Robert currently writes from a meme-free zone about history, culture, science and technology.
We like to consider ourselves the apex predator, sitting top of the food chain.
The term "natural predator" conjures images of any number ferocious animals, bristling with teeth and/or claws. Most of ours are extinct, but bears, sharks, and even hippos (still among the most dangerous animals to humans) continue attack us, at least occasionally. Currently, though, no creature is widely considered to be our natural predator.
In prehistoric times, our ancestors frequently became meals for everything from saber-toothed tigers to hyenas. They even had to evade the likes of killer kangaroos and the so-called "duck of doom". Across untold ages, our relatively defenseless species was the hunted as much as the hunter in everyday life, and this must have been an apparent and pressing concern.
Over time, we developed not only killer weapons to outmatch nature, but also the knowledge and strategies that allowed us to live without the everyday threat of large predators. Outside the rarest of circumstances, humans today die of anything but predation by another organism—or so goes the traditional thinking.
In fact, our world is teeming with a multitude of increasingly dangerous predators, and they are rapidly multiplying.
Although we hardly knew of their existence 200 years ago, we now know they were here first, and many believe they will remain long after we are gone. Whereas we are conditioned to look up at the great beasts that once threatened our species (or better yet, run away) we now find our last remaining natural predators only by looking down—through another one of our inventions, the lens. Our last natural predators are microscopic.
Bacteria, viruses, pathogens and parasites may not be the predators most of us see in our nightmares, but they attack humans in vast numbers, inflicting far more damage than lions, tigers, or bears. Many of them (being human-specific) exist only because we do, making them the definition of "natural predator". As global population has risen, our species has suffered repeated, devastating die-offs that would be unthinkable and intolerable if large beasts were responsible, from the Black Death to the Spanish Flu of 1918, from cancers of all kinds to SARS, AIDS and Ebola.
No one recalls "the great snake epidemic of 1,000,000 B.C." that may have killed thousands of us off, but our brains became hard-wired over time so that snakes are a common, instinctive fear. On the other hand, germophobes notwithstanding, between outbreaks of disease, we tend to treat pathogens as a more nebulous threat. This is understandable, considering for most of our history they were literally invisible.
In historical terms, we just discovered our smallest enemies. As late as the 1880s, germ theory was still struggling to compete in the public mind with miasma theory, which blamed any number of diseases on "foul air". Miasma theory led plague doctors to wear bizarre beak-masks full of herbs, and was the impetus behind the Victorian-era health fad of sleeping outside, among other things.
At one point, Pope Clement VI even had himself surrounded by fires to protect himself from the baleful influence of miasma-like astrological forces of the plague (and this may have actually worked, if accidentally, since the fires kept rats and their plague-carrying fleas away).
Around the time the last major wave of plague ended in Europe, in the 1670s, Dutch biologist and microscope pioneer Antoni van Leeuwenhoek first recorded his observations what he called "animalcules". Initially, his observations were met with skepticism and ridicule, perhaps partly because so few others had microscopes; Leeuwenhoek made no connection between these tiny organisms and disease. Even centuries later, in 1864, few outside Pasteur himself had any idea why pasteurization worked.
It is reassuring to think of ourselves as the ultimate "apex predator"; we have after all conquered a world of ferocious beasts. If we think of our microscopic enemies as anything less, though, we may vastly underestimate them. If bears killed millions of people per year, rather than less than a dozen, it's hard to imagine we wouldn't find ways to cooperate as a species to reduce their threat in much more dramatic ways.
Until they strike us or someone we know, we may tend to see our microscopic enemies as a sort of abstraction. Thinking of them as more akin to terrifying apex predators may help galvanize our collective will to fight them (as opposed to, say, one another). It stands to reason we can only slay the dragons we acknowledge as such.
© 2018 Robert D Crouch
Jim Henderson from Hattiesburg, Mississippi on May 15, 2020:
I saw this and had to read it. Very good perspective, and yes, when it comes to the pathogens; we, as a species, are certainly the prey!