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Canadian researcher traces AIDS to single bush hunter from 1921 (theglobeandmail.com)
183 points by rfugger on Oct 22, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

>When you manipulate nature in a way you don’t completely understand, the consequences can be unpredictable and absolutely disastrous

How were those doctors in the 1920s "manipulating nature"? They were just trying to treat sick people in an undeveloped region.

There are a lot of hospital-originating diseases even today (e.g. drug-resistant TB in Russia).

The natural way to deal with sickness is to survive it or die.

Creating a vaccine and injecting it into people's bloodstreams to try to gain an advantage over a virus' spread can be seen as manipulating nature. There is plenty of nature manipulation that goes on in the development and reproduction of a vaccine.

Humans are products of nature, therefore whatever we do is 'natural'. There aren't natural chemicals and artificial chemicals, there are just chemicals. The whole distinction is silly. Nightshade will kill you just as a dead as synthetic atropine.

Doing anything will likely have unintended consequences, I would hazard a guess that vaccinating people has saved more lives than AIDS has claimed. Now that we have an AIDS vaccine, should we not vaccinate people for fear of causing an epidemic 80 years from now?

I don't think that anything we do is natural just because we are a product of nature. It's getting into definition and semantics here but something like cross breeding a chicken and a pig can't be called natural as far as I'd say.

I suppose that is not possibe but can you imagine chicken bacon?

There is nothing "unnatural" about homo sapiens using tools to improve their condition.

Following that same train of thought, there's nothing unnatural about toxic waste dumps.

Are they not? Humans, like other animals, have waste. And like other more sophisticated animals, they generally make an attempt to isolate it from themselves. You see similar behavior from cats. You may as well argue that beaver dams are "unnatural".

This "natural == not human" thing is fine (bullshit, but fine), until you start trying to use it to make moral/ethical arguments.

Oh, I agree, the whole "it's not natural so it's BAD!!!" argument is infantile. My usual tactic for making people realize this is by pointing out how something they do, like living past 18 years old, is unnatural.

It's not like animals don't bring about their own ecological collapse some times.

Was there really a time when people only lived to 18 years of age on average?

Quite probably. High infant mortality rates do wonders to average life expectancies.

It depends on how you define "natural". Is anything that happens in real life "unnatural"? Didn't it come about through "natural" biological desires, created by evolution? As long as you don't believe in God, anyway.

So you have to define some dividing line, or at least a scale, telling when humans exercising their "natural" intelligence leads to "unnatural" results.

I don't know if I'm disagreeing with you or not. It's just a tricky idea that needs to be defined.

Toxic waste is a perfectly natural by-product of our industrial processes. (You could argue those are natural too). Similarly, introducing these wastes into the air and ocean also leads to natural consequences.

I think the issue is that people confuse "natural" with "able to sustain human life". The planet Mercury is perfectly natural, but humans can't live there. In the same vein, we can do lots of natural things and our environment will find a way to balance things out.

Where I feel people are short-sighted is that eventually that ecological balancing act precludes the existence of human beings in this planet.

I believe you understand me perfectly.

I was trying to illustrate how pointless the "natural vs unnatural" argument is. If we were truly concerned with only doing things naturally then we would be living in hunter gatherer groups and not living past 18. Farming wouldn't be allowed, as that's just as unnatural as any other extension of our tool use.

I can't see how tool use is unnatural by any definition. We do it without any prompting, as do chimps and even some birds. Ours are just more complicated. Living past 18 is a natural result of having enough food to eat and relative safety, again deriving from our natural intelligence.

My point is that it's an uphill battle to declare any given real phenomenon as unnatural at all.

I think the interesting conundrum will occur when a higher form of animal (reptile or mammal) evolves to the point where it can only survive in a toxic waste dump. Then you will have to choose between cleaning up toxic waste and destroying the habitat of a new species, or preserving the species and dealing with the side effects of the toxic waste.

To date I believe there are only insect cases that have done this (less outrage when you kill off a new species of roach)

That being said, given the AIDS virus in apes, given that apes were being hunted, and given that there was lots of needle re-use going on, the rise of AIDs as a scourge was pretty much a 100% probable, regardless of 'who' was the alpha 0 patient.

There isn't. Homo Sapiens is an animal and what animals do are generally considered natural.

Now that isn't to say that a toxic waste dump is good (it is not) or healthy (it is toxic) or desirable (parasites are natural and certainly not desirable).


I doubt that as well. And in fact what he said was that "Doctors and scientists can draw a lesson in prudence and humility from this," which is not stupid at all.

The program that he is linking to the initial outbreak wouldn't be the first vaccination program, surgery, antibiotic, or pain relief drug to cause harm.

  > How were those doctors in the 1920s "manipulating
  > nature"?
Even if you don't think that vaccines are 'manipulating nature,' I would say that mounting global campaigns to inoculate everyone and completely eradicate a disease is 'manipulating nature.'

Doesn't seem like understanding was a problem here - they were just reckless in failing to adequately sterilise medical equipment. I'd say the moral of the story is more 'beware of reckless do-gooding.'

"manipulating chimpanzee meat"? Is that a euphemism? What is meant by that?

> Is that a euphemism?

No? Well the chimp-fucking hypothesis is possible, but it's unlikely.

> What is meant by that?

Exactly what was said. He might have contracted it by quartering a chimpanzee (and having chimpanzee blood wash over cuts or scrapes, thereby infecting it). Having cuts, scrapes or tears is pretty likely when you're in the forest fighting chimps.

Most likely chimpanzee meat was part of the diet of the bushmen; but in order to cook the meat, you need to get it off the chimpanzee - hence the manipulation part.

I'm pretty sure they just meant "handling".

Writing fancily for the sake of it.

The word probably comes from the French-speaking professor, for whom "manipulate" would be a far more natural choice of words than "handle".

Indeed, the "man" in "manipulate" just means "hand" in Latin.

It's interesting how in English, there are usually at least two different words for any given thing, one Germanic one French, with the French one being seen as fancy. (Maybe due to how the Norman conquest worked out.) This has the unfortunate side effect of making French speakers who learn English as a second language sound pretentious to a lot of people.

No maybe about it. The classic examples are beef vs. cow, pork vs. pig, poultry vs. chicken. The conquerers manipulating their food at the table while the vanquished were handling the animals.

"the vanquished were handling the animals"

Whilst swearing.

AHA - thanks. That's probably the root of it.

I thought HIV was the virus and AIDS was the condition, the article repeatedly says "AIDS virus"– am I mistaken?

Saying "AIDS virus" could be an example of metonymy.

See also The River:


It seems like their theories are slightly different, but both involve vaccination programs as the cause of the epidemic.

It sounds as if this one is nothing to do with vaccination, but with treatment of diseases such as leprosy, tuberculosis and sleeping sickness.

“Doctors and scientists can draw a lesson in prudence and humility from this,” he said. “When you manipulate nature in a way you don’t completely understand, the consequences can be unpredictable and absolutely disastrous.”

-the law of unintended consequences

Problems are inevitable, problems are soluble.


A bush hunter... is that a euphemism for something?

No, it describes someone who hunts wild animals in the bush. The bush is not a full jungle/rain forest, but more of light wooded bushy areas. Australia has "bush", just think of Crocodile Dundee. Africa also has bush, and some people hunt animals for food in there.

Quick! Where's my time machine?

If it happened once, odds are it could & would happen again.

HIV got pretty lucky a few times; it's relatively difficult to contract, so if any of those steps had been disrupted long enough for people to learn about it, we might not have tens/hundreds of millions killed by it.

Keeping it contained in Africa for a bit longer, getting rid of the infected plasma selling organization in Haiti, and a different initial population, might have made all the difference -- imagine if a monogamous/non-needle-sharing person got infected, disease ran its course with first-world medical facilities, and became a research curiosity.

Isn't it inherently unlikely for a disease contracted from wild chimpanzees to be contracted by someone with access to first-world medical facilities?


I meant if there were a limited population of humans exposed to chimpanzees (in Africa), and maybe it crossed over and stayed in a pretty localized group.

Then, in the lucky alternate universe, the first patient from outside being infected being a ~60 year old western/rich visiting professor who doesn't do drugs, and maybe doesn't even have sex with his wife, and is basically a closed system. Returns home HIV+ but doesn't spread it to any other humans before AIDS develops, he goes to a hospital (where there's already reasonable biosafety against blood-borne pathogens), and someone figures out there's a new virus in Africa which can only be contracted through relatively direct contact.

Then, a few tens of millions of dollars of treatment (practicing better biosafety in Africa, letting US medical device manufacturers send needles/etc. paid for by the government, etc., would probably be enough to keep the whole thing contained, and maybe eventually eradicate it.

Unfortunately that's not what happened.

You jumped a step. They would have never figured out he even had a new disease, they would have just treated him symptomatically and assumed he had some sort of immune issue. Detecting a virus without knowing what you are looking for is really hard.

The only reason AIDS was even detected was because of a pattern with many people who were in similar groups got infected. The similar groups part is critical - that's what tells people it's infectious.

A disease that hardly infects anyone is unlikely to even be detected.

And even if we assume your scenario of detection, your second scenario would not play out. With billions of dollar of prevention we can't stop it - you really think millions would do it? All it takes is a little sex tourism - which despite the risks and the knowledge still happens today.

And finally, none of that would erase the stigma because the reality is that AIDS is mainly transmitted by low status individuals, and changing the origin would do little to change that.

But why would they spend millions of dollars attacking something that was (in this alternative universe), essentially a non-issue.

It seems unlikely that as a medical "curiosity" anyone would have made much progress.

I posted this comment and deleted it because you shouldn't be funny on hacker news. Before I deleted the comment I got one upvote that encouraged me to repost it again. Then I got 4 downvotes so far, even though my comment managed to spark thoughtful exchange between some hacker news users.

Great but is this hacker news or just mini-reddit?

So we finally found the guy that fucked the monkey that gave us aids.


Downvote? This is the best comment here.

Find the corresponding thread in Reddit and post there.

Do you know who I am?!?

Oh no, not my comment too! You guys don't like Youtube? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkJXioTetwQ

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