Richard Preston’s “The Demon in the Freezer” strays a bit off the main path of smallpox to the diversion of anthrax due to that powder-filled letters brouhaha back in 2001. A passage in that reminded me of a discussion I’d had here recently with Eric Johnson.

“The anthrax cells produce poisons that cause a breathing arrest in their host. Anthrax “wants” its host to drop dead. Anthrax-infected animals can go from apparent health to death with the celerity of a lightning strike. Some years ago, reserachings in Zimbabwe found a dead hippopotamus standing upright on all four feet, killed by anthrax while it was walking. The hippo looked as if it had not even noticed it was dead.

The carcass of the host rots and splits open, the anthrax cells sporulate, and a dark, putrid stain of fluids mixed with spores drains into the soil, where the spores dry out. Time passes, and one day a spore is eaten by a grazing animal, and the cycle begins anew.”

You can ignore the bit about the hippo, I just thought it was cool. The main deal is why these pathogens “want” to poison and even kill us. Anthrax is different from a contagious disease (like smallpox, for instance) in that it does not spread directly from host to host and so is unlikely to spark an epidemic. Is it also unusual in seeking to cause early death?

On an unrelated note, Steve Horwitz has notified us of the death of Norman Borlaug. It is standard practice for everyone to say respectful things upon the death of any halfway-noteworthy figure, and I don’t normally go in for it. Borlaug, however, was one of the greatest men who ever lived and so I salute him.