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In the past decade we have seen the emergence of new strains of bacteria and viruses that are resistant to our medicines, or are able to mutate quickly in order to avoid detection by the immune system after vaccination. We constantly struggle to keep up with the rate of mutation of these pathogens, which is, at the moment, keeping pace with our ability to combat them. If we lag in this competition, the consequences are severe. We have aided the escalation of this biological arms race through biotechnology. Intentionally and unintentionally we have created new strains of bacteria and viruses that are much hardier and much more pathogenic. Globalization and intrusion into parts of the world once occupied by only a small population of human individuals has also led to the emergence and spread of exotic diseases which most of the world has not seen, but which pose the threat of becoming deadly global pandemics.
The Red Queen Theory, hypothesized by the evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen, describes this biological arms race between competing organisms: host and parasite, predator and prey. To survive, one organism must build up an arsenal that will outwit the competition. The competition, in turn, will build up their own arsenal, provoking further development in its competitor and so forth. There is a constant escalation in development of characteristics making either species, for the moment, more “fit” to survive. Evolution is a fierce battle for survival, and the only resolutions are out-competition through the build up of arms, or extinction.
This ever-shifting balance, the biological arms race between host and parasite, is a careful dance. It recalls the fluid movement of a mating courtship, in which the protagonists are constantly moving back and forth into one another’s spaces without touching one another. There is theatricality in that movement, which translates to the historical evolutionary “back and forth” between the human species and the parasites they host. This is the dance.
Disease [caused by pathogenic organisms such as viruses and bacteria] can easily become an abstract term for the damage that organisms are inflicting on the human body. By making these organisms macroscopic, we are confronted with their structure as physical living beings, giving a “face” to the origin of many horrific diseases. It is much easier to confront something if we can see it; We have a concrete visual (an embodied form) that we can attribute to our suffering. It is humbling to perceive seemingly simple, and rather stunning, organisms, so much smaller than our human bodies, and recognize the fact that we are susceptible and they are lethal.
We are all living organisms trying to survive, trying to get to the next generation, to pass on our genes, but we all die. That is our fate, and we can’t avoid it. Last Dance.