"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, June 3, 2016

Zika, P.D. James, And How The World Will End

P.D. James wrote Children of Men, a story of the ending of humanity – not from nuclear winter or an asteroid, but because of unexplained loss of male fertility which did not come gradually but precipitously.  In the year called Omega, all sperm died.

A society of old people cannot grow food for themselves, generate energy, produce goods, or provide services.  There are fewer and fewer staff for convalescent and nursing homes.  There are no drugs for arthritis, high blood pressure, or mood disorders.  Hospitals close because of lack of doctors, drugs, and equipment.

As the period of infertility lengthens, few middle-aged people care to keep up parks and gardens which will soon return to the wild.  Recreation seems pointless.  Sex, now completely disassociated from procreation seems repetitive, and meaningless.  Schools are closed, playgrounds are left in disrepair.


Suicide becomes not only tolerated but accepted.  Men and women in their eighties understandably do not want to die alone in cold, unlit shelters with little food, no solace, and no hope.

The old pathologies – crime, rape, murder, civil unrest, ethnic divisions, and social disharmony – decrease.  They are delinquencies of the young; but the State still grows more authoritarian because as resources dwindle and essential products become scarce, older people find theft and violent competitiveness necessary.  Old moral codes disappear, and to stave off social chaos and complete civil disorder, government’s role is reduced to law and order.

The world according to James does not end in a fiery Armageddon of mutual self-destruction.  There is no cataclysm, no existential event, no consequences of evil or disregard.   The world does not end, but slowly but surely humanity heads for extinction. 


James focuses exclusively on the consequences of infertility.  As such Children of Men is a anti-primer of economics, demography, moral philosophy, political science, and history.   There are no regrets, no villains, no recrimination or vengeance.  Humanity through no fault of its own it without hope; and can do nothing to mitigate or reverse the infertility which has doomed it. 

James’ vision of humanity’s end is a generous and tolerant one.  The State despite its authoritarianism is not entirely brutal.  Men and women, despite complete hopelessness, do not lose their moral sense or Christian values and some organize to advocate for more more humane governance.

The novel ends with a Pyrrhic  hope – a woman does become pregnant, and the birth represents the changing of the guard and a new regime which will certainly revert to the old dysfunction of a fertile society – but it is a fascinating projection into a very possible future.

Why possible? The Zika virus is now spreading rapidly (2016).  While the principal vector is the mosquito, it can be passed through sexual transmission.  Within a relatively short time the virus will be everywhere.  Even in northern ecological zones, men and women infected in the tropics can pass the virus on to others through sexual contact.

The virus is particularly worrisome because of the genetic damage it causes in unborn children.  While diseases have become epidemic and have spread throughout the world before, Zika is of special interest because it seems to interrupt the normal reproductive cycle.  Children can be borne deformed, and if the virus mutates, it will become even more dangerous.

There is no reason to think, given the brief but fairly well understood evolution of the Zika virus, that it will attack male sperm.  Yet the epidemic makes one realize that such an existential virus could very well be evolving in an African rainforest.  Who ever said that male sperm were impervious to environmental assault? Why should they be any less susceptible to viral invasion than anything else?


The Black Death decimated Europe.  Bubonic plague did not only kill its victim, but provoked the most horrible, painful, and unimaginable suffering.  Ebola is no different.  These viruses attack the human organism in unexpected and surprising ways.  If we have learned anything from them, it is that a new pestilence is just around the corner.  Why not one which attacks the human reproductive system.  One which is not devastating as the plague, but insidious and quietly destructive?


The Hollywood version of the end of time is one in which mankind runs amok.  Once we know that the asteroid is on its way, then everything is fair game.  Moral order disappears, hedonism returns, intelligence counts for little, and tooth-and-claw survivalism replaces law and order.

Perhaps because her humanity has hope the world of England in 2021 does not disintegrate and holds on to its civility.  Perhaps she is commenting on that particular British civility which gave the world rationality, justice, and fair play. Perhaps she believes in an innate sense of morality which once understood, respected, and promoted cannot be easily jettisoned no matter what the circumstances. 

Or finally, perhaps God is in the mix, unwilling to let his people destroy each other – his prerogative.
James’ dystopia is all the more unsettling because of its ordinariness and the predictability of supply-and-demand consequences, the laws of demographics and the inevitably changing age pyramids, and the consequent scarcity of goods and services.  The weed-grown playgrounds, boarded-up schools, closed libraries, overgrown parks, empty thoroughfares are less frightening images of a desolate world than natural consequences of economic laws.

The Time Machine is the most chilling tale of the end of the world of any.  The Time Traveler stops in a declining civilization of the distant future, one in which capitalism’s worst excesses have forced the underclass underground.  The restive, regressed, animal-like Morlocks feed on the fey, defenseless race above.


The Time Traveler, discouraged at what he sees, and understanding that whatever hope and promise the human race might have had in the 19th century has not only not been realized but been perverted, decides to continue on to an even  more remote future.  There he finds himself in a world of entropy.  The sun is pale and dim.  The ocean is flat and gray.  The landscape is featureless, smooth, and worn.  There is no sound, no movement, no wind, no warmth.

Wondering how the world will end has animated science fiction, Hollywood, religion, and popular lore.  Children of Men is the most compelling, however, because of its banality – ending not with a bang nor with T.S. Eliot’s whimper, but in accommodation, tradition, and conservatism.

And then there is Zika.  The world could indeed end as James envisaged; but it is unlikely that we would take things with such equanimity.

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