The Pandemic Issue


Humanity has always faced existential threats from dangerous microbes, and though this is the first pandemic in our lifetimes, it won’t be the last our species will ever face. This newly relevant work by beloved sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, an excerpt from his 1979 book, A Choice of Catastrophes , establishes that reality in its historical context and makes clear how far we have come since ancient times. But by some measures, we are still in the earliest stages of figuring out how to effectively neutralize such threats. Advancing progress as fast as we can—by leveraging all the insights of modern science—offers our best hope for con- taining this pandemic and those that will inevitably follow.

— Kira Peikoff , Editor

Infectious Disease An even greater danger to humanity than the effect of small, fecund pests on human beings, their food, and their possessions, is their tendency to spread some forms of infectious disease. Every living organism is subject to disease of various sorts, where disease is defined in its broadest sense as “dis-ease,” that is, as any malfunction or alteration of the physiology or biochemistry that interferes with the smooth workings of the organism. In the end, the cumulative effect of malfunctions, misfunctions, nonfunctions, even though much of it is corrected or patched up, produces irre- versible damage—we call it old age—and, even with the best care in the world, brings on inevitable death. There are some individual trees that may live five thousand years, some cold-blooded animals that may live two hundred years, some warm-blooded animals that may live one hundred years, but for each multicellular individual death comes as the end. This is an essential part of the successful functioning of life. New individuals constantly come into being with new combinations of chromosomes and genes, and with mutated genes, too. These represent new attempts, so to speak, at fitting the organism to the environment. Without the continuing arrival of new organisms that are not mere copies of the old, evolution would come to a halt. Nat- urally, the new organisms cannot perform their role properly unless the old ones are removed from the scene after they have performed their function of producing the new. In short, the death of the indi- vidual is essential to the life of the species.


Isaac Asimov on the History of Infectious Disease — And How Humanity Learned To Fight Back


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