never grasp is that I had been questioning God, or more to the point, religion in general, since age five. By eight years of age, I had settled on key questions no one wanted to answer, typical questions for young people such as ‘Where did God come from?” and “Who did Adam and Eve’s children marry?” The answer always condensed down to “Don’t ask.”

Fast forward six or seven decades while I continued to read and question and discover. I have no regrets that I discarded the blinders imposed by my parents’ fundamentalist faith. I’m happy that my curiosity led me to explore philosophy, natural history, and science with the many mysteries of human existence. What makes me sad is that even today parents still seek to limit their children’s exposure to knowledge that exists outside the boundaries of their rigid belief systems or which violates the dogma of their faith.

The burning of the pantheistic Amalrician heretics in 1210, in the presence of King Philip II Augustus. In the background is the Gibbet of Montfaucon and, anachronistically, the Grosse Tour of the Temple. Illumination from the Grandes Chroniques de France, c. AD 1455–1460.

For example, I once lamented the limited extracurricular activities available at the small rural school my children attended, pointing out that so many opportunities were being lost. Where was the encouragement to attend college, learn music or art, explore the wonders of the world? The response from one parent actually struck me speechless. “Well, honey, somebody’s got to flip the burgers,” she said, fist propped on her hip. “What about that?”

Indeed, what about that? How tragic that her children and so many others would be trapped in that mindset.

The price of limiting the thinking of our children is immeasurable. We see it every day in intolerance even hatred for anyone different, whether ethnic, racial, or gender differences. We see it in embrace of authoritarian figures like Trump who fit a distorted concept of leadership based on an authoritarian god. We see it in the fear of change that leads to violence against those perceived as ‘Other.’

Frans Hals – Portret van René Descartes, Wikipedia

Much of what is written on those cards is nonsensical taken in isolation, like quotes from Heidegger’s book Being and Time (1927) about the two kinds of being, “Sein” meaning all things, and “Dasein” meaning only mankind. Or the postulation of Descartes in his 1637 Discourse on the Method wherein he wrote: Ego Ergo Sic, or “I am, therefore I am thus,” or more widely conceived as “I think, therefore I am.” Pondering these kinds of concepts is not easy and tends to take oneself out of the hum of routine. And away from the strict belief systems of doctrines undergirding religion.

What my mother exclaimed in her quickly penned remark about my notecards is true. Those learning experiences helped me abandon religion entirely. Another big step on that path was a college course in English Bible, where the three authors of the Books of Moses were examined with comparisons of material in Genesis to the Sumerian books of Gilgamesh—and much more. It’s been a lifelong study, full of empathy for others who, like me, struggle with the very essence of existence, remarked by feminist French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948):

“The sub-man is not very clear about what he has to lose, since he has nothing, but this very uncertainty re-enforces his terror. Indeed, what he fears is that the shock of the unforeseen may remind him of the agonizing consciousness of himself. …Everything is a threat to him, since the thing which he has set up as an idol is an externality and is thus in relationship with the whole universe; and since, despite all precautions, he will never be the master of this exterior world to which he has consented to submit, he will be constantly upset by the uncontrollable course of events.”

For de Beauvoir, freedom comes in the act of trying to be free and accepting that this journey is the freedom.[1] Freedom to believe, to act, to question, to reach out to others in individual acts of kindness—these fulfill us in myriad ways that counter the existential despair of modern life. Understanding that, and the awareness that our personal journey is best seen as an opportunity to make the world a better place, has helped me live a rich life.

I thank the notecards. I thank the Founding Fathers for enshrining my freedom of thought within the Constitution. And I thank my parents and ancestors for giving me the intelligence, if not the freedom, to choose.


[1] Summarized at https://fs.blog/simone-de-beauvoir-ethics-freedom/

Duggar’s Failed Defense

A particular mindset thrives within certain layers of the evangelical set, that a person is merely a pawn of God’s wishes and the Devil’s intent. The disciplining of children, for example, is pursued not as a punishment for bad deeds, but as a casting out of demons who have, for inexplicably malevolent reasons, infested the immediate presence of that child and forced him/her to do bad things.

So it comes as no surprise that Josh Duggar’s defense team would come up with a far-fetched concept that staggers the imagination. Not that Duggar himself, or perhaps one of his equally delusional siblings, inlaws, or—possibly his parents, paragons of evangelical ineptitude—might have been the one who struck upon this brilliant scheme. The key point in his defense was: It wasn’t Josh who secreted his way into the dark web to view babies and young children being defiled in abhorrent scenes of the most depraved form of pedophilia. No, it wasn’t Josh at all!

The person(s) responsible for those videos and images tracked on his work computer and personal Apple device were mysterious strangers who fiendishly crept into his hard drive, manipulated all the right layers of interface, and planted that stuff in there just to hurt poor Josh and, by extension, the rest of his righteous family. Because we all know that True Christians are always persecuted, falsely accused, and otherwise made to suffer the slings and arrows of the world. It’s a story as old as, well, the New Testament, at least.

Government prosecutors asserted that Duggar had installed Linux systems where he worked at the family car lot in order to evade the “accountability” application that would notify his wife if he tried to access sites showing child molestation. Witnesses for the prosecution stated that Duggar has questioned them about installing a Linux system as early as 2010, with the intention of evading the restrictions.

The key defense witness, Michelle Bush, a digital forensics expert, admitted under prosecution questioning that she had never been trained on a Linux system or the Torrential Downpour software used in investigating Duggar’s case. She also agreed that the installation of Linux on the computer at Duggar’s used car lot had to have been done by someone at the car lot, not remotely as Duggar’s defense tried to claim. Furthermore, she admitted that a thumb drive could not have been plugged into that computer unless a person was present at the car lot to plug it in.

Further questioning of Ms. Bush confirmed that the bookmarked Hidden Wiki site found in these computers was frequently accessed specifically for viewing child exploitation sites. She also agreed that multiple applications were found on both the car lot’s computer as well as Duggar’s personal Apple devices, and there were no files or evidence of remote access to those systems.

Despite the utter absurdity of this attempted defense, attorneys for Duggar really had no other option. Their client has a long history—at least since he was fourteen years old—of being a pedophile. Many evangelicals who hung on every episode of the long running television series enshrining the Duggars’ reproductive excess utterly rejected the idea that he was a pedophile even after he admitted that he had regularly crept into his sisters’ bedroom to fondle them while they slept.

Oh, they said, he just made a mistake. He’s sorry.

That there could be some scientific understanding of pedophilia evaded the consciousness of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar whose firstborn child first confessed his attraction in early adolescence. In keeping with the typical evangelical denial of science in general, their response included a lot of prayer to cast out those quirky demons and to ask divine forgiveness. Ultimately, when his continued indulgence in his perversion pressed their hand, the solution was to send Josh off to do hard manual labor in the company of another evangelical.

That worked well.

Savaoph God the Father, 1885-96, Mikhailovich Vasnetsov

Legitimate treatment of pedophilia might include cognitive-behavior therapy such as relapse-prevention therapy, aversion therapy, and other forms of psychotherapy (conditioning approaches, behavior skills training, social skills, empathy training, and trying to address the underlying sexual arousal pattern) as well the use of drugs to affect androgen levels or serotonin inhibition. Treatments for obsessive-compulsive disorder have also been shown to be effective in treating pedophilia.

Some might have privately suggested the quite effective old-fashioned method of treatment: castration.

No treatment will be effective if the pedophile does not want treatment. As long as Josh Duggar lives within a cloud of denial, he will not stop craving child molestation. Sadly, there’s little chance that he will find his way out of that cloud. It exists all around him, in his parents, his siblings, and in the greater community of evangelical believers who see themselves as pawns to God’s will or Satan’s.

There is some evidence that pedophilia may run in families, though it is unclear whether this stems from genetics or learned behavior. A history of childhood sexual abuse is another potential factor in the development of pedophilias, although this has not been proven.

According to mental health studies, “some experts propose that the causes are neurodevelopmental. Differences in the brain structure of pedophiles have been noted, such as frontocortical differences, decreased gray matter, unilateral and bilateral frontal lobe and temporal lobe and cerebellar changes,” according to mental health specialists.

“Pedophilia could be a byproduct of other co morbid psychiatric diseases. These brain abnormalities may have been formed by abnormal brain development. However, post-traumatic stress disorder also causes these types of brain abnormalities. Traumatic experiences in the pedophile’s early life could have caused this atypical development. Other neurological differences found in pedophiles included lower intelligence levels and the lower the intelligence level, the younger the preferred victim.

“Some pedophiles were also found to have chromosomal abnormalities. Out of 41 men studied, seven of them were found to have chromosomal abnormalities, including Klinefelter syndrome, which is a condition in which a male will have an extra X chromosome in their genetic code.

“The environmental factors involved in pedophilia must also be considered. There is much controversy over whether or not being sexually abused as a child causes that child to grow up to be a sexual abuser. Statistics do weigh out indicating, that in general, more people who abuse children as adults were abused themselves as children.”[1]

Cornelis Galle I, “Lucifer” (c. 1595)

Whatever the reason for Josh Duggar’s sexual perversion, it is most certainly not that “the Devil made him do it.” It is possible that other members of his family suffer similar mental health issues but have been more successful in keeping them secret. It is possible—even likely—that one or more of his children have been the target of his obsession. As noted in mental health studies of this affliction, pedophiles feel that they ‘love’ their victims and believe that the victims enjoy the interaction.

Clearly Josh Duggar’s parents, Jim Bob and Michelle, are not “normal” in their sexual proclivities which urged them to keep producing children far beyond what might be considered a healthy number, even past the point when doctors were warning Michelle not to become pregnant again after, at age forty-three, her nineteenth child required a Caesarian delivery. At forty-five, she miscarried her 20th pregnancy. Again, this is the mindset that the individuals themselves bear no responsibility for the outcome. In other words, having unprotected sex doesn’t make babies, God does.

It follows that when one believes that sex itself is not to be indulged unless one intends to produce children, one might end up with lots of children. Simple.

Medieval thinking is comfortable for those who don’t have the capacity to think for themselves and for those who have been convinced early in life that thinking somehow insults God. Science has long shown that disease and natural disasters are not, in fact, a punishment sent by the Invisible Almighty, but rather the result of natural forces like bacteria, viruses, and weather/geology. But to understand science, a person needs the capacity and will to learn about cells, bacteria, and tectonic forces which, to many, is simply an insurmountable task. Much easier is willful ignorance dressed up like God’s will and the intercession of demons.

Until the insidious impact of religious and home schooling is interrupted by enforced teaching of science, this plague of irresponsible stupidity will continue alongside inevitable fallout such as pedophilia in denial.


[1] https://psychcentral.com/pro/causes-of-pedophilia#1

Second Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past

Bawd, tart, hussy, jade, libertine, sport, soiled dove – familiar terms among many for women who sell the use of their bodies. Shockingly enough, Fayetteville had them. But no one talked about it, probably because the town fathers and university powers feared that parents across the state might not send their sons and daughters to school here if this particular element was known to exist. But it did exist, and finally in 1935 the news exploded onto the front pages of the newspaper.

“Fayetteville’s Immoral Houses” is just one of nine articles exploring local history collected in the new release, Second Glimpses of Fayetteville’s Past.

Chapter 1 – New! Daguerreotype was the first form of photography, and Washington County had several daguerreotype professionals in the years before the Civil War. The story follows Anderson Frieze and documents others in this image-making profession circa 1850-1880.

Chapter 2 – The Yoes family was one of the first to settle in Washington County. The story follows them from the time of their immigration from Germany through three generations. Some of this information was previously in various parts in The West Fork Valley: The West Fork of White River, Arkansas, Its Environs & Settlement before 1900.

Chapter 3 – This award-winning article about Jesse Gilstrap tracks his travel to the gold fields of 1850 California, his inventions and millwright operations in south Washington County, and his efforts on behalf of the Union during the Civil War. Published in 2018, Flashback.

Chapter 4 –  This article delves into the murder of a prominent businessman on a downtown Fayetteville sidewalk. Why did these two men — brothers in law — come to such a crisis? A greatly abbreviated version of this story appeared in Murder in the County: 50 True Stories of the Old West.

Chapter 5 – New! “The Final Abuse of Ann Jarvis” recounts the horrific murder of a wife and mother in a case of extreme domestic violence and mental illness.

Chapter 6 – New! “Fayetteville’s Immoral Houses” uncovers the previously hidden world of prostitution in Fayetteville.

Chapter 7 – This exposé of an auto theft ring operating in Fayetteville in the 1930s portrays a man’s attempt to entangle the city attorney and the police chief in his foil. Previously appeared in Flashback.

Chapter 8 – New! Circuses drew enormous crowds through the 19th and early 20th centuries, even to locations like Fayetteville whose population at the time of the first circus was less than 1,000 people.

Chapter 9 – The story of the Brumfields and their fated dream to build Fayetteville’s Downtown Motor Lodge tracks the rise and fall of that dream to the vacant lot that scars Fayetteville’s downtown today.  Appeared previously in Flashback.

Great reading for cold winter days ahead! Also makes a good gift for any of your history-lovin’ friends. Order now! Amazon

Email to my Christian Siblings

Recently in discussing the role of religion in wars over the centuries, my sister wrote:

“The Jewish people conquered and obtained land,  because God told them to. He kept his word to Abraham, telling him he would give his descendants that land, though it took hundreds of years. He said plainly in his word that it wasn’t due to the goodness of the Hebrews, but as a punishment to the nations there, due to their unacceptable practices…”

I wrote back:

Surely you realize that the claim that ‘God told us to do it’ is an entirely self-serving justification for whatever the Jews wanted to do. The Old Testament, written by Jews, is full of their violent behavior, not only by conquering tribes in order to seize the lands, but in admonitions like ‘an eye for an eye’ and other aspects of their primitive early laws. 

By the way, if you ever want to know how the Israelis got a lot of their Old Testament stories–especially the creation stories–check out Sumerian history recorded on clay tablets. The Sumerian civilization predates the rise of Jewish tribes by at least a thousand years. Tribal people who would become Israel lived in the hills around early Sumerian cities and adopted much of the Sumerian mythology. Here are a few of the Biblical stories that are copied from earlier Sumerian beliefs:

  • In the beginning, there was chaos (Enuma Elish–Sumerian story of creation)
  • Chaos was transformed to order (Enuma Elish)
  • God/gods created all things (Enuma Elish)
  • Light existed before the creation of the sun and moon (Enuma Elish)
  • God/gods were displeased with humanity and decided to destroy humanity via the flood (Epic of Gilgamesh, Eridu Genesis, and the Epic of Atrahasis)
  • The flood (Sumerian kings list)
  • One man and his family survived the flood (Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld)
  • Those on the Ark opened a window near the end of the journey sending birds as scouts
  • Food and drink can give eternal life (Adapa)
  • After the flood, this one man gave thanks to his God
  • The early settlers in Mesopotamia were of one speech (Enmerkar and the Lord Aratta)
  • The language was confused (Enmerkar and the Lord Aratta)
  • Migration originated from those who survived the flood
  • The Sumerians knew the concept of eternal life in paradise and were seeking it (Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld)
Part of the preserved clay tablet record of Sumeria

But I’m off topic. I deviated into that to explain why I have zero faith in the Jewish idea that they were God’s chosen people. They were just a scrappy little fringe tribe that came together around an adopted mythology and used violence to take what they wanted.

Warmongering and violence inflicted by the Jews is part and parcel of their history. Consider when God instructs King Saul to attack the Amalekites: “And utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them,” God says through the prophet Samuel. “But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. When Saul failed to do that, God took away his kingdom. In modern terms, God was demanding genocide of an entire people.

But then, the Old Testament idea of God included wiping out all of humanity because God was offended by sin. According to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the gods who set up the great flood were offended by the NOISE.

Similar edicts by God urged the ‘utter destruction’ of the Canaanites when the actual motivation for Jews was to take over Canaan instead of continuing to live in the mountainous regions where few crops could thrive. i.e.–the Jews wanted the land and they’d do whatever it took to get it including slaughtering as many Canaanites as necessary including women and children.

Part of a new print ad for Henry guns; a new TV commercial plays up the brand’s origins as made in the United States. From The New York Times, “My Rifle, My Bible and Me” by Stuart Elliott, Sept 17, 2009

Yes, the New Testament claims certain teachings of Christ were meant to limit or eradicate the old ‘eye for an eye’ mindset of the Old Testament. “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing,” for example. But I’m pretty sure that while this idea sounds good in church, in reality many Christians today are among the first to hoard guns and exert deadly force when they feel they are threatened. It is Christians who pray over a campfire then turn around and start killing Afghans, or Syrians, or whoever else they decide to improve or challenge in their native lands! 

Or, on a lesser more pathetic scale, pray in a huddle to win a football game before trotting onto the field to physically assault one another.

To me, even going into places to evangelize — teaching the ‘pitiful heathens’ about God — is a form of violence. There are tribes who existed for thousands of years in peace, living off the land and worshiping in their own way, now told that their beliefs are all wrong and they must adopt this new religion in order to be ‘saved.’ Suddenly they become caught up in a war of dogmas–Islam vs Christianity, mostly, although in India and Myanmar for example, the conflict is between Buddhism and Islam. Africa right now is an absolute nightmare of warring tribes operating under the flag of Islam or Christianity, a situation I blame entirely on Christian missionaries who were so arrogant to believe that undermining tribal traditions with this new religion could ever turn out well.

While we can agree that Islam is often the birthplace of radical sects pursuing jihad in the name of their religion, we can’t escape the long history of equally abhorrent behavior by Jews and Christians. I mean, all you have to do is read through the Old Testament to see the countless times that the Jews use “God said” to justify their aggression against other people who possessed lands or other resources the Jews wanted. According to the pope, God said Christian crusaders should invade the Middle East and exterminate the ‘infidels’ (Muslims) who had occupied Israeli (Canaanite) lands for 500 years. The latest version of this mindset is before us today–Israel has not only taken most of the land away from Palestinians, but continues to attack and kill those who protest and move forward with taking more land–bulldozing homes, orchards, and gardens to drive out Palestinians. The situation in Israel is infuriating to any neutral observer. 

I think this kind of attitude of ‘God said’ and its subsequent use to justify aggression both in personal dealings and in national ones, is an underlying cause of the hatred directed toward Jews over the centuries. At the end of WWII, sympathy for the Jews after Hitler’s holocaust led Western powers to grant Jews a place of their own by taking a SMALL PART of Palestine to create Israel. Jews had not ‘owned’ a homeland since around 600 AD, so it’s hardly a matter of giving back what had been theirs any time recently. What other place on earth takes land away from its current occupants and gives it to people who lived there 1,400 years ago? This came about due partly to a strong Zionist movement among the Jews living in places like the U.S. as well as Christian fundamentalists eager to facilitate the predictions of Revelations. *sigh*

Here’s what the Jews have done with that:

image.png

Finally — here’s a hilarious take on the situation with the land now mostly called Israel.
https://vimeo.com/199418954

Sibling response to this email? Silence.

And that’s fine, because a) there is no reasonable response, b) we’ve argued about this for decades, and c) they do not have interest in challenging the belief system in which they’ve been brainwashed since birth. They’re comfortable with what they believe. How I escaped is beyond my comprehension, but I am thankful for it. I’m especially encouraged that nearly one out of three people in the U.S. today share my disgust with religion and the evil it often perpetrates.

Are Whites Superior? (Part 2)

Yanomami, Brazil [https://www.survivalinternational.org/articles/3162-yanomami-botanical-knowledge]

On first glance, it seems as though people descended through Western European ancestry are, by far, superior to people of color, those primitive folks who lived in tribal groups as hunter-gatherers in Africa, Australia, and the Pacific Islands—and American Natives. Let’s not leave out those strange people from Asia whose skin color isn’t exactly white. None of them look like us with our pale skin, light colored hair, and elegant facial features.

We are, after all, the ones who invented the marvels of our modern age from electricity to computer chips. It’s been the Americans and other Western Europeans, the penultimate of PIE western expansion and ingenuous invention, who have won the wars with our aircraft carriers and jets, sent men to walk on the moon, and just met the latest challenge from the viral netherworld to invent vaccines to conquer COVID-19. What more evidence do we need?

That’s the first and only consideration given to such a question by those who want—need—to believe they are superior. It was this thread of ancestry that supported Hitler’s quest to create a ‘pure’ Aryan race, thereby justifying the horrors of the Holocaust.

A second glances pulls back the curtain to reveal much more.

In truth, what white Indo-European descendants have created would not exist were it not for the earlier works of other cultures. The modern world and its many marvels exist not because of white supremacy but rather as a result of all cultures of all times.

It was the Sumerians (Iraq, Mesopotamia) who developed number systems, the wheel, a set of laws, and invented the earliest writing.

“Scholars now recognize that writing may have independently developed in at least four ancient civilizations: Mesopotamia (between 3400 and 3100 BCE), Egypt (around 3250 BCE), China (1200 BCE), and lowland areas of Southern Mexico and Guatemala (by 500 BCE).

“…The Phoenician alphabet is simply the Proto-Canaanite alphabet as it was continued into the Iron Age (conventionally taken from a cut-off date of 1050 BCE). This alphabet gave rise to the Aramaic and Greek alphabets. These in turn led to the writing systems used throughout regions ranging from Western Asia to Africa and Europe.[1] [Phoenicia was located in Lebanon (Middle East) from about 1100 to 200 BCE.]

Black eggshell pottery of the Longshan culture (China, c. 3000–2000 B.C.E.)

Most of the foundations of modern science appeared first in China and/or the Middle East, neither of which were white people. In Babylon, successor to Sumer in the lands of modern Iraq, medical practices, metallurgy, animal anatomy, and astronomy were documented as early as 2000 BCE. Egypt developed astronomy, medicine, and mathematics including geometry as well early concepts in neuroscience and in the empirical method of scientific study. By the first century BCE, the Chinese had advanced the use of decimals and fractions, kept records of astronomical events such as sunspots, supernovas, and eclipses, and are credited with a long list of other discoveries and inventions including gunpowder which, upon discovery by Western explorers in the early Renaissance, were lifted wholesale into Western cultures.[2]

While Islamic achievements between 786 and 1258 CE encompassed a wide range of advancements, especially in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine, white people of Western Europe lived in fortified tribal encampments, waged war with swords, and did not read or write except in cryptic runes or enclaves of monks using the remnants of Roman literacy.[3] These earliest non-white cultures advanced the inventions of Greece and Rome.

Hindu-Arabic numerals, set of 10 symbols—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0—that represent numbers in the decimal number system. They originated in India in the 6th or 7th century and were introduced to Europe through the writings of Middle Eastern mathematicians, especially al-Khwarizmi and al-Kindi, about the 12th century.

Western Europe’s invasion of Latin America brought diseases which wiped out nearly 90% of the native population, with the remainder subjugated into slavery to see their religious texts burned and accumulated wealth loaded onto ships bound for Europe. Yet before this invasion by the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese into Central and South America, the native cultures there had developed some of the world’s most advanced mathematical and astronomical expertise, calendars that equal anything invented so far, and agricultural refinements that produced corn, peppers, squash, potatoes, and tomatoes along with many of the bean types in popular use today.

An artistic recreation of The Kincaid Site from the prehistoric Mississippian culture as it may have looked at its peak 1050–1400 CE.

The myth perpetuated by such invasions, including the stories taught to generations of white Indo-European descendants in the United States, is that the Native tribes of our lands were uncivilized people who benefited from the teachings of European religion, speech, and cultural traditions. But for over 15,000 years before European diseases killed tens of thousands of them and deliberate genocide killed thousands more, Natives had lived quite well on this land, following their spiritual practices and developing extensive trading routes. Their general philosophy encompassed “harmony with nature, endurance of suffering, respect and non- interference toward others, a strong belief that man is inherently good and should be respected for his decisions.”[4]

Just as with the so-called primitive cultures in Africa, Australia, the Pacific Islands, and—closer to home—the Natives of the Americas, the civilizations they built did not wipe out their forests or pollute their rivers and air. They enjoyed communal life, unlike modern America where hardly a day passes without a mass shooting by frustrated Indo-European males who cannot go off ‘a-Viking’ to loot and plunder. The longing for a return to the violent ways of medieval ancestry is reflected in everything from the hue and cry over gun ownership to the rabid insurrection of January 6, 2021, when men carried Confederate flags symbolizing their supremacy.

Today, those finding unacceptable differences among persons wishing to make their homes in the United States (and other Western European countries of PIE descent) chose to discriminate not only for skin or hair color but also for religion, cultural practices, and even styles of dress. This is not new. As noted in a recent article in The Atlantic, “the United States has never been a “diverse nation of immigrants,” a phrase that first appeared in the national dialogue in the late 1890s. The U.S. has consistently favored immigration by Northern Europeans (PIE DNA) and, since 1882, has “deported more than 57 million people, most of them Latino.”[5]

Like so many other revelations resulting from modern science, DNA research clearly reveals that behaviors ascribed to our white ancestry are not in fact hardwired into our minds.

Further studies finally debunked race as a biological marker for humans for two key reasons. First, we cannot distinguish a “white” person, for example, from a “black” person by looking at their genetics, alone. Skin color is determined by a number of genes, and so even if a certain set of genes suggests someone may have dark skin, an entirely separate set of genes could also make their skin lighter. In addition, humans are so mixed that any physical features that may have arisen, such as height or skin color, do not clearly “belong” to one group of people. Moreover, the traits we might see in a particular white person — blond hair, blue eyes, light skin — are not grouped together in our DNA. In other words, many characteristics that we consider as racial traits are not inherited as a fixed combination. Having light skin has nothing to do with one’s having blue eyes (or being tall, or liking math, for that matter).”[6]

The evidence is clear that racism is not an inheritance based on our DNA but rather a choice taught by parents or cultural institutions and perpetrated by those who refuse to learn. Increasing numbers of white men and women of Indo-European ancestry have evolved to accept all humans as equals and embrace progressive reforms that overcome earlier, prejudiced views. Of the 255,200,373 Americans eligible to vote in 2020, only 159,633,396 actually cast a ballot (66.3%). Of those, supporters of an entrenched Indo-European view gained 46.9% and the progressives gained 51.3%, neither of which is a majority of the nation’s eligible voters. In the greater eligible voter population, only 32% voted for Biden and only 29% voted for Trump.

The slow trend toward an increasingly evolved view of the world based on science and acceptance gives hope that human intelligence can overcome the ancestral influence of PIE DNA’s long traditions. But only if we try.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_writing

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_science

[3] Islamic scholars also pursued advancements in chemistry, botany and agronomy, geography and cartography, ophthalmology, pharmacology, physics, and zoology. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_in_the_medieval_Islamic_world

[4] http://www.wellnesscourts.org/files/Duran%20-%20American%20Indian%20Belief%20Systems.pdf

[5] Dickerson, Caitlin. “It’s Always Been About Exclusion.” The Atlantic, Vol 327-No. 4, May 2021, pp 11-15.

[6] https://www.illinoisscience.org/2020/09/there-is-no-biological-meaning-for-race/

Is Racism In Our DNA?

Typical Western European/American representation of Jesus Christ as a white man with light hair and blue eyes

If we track the roots of Western civilization to its earliest evidence in language and genetics, we find that our language and other markers of our ancestry track the spread of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language from its roots in the Eurasian steppe circa 4,500 years ago. This expansion can be traced through word relationships as well as commonalities of myth and religion, but also through similarities in social behaviors. From Bronze Age Greeks, Indo-Iranians, and Anatolian (Hittite) people, this cultural thread weaves through Iron Age Indo-Aryans, Iranians and, most importantly for our consideration, European groups including Celts, Germanic peoples, Italic peoples, and other Western European populations.

Recent DNA analyses of these populations support the theory of PIE migration and conquest over earlier human settlements.[1] By the Middle Ages, ancient Indo-European traditions, myths, and languages had reached Scandinavian cultures and spread across medieval Europe. Genetic information shows that certain characteristics currently attributed to European ancestry such as blue eyes first appeared in the genetic record around 13,000 to 14,000 years ago in Italy and the Caucasus. Light skin is less easily tracked as a genetic factor but researchers believe this feature spread through Western Europe between 19,000 and 11,000 BCE (Before Current Era). Other physical characteristics also follow this migration, including taller height and blond hair.

This movement from east to west parallels the penetration of farming practices into hunter-gatherer populations. Farming required settling into one location to oversee the planting, cultivation, and harvesting of farmed crops, meaning that people were able to accumulate more worldly goods which in turn led to inequalities as well as the need to determine paternity of children who might inherit such goods. Social rules proliferated to govern communal norms including the sexual behavior of women.

Migrations that spread PIE language and culture

By around 3500 BCE, people of the PIE traditions had domesticated the horse, adapted the wheel to chariots and wagons, and begun herding food animals such as cattle. The growth of grazing herds led to conquest of neighboring lands to expand grazing space. Increasing use of metals for weaponry (copper, bronze, iron) alongside war chariots pulled by domesticated horses led to the rise of empires from Greece and Rome to the European colonialism that shaped the modern world starting in 1500s. Just like their PIE ancestors, early Western civilizations seized power by conquering bordering indigenous populations and usurping any natural resources native to those lands.

Operating in the arrogance of supremacy, or the ‘might-makes-right ideology,’ expansionists viewed the world as theirs for the taking. If the tools of conquest could overcome native defenses, then it was conveniently considered a God-given right to take whatever the natives might have, not limited to their possessions and lands but also their very lives. Enslaved to their new masters, conquered people endured the various brutal labors required of empire building whether mining lead, tin, or salt or building roads, temples, and coliseums where even more slaves could be forced to ‘entertain’ their masters with fights to the death.

Rising from the ashes of the vast Roman Empire, by 1500 CE, Western European powers traveled the world, spiking their nation’s flags into new lands to claim it for king and country. During the next five hundred years, Spain ‘discovered’ the so-called New World. France, Great Britain, Portugal, and Holland (Netherlands) quickly joined the land grab, swooping in to establish their own satellites in the Americas and then around the globe. Most of these conquered people were people of color, therefore automatically considered inferior and suitable for genocide or enslavement.

Ironically, all these Western European powers were themselves shaped by invasions by outsiders, virtually all of which were also PIE cultures. For example, after the Celts penetrated the British Isles sometime around 2000 BCE, continuing waves of foreign invaders included the Romans (circa 55 BCE); Germanic Angles, Saxons, and Jutes (circa 400-500 CE); Norse, Danes and other ‘Viking’ entities (700-900 CE); and finally the conquest by Normans (1066). The influence of Scandinavian influence on British culture and language can’t be understated, since the Normans (Northmen) themselves were Norse Viking invaders of France circa 900 CE who agreed to stop pillaging Paris in exchange for lands along France’s western coast.[2]

England and subsequently the British Empire staked its claim first on Ireland and Scotland, but also on North America, India, Australia, Egypt and a major swath of Africa along with portions of China, Indonesia, and various Pacific islands.[3] Spain plundered most of South America as well as the western half of the present-day United States and the Philippine Islands. Not wanting miss out on native hoards of gold, silver, and precious gems, the Catholic Church worked through both Spain and Portugal to destroy indigenous religious traditions and take possession of their wealth.[4] France suffered the loss of much of their colonized territories to the British in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) including a large swath of the United States heartland and much of eastern Canada, then made up its losses with the occupation of northwest Africa, parts of India, and various parts of Indochina.[5]

Along the way, racism stood as a primary justification for enslaving not only Africans to produce wealth in American and Caribbean colonies, but virtually any indigenous peoples who fell before the advance of Western Europeans. A standard concept undergirded these actions, perhaps best stated in 1884 by the Frenchman Jules Ferry: “”The higher races have a right over the lower races, they have a duty to civilize the inferior races.”

The western European colonial powers claimed that, as Christian nations, they were duty-bound to disseminate Western civilization to what Europeans perceived as the heathen and primitive cultures… In addition to economic exploitation and imposition of imperialist government, the ideology of the civilizing mission required the cultural assimilation of “primitive peoples,” as the nonwhite Other, into the colonial subaltern of eastern Europe.[6]

Then, just like that, there were no more new lands to conquer and movement westward turned back on itself. Throughout the rush to ‘conquer’ the American West, freed slaves, migrant laborers from Mexico and the rest of Central America, and imported Chinese performed the backbreaking labor of building railroads, mining, and agriculture. Today’s U. S. agricultural industries depend heavily on the descendants of mixed Spanish-Native peoples.

For a time, the tradition of colonization continued into the 20th century in the form of wars against lesser nations. In a belated effort to rein in this long tradition of conquest, “In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill jointly released the Atlantic Charter, which broadly outlined the goals of the U.S. and British governments. One of the main clauses of the charter acknowledged the right of all people to choose their own government. The document became the foundation for the United Nations and all of its components were integrated into the UN Charter, giving the organization a mandate to pursue global decolonization.”[7]

Meanwhile, domestic discrimination by whites takes form in laws that are used selectively in the United States to disproportionately imprison Blacks and Latinos where they are used as a labor force and whose imprisonment enriches the rapidly growing private prison industry. The racist white-supremacy inheritance of PIE ancestry continues in the 21st century, thriving in right-wing hate groups and political party movements across the United States and Western Europe.

The racialist perspective of the Western world during the 18th and 19th centuries was invented with the Othering of non-white peoples, which also was supported with the fabrications of scientific racism, such as the pseudo-science of phrenology, which claimed that, in relation to a white-man’s head, the head-size of the non-European Other indicated inferior intelligence; e.g. the apartheid-era cultural representations of coloured people in South Africa (1948–94).

…Despite the UN’s factual dismissal of racialism, in the U.S., institutional Othering continues in government forms that ask a citizen to identify and place him or herself into a racial category; thus, institutional Othering produces the cultural misrepresentation of political refugees as illegal immigrants (from overseas) and of immigrants as illegal aliens (usually from México).[8]

The same science that has tracked white ancestry over thousands of years has not only provided modern civilization with countless amenities but also clear evidence that underneath our skin and other outward appearances, humans are all the same.

https://themetamodernist.com/2017/12/27/why-god-is-a-white-man-god-the-father-in-western-art/

See Part II coming soon: “Are Whites Superior?”


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_history_of_Europe

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normans

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Empire

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spanish_Empire

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/French_colonial_empire

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilizing_mission

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analysis_of_Western_European_colonialism_and_colonization

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Other_(philosophy)

Fearing Other

What if we all had the same color of skin?

Who would you hate then?

What if we all had the same religion?

What if we all had the same warmth in winter, cool in summer?

Who would we fight then?

What if we eliminated the industries of war, destroyed all guns and other weapons?

Would we kill each other with rocks and clubs?

What if our jobs all paid the same and my stainless steel appliances were no newer than yours? What if our furniture was exactly the same, our lawns just as nicely tended, our cars the same year and model?

Would you still resent me then?

What if we were all born with the same color of hair, the same color of eyes, grew to the same height, the same musculature?

Would you still be jealous because my nose was slightly longer? Or my lips slightly fuller? Would you still pay for surgery to make your nose and lips more like mine?

What if we sat side by side through all twelve grades and received the same education and yet somehow I went to college and became a lawyer while you went to trade school and became a plumber? Would you call me a libtard and resent my career? Would I look down on you as you installed my new toilet?

Will we always find something to resent, something to be jealous of, something to fight about?

Will it always be our nature to fear the Other, even if their Otherness is only birthmark, a broken tooth, a different hairstyle?

How does the skin color, the religion, the material wealth of Others make us fearful?

How do we make all Other into Ours?

A Paeon to Flour

I believe I could live on carbs alone. Preferably derivatives of wheat. Refined into cake. Angel food cake. Chocolate cake. Lemon cake. Pound cake. Cupcakes! We’ve made up holidays so that we can have more cake.

Or cookies. Peanut butter cookies, oatmeal cookies, sugar cookies. Cookies! Biscuits slathered with butter and strawberry jam. Biscuits with sorghum molasses. Biscuits!

I bet you didn’t know that the Roman legions’ staple ration of food was wheat.  Or that from 123 BCE, a ration of unmilled wheat (as much as 72 pounds) was distributed to as many as 200,000 people every month by the Roman state. Hence the old reference to ‘bread and circuses’. Juvenal, a first century Roman poet who originated the phrase, used it to decry the “selfishness” of common people and their neglect of wider concerns because the government pacified them with bread and entertainment. The phrase implies a population’s erosion or ignorance of civic duty as a priority. (‘Circuses’ referred to elaborate spectacles in the coliseum.)

Not surprisingly, the Romans knew how to make flour into piecrust.

In these times of political crisis and viral contagion, I’ve increasingly come to admire the qualities of flour. Bread of course. Bread for sandwiches, toasted bread with eggs, with jam, with melted cheese and tomato soup. Breadsticks!

Without flour, there would be no gravy! No puddings! No graham crackers or the heavenly crusts made from them that lie underneath and beside the beautiful maidens of cheesecake and cream pies. Pretzels, bagels, tortillas, English muffins, blueberry muffins, banana nut bread, crumpets, scones. Scones baked with bits of crisp bacon, or with sharp cheddar, or dried cranberries.

Crackers. Salty crisp crackers.

Pies. Lots of my favorite foods come in pie crust, thick crumbly crust of flour and butter brought to its most exquisitely evolved state. One could argue that American cuisine is lacking in regard to pie crust. Our cousins across the pond seem far more advanced in regard to food wrapped lovingly in crust.

Like pasties.

The genius of pasties and its ilk is its perfect use of crust by wrapping crust entirely around the contents. Maximum crust.

We do have a descendant of pasties in our half-moon pies. Steam some apricots until tender, mash with appropriate sweetener. (There used to be dried apricots that carried the perfect balance of tart and sweet. You can’t find those anymore. Now they’re all too sweet.) Still, with a judicious hand on the sweetener and a hint of ginger, the apricots can be made ready for their marriage bed in crust. She finds herself spread on one side of a flat circle of rolled-out dough where the other side is brought to rise up over her, cover her… Ahem.

The most perfect apricot pies were fried. In deep hot oil, the butter in the dough sizzled, cooking the flour into tender flakes that, once in the mouth with a portion of apricot filling, dissemble like a velvet-tongued seducer, drawing everything connected to the mouth into bliss. For those aging beyond heavily fried foods, the alternative is to bake the pie – with so-so results.

WAIT for the pie to cool. Oops, sorry.

The genius of the Brits with pasties is that the filling is a meal.

A pasty is a baked pastry, a traditional variety of which is particularly associated with Cornwall, United Kingdom. It is made by placing an uncooked filling, typically meat and vegetables, on one half of a flat shortcrust pastry circle, folding the pastry in half to wrap the filling in a semicircle and crimping the curved edge to form a seal before baking.

The traditional Cornish pasty is filled with beef, sliced or diced potato, swede (also known as yellow turnip or rutabaga – referred to in Devon and Cornwall as turnip) and onion, salt, and pepper.

Despite the modern pasty’s strong association with Cornwall, its exact origins are unclear. The English word “pasty” derives from Medieval French (O.Fr. paste from V.Lat pasta) for a pie, filled with venison, salmon or other meat, vegetables or cheese, baked without a dish. Pasties have been mentioned in cookbooks throughout the ages. For example, the earliest version of Le Viandier (Old French) has been dated to around 1300 and contains several pasty recipes. In 1393, Le Menagier de Paris contains recipes for pasté with venison, veal, beef, or mutton.  

Other early references to pasties include a 13th-century charter that was granted by Henry III (1207–1272) to the town of Great Yarmouth. The town is bound to send to the sheriffs of Norwich every year one hundred herrings, baked in twenty four pasties, which the sheriffs are to deliver to the lord of the manor of East Carlton who is then to convey them to the King. Around the same time, 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris wrote of the monks of St Albans Abbey “according to their custom, lived upon pasties of flesh-meat.” A total of 5,500 venison pasties were served at the installation feast of George Neville, archbishop of York and chancellor of England in 1465.[1]

The family of pasty-style meat pies includes those fabulous empanadas which spread with the advance of Portuguese and Spanish conquests of the New World from Argentina to Indonesia (panasan) and the Philippines (several versions).[2] Then there are the Russian and Ukranian pirozhoks, boat-shaped pies made of yeast-leavened dough, with filling completely enclosed. Also the Italian calzone made with pizza dough wrapped around salami, ham or vegetables with mozzarella, ricotta and parmesan or pecorino cheese, plus an egg. Don’t forget the samosa of India, a crusty wrapping of dough around a filling such a spiced potatoes, onions, peas, cheese, beef or other meat, or lentils. And the Jewish knish. Or the Mongolian khuushuur.

We do have Hot Pockets, which hardly merit mention.

The lines blur with the jianbing, a Chinese wheat flour pancake that is wrapped raw around fillings and cooked on a griddle and folded. Traced as far back as 2,000 years, this food was originally made from millet flour or other grains. It is a cousin to crepes, usually served with fruit or other sweet fillings rather than savory ones. But then that brings up pancakes… PANCAKES!

Never forget those thin wrappings of eggrolls and spring rolls, deep fried to crisp perfection, thanks to wheat flour. Spring rolls appeared in the historical record in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (266-420 CE) of ancient China, leading one to theorize that the Western European rise of pasties as a flour-based wrapping around meat fillings might have resulted from the Italian Marco Polo’s wanderings along the Silk Road into Asian lands (1271-1295). Interestingly, the 12th century Arthurian romance Erec and Enide, written by Chrétien de Troyes, includes pasties eaten by characters from the area around Cornwall. Which brings back the question of whether the pasty was indigenous to Cornwall or if the idea followed Polo back from China.

Then there’s pasta. How lost we would be in this world without it? Spaghetti, ravioli, pizza and, among many other shapes of this water and flour invention, macaroni, that star of American comfort food, mac ‘n’ cheese! Developed as early as the 14th century in Italy, the charm of mac ‘n’ cheese quickly gained pride of place in English cuisine of the same century.

Let us not forget the forms of bread that serve us daily in their embrace of hamburger patties or hot dogs, soft pillows of compliant wheat dough providing a handhold on meat and fillings without the trouble of frying or baking a pasty.

People have been making delicious food with flour since, well, since a time before history. We just don’t know exactly when those clever women (of course it was women) started harvesting and then replanting the largest grains of native grasses; the first known cultivation was around 10,000 years ago in the area around modern day southeastern Turkey. Around 6,000 years ago Egyptians figured out how to make wheat bread in an oven. Evidence of the first identifiable bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) with sufficient gluten for yeasted bread is found in Macedonia circa 1350 BCE.[3]

But for flour, someone had to figure that out. Some woman rubbing two rocks together smashed wheat kernels into dust, and flour was born. Sometime before 2,000 BCE, a recipe for chicken pie was written on a clay tablet in Sumer.

One of the most sublime of all human flour experiences is to wind through the process of making risen bread – the mixing, the kneading, the waiting for it to rise only to punch it down again before waiting yet again for it to rise before shaping loaves or those manna parcels called ROLLS. And then, suffering through the baking as yeasty aroma fills the air, one arrives at the moment of completion when the golden loaves are lifted onto cooling racks and the truest torture begins. One is exhorted to wait until the bread cools, but who can wait? Yes, the soft interior suffers when a knife plunges into the hot loaf.  Equally true is that a slice of bread still steaming from the oven will melt the butter before it can be spread.

But who needs to spread it? Drop thick slabs of cold butter onto the incandescent bread and let it vanish into the textured magic, cooling the bread as it goes so that your trembling hands can bring the slab of hot bread to your mouth and you can absorb the entirely decadent ambrosia directly into your bloodstream.

~~~

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasty

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empanada

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat

It’s Baack!

Looking for some perspective on today’s viral crisis? Considering humanity’s infinitely long track record with similar outbreaks, we surely aren’t surprised that it’s here again. In case you’re not up to speed on the history of mankind’s virus background, check out my last blog post.

There is evidently an ingrained memory of this threat to our lives. Instinctively, we know there are invisible killers lurking out there, and entertainment takes advantage of our interest. Not only have scientists made regular warnings to prepare for such eruptions, our literature and movies regularly focus on outbreak what-ifs.

Outbreak, 1995

Consider the list of 79 – yes, 79 – movies on the topic of epidemic/pandemic outbreaks. In fact, as long as movies have been made, viral contagions have been a favored subject. Here’s a great list.

If you prefer to curl up with a book, writers and historians have been exploring the desolate landscapes of plague-riddled civilizations since Greek and Roman times. Daniel Defoe was one of the first English writers to producing a book about devastating disease with his 1722 A Journal of the Plague Year, which chronicles the 1665 bubonic plague in London. Here are more books to consider.

1950

One might wonder why anyone would want to read about horrific diseases when we’re in the middle of our current crisis, but art reflects life in many important ways. Movies and literature about pandemics not only explore the physical effects of the disease but also the human response to collateral damage like quarantine, isolation, and economic hits. We can gain a greater understanding through this informing exploration, and that in itself is somehow comforting. It’s like, ok, we’ve been through this before and survived. We can do it again.

But most of all, such deep history about our relationship with diseases like SARS-CoV-2 (COVID 19) provides critical information for those entrusted with leadership over us all whether elected officials, agencies, teachers, or scientists.  In our tragic case, our president failed to read history or listen to experts – or even his predecessor, President Obama, who had learned from Ebola and Zika that preparations must be made BEFORE an outbreak ever occurs. The sad result is the enormous death rate for a nation purportedly the most advanced.

The most malevolent viruses are fast and silent killers, moving through populations before we have time to prepare. There is no excuse for the current situation in the United States where we’re still not in possession of enough face masks or testing apparatus to get in front of this tidal wave of death.

1950

Perhaps most instructive about such movies and books, both fiction and non-fiction, is the inevitable reactions of people. There’s denial – it can’t happen here, it’s not that bad, it’s still safe to go shopping, I won’t wear a mask – that has become one of the most virulent aspects of SARS-CoV-2. It probably wouldn’t matter what the books and movies might say to the folks clogging state capitol steps with their guns and angry, unmasked faces. Their denial derives from lack of understanding of the science involved and a refusal to admit they might be lacking. It doesn’t help that their presidential hero praises their ignorance – because he too is lacking.

Mother Nature will keep throwing these things in our path. I predict another new viral crisis within the next two years. Meanwhile, we don’t yet know if a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2 will work – after all, vaccines depend on the idea that our bodies create effective antibodies once the vaccine is administered, and those antibodies will protect us from a new infection. But increasingly, reports filter in that persons are becoming sick for the second time, which means antibodies aren’t working. And we already know that to date, our best flu vaccines are only 50%-60% effective.

SARS-CoV-2 is here to stay, folks. More of us will die. Grab the popcorn and watch a movie! And next time you vote, make sure your chosen candidate is going to protect you and your loved ones by preparing well in advance for the next outbreak.

Viruses and Humanity — An Old Story

17th-century German “plague panel” depicting the triumph of death. Panels of this kind were placed on the walls of houses to warn against the plague. A plague epidemy raged in Augsburg, Bavaria between 1607 and 1636.

Amid funny television sitcoms, exciting football games, and eating out at your favorite Thai food restaurant, it’s easy to forget about plagues. But they’ve always been part of human existence. Millions of us have died with these periodic outbreaks. Fortunately for us, we (well, most of us) now understand that these are not curses sent by angry gods but rather a natural invasion of one or another micro-organism seeking its own place in the sun. Er, in us.

A side note here: A virus is technically NOT an organism like bacteria but rather a microscopic parasite much smaller than bacteria which can’t reproduce outside of a host body.

Viruses teeter on the boundaries of what is considered life. On one hand, they contain the key elements that make up all living organisms: the nucleic acids, DNA or RNA (any given virus can only have one or the other). On the other hand, viruses lack the capacity to independently read and act upon the information contained within these nucleic acids.[1]

A virus is a submicroscopic infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of an organism. Viruses can infect all types of life forms, from animals and plants to microorganisms, including bacteria and archaea. [Since their discovery in] 1898, more than 6,000 virus species have been described in detail, of the millions of types of viruses in the environment. Viruses are found in almost every ecosystem on Earth and are the most numerous type of biological entity.[2]

So keeping in mind that these infinitesimally small entities can’t move, reproduce, or live except inside another organism, we can look back and marvel at the enormous impact these entities have wrought on the human race. Research has found that an astonishing thirty percent of all protein adaptations for humans have been driven by viruses.[3],[4]  As noted in the 2007 scientific article by Christian W. McMillan, “Epidemic Disease and Their Effect on History,”

There is perhaps no longer-lasting historical relationship than that between humans and disease, especially epidemic disease. The relationship predates agriculture, the formation of cities, and, if current research on the emergence of diseases like tuberculosis is correct, human migration out of Africa. From the earliest times to the present, epidemics have affected human history in myriad ways: demographically, culturally, politically, financially, and biologically. Humans have never known a time in history when epidemics did not loom large.[5]

Studies of prehistory suggest that bottlenecks in human evolution may have been the result of epidemics where most of a population died off leaving only a few survivors to repopulate that area or continent. Aside from restarting populations, these virulent invaders also affect the genome by selecting survivors with particular DNA profiles which then become the prevailing type. Epigenetic effects also become part of the remaining population, an inheritance by mechanisms other than through the DNA sequence of genes. … It works through chemical tags added to chromosomes that function to switch genes on or off.

The discovery of a 5,000-year-old house in China filled with skeletons is evidence of a deadly epidemic. (Image credit: Photo courtesy Chinese Archaeology)

The earliest evidence of a widespread plague is found in China where the 5,000 year old remains of prehistoric villagers had been stuffed inside a house that was subsequently burned to the ground.

No age group was spared, as the skeletons of juveniles, young adults and middle-age people were found inside the house. The archaeological site is now called “Hamin Mangha” and is one of the best-preserved prehistoric sites in northeastern China. Archaeological and anthropological study indicates that the epidemic happened quickly enough that there was no time for proper burials, and the site was not inhabited again.

Before the discovery of Hamin Mangha, another prehistoric mass burial that dates to roughly the same time period was found at a site called Miaozigou, in northeastern China. Together, these discoveries suggest that an epidemic ravaged the entire region.[6]

There’s no question that epidemics have changed not only the physical make-up of humanity but also the course of history. Among the earliest records of such events are Sanskrit notations from 1200 BC documenting a type of flu that spread through Babylon, Central Asia, Mesopotamia and Southern Asia. Since these were the first areas of the world to create written records, it follows these would be the places where such chronicles would exist. But without doubt, plagues didn’t select only advanced societies to infect.

The first well documented outbreak of epidemic disease may be the Plague of Athens, an illness which Thucydides described as starting in the head with illness that included fever, redness and inflammation in the eyes, sore throat that led to bleeding, sneezing, coughing, vomiting, and ulcers on the body. The opinions of scholars on the cause range from hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola to epidemic typhus fever.

The Plague of Athens was an epidemic that devastated the city-state of Athens in ancient Greece during the second year of the Peloponnesian War (430 BC) when an Athenian victory still seemed within reach. The plague killed an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 people and is believed to have entered Athens through Piraeus, the city’s port and sole source of food and supplies. Much of the eastern Mediterranean also saw an outbreak of the disease, albeit with less impact.

The plague had serious effects on Athens’ society, resulting in a lack of adherence to laws and religious belief. In response laws became stricter, resulting in the punishment of non-citizens claiming to be Athenian. In addition, Pericles, the leader of Athens, died from the plague. The plague returned twice more, in 429 BC and in the winter of 427/426 BC. Some 30 pathogens have been suggested as having caused the plague.[7]

The Roman Empire suffered its first massive epidemic in the so-called Antonine Plague circa 165-180 AD. Soldiers returning to Rome from campaigning along with empire’s boundaries developed what scientists now believe was smallpox. The result in Rome’s crowded streets was the death of up to five million people. The long-lasting outbreak ended the long peaceful “Pax Romana” for the empire, with barbarian invasions weakening the government and undermining the old religious belief systems with their multiple gods, opening the door to the growth of Christianity.

The remains found where a bonfire incinerated many of the victims of the Cyprian Plague epidemic in the city of Thebes in Egypt. (Image credit: N.Cijan/Associazione Culturale per lo Studio dell’Egitto e del Sudan ONLUS)

About 100 years later, a new virus hit the Roman Empire that wiped out over one million people.  “Named after St. Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage (a city in Tunisia) who described the epidemic as signaling the end of the world, the Plague of Cyprian is estimated to have killed 5,000 people a day in Rome alone. In 2014, archaeologists in Luxor found what appears to be a mass burial site of plague victims. Their bodies were covered with a thick layer of lime (historically used as a disinfectant). Archaeologists found three kilns used to manufacture lime and the remains of plague victims burned in a giant bonfire.”[8] Thought by scholars to be another outbreak of smallpox, the disease is believed to have transferred from animal hosts to humanity and may have included measles.  The outbreak continued for nearly twenty years and contributed greatly to the fall of the empire.

In 541-542, up to 100 million died across Europe and West Asia in the epidemic known first as the Plague of Justinian (emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire at Istanbul),[9] wiping out up to 50% of the European population. The disease, later known as the Black Death (Bubonic plague) hopped over to the British Isles 100 years later and reappeared in 746-747 in the Byzantine Empire, West Asia, and Africa to ill an unknown number of victims. Meanwhile, an outbreak of smallpox in Japan killed about half the population.

A bubo on the upper thigh of a person infected with bubonic plague. Wikipedia

The Black Death is perhaps the most famous of pandemics, believed carried by fleas and also spread by human to human contact. Credited with depopulating Europe during the Middle Ages, the outbreak lasted from 1331-1353 and wiped out up to 200 million people, up to 60% of the population.

The Black Death, also known as the Pestilence and the Plague, was the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history… the bacterium Yersinia pestis is believed to have been the cause. Y. pestis infection most commonly results in bubonic plague… it most likely originated in Central Asia or East Asia, from where it travelled along the Silk Road, reaching Crimea by 1347. From there, it was most likely carried by fleas living on the black rats that travelled on Genoese merchant ships, spreading throughout the Mediterranean Basin and reaching Africa, Western Asia, and the rest of Europe via Constantinople, Sicily, and the Italian Peninsula.[10]

A recurrence of Black Death in the mid-1500s wiped out over 20,000 Londoners and another estimated 20,000 thirty years later. Various plague outbreaks around the globe continued to occur, but the biggest death toll in Britain of over 100,000 people happened in the mid-1600s. Subsequent ripples of this infection have made way through various populations since that time, and the virus remains active even in the United States.

One of greatest advantages Europeans had in its conquest of the New World were the diseases that came with them. Smallpox, measles, and yellow fever wiped out upwards of twenty million natives who had never been exposed and had no immunity. For a full list of epidemics and their impact, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_epidemics

Today, we have the advantage of knowing such disease outbreaks are not signals of the end of the world wrought by supernatural powers, but rather by invisible creatures that breed in our cells. We shouldn’t be at all surprised that yet another such eruption has occurred, given the role such entities have played throughout human history. Due to modern science, we stand at a far greater advantage than any of our forefathers in fighting such devastating illnesses. But as we’re witnessing, science is only as effective as the public and our leaders will allow.

And as far as science goes, no one yet knows exactly how COVID-19 kills people, or how long asymptomatic carriers continue to spread the virus, or whether those who’ve survived infection are vulnerable to re-infection. The horizon for a vaccine remains distant despite our advanced technology, and no one can predict whether a vaccine will be more or less as effective as the flu vaccine at its average of 50%.

Even when (if) we manage to craft an effective vaccine and discover treatments that address the viral infection with relatively useful interventions, we still must face the fact that the flip side of our advanced scientific status in the modern world is a far greater rate of intercontinental disease transmission and expansion of human population into areas previously left to nature, to name only two.

There will be new viruses.

~~~

Notes:

  1. With new viruses occurring approximately ONE EACH YEAR, the majority are viruses originating from an animal host. Of the many factors responsible, CHANGES TO LOCAL ECOSYSTEMS that perturb the balance between pathogen and principal host species is one of the major drivers, together with increasing urbanization of mankind and changes in human behavior. Many emerging viruses have RNA genomes and as such are capable of rapid mutation and selection of new variants in the face of environmental changes in host numbers and available target species. [Emphasis mine] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3630908/
  2. Scientists studying ice cores from melting glaciers have discovered previously unknown viruses that are tens of millions of years old. “The experiment revealed 33 groups of virus genuses (also known as genera) in the ice cores. Of these, 28 were previously unknown to science, the researchers said. “The microbes differed significantly across the two ice cores,” the researchers wrote in the study, ‘presumably representing the very different climate conditions at the time of deposition.’” See https://www.livescience.com/unknown-viruses-discovered-tibetan-glacier.html
  3. We still have plenty of existing, known viruses waiting at our doorstep for a fresh host population. See https://www.livescience.com/56598-deadliest-viruses-on-earth.html
  4. Graphics of viruses. https://www.visualcapitalist.com/history-of-pandemics-deadliest/

Footnotes:

[1] https://www.livescience.com/53272-what-is-a-virus.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virus

[3] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160713100911.htm

[4] https://www.sciencefocus.com/the-human-body/virus-human-evolution/

[5] https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199743292/obo-9780199743292-0155.xml

[6] https://www.livescience.com/worst-epidemics-and-pandemics-in-history.html

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plague_of_Athens

[8] https://www.livescience.com/worst-epidemics-and-pandemics-in-history.html

[9] It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how this plague led to the end of the classical world.  “The reign of Justinian was a turning-point in Late Antiquity. It is the period when paganism finally lost its long struggle to survive, and when the schism in Christianity between the Monophysite east and the Chalcedonian west became insurmountable. From a military viewpoint, it marked the last time that the Roman Empire could go on the offensive with hope of success. Africa and Italy were recovered, and a foothold was established in Spain. When Justinian died, the frontiers were still intact although the Balkans had been devastated by a series of raids and the Italian economy was in ruins. His extensive building program has left us the most celebrated example of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture that still survives: Hagia Sophia in modern Istanbul.” See https://www.roman-emperors.org/justinia.htm

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Death