We all know the old proverb about the only two sure things in life being death and taxes. But we could add a third certainty: plagues and pandemics, though obviously that would fit in the ‘death’ category. Rather than being something to fear, however, if we take the broad overview of history we come away not dismayed but reassured. This becomes apparent when you read the late William H. McNeill’s superb history Plagues and Peoples. Originally published in 1976, an updated version was published in 1998 partly in response to the AIDS crisis. A Canadian by birth, McNeill taught at the University of Chicago starting in 1947 and lived to be 98. For once, the book jacket copy lives up to the hype when it says: “To most of those who read it, the history of the world will never seem quite the same again.” Anyone who believes the overblown media hype about the dangers of so-called “novel coronavirus” should read this book.
Why should we be reassured? Because, contrary to the continual fear-mongering of the media regarding Covid-19, it’s thanks to the human body’s amazing immune system that humans exist at all on this planet, as McNeill’s book explains. His thesis was that life on Earth exists in a symbiosis between “macro-parasites” (humans) and “micro-parasites” (disease). I’m reminded of the image of Shiva, the goddess who wears a belt of human skulls but is always pictured dancing. The principle of homeostasis within the human body will always seek a return to balance. McNeill’s brilliant thesis re-examines history through the lens of plagues and pandemics, and how these shape everything from internal social dynamics to imperialistic ventures that ultimately shape the rest of the world. Just as micro-parasites—naturally occurring disease pathogens—can invade a body and make ‘war’ on one’s health, humans act as “macro-parasites” by invasion of other countries, insurrections and revolutions, or simply by installing a parasitic elite that lives off the productive work of others. Although today’s ‘One Percent’ comes to mind, this class has been with us from the dawn of civilization, determined to exploit the labour of others to build their estates and empires.
This makes a neat parallel with Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, in which he posits a thesis of internal vs. external pressures on civilizations, and explains the nuances of how these pressures work out in practice—not as predictable as you might think. For instance, external pressures such as migrating to northern latitudes where climates are harsher than the Mediterranean latitudes can often spur a people into highly creative adaptive responses that advance their civilization far beyond their more outwardly comfortable neighbours. Here’s a good representative passage from Plagues and Peoples that brings the impact of human ‘macro-parasites’ into sharper focus:
“Very early in human history, successful raiders became conquerors, i.e., learned how to rob agriculturalists in such a way as to take from them some but not all of the harvest. By trial and error a balance could and did arise, whereby cultivators could survive such predation by producing more grain and other crops than were needed for their own maintenance. Such surpluses may be viewed as the antibodies appropriate to human macro-parasitism. …Disease immunity arises by stimulating the formation of antibodies and raising other physiological defenses to a heightened level of activity; governments improve immunity to foreign macro-parasitism by stimulating surplus production of food and raw materials sufficient to support specialists in violence in suitably large numbers and with appropriate weaponry.”
Humanity’s earliest records of plagues date to 2000 BC, though there were likely others that emerged soon after we began congregating in cities in large numbers:
“…civilized infectious diseases were only a little behind the diseases incident to irrigation agriculture in achieving a balance with their host populations in the ancient Middle East. As the locus of the oldest civilizations of the earth and one of the largest concentrations of human population in the world as of 500 BC, the Middle East offered adequate time and opportunity for micro-parasitic as well as macro-parasitic balances to approach stability within conditions defined by village and city life. More particularly: since the earliest surviving literary references to epidemic disease date back to about 2000 BC, there had been sufficient time by 500 BC for some reasonably stable patterns of infectious diseases to establish themselves in the anciently civilized, much fought over, and densely populated regions of the Middle East.”
Isolated populations such as Japan paid the price for their isolation by falling behind more exposed populations in developing immunity, as McNeill writes: “Japan’s geographical isolation obviously tended to insulate the archipelago from disease contacts with the world beyond. This was, however, a mixed blessing, for insulation allowed relatively dense populations to develop which were then vulnerable to unusually severe epidemic seizure when some new infection did succeed in leaping across the water barrier and penetrating the Japanese islands.”
McNeill charts the evolution of disease pathogens from epidemic to endemic as the human immune system learns to adapt to even the most deadly pathogens. As I wrote in the poem sequence Diary of a Pandemic Year of the bubonic plague that struck London in 1665, “Two-thirds of London somehow survives. No one bothers to ask why.” Recently archaeologists and scientists have been able to determine that even for this high mortality disease that killed a third to half of Europe during the Black Death plague of the 14th century, those that survived did so because they developed resistant antibodies. Very much like Covid-19, which targets primarily the elderly and those with pre-existing co-morbidities—in Canada over 80% of Covid deaths have been in nursing homes—scientists now believe that London’s bubonic plague “acted as a force of selection by targeting frail people,” says Sharon DeWitte, a biological anthropologist at the University of South Carolina. Research published in 2014 “suggested that the plague did write itself into human genomes: the descendants of plague-affected populations share certain changes in some immune genes.”
Eventually epidemic scale pathogens are lowered in threat intensity to the status of a childhood disease, at least, for populations with a sufficient history of exposure. According to McNeill, even the dreaded smallpox was eventually downgraded from a high mortality pathogen to barely more than a childhood illness like measles. Again, like Japan, after colonists introduced smallpox, aboriginal peoples in North America suffered devastating mortality rates due to their isolation up to that time. This was what expert virologists and epidemiologists such as Dr. Knut Wittkowski and scientists at Stanford University have been saying since the beginning of the Covid outbreak—lockdowns only ensure people are not exposed to the virus, thus guaranteeing second and third ‘waves.’
Arguably, humans—like any other animal on Earth—must have their populations controlled by periodic pandemics in order to ensure survival of the species as a whole. Unlike other animals, our science has enabled us to sidestep that fate through improved sanitation, diet, adaptation and to a lesser extent vaccines. In an undisturbed ecosystem, homeostasis is maintained by an occasional thinning out of the population through disease or starvation. As McNeill notes, today’s growth of human population is unprecedented in world history:
“In the context of the entire human venture upon earth… persistent population expansion is exceptional. On a global time scale, in fact, population growth appears as a transient concomitant of some ecological upset permitting larger numbers of human beings to survive and multiply for a few generations until natural limits again assert themselves… …cultural adaptation and invention diminished the need for biological adjustment to diverse environments, thereby introducing a fundamentally disruptive, persistently changeable factor into ecological balances throughout the land masses of the entire earth.”
And as McNeill explains, history is littered with failed micro-parasites, since not all disease pathogens are equally adaptable: “A disease organism that kills its host quickly creates a crisis for itself, since a new host must somehow be found often enough, and soon enough, to keep its own chain of generations going. Conversely, a human body that resists infection so completely that the would-be parasite cannot find any lodgement, obviously creates another kind of crisis of survival for the infectious organism. In fact, many disease partnerships have probably failed to last into our time because of one or the other of these extremes…”
Already by the 1970s when McNeill wrote Plagues and Peoples it was becoming apparent that our modification of the natural environment was having an impact on this symbiosis. Although it was too early yet for him to be aware of today’s ‘gain of function’ research that seeks to deliberately weaponize viruses, he was aware that “organic evolution is operating in high gear nowadays, largely because of human intervention in natural ecosystems. Perhaps one can say that biological evolution has, in effect, been overtaken and accelerated beyond all precedent by human intervention…” It remains an open question whether Covid-19 originated in a lab or naturally, but clearly such research has been ongoing both in China and elsewhere. Some have said the virus may actually have originated in an American biolab before being spread to Wuhan by an exchange of US military personnel in late 2019.
Recent research into the ‘micro-biome,’ the billions of viruses and bacteria that inhabit the human gut has cast new light on these entities not as threats to life but quite the reverse. “Not only are all bacteria not detrimental to our health, but some are actually crucial for boosting immunity, keeping our digestive systems running smoothly, our hormone levels balanced and our brains working properly.” The hope therefore lies not in wiping out the virus, or some unproven vaccine or gene therapy rushed to market, but in what McNeill calls “disease homogenization.” This is the process that happens every flu season as peoples’ immune systems develop resistance to current strains, forcing it to mutate in order to survive for the next flu season. “The pattern of the flu virus, evolving a new variant almost every year, is archetypical… while an unending flow of new medicines (and pesticides) also present infectious organisms with rigorous, changing challenges to their survival.” Other disease pathogens may take much longer to adapt to; according to McNeill, “historical experience of later ages suggests that something like 120 to 150 years are needed for human populations to stabilize their response to drastic new infections.” But it’s flu, not bubonic plague we’re talking about today. Humanity has survived for hundreds of thousands of years quite nicely without vaccines.
For the history fanatics out there McNeill’s book offers a fascinating thesis as to how entire cultures are molded by plagues, often drastically altering their trajectory. In fact, it’s probably this and not race that is responsible for the ascendancy of some nations over others, among other factors. Europe took nearly two centuries to fully recover culturally from the Black Death. Other cultures may not have been so lucky, especially if they started at a disadvantage resulting from successive crop failures, less than optimal growing conditions, or already reduced numbers at the onset of plague. It’s this idea that makes the history of the world “never seem quite the same again.” And in the Covid era that’s a good thing—a reason for hope.
 For more about McNeill, see University of Chicago obituary, ‘William H. McNeill, world historian and distinguished scholar, 1917-2016,’ https://news.uchicago.edu/story/william-h-mcneill-world-historian-and-distinguished-scholar-1917-2016
 William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, Anchor Books/Random House, New York 1976, 1998 ed., p. 72.
 William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., p. 98.
 William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., p. 152.
 Stephanie Pappas, ‘Black Death Survivors and Their Descendants Went On to Live Longer,’ Scientific American, May 8, 2014: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/black-death-survivors-and-their-descendants-went-on-to-live-longer/
 William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., pp. 44, 119.
 William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., p. 28.
 William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., pp. 15, 16.
 ‘Neither ‘lab’ nor ‘wet market’? Covid-19 outbreak started months EARLIER and NOT in Wuhan, ongoing Cambridge study indicates,’ RT News, April 18, 2020: https://www.rt.com/news/486194-study-coronavirus-southern-china/
 Prof. Michel Chossudovsky, ‘Coronavirus COVID-19: Made in China or Made in America?’, Global Research, March 14, 2020: https://www.globalresearch.ca/coronavirus-covid-19-made-in-china-or-made-in-america/5706272
 ‘Scientists identify more than 140,000 virus species in the human gut,’ Science News, February 18, 2021: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/02/210218142739.htm
 William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., p. 15.
 William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, ibid., p. 76.