Let No New Thing Arise

Thinking about it, it seems that disease burden for Europeans got worse and worse with time.  Some have said that the first farmers in the Middle East wouldn’t had any increase at all in infectious disease over foragers.   That’s wrong, of course, because just being sedentary results in an increase in diarrheal diseases, worm burden, etc. Increased population density also caused trouble.   Still, it wasn’t nearly as bad back then as it would be in later millennia.

I mentioned this a while ago, in the context of warfare: infectious disease wasn’t a huge problem for the legions.  But the increase affected everyone, not just warriors.

It helps to think about critical community size (CCS).  Consider a disease like measles, one that doesn’t last long and confers lifelong immunity.  The virus needs fresh, never-infected  hosts (we call them children) all the time, else it will go extinct.   The critical community size for measles is probably more than half a million – which means that before agriculture, measles as we know it today couldn’t and didn’t exist.  In fact, it looks as if split off from rinderpest within the last two thousand years.  Mumps was around in Classical times (Hippocrates gives a good description), but it too has a large CCS and must be relatively new.  Rubella can’t be ancient. Whooping cough has a smaller CCS, maybe only 100,000, but it too must postdate agriculture.

In Classical Greece,  smallpox hadn’t arrived.  It may have shown up in the Antonine plague (165-180 AD).

Some new infectious diseases didn’t last – like the English Sweate.  But many came to stay.

Bubonic plague showed up in Justinian’s reign and killed off half the population.  It didn’t persist then,  but it hung around for centuries after the second outbreak in 1347.

Syphilis arrived in 1494.  Typhus most likely also originated in the Americas.  Cholera was old in parts of India, but only arrived in Europe during the 19th century (Russia in 1817, the rest of Europe in 1827).

Europeans must have been evolving resistance, but nature kept piling on.  In some cases, like smallpox, fairly high virulence was a favored strategy for the pathogen -and nobody is very good at out-evolving a microorganism.  Medicine was an ineffective pseudoscience, worse than useless.






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60 Responses to Let No New Thing Arise

  1. Noumenon72 says:

    Here’s the referenced post about legions.

    • Patrick L. Boyle says:

      In the most famous siege in antiquity – the contracircumvalation of Alesia, it was starvation that decided it – no typhus yet. Delbruck claims that Caesar always fought in Gaul with a numerical advantage. The Gauls without the literacy of the Romans, their huge mobilizations soon ate out the countryside and they had to disperse, at which time Caesar attacked. Caesar’s accounts always emphasized how many Gauls showed up for the original muster – not how many opposed him in the actual encounter. The (quartermaster’s) pen was indeed mightier than the sword.

      I’m sure if Caesar had fought in the much latter Middle Ages he would have leveraged superior Roman hygienics as he had once leveraged superior Roman logistics.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Along those lines, the Romans invested mightily in clean water supplies for their cities. Did they leave accounts of their theory of why the spent so much on aqueducts?

    • Toad says:

      Aqueducts allows you to have huge cities with high population density. These have lower birth rates compared to the countryside. Migration of farmers to cities causes a net decrease in birth rate and decrease in food production. You have less military age population for your armies and less food to supply them with. Less civilized neighbors with more agrarian demographics and more fighting men can encroach on the periphery.

      One advantage of a less centralized medieval Europe would be its more robust agrarian demographics.

      • doombuggy says:

        Food output has usually been a function of soil and weather. Farmers are pretty good at rounding up a bunch of slaves when needed. (e.g. Soviet potato harvest; US illegal immigration.)

  2. j3morecharacters says:

    Ebola flu. Those with the NPC1 mutation will survive.

  3. dearieme says:

    What about TB?

    • gcochran9 says:

      TB is apparently originated long ago in Africa. It can linger in an individual, and thus could have existed long before agriculture increased human population densities. However it may have evolved greater virulence when population density increased.

      • Patrick L. Boyle says:

        I read up on TB a few years ago when I was cast in a local Traviata production. I read the Dumas novel (in translation). What most surprised me was the realization of ignorance of the disease when Traviata and Boheme were composed. Until Koch and Pasture, very late in the nineteenth century, TB was not thought of as infectious. One of the most popular folk theories was vampires.

        The neighbors would see a family gradually all turn pale and die. They thought one of the family members was draining the blood of the others.

        The ignorance of infection is why in both the operas the tenors and sopranos engage in big wet sloppy kisses as the music swells. Feynman’s wife was tubercular. As I remember they never kissed.

      • Anonymous says:

        Or, as Robin Dunbar proposed, tuberculosis was originally a symbiont that provided us with vitamin B3, which would explain why it lasted, but ye olde English Sweate died out

        Plasmodium was formerly used to treat tertiary syphilis, which is rare in Africa.

        There is, I believe, a school of thought that humans have always had extremely powerful immune systems, which is the cause of long human life, and degenerative diseases

  4. syon says:

    RE: Infectious diseases,

    Any thoughts on the always controversial topic of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas?Matthew White in ATROCITIES plunks for 40 million as a compromise figure.

    • dearieme says:

      Given that they had agriculture, somewhere in the tens of millions seems reasonable: what’s the earliest decent estimate to have survived in our civilisation? Domesday? (I assume that all the Roman census results have been lost.) WKPD reports for England
      1100AD: 3,250,000

      • syon says:

        Well, we do have the figures for some of the Roman censuses. For example, St Jerome states that Eusebius records a Claudian census that lists 6,944,000 Roman citizens. Of course, I don’t know how much faith we can place in the accurate preservation and transmission of this kind of data….

      • syon says:

        From WIKIPEDIA, so the usual caveats apply:

        “In 2 CE during the Han Dynasty, China held a census still considered by scholars to be quite accurate.[19][20] The census is considered one of the world’s earliest preserved censuses,[21] and found 57.67 million people registered in 12.36 million households.[22][23] The areas with the highest population densities were the Yellow River and Huai River valleys. Chengdu was the largest city in China, reaching a population of 282,147 people.[21] Another census dates to AD 144, when 49.73 million people were recorded living in 9.94 million households.”

      • dearieme says:

        That’s interesting, but in Claudius’s time the citizens were presumably a tiny part of the population of the Empire. Would it be legit to assume that the great bulk of citizens were in Italy; would it be true that virtually all Italian free males were citizens? To answer my own questions: surely not because then I’d end up with 35 million people in Italy, which would be pretty unlikely. But “unlikely” is just a guess.

        What’s needed, I suppose, is some original census records preserved by fluke somewhere; even then, it would be guesswork to extrapolate them to preColumbian America.

    • “Would it be legit to assume that the great bulk of citizens were in Italy; would it be true that virtually all Italian free males were citizens?”

      Not sure of this. Lots of provincials were granted citizenship. St Paul, for example, mentions that as a Roman citizen he couldn’t be tortured. He was a Hellenistic Jew, so apparently you could even be a citizen without subscribing to the Roman religion. I believe veteran legionaries were granted citizenship, and this was one of the incentives for signing up.

    • Toddy Cat says:

      Back in the 1970’s, before PC really kicked in (or at least when there were still a few non-PC anthropologists around) I was taught that there were probably 30-40 million Amerinds in CA/SA, and 5-10 million in NA, so 40 million for the Americas sounds fairly reasonable to me, given the high productivity of some of their food crops.

  5. erica says:

    Wouldn’t the first groups of farmers have been highly susceptible to microbes that were brought to the surface by tilling the soil? ( Similarly, wouldn’t any population group that moved to a new area and farmed the land have incurred the same risks from turning over the soil?)

  6. Anonymous says:

    A) Is there any good, general book out there covering the history and basic science of all the famous infectious diseases? B) Do we know the histories of likely infectious diseases by “Ewald’s postulates”? (just ordered his books, have no idea how big he is on history)

    • dave chamberlin says:

      It is a good question. I’ve read a number of books in this subject area but none that is as sweeping as covering all the famous infectious diseases. More specific books that covered just parts of this subject I would recommend reading are “Spillover” by David Quammen and “The Great Influenza” by John Barry. “Spillover” certainly supported Cochran’s point that disease burden got worse and worse for Europeans up to around 1900. “The Great Influenza” covers more than the terrible flu pandemic of 1918, it explains how medicine became modernized and was finally able to reverse the trend that made all cities in the world population sinks because of disease. The Richard Preston books are wonderful page turners but the writer sells out the truth for drama. He has Ebola victims popping like water balloons, ect, ect. Unfortunately his books sold very well and he has a lot of imitators that go for the buck rather than the nuanced truth by attempting to scare the shit out of the reader. I went over to amazon books and was surprised at how many books there are on this subject that I haven’t read, perhaps someone else can point out to anonymous and myself to a well written book that ably covers the history of infectious diseases. I’ve long contended that history is hollywoodized always emphasizing warfare and rarely giving the impact of infectious diseases it’s rightful place in world history.

  7. bob sykes says:


    Sheldon Watts, “Epidemics and History,” Yale, 1997
    William McNeill, “Plagues and Peoples,” Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1977
    Hans Zinsser, “Rats, Lice and History,” Little, Brown & Co., 1934
    John Duffy, “Epidemics in Colonial America,” Louisiana St. Univ. Press, 1971
    Paul de Kruif, “Microbe Hunters,” Harcourt, Brace & World, 1926

    The first two are the most general in coverage. There are many other studies of particular epidemics like cholera, yellow fever and influenza that cover more limited eras.

  8. “Medicne was an ineffective pseudoscience, worse than useless,” until quite recently. It started catching up to the harm that it caused by the 19th C – sanitation and quarantine helped quite a bit – but likely didn’t hit a break-even point until penicillin put it over the top.

  9. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    In some cases, like smallpox, fairly high virulence was a favored strategy for the pathogen -and nobody is very good at out-evolving a microorganism.

    Why is virulence a favored strategy?

    Is it only favored in cases where the virus or bacteria can not easily spread from one infected individual to another and thus must take advantage of the practice of caring for the sick and our burial practices?

    Or, is it simply a byproduct of the burden the disease puts on individuals?

    • teageegeepea says:

      Ewald’s view was the opposite: difficulty of transmission selects against virulence. You have to keep the host healthy enough to be walking about, spreading the disease. But if it’s spread by mosquitoes or tainted water, go ahead and burn through the host.

  10. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    Europeans must have been evolving resistance, but nature kept piling on.

    If I was a betting man, I would bet on the arrival of a new, virulent, infections disease happening before warm global bullshit kills us all.

    • Patrick L. Boyle says:

      Yes it’s wise to bet on past events only. Laurie Garret’s prophetic “The Coming Plague” is now 20 years old and the Earth’s temperature stopped rising 18 years ago.

  11. dearieme says:

    For diphtheria, WKPD starts its history section with “In 1613, Spain experienced an epidemic of diphtheria.”

    From the New World? The Philipines?

  12. candid_observer says:

    How often do diseases evolve so that they wipe out entire species?

    I understand that in the end that’s a bad outcome both for the species and the microorganisms behind the disease. But it’s hardly as if the microorganism “knows” that that’s going to happen and sees to it that it isn’t so virulent. It just mutates and keeps infecting as long as it has opportunities. Certainly it seems that a number of microorganisms just take a far more virulent path because they develop, randomly, a mutation with that effect.

    Is the rareness of species extinguishing diseases maybe just a “Goldilocks” issue, in which a disease can’t be too little virulent, because it will leave survivors with genetic resistance, or too much virulent, because it will kill so quickly it can’t even spread, and very few diseases will hit the exact middle ground required? But why should this middle ground be so narrow? Is there some kind of mathematical model demonstrating the narrowness of this range?

  13. Bruce says:

    Are the anti-vaccination parents crazy?

    • dave chamberlin says:


    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      I guess it depends on the risk that the vaccinations might seriously impair their children (seems something bad happened to a child in Western Australia) vs the risk to their children of the disease the vaccinations are for.

      I am not sure that those parents have the info needed to make informed decisions about the relative risks.

      Are there vaccinations for TB and Typhoid?

    • Sideways says:

      Mostly stupid. Some crazy.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Aren’t we told that sub-Saharan Africans have the highest disease burden.

  15. j3morecharacters says:

    Wild anthropoids keep hosting evolving plagues like HIV, Ebola and so and transmitting them to humans. Shouldnt we take prophylactic measures towards wildlife?

  16. baloocartoons says:

    I love this blog. I’ve reblogged and quibcagged this piece.

  17. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    How are behavioral traits selected?

    What happens to a new behavioral trait if it is incompatible with the rest of the group? Do those individuals boil off?

  18. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    The correlation between reading and mathematics ability at age twelve has a substantial genetic component


  19. Hans Olo says:

    “Bubonic plague showed up in Justinian’s reign and killed off half the population. It didn’t persist then, but it hung around for centuries after the second outbreak in 1347.”

    Actually, Justinian’s plague had repeated outbreaks continuing for about 200 years, cutting the empire’s population in half.

    The long series of disease epidemics that hit the Roman Empire starting with the Antonine Plague was probably a major factor in the decline of Mediterranean urban civilization. One thing I’ve wondered is if the unprecedented level of urbanization and international trade in the Roman era *caused* this surge in epidemic disease by creating conditions very conducive to their spread.

    • gcochran9 says:

      You’re right: I had thought that it didn’t hang around that long in the first visit, but it did.

      Trade is an infectious disease hazard, and long distance-trade risks bringing in entirely new diseases.

  20. Jim says:

    I recall reading in Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Cultures” that the late Roman Europe had very high rates of disease and epidemics as well as a great decline in agricultural production.

  21. Somethinglikethat says:

    Dr. Cochran,

    What do you think of the neotenous Boskop race who had cranial volumes of 1,650-1,900cc?

  22. Anonymous says:

    Oh my … http://phys.org/news/2014-07-chimpanzee-intelligence-genes.html

    (Chimp intelligence largely determined by genes.)

  23. teageegeepea says:

    A critique of Nicholas Wade’s book by a neuroscientist here. Someone in the comments dragged in 10000 Year explosion as being similarly low quality.

    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      Worse for Wade’s argument, no matter how finely the software divides up the world population, individual people within a single group differ genetically from one other far more than two groups differ from one other. In the Science magazine study, 94.6% of the variation in genetic content was found within populations, with the remaining 5.4% accounting for differences between groups.

      He seems to be using the old Lewontin defense, with different numbers.

    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      Whoa, this is what the abstract for one of the studies he relied on actually said:

      We studied human population structure using genotypes at 377 autosomal microsatellite loci in 1056 individuals from 52 populations. Within-population differences among individuals account for 93 to 95% of genetic variation; differences among major groups constitute only 3 to 5%. Nevertheless, without using prior information about the origins of individuals, we identified six main genetic clusters, five of which correspond to major geographic regions, and subclusters that often correspond to individual populations. General agreement of genetic and predefined populations suggests that self-reported ancestry can facilitate assessments of epidemiological risks but does not obviate the need to use genetic information in genetic association studies. (Emphasis added.)

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