Papers Discussed:
1.Ira M. Longini Jr. et al., Containing Pandemic Influenza at the Source, Science, 2005, 309:5737, pp1083-1087.

2. Marcel Cardillo et al., Multiple Causes of High Extinction Risk in Large Mammal Species, Science, 2005, 309:5738, pp 1239-1241

3. Andreas Olsson et al., The Role of Social Groups in the Persistence of Learned Fear, Science, 2005, 309:5735, pp 785-787

4. Brad Allenby and Jonathan Fink, Toward Inherently Secure and Resilient Societies, Science, 2005, 309:5737, pp 1034-1036

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Generally speaking, I am cowardly. Even a partial list of things I fear is a lengthy one and includes (among other things); dentists, the inevitability of my own death, mesh fabrics, gangrene and loud noises. If my anxiety were to be studied, it would be found to be dominated by a hypochondria, which itself is dominated by the persistent fear that we will all one day perish from the Avian Influenza A (subtype H5N1) pandemic. Which is why I am thankful that results from a new stochastic simulation model indicate that an outbreak could be contained using a combination of antiviral agents, localized quarantine and prophylaxis (1). In fact, this was such a relief that I immediately ignored the reliability of science being capable of modeling such a large-scale biological event, and poured myself a whiskey to my good health (which subsequently led to a small twinge in my liver this morning – something that I’m suddenly afraid could be an early symptom of hemorrhagic fever).

However, no sooner was my whiskey finished, that I then came across an article stating that large mammal species are at an increased risk of extinction (2). Apparently, while small species usually go extinct because of environmental factors alone, larger mammals are driven to extinction by intrinsic factors such as gestation length and weaning age. And distressingly the threshold body mass separating large and small mammals was a ridiculously low 3 kg, putting me squarely in the large mammal camp. The authors of the study tried to allay my fears by reasoning that the extinction of large animals was due, in part, to humans, who have always been especially keen on hunting big things. However, I feel that it is only a matter of time before, having run out of options, man begins to hunt other men for sport anyway. In fact, I’ve seen this already described in a Sunday afternoon movie I saw, that may have starred Ice Cube and which, I’m pretty sure, was a documentary.

In truth, this is all a moot point anyway. I don’t know why, but even scarier than Ice Cube, documentaries, or even Sunday afternoons for that matter, is the thought of poor helpless, liver impaired (but large) me, becoming the prey of a menacing polar bear. This fear of the great arctic beast seems, at the surface, to be an irrational one, mainly because I am not a seal. Nor do I hang about in local seal haunts performing seal-associated activities such as lying about on rocks sunning my blubbery underbelly. Even in the water, my awkward swimming stroke, gangly frame and whiter than death colouring make me distinctly un-seal-like. These traits, compounded by my infrequent presence in the arctic, make my death at the hands of a hungry and otherwise myopic polar bear extremely unlikely. So why do I fear them with such intensity? The pages of Science magazine, as usual, hold the answer: it seems that I have been conditioned to fear those outside of my social group (3). In fact I have “millions of years of natural selection and a lifetime of social learning” whispering in my ear to fear the polar bear solely because it is different than me. It doesn’t like soda, it isn’t intimately familiar with the James Bond films and it could care less how the sports teams from my area fare in their respective leagues. Fortunately for both the polar bears and myself, social fear can be reduced. Turns out interracial dating significantly decreases the dread of different others; a solution I am not above trying.

Or was it interspecies dating? Anyway, as if scaring me with the possibility of wooing a large white bear wasn’t enough, Science then dropped the complete destruction of our society on me. In a study looking at the resiliency of our society to internal and external forces, researchers from Arizona State University described a myriad of ways our civilization could nosedive into obscurity, including, but not limited to: airborne pathogens, terrorist attack, nuclear attack, natural disasters and the ominous sounding destructive electromagnetic frequency pulses (4). They also discussed some ways of making our society more capable of withstanding such events, but to be honest these fixes were not sufficient enough to stop me from cowering under my desk in terror. Yes, having workers “telecommute” might spare them from bad air quality days and unanticipated upsets in the traffic networks, but having me work from home hardly seems to be a satisfying solution – it certainly isn’t going to save me from those nasty polar bears, at least not the persistent ones anyway.