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
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, 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?