Steven Arthur Pinker (born September 18, 1954) is a Canadian-born American cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and is known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind. This guy is a genuine big-brained hominid, one of the smartest people you’ll ever know, and he writes to convince his readers that our world is getting steadily better, century after century. And he proves it with facts!
Changes can be either good or bad. However, contrary to popular opinion, cultural changes around the world tend, on average, to be good, in the sense that they bring greater happiness, freedom, health, and prosperity to more ad more people.
His two latest books are possibly the two most important books I have ever read.:
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Pinker shows that all down through history, for the past several thousand years, the world has been slowly getting safer from violence of all kinds including muggings, rape, murder, and war, freer from disease, poverty, and superstition, more prosperous, better fed, and happier. These are real cultural changes that usually happen so slowly that most of us are not even aware of them. But our lives are much better now than they were back in the “good old days” when you might have had to get your appendix cut out by candlelight at 3 AM. With no anesthetic.
For the second time this summer, health officials in California are investigating a case of plague that a camper most likely contracted while visiting Yosemite National Park.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is testing a visitor from Georgia who camped at Yosemite, the Sierra National Forest and the surrounding areas in early August. Two campgrounds were closed after another case was announced two weeks ago. Since then the authorities have been warning visitors of possible plague risks.
Plague, also known as “bubonic plague,” “black plague,” “black death,” and several other appellations, wiped out at least a third of the population of Europe in the 14th century — some historians estimate as high as two thirds — and also very large numbers of people several other times and places. Before entering Europe this time, it had ravaged China, India, and areas along the trade routes of the East.
The same germ had also been responsible for the Plague of Justinian that killed an estimated 25 million people in Europe in 541–542 A.D. and maybe that many more over the next two centuries. It came to Europe and spread there in the blood of the ironically named black rat (pictured above).
The Black Death arrived in Europe by sea in October 1347 when 12 Genoese trading ships docked at the Sicilian port of Messina after a long journey through the Black Sea. The people who gathered on the docks to greet the ships were met with a horrifying surprise: Most of the sailors aboard the ships were dead, and those who were still alive were gravely ill. They were overcome with fever, unable to keep food down and delirious from pain. Strangest of all, they were covered in mysterious black boils that oozed blood and pus and gave their illness its name: the “Black Death.” The Sicilian authorities hastily ordered the fleet of “death ships” out of the harbor, but it was too late: Over the next five years, the mysterious Black Death would kill more than 20 million people in Europe–almost one-third of the continent’s population.
It’s rare among humans now, but it survives in rodent populations in the southwestern United States and elsewhere. The rodents are generally immune to it, but their fleas are not. Fleas ingest the bacteria and become infected when they drink the blood of an infected animal. The bacteria actually multiply in the flea’s gut until they clog up its digestive system and make it vomit when it bites another animal and tries to feed again. It regurgitates infected saliva and blood into the new animal, passing the infection to it. Occasionally, humans gets infected this way.
Yersinia pestis bacterium causes black death.
The disease is caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which can also cause “pneumonic plague” or “septicemic plague.” The difference between the three forms depends only where the infection exists in the body, but that difference is important.
Pneumonic plague, a severe type of lung infection, is one of three main forms of plague, all of which are caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It is more virulent and rarer than bubonic plague. The difference between the versions of plague is simply the location of the infection in the body; the bubonic plague is an infection of the lymphatic system, the pneumonic plague is an infection of the respiratory system, and the septicemic plague is an infection in the blood stream.
An untreated Yersinia pestis infection in the lymph nodes, the bubonic form, may be fatal in humans around 30% of the time. An untreated infection in the lungs, the pneumonic form, is not only more likely to be fatal, but is also more contagious; it is spread through the air when the patient coughs, like the flu is. The untreated septicemic form, in the blood, is fatal in 99% to 100% of patients. However, this form is rare.
The bubonic form is usually caught from the bite of an infected flea. Only rarely does this become one of the other forms. However, in those rare cases when the infection does settle in the lungs (possibly because of a prior lung infection), then it becomes pneumonic and spreads through the air to the lungs of other people. In this form, it can wipe out a whole family in a week.
“In men and women alike,” the Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio wrote, “at the beginning of the malady, certain swellings, either on the groin or under the armpits…waxed to the bigness of a common apple, others to the size of an egg, some more and some less, and these the vulgar named plague-boils.” Blood and pus seeped out of these strange swellings, which were followed by a host of other unpleasant symptoms–fever, chills, vomiting, diarrhea, terrible aches and pains–and then, in short order, death.
Patients with all forms of this disease usually recover if treated soon enough with antibiotics. Probably the worst danger from black death now is that it’s so rare it’s not always identified in time for treatment to work.
There are a series of short videos on the subject here, where you can learn more than you ever wanted to know about the black death in about 26 minutes total. But be warned, they are gruesome.
On June 16, I wrote about Dracunculus medinensis, also known as the “guinea worm” or the “dragon worm.”
Today I heard President Carter say (toward the end of the video above) that when he started his eradication program, there were 3.6 million cases of guinea worm and now we are down to 11 cases.
President Carter will be 91 in October. He recently had a small cancer removed from his liver, and he still has four small melanomas in his brain; but he hopes the last guinea worm will die before he does.