A few years ago, around this time, I came across an article commemorating the anniversary of the eradication of smallpox. I don’t remember which anniversary it was: the World Health Organization (WHO) declared smallpox eradicated on May 8, 1980, but the last reported case was three years earlier.
I also don’t remember who wrote the article or where I read it. The actual article is lost forever. But something about it has stuck with me since then. It has helped shape my worldview and provided an analogy with which I can explain my perspective. Every spring the article enters my mind and renews my twisted mix of optimism and cynicism.
Many regard the eradication of smallpox as one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. And they’re right. This was the first time an entire disease had been eradicated from the planet. At the height of the Cold War, in a time when the threat of a global nuclear war haunted minds across the planet, the eradication of smallpox symbolized the best of the human spirit. The world’s two superpowers, the United States and Soviet Union, set aside differences and worked together to eradicate this viral menace. For once it seemed like the world was able to look beyond imagined barriers of religion, race, and nationality and recognize the ties that bind us as a human species.
From the superpowers to the third world, humans battled virus. The WHO struggled through civil wars, natural disasters and reluctant civilians to vaccinate in some areas of the globe. In some cases, officials vaccinated people against their will in order to stop the spread of the disease.
The last naturally occurring case of smallpox was in 1977. At a cost of merely 300 million dollars (a fraction of what it costs to wage most wars), humanity had defeated one of its greatest threats. The only greater threat to humanity would turn out to be itself.
The remaining post-eradication stocks of the smallpox virus were divided between the Soviet Union and the United States. The Cold War was still going on, and it’s hard to say what was done with the virus. Soviet defectors claim the Soviet military developed biological weapons using the smallpox virus. In 1999, Russia and the U.S. backed out of an agreement to destroy the last remaining stocks of the virus, and now the U.S. has accelerated smallpox research, with possible plans for genetically engineering the virus.
And now we’re back at square one. The majority of the U.S. population is no longer immune to the virus, with the last vaccinations occuring in the 1970s. The breakup of the Soviet Union left many stocks of the virus unaccounted for. After the September 11 terroist attacks and the 2001 anthrax mailings, the prospect of terrorists using smallpox as a biological weapon is as haunting as the Cold War threat of nuclear annihilation.
Thus, the paradox of the human brain. We are capable of understanding the most complex mysteries of the universe, yet sometimes our minds are so simple. We split atoms and traverse every obstacle on the planet, but we overanalyze our differences and wage war over abstractions.
On the universal stage, we are both the villain and the hero. While there are ideological differences between the various religions and nationalities, we all share the same genetic matieral and the same human plight.
Some say this view is pessimistic. Afterall, humans have made vast technological advancements and have overcome many injustices throughout history. But optimists and pessimists have simply picked sides in a battle of ideas in which both parties are wrong. While a global catastrophe like a nuclear war or smallpox outbreak is unlikely, it is something that has entered into the world dialogue in the last century. As Kurt Vonnegut points out in his novel, Galapagos, with something like that on the table, it remains to be seen whether the human brain is the history’s greatest evolutionary success or its greatest failure.
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