The Germs Inside Us
By Catherine Macaulay
I am sick, or so I texted my friend today. I hesitate to inform her, but sometimes there’s just no way of making a person feel guilty other than to come out with it. After all, it was she who gave me the flu in the first place, though my husband insists I've been dealt the common cold.
I'm certain he's mistaken as the latter germ is quite pedestrian, the former of epidemic proportions and subsequently far more capable of distinguishing itself among the playing field of microscopic warfare. But it is quite like a man never to give credit to a woman for being in possession of anything noteworthy, bugs included.
Whether my germs are viral, bacterial, fungal or protozoan by nature, I am certain my girlfriend never meant to pass them on, being a considerate sort. She’d thoughtfully refrained from coughing during my Friday visit, preferring to sit tucked on the sofa, her thin hands wrapped around a cup of hot buttered rum, looking tired and drawn.
At the time, I did not inquire whether she had the cold or the flu. Somehow, it didn’t seem polite to go probing into the ugly details of anyone’s illness. But conventional rules of etiquette do not apply to germs staking out new territories, preferring as they do the more aggressive seek-and-destroy imperative that’s worked incredibly well for them throughout their billions of years on earth, as evidenced by the short time between Friday and Tuesday, when I got sick and which is suspiciously close to the incubation period for the spreading of Ye Olde Germs, including those newly in my possession, which I still believe to be of the viral variety.
"Doug checked himself into the emergency room yesterday with the flu," I remarked, drinking down the fizzy cold/flu medicine my husband had delivered to my sick bed.
The news hit him squarely. The thought of our sturdy warm-hearted friend visibly failing before some admitting room nurse was sobering to say the least. Barry refrained from taking an instinctive step backward, but it was evident that he was rethinking the possibility of his having underrated my germs, the sum of which, though still undetermined in origin, at least now was a portent of respect.
“Can I get you anything else?” he asked, braving a smile that belied the fact that secretly he was holding his breath. I shook my head, feeling too sick to eat, stand, even to sleep, there being no part of my body that wasn’t under attack.
Barry turned and fled, leaving me alone, in a manner of speaking, much as we are all on our own when we’re in the grip of suffering. There is no lonelier a place to be than stuck inside your head with nothing to divert you from the Olympian struggle consuming your energies. It disenfranchises you from life, devours all perspective, reduces you to a mirror of self-absorption, a single hurt playing itself over and over in your mind.
On the plus side, this bout of misery has shown me that I can still cough violently without the need for panty liners. And I do have Teddy, a tawny, overfed cat who stepped across the threshold of my life three years ago following the death of his owner. I have not petted him once during my convalescence, yet he hovers nearby offering his own brand of consolation, a touch of the paw here, a forehead pressed affectionately against mine while I sleep. Such is the definition of any true friend, albeit one whose closeness now holds the potential of becoming infected by my germs, be they viral or bacterial in nature.
Called reverse zoonosis, such transmission is a rare occurrence. Usually the pathway to infection begins as a one-way street, originating from bats, cats, dogs, rodents, squirrels, pigs, cows, chickens, birds, fowl, even horses—our human contact with their species exposing us to a host of zoonotic diseases ranging from the relatively benign ringworm to more serious infections like rabies and Lyme. But few threaten us like those wantonly aggressive ever-mutating influenza viruses: Type A, B and C.
If I did have the flu, it would likely be this year’s H3N2 strain. Not particularly impressive sounding, it is considerably more highbrow when one considers its virulence is a potent cocktail derived from human, swine and avian genes. A variant of the H1N1 pandemic influenza of 2009, the H3N2 likely began on some swine farm in Asia, then migrated to Australia before marching onward to overtake New Zealand. Still not content with its conquests, the microbial army of villains crossed an ocean riding the wings of technology, turning airports into passports for their infections, conquering all of North America before campaigning southward, ultimately proving itself victorious on the South American continent.
One must admire such an epic model of survival, though perhaps, not the Egyptians who’ve endured their share of biblical plagues over the years. In attempting to gain the tactical advantage over their microbial oppressors, it’s reported they turned to the plant kingdom for solutions, relying heavily on garlic. Everyone ate it, the pharaohs, high priests, even their slaves were fed a daily regimen of it, presumably to keep those pyramids coming.
In the drive to mine nature’s secret antidotes, Native Americans prescribed Echinacea to boost their immune systems against any invading pathogens. And the Chinese have always loved their ginger, which, when combined with an orange rind and allowed to steep becomes a truly awful tasting tea that serves as an effective anti-viral compound.
I am the product of a 20th century industrialized nation, at present a sneezing, coughing, phlegm producing American whose patriotic duty it is to consume more products than she can possibly use, as evidenced by the arsenal of overpriced, chemically modified store-bought medicinals crowding my nightstand. The very concept of “more” seems to have been imbedded in my brain since I was old enough to think.
Sadly, thinking is an occupation that by nature I am occasionally forced to do—we humans being stuck with the capacity for fully 60,000 thoughts per day, the result of an ancient program that was patterned into our neural activity just to confuse us, which, if history is any indication, it has successfully done repeatedly.
What to think…how filthy the house was growing in my absence? Or might I reflect on the guessing game the Centers for Disease Control engage in each year trying to predict what new strains will emerge onto the global stage, and which of them will be merely seasonal viruses or mutate into pandemics? Or perhaps I could entertain the prospect of our having entering the Anthropocene Epoch, coined nearly a decade ago by Nobel Prize winning scientist Paul Crutzen when he called into question the pressures of post-industrial societies upon the earth.
Some like Crutzen believe our planet has reached the end of its stable 11,000-year-old Holocene Epoch and is now embarking upon a period of human-induced mass extinctions, deforested habitats and polluted water sources, along with a carbon-choked atmosphere that combined will profoundly alter earth’s biosopheric processes.
The cause is rooted in a sobering set of statistics. More than seven billion humans colonizing ourselves in vast numbers over a surface area of roughly 197,000 square miles, employing the same inventiveness, persistence, adaptability and epic boldness as the superbugs we fear, our post-industrial societies having given rise to an explosive level of resource-dependent consumerism never imagined just a hundred years ago.
Once exclusive to North America, Europe and Japan, consumerism today is on the move, migrating across India and China like a virulent pandemic, having mutated the lives of 362 million people into a higher standard between the latter two nations alone (the rest remaining in poverty), rising rapidly as it adapts itself to different cultures and crosses borders.
Not bad for a small, nomadic band of scavengers who started out struggling against the overwhelming forces of nature, apparently without much success—at least until Homo habilis began dabbling in tools some 2.4 million years ago, setting us on the path toward consumerism. It began slowly at first—a knife here, some sharp stone flakes there. Fire was a breakthrough innovation, though perhaps not so much for the women who suddenly had something to slave over while the men sat around the crackling flames talking about their tools.
The geological layers kept piling up with the discarded bones of our over-conflicted lives like some junkyard of human evolution. Still, we were a plucky little species, always scratching our high foreheads, thinking the big thoughts, whittling away at the tools of our invention with our uniquely opposable thumbs—a wooden spear here, a hand axe there. Then, 40,000 years ago someone got the bright idea to carve a needle from an old bone and thread it with animal tendons, the product of which cloaked we hairless Homo sapiens against the cold while simultaneously adding sewing to a women’s “to do” list, which now included birthing, nurturing, cooking and dressing the family for success.
We women didn’t mind. By now, we were fully invested as mates, daughters, helpmates and friends, our cerebrums informing our behaviors with an innate sense of altruism. Cooperation wasn’t exactly rocket science. It had been nature’s time-honored, survival plan for social animals such as ourselves. Share the workload; try to live life less on the edge. So what if it entailed a bit more work for we Homo sapiens women. It was a natural division of labor. Look at all the mutual benefits we were sharing as a group. Besides, sewing helped pass the time while we sat around the campfires listening to the men retelling those old stories about the hunts.
Recognizing a good thing when they saw it, the men began working together for the greater good, jointly planning and strategizing, usually over how to get women to do more then their fair share of the work, their successful efforts lifting our species from our humble beginnings into small, but tightly cohesive societies of hunter-gatherers who thrived during the Neolithic period.
Still, life was a bare-boned short-lived struggle against the overwhelming forces of nature, with no chance for glory much less self-actualization, lacking as it did in any appreciable consumer goods. For a time, it seemed like full-out consumerism might never take root. That is until between 2,000 and 3,500 BCE when the lid blew off, technologically speaking, following the invention of the spoke wheel. Consumerism at last was born. Finally we women could begin thinking of shoes.
To our oversized three-pound brains it must have seemed as though we Homo sapiens had just forged ourselves the keys to the Corvette, our radically new inventions having coincided with our domestication of oxen and horses, which we employed to work the land. Nomads no longer, we re-branded ourselves as larger, more stable agrarian societies, emerging at last from the restless wilderness.
Freed from the task of preparing meals on the go, we women could begin stoking the fires inside our tidy, new homes built by the men for our protection—shelters that when combined grew into villages that those same men felt as compelled to protect as their kind had a long, messy history of never getting along. Nor was any truce likely given those cool new chariots they’d invented along with their hot-forged double-edged swords. Both were practically an open invitation for turf wars and colonization.
We women took such behavior in stride. Men seemed naturally equipped for life’s rough-and-tumble existence, and, besides, none of us wanted to take up the fight. Better to let them do their thing—shaving pulp from trees, creating paper for books, building ships by which to explore uncharted horizons, creating new markets for our ever expanding inventory of goods—while we stayed behind, being fully domesticated, venturing only as far as the back fields to help with the planting and the harvesting, grubbing in the vegetable garden for roots and tubers, always an eye toward preserving nature’s yields.
The work was grinding and interminable. Chickens routinely had to be tended, beheaded, plucked and stuffed, cows milked, butter churned, floors swept, dishes cleaned and the family’s clothes sewn, washed and mended while simultaneously fulfilling those old duties of birthing and nurturing, always tending to everyone’s physical and emotional needs—being careful not to interfere with the planning and strategizing going on behind closed doors as that was considered men’s work. But what did it matter? The important thing was that this pooling of human resources with natural resources was really improving our lives.
And yet, the more things changed the more they stayed the same. As man continued his ascent toward consumerism, there evolved a specialization of jobs and a greater division of labor, their combination producing an economic stratification and a growing inequality whose common denominator was the singular relegation of we women to the bottom of the pyramid—seemingly fit for only the most rudimentary of labors, universally consigned as the weaker sex.
Year after year, century after century, we women remained obediently in the trenches no matter how high ranking our position in society, never ruling but always being ruled over, our efforts marginalized, our participation in any appreciable input of power quietly shunned. Our own husbands deemed us second-class citizens, incapable of claiming title to the very land we toiled or the houses we called home, our most lauded qualities those non-threatening traits of docility, sweetness and obedience. In our very willingness to lighten man’s load, we had unwittingly become men’s beasts of burden. Even religion seemed to weigh in on the matter, asserting that we women were designed exclusively for men, and not in a good way.
It seemed a promise broken. We suffered quietly, staying within the confines of home and family, our lives worn by care, always thinking tomorrow would be better.
For the aggregates of American consumers today life is civilized. Men and women drink equally from a tap, live in homes equipped with indoor plumbing, enjoy the comforts of heat and air conditioning; we all drive cars that shuttle us to the gym, returning us back home loaded down with groceries handily purchased rather than clubbed to death, the undisputed victors in the age-old battle against nature. In the 21st Century we Americans do more than survive—we thrive.
But living amid a consumerism that is going viral poses drawbacks for both sexes. In America, the leading cause of death is heart disease, followed by cancer and stroke. We Americans fret too much, work too hard, run too fast trying to catch up with a complicated mode of living that continuously outpaces us. As consumerism continues its migration across developing nations, placing even greater pressures on the earth, it makes clear the imperative of refining our definition of what the good life actually is, what it takes to support, not only economically, but also in terms of human and natural resources.
Whichever way the International Commission on Stratigraphy decides about the existence of an Anthropocene Epoch, there can be no doubt that humanity is at a crossroads. How we write this next chapter in earth’s history will depend on how
we Homo sapiens re-brand ourselves, not merely as consumers but as individuals capable of establishing the principles and ethical standards by which to grow a collective social conscience—one that embraces a wider framework of interdependency with those who share not only the same, scientific genus, but with every living species on this amazing blue planet we all call home. Nature is not merely where we live, it is what lives inside us, its sacred origins written into our brain, encoded into our very DNA. It is our common heritage, one worth protecting.
For that to happen, we must engage in a dialogue with the future, employing words such as sustainability, re-investment, renewable and ultimately mutual respect, creating a lexicon that embraces our needs individually and as a species—mutating in the process, from being mere consumers into the custodians of our own better natures.
If left unchecked, consumerism will continue to flame our ever-increasing materialistic set of values that substitute conspicuous consumption, greed and over acquisitiveness for that which is intrinsic to our basic, human needs, mutating into a pandemic capable of wiping out the miraculous diversity of the roughly 375,000 different plant and algae species, the 1,305,250 invertebrates and the 62,305 vertebrates, an estimate that does not include domestic animals like sheep or goats or single-cell organisms such as bacteria, though I’m not sure about viruses.
In grappling with questions of how much, for how many and at what cost, we must remind ourselves that it is not politics, science or even religion that will singularly underwrite our answers. It is our very selves that best frame the question we Homo sapiens have been asking since the men first sat around the fire re-telling those hunting stories, namely—who am I?
The behavioral sciences answer it one way, the cultural, evolutionary and neurobiologists answer it another, the creationists dismiss all by God, largely because from the beginning of time men haven’t been able to agree on anything. and statistically we women haven’t yet succeeded in integrating ourselves into the decision-making process of business, industry or politics well enough to mitigate against their muddle—even though we make up more than half of the world’s population and control $20 trillion dollars in annual consumer spending, making our power considerable.
Odd, considering we women instinctively know the answer to that one enduring question. We are family. As we drop our grocery bags onto counters topped with laminate rather than the more expensive granite we wanted originally, but couldn’t afford except on a hedge-fund income, our iPhones ringing inside our pockets, connecting us to a string of extended chores and obligations, struggling to balance our harried lives with those old job descriptions of birthing, nurturing and dressing everyone for success—striving to be more assertive, but not so much that we challenge those old nurturing ideals of womanhood, our primitive, conflicted brains confounding us from one day to the next, leaving us fretting over our inability to have it all, wishing that somehow we could simplify, we must surely know, almost without thinking, the enduring legacy that our sex has endowed to civilization over the ages.
Only connect—be it as a mate, parent, daughter, sibling or friend. It’s what has sustained us from the beginning, the capacity to invest ourselves into another emotionally. For all our flaws and weaknesses, we women have always known that in our grasp, we held the keys to humanity. Locked within our hearts and hardwired into our minds rest the ultimate truth of human existence—the capacity to care. It’s the quality we’ve been cultivating since we first started congregating by the fires, by the wells and by the shores of the rivers where we squatted beating clothes against the rocks, everyone swapping home remedies, exchanging stories, confiding in one another, sympathizing over infants and spouses lost to us. Always, just when it seemed life couldn’t get any harsher, we found empathy in another human being.
It seems we were made for Facebook. Right from the start we’ve sought to connect emotionally with a wider circle of family and friends, eager to share vital information and communicate our feelings. Whether such a capacity is genetic or ordained, or whether it’s a result of us having been consigned to lives of drudgery for so long, there is no question that our sex has taken off exploring the only realm available to us—that of human emotions. The result is a non-hierarchal collaborative approach to society that’s infused by an understanding of the harsh dictums of nature. Over the ages it has led us like a promise out of our paltry existence into a collective otherness–a state men generally define as camaraderie and best exhibited through sports or war.
Given men’s stunted emotional base, I find it astounding that we humans ever came to be categorized as Homo sapiens, meaning “wise man.” Though the moniker does beat Homo habilis, meaning “handy man” as no doubt not a one of them ever did anything around the cave save paint those old stories of the hunt.
But that’s all in the past. There exists for women today an unprecedented opportunity to let go of a second-class citizenship and start strategizing and planning right alongside the men. We have the chance to expand our brand across a global landscape, employing our own potent cocktail of leadership, will and vision as a model for growth—not by abdicating power, or subjugating individuality, but by collaboratively working with partners across the globe to create a dialogue reflective of all our better natures, inclusive rather than exclusive, a vocabulary founded not upon dominance, extraction and oppression, nor underwritten by individuals whose self-interest, cunning and overly exploitive behaviors create tightly centric groups of power elite, but through the spirit of collaboration, mutual consent and fellowship. We are, after all, Homo sapiens. We’ve come such a long way together.
There are nearly 7,000 different languages in the world today. By expanding altruism from a narrow kin/group compact into a citizenship of wider cultures and beliefs, we women can help develop the dialogue by which to grow our lives and improve the lives of those whose daily diet is suffering—the 22,000 children who die each day from the ravages of poverty, the nearly half of earth’s seven billion inhabitants subsisting on less than $2.50/day, the millions more without access to clean water, sanitation, shelter, basic health services much less an education that could set them on a path toward their own sustainability—not because of some guilt from the inequality of the industrial world’s resource consumption, but because, as a model for growth, income inequality leads to social inequality, which is no more sustainable than is our current level of global carbon emissions that last year topped a record-high 35.6 billion metric tonnes.
In struggling to uphold our contract with technology, we cannot subordinate the natural world of which we are a part, nor rob others of their own resources, leaving them disenfranchised from all but their overwhelming struggle to survive, slavishly serving our ends. They deserve better than to build our pyramids.
I am all thought out. Surely, I have used up my allotted synapses for the day.
"You look terrible," said Barry, his eyes widening as I emerge downstairs, clinging to the wall for balance. “You need to see a doctor.”
“I’m too sick to see a doctor,” I reply.
With those words, everything spins into motion. Appointments are made, the car started and I bundled and whisked away. Barry never complains about sitting beside a human contaminant, or about ushering me into a waiting room that’s a virtual feeding frenzy of the H3N2 influenza. Battle-scarred but staunch helpmates still, we somehow manage to keep alive the old, bedrock dialogue of mutual support, one that continues to enrich and expand my old notions of friendship, even after all these years.
A swab test confirms my suspicions, elevating my debilitations to the larger contagion that I have aspired to for days now. I am vindicated, being one hundred percent fully invested in this year’s seasonal flu Type A, thank you.
Upon hearing the news of my distress, my girlfriend called to commiserate. "I can’t believe I'm still sick,” she said. “It’s been nine whole days.” She paused to cough politely away from the phone. “I’m still just so out of it."
“It must be all that hot buttered rum you’re drinking," I assured her.
"I just made a fresh batch. Do you want me to bring some over? It's the perfect organic remedy."
Now THAT’S a friend.