It’s official: The human race is earth’s disease

Okay, so it’s not actually “official” (since, after all, what would such a claim even mean?). But the following represents an interesting progression of an interesting idea through modern-day media culture.

1961-1964 and 1981: William Burroughs and the human virus

William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs

In his classic Nova Trilogy, published in 1961-4, William Burroughs famously developed the idea that “language is a virus.” In his 1981 novel Cities of the Red Night, he extended this by claiming that ultimately human consciousness itself is a virus:

Self-identity is ultimately a symptom of parasitic invasion, the expression within me of forces originating from outside. Language is to the brain as the tapeworm is to the intestines. Even more so: it may just be possible to find a digestive space free from parasitic infection, but we will never find an uncontaminated mental space. Strands of alien DNA unfurl themselves in our brains, just as tapeworms unfurl themselves in our guts. Not just language, but the whole quality of human consciousness, as expressed in male and female, is basically a virus mechanism.

1999: The Matrix and humans as viruses

In the massively popular American movie The Matrix, the writer-director team of Andy and Larry Wachowski presented a dazzling vision of a dystopian future in which intelligent machines have enslaved the human race to use them as an energy source. One of the machine race, a sentient computer program known as Agent Smith, tells one of the human heroes at a key point in the movie that the human race is functionally equivalent in ecological terms to a virus:

For those who can’t watch YouTube videos, here’s a transcript of Agent Smith’s monologue:

I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you aren’t actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed, and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague. And we are the cure.

(Fans of Thomas Ligotti, who claims Burroughs as a major influence, might be interested to hear that he once told me about the time he was watching The Matrix in a theater when the movie was in its original release, and he shouted at the top of his lungs, in disgust, “A virus!” in tandem with Smith on the screen, thus discomfiting his fellow moviegoers. As a longtime student of Burroughs, he had intuited the virus idea coming from a mile away, and was annoyed at the way the moviemakers presented it with a “Hey, this is a new and ingenious idea!” tone.)

2009: James Lovelock and humans as “earth’s infection”

James Lovelock

James Lovelock

James Lovelock, the renowned scientist, environmentalist, and futurist who famously spearheaded the scientific study of global warming and formulated the now-standard Gaia model that views the earth as a living organism — and who will turn 90 years old this July — had a new book (his tenth) published last month titled The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. His basic message is that radical climate change with globally catastrophic results for the human race is now locked in as an inevitability.

LiveScience published an article about Lovelock and his new book a few days ago that imparts the flavor: “Die, Humans! Is Mother Nature Sick of Us?” (May 7).

The article’s opening paragraphs link up Lovelock’s thesis with Burroughs’ and Agent Smith’s famous pronouncements:

In his new book “The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning,” (Basic Books, April 2009) James Lovelock says humanity is “Earth’s infection.”

Nice. We are the viruses.

While in theory it would be extremely difficult to truly destroy this planet, it’s not such a stretch for some scientists to imagine us making it a place that doesn’t support humans. The planet would go on, the thinking goes, but it’d get rid of us much like we shake the flu.

Lovelock’s thinking is that our increasing presence is getting things so out of whack that, in the manner of a human immune system, the planet has no choice but to respond.

Or consider these choice paragraphs from a March 1 review of Lovelock’s book in The Guardian titled “Now we know why we’re all doomed“:

Unfortunately, Gaia is in trouble today, says Lovelock. It is infected by a virus called Homo sapiens. Humans are destroying ecosystems, killing off species in their thousands and destabilising climates. “We became the Earth’s infection a long and uncertain time ago, but it was not until about 200 years ago that the Industrial Revolution began: then the infection of the Earth became irreversible,” he says.

Not incidentally, this is followed by oh-so-choice intimations of doom:

Lovelock names this illness polyanthroponomia, a condition in which humans are so plentiful they do more harm than good. More to the point, the condition is untreatable. Renewable energy projects, cutting carbon footprints and promoting sustainable development and other green ideas are no more than the posturing of “tribal animals bravely wielding symbols against the menace of an ineluctable force”. In short, we are heading towards a climate catastrophe that will leave only pockets of humanity left alive, says Lovelock.

The reviewer describes this as “impressive, frightening stuff and all the more chilling coming from a man of such a mild disposition and of such varied credentials.”

Back to the topic at hand, tracing the “humans are a virus” meme from Burroughs through The Matrix to Lovelock is of course not the only way to do it. Variations on the idea of humans as a disease on the planet and/or of human consciousness as an alien and destructive development have appeared in science fiction and horror fiction for decades. And the idea that the human race may be a destructive species without whom planet earth would be better off, and regarding whom planet earth may be prepared to take decisive cleansing action, has wound its way through the radical environmentalism movement since its birth in the 1970s. For a recent example of the latter, see the widely quoted assertion by Paul Watson — militant whale protector, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and an early member of Greenpeace — that “Humans are presently acting upon [the earth's ecosystem] in the same manner as an invasive virus with the result that we are eroding the ecological immune system. A virus kills its host and that is exactly what we are doing with our planet’s life support system. We are killing our host the planet Earth” (“The Beginning of the End for Life as We Know It on Planet Earth?” Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, May 4, 2007.)

But all of that said, it’s still fun to see. The progressive adoption and deployment and evolution of the virus idea in Burroughs and The Matrix and Lovelock, that is.

As for the possibility that Lovelock is right about the inevitability of catastrophic climate change and Gaia’s likely destructive actions to protect herself against the human infection — well, that’s not nearly as much fun, is it?

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD and GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES.

Posted on May 9, 2009, in Environment & Ecology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.

  1. Very true but we are created by the nature itself.So even if we are diseases,this fact is the fate of nature.

  2. Throughout history many scientists made great strides, become renown, then one day saw their most cherished pet theory irrefutably dissolved by a young turk. When that happens they took one of two steps. In the case of Astrophysicist, Stephen Hawking, he admitted that he was entirely wrong about black holes being a possible means of conveyance. Actually, the science behind this was understandable to the layman, but the other astrophysicists who refuted his claim didn’t have Stephen’s media presence and so were snubbed. Stephen’s mind was so advanced compared to the rest of us. How dare WE challenge HIM? Especially a bunch of cocky first year physicist students!

    Understand that there remains a lot of mystery about black holes. There remains a lot of mystery about the nature of gravity.

    Still, some things are understood and it took about 30 long years before Stephen, having tried to shore up his theory in every way he could imagine (and that’s some imagination) in 2004 admitted he was wrong, and that his entire series of books and documentaries on the universe were in sore need of an update.

    Understand what a defining moment for Hawking that this was: He admitted that 30 years of his Life’s Work was incorrect. To Hawking, the truth is more important that his legacy.
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5452537/

    Most scientists don’t behave like Hawking. Most scientists are like James Lovelock and James Hansen, two scientists who both believe in man-made global warming but their approach is so different they nearly hate each other. Hansen believes we should all go green and claims on his own website that, before he even had the education (and despite his claims to be so concerned about the earth’s environment, never pursued any earth sciences. To be clear, he never wanted to understand what he claims to be so passionate about.), he was convinced that man was changing the world and he was going to prove it. he says on his own website,
    “As a college student in Iowa, I was attracted to science and research by James Van Allen’s space science program in the physics and astronomy department. Since then, it only took me a decade or so to realize that the most exciting planetary research involves trying to understand the climate change on earth that will result from anthropogenic changes of the atmospheric composition.”
    http://www.giss.nasa.gov/staff/jhansen.html

    Lovelock on the other hand believes that the earth is a living creature. When he speaks of Hansen’s plans to go green he says, “Green is the color of mold and corruption.”
    http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/story/16956300/the_prophet_of_climate_change_james_lovelock

    Lovelock calls “Carbon Credits” a scam

    In fact, according to Lovelock’s Gaia religion (and yes, it is now an officially recognized religion. Check out the aging flower power Gaia folks in Tucson, Phoenix, and Sedona, AZ. and various parts of Northern California), reducing carbon emissions will only speed up global warming.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/3311975/James-Lovelock-Reducing-emissions-could-speed-global-warming.html

    This is a bitter pill for most AGW enthusiasts to swallow since Lovelock was one of the inventors of the AGW hypothesis.

    Lovelock believes that earth, or Gaia, will consciously rise up and smite us. This was originally known as the Gaia hypothesis. When it was shown to be in error, did Lovelock accept the evidence to the contrary? No, he disregarded it and made a public announcement that Gaia was now a theory. How do you support this theory? You can’t. Lovelock can’t. But now in his 90s, Lovelock says that by 2020 (long after he expects to be dead – either that or 101 years old), Gaia will take over and the accuracy of his prediction will be proof. History will absolve him. And if it doesn’t? He’ll be dead so who cares?

    And then there is the third tier of AGW theory by possibly the brightest of all three men, Freeman Dyson. Freeman Dyson invented concepts that are so mathematically sound, and have Real World uses (our successful manned space missions, GPS, even the computer you are using to read this and the Internet it runs upon were all built upon the work of Freeman Dyson) that he doesn’t hold a Ph.D in anything. He can’t. Nobody thought of this stuff until he discovered it. But you can earn a Ph.D in any one of no less than five different fields that Dyson created. Only Freeman Dyson admits that his is just a theory and he could be wrong. In giving lectures, Freeman even likes to talk of the many ways he could be wrong. This is frustrating to people like Lovelock and especially Hansen, who has nothing else in his life but AGW. At least Lovelock can fall back on his legacy as an inventor of a few things. And Dyson has done so much that he has long since stopped worrying about his legacy.

    So three different theories of AGW and each one cancels the other out.

    “Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with its surrounding environment, but you humans do not.”
    – Agent Smith, THE MATRIX

    If you don’t have the time to learn biology and zoology, it only takes about a week of watching the Discovery Channel to know that this statement is irrefutably wrong. But then THE MATRIX, while entertaining, was nearly as dim on science as Star Wars (the subsequent Matrix sequels betrayed their own logic). I can accept this movie because I choose to believe that Agent Smith wasn’t telling Morpheus the truth, but was trying to break Morpheus down via lies and the drug. He knows that Morpheus, like most humans, know next to nothing about the real world except what they’ve learned from the Matrix, and the Matrix only teaches what it wants to teach.

    So I don’t believe in AGW at all. Everyone I know – without exception – who claims to believe in it, really don’t know a thing about it and can only chant slogans (or, having no science background themselves, and so wholly ignorant of science in any case, accuse me of listening to Fox News.). AGW believers don’t know that the strongest voices in support of AGW all have conflicting theories, each one disproving the other. They can’t be all right. But if history is any teacher, they can be all wrong. Dyson would be the first to admit it.

  3. Thanks for weighing in, marky20 and Feo.

    marky20 — That is indeed the paradox or dilemma, isn’t it? How can anything in nature be “unnatural,” including the behavior of any organism, including that of humans? Are we indeed fundamentally and exclusively an expression of the natural world? If so, how can we justify saying anything we do is ultimately, objectively, inadvisable? On the other hand, if we say that we are somehow separate or distinct from nature in whole or in a fundamental aspect of ourselves, then what sort of can-of-worms metaphysical and ontological arrangement of things must we be positing for this to be possible? This is an age-old conundrum whose very existence has been so fruitful for deep human thought and feeling that I tend to hope it’s never collapsed or solved.

    Feo — Yours is the single most extensive essay-like comment anybody has left at my blog in the three years of its existence. I’ve read it once and will be reading it again (this time watching the embedded video). Thank you for the interesting and provocative thoughts. This is a subreason that I created The Teeming Brain in the first place: not just to broadcast my own thoughts (although that’s of course primary) but to bounce them off other people and garner interesting responses. You have passed the test with flying colors. :)

  4. :)
    Good people, open your eyes and see the true deeper than you ever tried to see it in your life.

  5. im not as intelligent as you people, you all seem to really know your facts about all this, but ive been thinking about the human race as a cancer upon the earth for a while now,and i thinks its true, a virus will try and spread itself as far as it can and we are the same, we have an inbuilt self preservation, and most of us self importance (sorry but you all know thats true) that makes us continue forward regardless as a race, dont get me wrong im not trying to pick a fight, its an oppinion and i count myself guilty of everything ive said

    • I don’t know, everything has self-preservation in mind. Everything tries to survive and spread to more hospitable areas. It’s just nature. As time goes on the more successful creatures kill out the weak. Our dominance and the extinctions we’ve caused is just nature running it’s course to build the most effective organism.

  6. The environmental movement is evidence of the failure of the scientific imagination. As awareness of environmental ethics grow we are left believing that something is wrong with us and our culture of expansion. Yes the earth is an agent also but we are not limited by the earth in our expansion and joy of our growing technical powers. We inhabit a universe of planets and unexplored space. When we stop urning for some sort of romantic past where we might have found the culture in harmony with the natural world and realize it never existed we can get on with our proper destiny which is to populate the universe. What the earth is probably saying is not “I need a cleansing of humans” but rather, what she is saying is get on with your destiny make space ships before its to late.

  7. Thanks for keeping the conversation going, Florin, Crisk, Richard, Todd.

    What the two of you say, Richard and Todd (especially Todd), calls to mind ever so pointedly the Robert Anton Wilsonian/Timothy Learian injunction for the human race to undertake seriously the project of space migration. Of course the sermon is also preached by Ray Bradbury, even as recently as two months ago, when he used the nationwide platform afforded by the extensive media coverage of his 93rd birthday to air his passionate view that we need to get off planet earth and find out species-level destiny by exploring the rest of the cosmos. (Of course, he also says he hates the Internet and won’t let his work be published in e-book format, so he diverges from the Wilsons and Learys of the world on some significant points.)

  8. Allow me to share my musings on the subject: Human beings have been given the gift or curse of consciousness and the ability to manipulate his environment as no other creature on this planet can. Just the fact that we are aware that we are destroying our environment and generally agree that it is not a good idea implies that we have choices and therefore the responsibility to make good and responsible choices. By choosing not to do so is being willfully irresponsible according to our own standards (for lack of a better word) implied in our religions and morals. We have created codes of conduct for ourselves in our lives and knowingly violate them. I do not think we can use nature as an excuse any more than we can use God as an excuse to allow our destructive behaviours to continue unabated. If we are aware there is something wrong, then it should follow that we correct what is wrong, what we are doing wrong. To me, it is self evident that since we are thinking creatures with the ability to create and destroy, we must take responsibility for our actions. Yes, planet Earth will survive us, because we are surely doomed to self destruction, but I do not believe we have to right to leave this planet and take our (here’s that word again) irresponsible and violent behaviour to other planets in the universe. If there is intelligent life out there watching us, I think they would want us to stay put right here on earth until we evolve a bit more in a positive way.
    Forgive me if I’m somewhat inarticulate. I hope you see what I am trying to say.

  9. I appreciate your input, Erika. I do think I see what you’re trying to say, and I concur with your assessment of our situation along the lines of the old adage that “with great power comes great responsibility.” I would simply add that we humans can only exercise our responsibility properly by recognizing — experientially, not just existentially — that we do it from a position of subordination to a “higher” power or authority within or above or beyond our selves/psyches. In the absence of this, our efforts are nothing but destructive flailings stemming from subjective biases and/or empty technicism and alienated rationalism..

  10. christopher-knott@sky.com

    hi again, ive been reading online about biogenesis and think this theory from the one and only louis pasteur is quite apt on this subject, its good that people like yourselves understand the problems we face, its bad that the cause is the masses and the majority really dont care, one question though, if life is from life!! where did it start?? and ive seen cell from cell but again the the question stands

  11. christopher-knott@sky.com

    its crisk by the way

  12. (im dutch srry for language)its ego that makes this conversation (everything has a reason)and if you look at humanity as an object the only thing we do in long terms is kill planet earth so think about it again because your ego will effect you opinion

  13. Can’t agree more. Human beings are a disgusting plague on this wonderful planet. Me too. I’m not excluded as part of the virus. I am! And it makes me sick. But still I have this will to live. I have a beautiful lil boy whom I love and live for. This unremarkable amount of love questions my beliefs about being a virus on planet earth. But I’ll i have to do is walk out my front door and be reminded of what a horrible species we really are. We must be exterminated. All of us. I only day this because I love. And this beautiful planet has had enough. As for Darwin and all those bunk theories. Well I think we’re way beyond that belief. Creation? Yes. God or gods? Yes. Ancient Aliens has had many good points to point this out. To say were alone in a infinite amount of space is ridiculous. It’s seems more like a horrible test gone absolutely terrible. And the first thing was the creation of Adam & Eve. Yes there were battles in the heavens. Some of the gods seen this wasn’t going to work. So they wanted to put a end to it right away. It may have been the anunakki who warned Noah and told him to build that boat. I’m not sure if this was a mistake or not. But it may just be that a heavenly or divine race may have faith in us. As for me. I don’t. I care enough about this wonderful place to leave it alone and quit disturbing it. We all really should. Look what we’ve done. Really?! Let’s keep on keeping on? I don’t think so. Worldwide suicide. No hurt intended. It’s the bloody truth. I could go on with pages upon pages of why this is essential. But is anyone really interested? Interested in something more than selfish needs? Money? Greed? This is sick. I’m sick. Were all really sick. End it. Revelation Mother Earth!

  14. Thaddeus Theory

    Refuting theories based on the inability to calculate exactly when the earth will end at the hands of humans? That doesn’t makes sense. First of all if you refute a theory, you might as well have another one, or just plain disagree. The theory is that humans might be a virus on this planet and eventually the planet will shake us. Why should we take it personally? It may be true. We’ve only been here for a relative second in terms of earth’s whole history. We might well be a virus that lasts a short time. Maybe we are not. Maybe we are here to pave a path to enlightenment for the good of all of earth and to spread love. Time will tell. We have only theories now.

  15. Thought provoking article. Can we concider ourselves a disease, we sure can. By human definition, we are… In fact all life by human definition is a virus…

    What’s right or wrong very much depends on whose perspective you look from, but the only perspective that really matters is that of the self, be it the bacteria that’s trying to survive, to beings who have developed self consciousness. Just like any other life form or disease we have a will to survive at all costs. There’s nothing wrong with this, it is the way nature works. Living organisms evolved to be a better version of themselves every generation, all this to survive. In my opinion we are nature itself, we now have evolved so much that we are able to control and do as we please with our environment for better or worse… At some stage in the future if we survive we will be able to manipulate the universe to our liking.

    As humans we’ve come to realise our own mortality and have realised what we are doing to our surrounding environment is not going to ensure the survival of our species. We all are controlled by our feelings, as a result having variation in our environment is of paramount importance, therefore all life and anything that promotes variation needs to be protected. Variation is THE spice of life. We MUST reduce our population vastly if we are to survive on this planet.

    Yes we are a cancer, but a cancer amongst all other cancers (all other life). It is our feelings that makes us strong and it is our feelings that makes us weak. There is nothing wrong with us… We are doing exactly what we are meant to do. But as nature intended we will do all that we can to survive and be happy.

    I will leave a question here that came up while reading this article. Does nature create god through evolution?

  16. Sorry, I’m a Hungarian and I’m not too good in english but I can understand and translate your opinions (sometimes by a dictionary). First of all I would like tell you that I’m glad that there are living other people in this world with the same thoughts like I have or who are thinking about these subjects and have a constructive opinion.

    To tell the truth I couldn’t find any interests respect of this topic among my acquaintances. It’s bad news to me because I often think about it. About the questions like “Why we are here? What is ours destiny? Are we do our things properly? Is it a good thing to consume the raw materials? Is it sustainable?”. And I have more many questions like these.

    I think the human race have three choises.

    The first one: Let’s live our life on a lower level like we do it nowdays. We would have to go back to the level before it was at the industrial revolution. Obviously we could be living in an other society, economical, financial systems like then were. Unfortunatelly fully fair system won’t be existed. We would have to minimalise our needs and we have to stop the environmental pollution. I think it’s an utopia.

    The second possibility is that we will able to leave this planet. Then the human race will be the cancer of the Universe as it was written by manys.

    The third is that the human race will be extincted.

    Every cases have the possibility I can not tell you the future. And nobody can tell it.

    Sorry again for my english skills but maybe you can understand my thoughts. Sorry for the possible errors in the language I made.

  17. Maybe we destroy ourselves, before we destroy the planet.

    Our society standards do not necessarily favor an ideal criterion for selection. Instead of evolving into biological better beings, we might weaken ourselves to point we no longer threat the planet or we are easily wipe out by a minor cataclysm.

    Consider cancer, obesity, diabetes, and many other dependencies, I wonder if the rate at which we weaken ourselves in the biological sense is lesser than the rate at which we weaken the ecosystem.

  18. Being an untypical Christian, I actually believe that we are a virus that was described a long time ago in Genesis in the Bible. Adam and Eve were the begining of this virus and we have turned into what we are today. If you look at the creation of a computer program, the developer sets a code filled with boudaries and rules. Those rules cause the program to run smoothly. A virus breaks those rules and boundaries and can disable or destroy the program. I believe we are Gods creation, in His computer and Satan infected the program with a virus that spread through Adam and Eve. Before Adam and Eve, Gods creation was perfect when man was primative. In the Garden of Eden, the first virus was created by Satan.

  19. I obviously don’t believe the Bible to be literal. I think it was written in such a way that could be understood by a world that had to rebuild from man destroying themselves. It was passed on because 6000 years ago, they found themselves in a similar situation that we are in today. Overpopulated and destroying ourselves with our own technology. It was written to help prevent us from making the same mistakes. But here we are again. “As in the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Savior”. There will be one who leads us to resetting this world back into the perfection of Gods original program of perfection. God bless!

  20. Humans are always thinking, yet seemingly unable to understand that they, like the dinosaurs will eventually vanish.

    No life form is separate. That thought is an illusion.

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