Look to Darwin for Reality Check on AIDS

June 7, 2001 |
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When AIDS erupted 20 years ago, politics was not far behind.

Both the ideological right and left were quick to seize upon the deadly disease to underscore contrapuntal arguments about everything from public health to personal morality. Yet, AIDS is ultimately not political; it is viral. It is subject to the laws of nature, not human society. And so, while AIDS may someday be cured, the Darwinian reality underscoring all natural phenomena will continue to flummox both liberals and conservatives.

At the onset of AIDS, when it seemed mostly a gay malady, some right-wingers could barely contain their glee. Columnist Pat Buchanan wrote in 1983: "The poor homosexuals-they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution." But, if Buchanan and his ilk couldn't help but see AIDS through the prism of "the gay lifestyle," neither could some gays at the opposite extreme, who insisted on their "right" to pursue behavior that would, indeed, kill them.

Gay journalist Randy Shilts, in his 1987 book, "And the Band Played On," decried the "insanity" of those on the liberationist left who claimed that AIDS was a homophobic fantasy propagated by "sexual fascists." Freedom squelchers, he maintained, weren't nearly so great a peril as the AIDS virus. Shilts himself would later die of the disease. But fears that AIDS would be an excuse to push gays back into the closet proved unfounded. Indeed, as the affliction got more serious, gays got more active and powerful. Today, overt homophobia is confined to the far margins of society; President George W. Bush, Republican of Texas, hired an openly gay man to be his AIDS czar in the White House.

Yet, if the political right has had to come to terms with gay rights, so the left has had to accept the larger lesson that old rules were often wise rules. In the 1960s, Hugh Hefner wasn't content to make money selling skin magazines; he tried to remake society based on his "Playboy Philosophy" of open-mindedness, open marriage- open everything. But then came a whole slew of sexually transmitted diseases, transmitted all the more rapidly by rampant sex. The most deadly of these, of course, is AIDS.

In 1993, radical gay activist Larry Kramer gave an interview in Hefner's Playboy, delivering an epitaph for the hedonism Hefner had celebrated: "I don't know if sex will ever again be as it was in the '60s and '70s-even if AIDS is cured." Today, AIDS is far from cured. Some 438,000 Americans have died from it, although the death rate has eased as personal behavior has adapted to the grim logic of epidemiology. Medicine, too, has played a life-saving role, although treatment costs are so high that little is being done for the 36 million sufferers worldwide.

But, even in the United States, the battle could still be lost. The AIDS virus, like everything else in the natural world, is constantly evolving and adapting. And that spells more trouble for political ideologies. Although some on the right still cling to Biblical creationism and decry the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin, only the full acceptance of Darwinian biology-past, present and future-offers the hope that scientists will be able to keep pace with the ever-mutating AIDS virus. And for many on the left, disturbed by the full implications of that same Darwinian theory, the realization must come that nature, and its subset, human nature, presupposes endless competition, not egalitarian cooperation.

That the natural universe can be unwarm and unfuzzy is a point made, in its own jokey way, by a new movie, "Evolution." This film, opening tomorrow, may be the best education many Americans will receive on such critical Darwinian concepts as natural selection and adaptation.

Indeed, it shows them as a matter of life and death.

Others with deeper curiosity might turn to "The Evolution Explosion: How Humans Cause Rapid Evolutionary Change," by Harvard biologist Steven Palumbi. Proof that Darwinism still works, Palumbi writes, can be found in our failure to eradicate such ever-evolving enemies as weeds, cockroaches, tuberculosis-and AIDS. Survival of the fittest is still the basic law of nature.

The moral of this story is this: Not every technological solution to the dreads of nature will succeed. And that's a larger reality that should keep everyone-right, left and center-feeling small and humble.

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