Reflections on smallpox and God’s creation

Reflections on smallpox and God’s creation February 13, 2011

An interesting article in the Guardian this morning, on the (on-going) debate on whether to eliminate the remaining stocks of the smallpox virus.   The article focuses on the pragmatic issues of health, international security and bio-terrorism, but in reading it I was wondering if there were larger issues involved.

The daily gospel readings are from Genesis, and so I have been rereading the account of creation.  One thing I noticed is that the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2 put slightly different emphases on the relation between humanity and God’s creation.  In the first account God tells Adam and Eve:  “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.”  The sense here is of total control, ownership, “dominion.”  On the other hand, in the second account it says that “The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.” Here the sense is of stewardship: caring for something that they do not own.

I do not want to read too much into these short passages, but I think that this tension still affects our current understanding of the world around us. If the world is “ours” in the sense we have complete control over it, then we can do what we want, subject only to our prudential judgment of how to treat our property. On the other hand, if the world is God’s, then our decisions must show deference to God’s own plan. We are stewards, and presumably (like all stewards) have a great deal of autonomy and authority, but in the end we are constrained by the plan of the actual Master of creation.

And what does this tell us about smallpox? I am not sure, but despite the very compelling arguments of those who argue for the destruction of smallpox, some part of me hesitates to willingly destroy any part of God’s creation. Now this is not, I hope, the “Bambi syndrome”: I hope that I am not getting all dewy eyed over a virus whose main function seems to have been to kill 100’s of millions. Nevertheless, it is part of God’s creation, and therefore part of God’s plan, if only in the contingent sense that God created a world in which diseases such as smallpox would evolve.

Note that I am not claiming that smallpox has a “right” to exist, much less a “right” to continue to be an active plague in the world.  (This would be the result of pushing Peter Singer’s speciesism to its logical limit.)  But I think it is worth asking, in this extremal case, what limits, if any, beyond prudential judgment, should control our “dominion” over the smallpox virus?  This should give us clues as to how we should relate to the other parts of creation, the good, the bad and the ugly (with apologies to Sergio Leone).

David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

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  • Blackadder


    I presume that you do not have a problem with giving people small pox vaccines, so that no one ever gets the disease. But this means eradicating 99.999999% of the small pox virus, and it also means that 0.000001% of small pox that remains must be kept alive artificially. In other words, small pox already does not exist in the environment for which it was created.

  • Cindy

    Could I dare say that me thinks at times maybe religion goes too far? I mean if you had a chance to rid the world of AIDS, would you not take it? I think that certain virus strains had their chance, and if they can be beaten, then so be it. Rid the world of them.

  • You really do like to try and find the thorny spots in the garden to fix your gaze upon. I say let’s go for wiping smallpox out and if we manage to destroy it but in doing so, run afoul of God’s plan, this is one penance I might actually enjoy suffering through.

    Excellent food for thought you provided. I will be tormented by it for at least a week.

  • In what sense is the smallpox virus a part of “God’s creation”? Was it God’s intention that the smallpox virus evolved, made a jump into the human population, and killed millions of people over the course of 12 thousand years? Considering the fact that an estimate 99.9% of species that have ever existed are extinct, what is the obligation to preserve any given species because it might be considered “God’s creation”? Preserving “God’s creation” is not how nature works.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Early sentiment is running strongly in favor of wiping out smallpox, and as I said, I am not entirely sure I disagree. I am okay with vaccinating against it, and reducing it to a small collection of vials in a lab, but the last step still seems a momentous one.

      Cindy, I don’t think this is a case of religion going too far. Would you object if expressed a desire to have all, say, tigers hunted down and killed, because they are small but significant threat to people and livestock? There are distinctions to be drawn between tigers and viruses, but, again as I pointed out, I think this is a useful exercise: to understand where the line is, and why it is okay (if it is) to completely eliminate smallpox but not tigers.

      David N. smallpox is part of God’s creation. Even if God did not will it directly, He willed a universe in which He could foresee that smallpox (and/or many other diseases like it) would evolve. So yes, it’s part of the plan. And I think there is a world of difference between species going extinct in the course of things, and being deliberately eliminated by humankind. It may still be justifiable: see my comments about tigers.

      • Cindy

        David Cruz,
        Don’t you feel that comparing a living animal, to a virus is a bit of a stretch? I mean say if we didnt have the intelligence we have now, as humans we would not ever see the virus to the naked eye. Now the dinosaurs had their chance, and they are now extinct. Just like so many other things in nature. Now granted maybe to some degree you have a point. I mean here we live in a world where we chop down our rainforests, yet who is to say that the cure for cancer isnt found in some species of plant or insect or animal in those very forests? So I guess I can understand maybe in that aspect. But I still don’t see what good can come from a virus that can kill the human race? What does it serve to keep it around? Do you feel that by preserving it, it will come to some form of good one day?

      • I shall remember to not ever invite you into a game of chess. My compliments to you sir. Very well written, very well thought out.

      • While I personally wouldn’t make this argument, I am sure some would say that diseases were not part of God’s plan but are the result of the Fall. They are not God’s creation, but God’s creation perverted. It does seem to me there is a problem in considering virtually everything as part of “God’s creation.”

        If the smallpox virus were not kept alive in the laboratory, the eradication of smallpox as a disease would have caused the virus to become extinct. Do you feel if medical science is able to eradicate the parasites that cause malaria, it is the obligation to keep samples of those parasites alive in the lab so that they will not disappear from God’s creation?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


      I agree there is a difference between a tiger and a virus, but where to draw the line? I am not comfortable with your reasoning about the rain forest since it is so strictly utilitarian: what about plants and animals that are not good for anything?

      So I am definitely not applying a utilitarian calculus to smallpox: barring its reconstruction by some evil minded geneticist, I can see no real utility (“good”) to keeping it around. On the other hand, we have no firm knowledge of what good may come of it.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    David N.

    I have no problem regarding everything as part of God’s creation, and so “good”, but I am willing to take a very nuanced definition of “good” and accept that God’s creation is a very big and often messy place.

    As for malaria, I think the same question applies: should we completely eradicate malaria, or small pox, or bubonic plague, or the hanta virus, or cholera, just because we can? How do we balance stewardship against dominion? Where do we draw the lines? What is God’s plan (or at least will) regarding these problematic (from our point of view) parts of His creation.

  • Cindy

    Ok. I am now thinking on other levels. I’m about to change the subject, so bare with me if you will. Take a person of ‘gay’ orientation. I have deduced for msyelf that under God’s plan, they exist. They are here and I believe they feel what they feel and they are attracted to what they are attracted to. They exist in this world, and therefore, it has to be normal in this world for this condition to exist. Now this I suppose conflicts with what the Catholic faith may have in mind with regard to this. So does this make me a person that is utilitarian? I mean the condition exists, and it’s here, so wouldnt it be considered natural under God’s plan?

  • If it is God’s plan that every act of human sexuality potentially result in a pregnancy, making artificial birth control a violation of “natural law,” then how is it not also a violation of natural law to prevent the smallpox, or any other virus, from doing what God designed it to do–which is invade a host and multiply in the environment for which it was designed? In fact, is not all of medicine a human effort to thwart the designs upon our mortality made by natural law? What gives man the right to cherry pick those natural processes which he allows to perform the teleological functions for which they were designed by the Creator? If one answers this question by saying that God also designed man with the intellect to develop vaccines and other means of fighting disease, one can counter by saying that the same God-given intellect should therefore be licitly used to keep human populations from growing too large for the resources available to them. That is stewardship.

  • To suggest that the answer to the question I posed above is “abstinence,” is suggest that we should abandon immunization programs and go back to relying on quarantining the ill to prevent the spread of epidemics. Clearly, the most effective methods human ingenuity can contrive are the methods which should be employed to resolve any problem of stewardship facing the human race.