Playing With Fire

Have you heard about—and maybe believe—the “lab leak hypothesis” related to COVID? The idea is this: people tasked with doing basic research on respiratory viruses might have been partly responsible for the outbreak. Why partly? Their work would have included “gain of function research”, which seeks to investigate more aggressive versions of the virus, artificially created in a lab. The ultimate goal is to understand how their effectiveness comes about in order to preemptively devise countermeasures.

This may sound incredibly dangerous. If it were proved that the outbreak of COVID was indeed caused by a leak from a lab, this would certainly demonstrate the true potential risk of such work. However, instead of trying to solve the—maybe impossible to answer—mystery about the origin of COVID, I want to focus on what I intuit is a general truth about powerful technology: investigations always come with high risks, and presumably high rewards. At least with technology that is self-replicating, like viruses—or fire…

Which brings me to the title of this post. Imagining how humans learned to control fire, in my mind, went something like this. Early humans were on occasion confronted with a force of nature they did not understand. After a period of dry weather, lightning would strike and set the accumulated deadwood on fire. When that happened close to where people dwelt, they had to retreat from this deadly power. The experience must have been terrifying. One day, however—either out of pure curiosity, or out of some other intention—someone dared to pick up a still burning stick and carried it away, maybe to start a fire elsewhere.

This is, simply put, what humans do. It is part of our behavioral makeup. We cannot help it. When we are faced with a potentially risky proposition of a dangerous unknown agent in our environment, some people will experience an intense desire to understand it, to play with it, to put it under our control, and in doing so make useful discoveries. This tendency is already present in infants, and while we can and must learn to control that impulse, it never leaves us.

How does this matter? Well, in my mind, the important question is not so much to find out whether or not the novel coronavirus escaped—or was intentionally leaked from—a lab. For the purpose of making true progress, I would rather assume that humans had something to do with it. Importantly, I want to do so without the need to attribute blame. Why? Let’s go back to the example of discovering how to control fire. Would you want to live in a world where humans have not yet mastered fire? We would be so very limited creatures. And what do you imagine the first people who played with fire had to go through before it was safe? Here is how I imagine that went down:

Larry, a very early human from maybe a million years ago, thought he would impress the group he belonged to. He might have wanted to gain a bit more prestige with them, and controlling fire seemed like one way to do so. For a few days, his playing with fire was still going well, but then, with one careless move, and in an unexpected way, half the habitat of the tribe burns down. No-one in Larry’s group speaks any language. However, if he and his tribe did, and they knew about his experiments—which some of them clearly disapproved of, given their respect for and fear of fire—I would guess that Larry would be literally grilled and interrogated about the trouble he presumably caused.

In all likelihood, he might try to get rid of any evidence that it was him and his experiments that caused the fire. Assuming that humans back then already had some inkling of causality, together with shame and guilt, that is. And I am reminded that even dogs can, when they behave poorly, look in their owner’s eyes and plead in ways suggesting, “I didn’t do it on purpose!” It unfortunately is also in our nature to deflect blame whenever we do feel that our actions caused harm.

So, what am I suggesting instead of playing the blame game? I believe that it is in our nature to play with fire. To experiment, to learn, to study, and eventually to master and control. It is simply not an option for us to turn that instinct off. We humans are, to quite some extent, defined by our curiosity. Instead I am suggesting that we come to terms with that nature, and each time we experience a near-catastrophic event that could reasonably have been caused by human (mis-) behavior, ask ourselves: what are the current protocols around this topic, this force we do not yet control? How can we make playing with fire yet a bit safer?

Lab leaks, as mentioned in the Nature article, happen all the time. Most of the time they have been relatively harmless in the past. And so maybe it is just time to upgrade our protocols. Someone, somewhere will always do experiments. It is in my mind simply inevitable. So why not focus on how to make those experiments as safe as we can possibly think of?

Ultimately, I believe this will achieve several objectives. Among the most important are that we fulfill our instinct of discovery while also recognizing the inherent and unavoidable dangers. Given that we cannot help but experiment, why not at least do so in full recognition of what the consequences, at times, must be? This would also shift our focus away from counterproductive politics—simply take a look at who financed the Wuhan lab—to the real danger: people with truly malicious intentions could gain access to technology in order to extort resources in return for not bringing about mass destruction. For that to happen, similar to what was achieved with nuclear power, we need agreement on protocols. And for that, blame is a clear obstacle.

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