Antibiotic resistance is the greatest threat to our way of life.

Explained through Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen

Van Valen (an evolutionary biologist) borrowed the Red Queen from Lewis Carroll in 1973 to describe the relationship between parasites and hosts. In Through the Looking-Glass, the Red Queen famously says to Alice,

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

As Van Valen applied it to humans, we are in an evolutionary arms race with other organisms in our environment; we must constantly keep running (evolving our offense and defense) and become extinct if we stop running because everything in our environment will out evolve us.

Extrapolating on this – it’s a mistake and overly simplistic to think that because it would take many millions of years for any existing organism to evolve past our current state of complexity, that we will only become extinct if we mismanage our environment. Superiority does not need to be transferred in an ecosystem, for one species to threaten another. Species within an ecosystem co-evolve – that is they adapt based on changes in other species. For us the other that threatens humans is bacteria and parasites.

How we stay ahead of faster evolving, single celled organisms

Sexual reproduction actually is a result of this co-evolution. More complex organisms (us) needed ways to change genetic makeup more quickly than simpler organisms in our environment (e.g., viruses and bacteria). This is because in your lifetime, the bacteria in your gut will evolve – it will go through more generations than the entire human species has. By changing your offsprings’ genetic makeup through sexual reproduction (as opposed to asexual reproduction), you’re ensuring that they have different protein locks on their cells than you do, so your bacteria, which adapted to attack your system during your lifetime, is less suited for attacking your offspring.

And finally THE PROBLEM

“We’ve reached the end of antibiotics, period.”

— Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, CDC

Antibiotics masked the Red Queen’s Race for 70 years; we won against bacteria in our ecosystems EVERY SINGLE TIME. Antibiotics more than anything have increased stability, allowed for dense urban centers to thrive and changed the equation such that populations could explode.

Now MRSA, TB, gonorrhea, and e.coli are among the list of bacteria (I’m only naming the ones that my readers will recognize – the list is much longer) that have emerging strains that are completely antibiotic resistant. We’ve heard about partial antibiotic resistance for at least a decade, but this is full resistance. We are unprepared, R&D has not and is not being allocated to antibiotics (antibiotics, which are not taken recurringly, are not profitable compared to things like blood pressure medications). Additionally our cities have become even more populous, and our lifestyle choices were conditioned in an era where there was often a quick-fix antibiotic.

We will all have to adapt to a different set of choices. What is the cost/benefit of chemotherapy if your weakened immune system doesn’t have antibiotics that can back it up? Will your choice of neighborhood or city be affected by population density?


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