Thomas G. Lammers
lammers at TFM.FMNH.ORG
Fri Aug 2 06:18:00 CDT 1996
As re: whether to retain smallpox cultures or not, there is another
consideration I haven't seen expressed: To what extent do we undermine
our efforts to conserve biological diversity by defending patently
unpopular and dangerous (from an anthropocentric view) organisms?
The general public -- moderately educated working middle class families --
often percieve scientists as odd ducks, and ecologists often have the
worst reputation with such folks. For the systematics community to
champion smallpox would, I think, get us a lot of very bad PR. I have
often thought that (to look for analogies) the ACLU has done itself
a disservice as regards public opinion by championing the rights of
groups such as the American Nazi Party and the Ku Klux Klan. I understand
and agree that an important principle, our First Amendment rights, are at
stake and that they must be defended; nonetheless, many people who might
support the group are now lost to it. We, too, have an important principle:
that all organisms are an integral part of the biosphere and thus of value.
But if we push that principle to the fullest extent, we may appear foolish
or worse, dangerously loonie, to ordinary (non-academic) folks. Afdter all,
consider how many folks find us stupid for caring about cute little
vertebrates like the snail darter or pretty flowers like the Furbish lousewort.
What will they say if we take a stand in defense of a bit of nucleic acid
with a protein coat that has killed millions of humans?
So I vote to do it in. Eradicate it. I see far more potential for evil
uses of the last remaining cultures than benigh ones. Granted, we can't
see the future; maybe smallpox could someday be our salvation. But as a
wise man once said: "The race isn't *always* to the swift, nor the battle
to the strong, but that's the way to bet your money."
And in any case, we have an escape clause: we can claim that viruses aren't
really alive anyway. That they aren't organisms because they aren't cellular.
Somewhere in my education, I recall being told that viruses may not be a
monophyletic group, but rather than human viruses would be more closely
related to primates than to, for instance, tobacco mosaic virus, which would
be more closely related to tobacco and other solanaceous angiosperms.
Is that right, or is that completely nuts? (Geez, where's a virologist
when you really need one?).
Thomas G. Lammers lammers at tfm.fmnh.org
Department of Botany
Field Museum of Natural History
Chicago IL 60605-2496
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