Archive for December 5th, 2010

Clark’s “Germs, Genes and Civilization:” Microbes and Viruses have Strong Role in History.

David P. Clark’s GERMS, GENES and CIVILIZATION is a fascinating read.  Clark’s main theme is that the way human beings believe history has gone may not be the whole story — instead, things like plagues, famines, venereal diseases and more (all of those fall back to some form of microbial problem — yes, even the famines, which happened in many respects due to problems with growing things, meaning that microbes had somehow affected the grains or the farm animals in question for the worse) have played a big, though unsung, part in history.

The chapter which interested me the most was the one on venereal diseases and how it’s affected history.  Clark made a compelling case that when there was little venereal disease around (or “sexually-transmitted diseases” in our slightly-PC phrase), society was looser and freer and easier to deal with, with less hypocrisy.  But when human society, as a whole, had trouble with VD, we ended up with the Victorian era, or something similar — in other words, a great amount of hypocrisy with little to show for it historically.

Clark also took on other issues, such as why Napoleon’s siege of Russia failed (the French Army, which camped out for a great deal of time, ran into the typical army-camp problems of dysentery and typhus and other illnesses), and why the Mongols were unsuccessful in completely conquering Rome (the same problem as the later French Army, more or less).  These things happened over and over again, which is something Clark was good at pointing out — he called it the “hidden history” of the times, and believes it is an oft-overlooked aspect of why our history has gone the particular way it has (rather than prayers being answered — I got the sense that Mr. Clark is definitely an agnostic or possibly a true atheist, and believes far too much credit — and blame — goes to the Deity while science just quietly goes about its business).

GERMS, GENES AND CIVILIZATIONS is a complex, fascinating book that shows how much our present-day society is dependent upon microbes and viruses — it discusses the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, the more recent Swine Flu (H1N1) pandemic that flamed out, and why these things occurred the way they did, along with how some genes help with one thing (like confer a resistance to malaria) but hurt something else (like giving a person a better chance to have Cystic Fibrosis), and raises the fascinating prospect that some of our illnesses may have been created due to how the human body has reacted over time, for better or worse.

I strongly recommend GERMS, GENES AND CIVILIZATIONS; it’s an engaging work from a very bright scientist that you won’t totally agree with (I know I didn’t) but will admire and appreciate and learn something from.   Please don’t let the erudition of Mr. Clark’s argument fool you — this is a book that in many cases made me laugh out loud as Mr. Clark has a sardonic sense of humor, and is a book that many people will enjoy if they only give it a chance.

–Reviewed by Barb.