Thursday, January 06, 2005

AIDS - and the Survival of the Fittest

Nelson Mandela, one of the great fighters for justice of our age, today announced the tragic news that his only surviving son has died of AIDS. In fact, every day in South Africa 600 people die of AIDS.

This courageous announcement will help to bring discussion into the open about this 'unspeakable' disease. The continent of Africa is being decimated by HIV/AIDS and only slowly, very slowly are attitudes changing and governments responding to the need to make medical care available at reasonable costs to stem the tide of human destruction. It may still be too late, for already whole communities have been so ravaged by the anti-immune disease that they may never recover.

Over 40 million people worldwide live with HIV/AIDS, and we do not know how many others have it without their knowing. The epidemic is not waning - so before it ends it will wipe out vast numbers of the global population. But of this we can be sure - it WILL burn itself out. It will hit a limit beyond which it cannot travel, a margin not fenced in by medicine but by behavioral change.

Did you ever think to apply the theory of evolution to the spread of disease? To be precise I mean that element of the theory we call the survival of the fittest. Whether plants or animals - including human beings - those who are best able to cope with stress from the environment, disease, war or famine will survive. It is usually thought that this is entirely a biological tug-of-war in which physical considerations alone determine who will survive. But when we come to homo sapiens we have to factor in man's intelligence. Smart decisions, wise courses of actions can lead to the survival of families, towns or nations. Intellectual fitness also makes for survival.

Many things inform the intellect: science, education, fear, necessity, morality, religion, and more. Apply this to AIDS. Tragically, vast numbers have this awful disease through no fault of their own: babies born with it, adults infected from compromised blood transfusions, accidental infection in hospital - even rape of an innocent victim by an AIDS infected man. An informed intellect will not help these.

But even more have contracted the syndrome because of risky behavior. Some knew they were taking risks while many - especially in Africa - did not know that having multiple sexual partners (for whatever reason) was potentially dangerous.

The law of the survival of the fittest will inexorably have its way. The high risk takers will be eliminated in time until their number is so reduced that the remaining members of these groups will change their behavior or die the same way. Treat them with all the drugs they can afford to prolong life, they will still die of AIDS related diseases. Sexual hedonism will be hit so hard that eventually there will grow a wisdom - a morality if you like - that reverts to the old traditional sexuality of both Muslim and Christian traditions. Education, openess and a new morality in Africa will eventually be the salvation of a young and orphaned population.

Now it becomes evident that those best fitted to survive are those who, for intellectual or moral reasons, do not share needles, do not engage in prolific anal sex, do not make it a lifestyle to develop long lists of sexual partners. In the end, those who choose risky behavior will all die out - maybe hundreds of millions of them. But the spreading epidemic will hit a wall where a revised global morality or common sense eventually learns when to say No. We cannot count on medicine to secure that boundary.

These, the fittest, will survive.

In the meantime, compassion, education and medical research are still engaged in battle against a forest fire which they can, at best, only hope to contain. The fire will go out when there is no more tinder to burn.