Monday, September 04, 2006

Remember the shmoo?

The shmoo was invented by Al Capp in the comic strip Li'l Abner: a wobbly tenpin-with-legs sort of creature with the misfortune (or good fortune?) of being almost totally consumable. Broiled shmoo tasted like steak; fried, like chicken. Shmoos gave eggs, butter and Grade A milk. The skin was a versatile fabric, the eyes made perfect buttons, and even the whiskers served as toothpicks. Most importantly, shmoos reproduced in prodigious numbers and delivered themselves willingly to human appetites. If you looked hungrily at a shmoo it dropped dead of happiness.

I can think of another creature that reproduces in prodigious numbers and would make a fine meal. The zoologist Mark Ridley has written: "Just as we consume resources, so we are ourselves a resource to be consumed. So far, we merely happen to be extraordinarily underexploited...There is no ecological opportunity on the Earth to compare with the gigacaloric potential of human flesh."

Who's going to eat us? The answer is obvious: viruses and bacteria. The microbes.

With every bite of food we eat, we convert more of the available planetary resources into human flesh. Increasingly, we must look like shmoos to the microbes: plump, available, irresistible. Ridley draws attention to the Darwinian pressure on microbes to make their diet out of us. So far, they have made only limited evolutionary progress towards overwhelming our defenses, but the dynamic of evolution is on their side.

As the human population explosion increasingly turns the biomass of the planet into human flesh, the ancient balance between ourselves and the microbes is put at risk. A showdown may be in the offing. The microbes have the advantage of short reproduction cycles, a million times faster than our own: In any race to evolve defenses against the enemy, we haven't a hope of competing. Our own natural defense mechanisms against bacteria are the products of millions of years of evolution. Bacteria can evolve resistance against antibiotics within months or years.

We are sitting ducks, an irresistible potential feast, victims of our own success.

Good luck to the human shmoo. (He said, as he took his doxycycline.)