On the Persistence of Witches

In the pre-scientific western world, sudden outbreaks of disease were often attributed to witches or other human agents of the supernatural. In many parts of the non-western world today, witchcraft is still feared and blamed. The need to seek human scapegoats for disease and general ill fortune seems part of our psychological makeup. Even in the contemporary West, we still seem to have the same psychology although in a different costume. 

The twin cases of the world-wide collapse of amphibian populations and the colony-collapse disorder which affected the world’s bees, show the modern world’s need to find human scapegoats for natural disasters. In both cases human actors were initially blamed for the dire effects of diseases caused by microorganisms.

The rapid fall in amphibian populations was first noted in the 1980s. Immediately, the cry went up that the amphibians were being wiped out due to pesticides, ozone depletion, water pollution, habitat destruction and other activities linked to the productive classes of humanity. Thousands of papers have been written over the last 20 years, linking steep declines in amphibian populations to the activities of anyone engaged in creating food, clothing, shelter, medical care and all of the other necessities and luxuries of life. [Old examples here and here.] In the last two years, however, it became clear that the decline was caused by a natural plague caused by the evolution of the fungus Chytridiomycosis into a more virulent form. Humanity’s contribution to this plague seems limited to possibly accidentally spreading the fungus via modern transportation methods. However, migrating birds are probably the main culprit since they share habitat with the same marshy areas that so many of the amphibian species inhabit. 

In the last five years, bee colonies around the world have died out in staggering numbers. Immediately, the productive classes were blamed for their use of pesticides, genetically engineered crops and even cell phones. All of these causes were advanced by serious people such as mainstream environmental groups including Greenpeace. In the end, the collapse has been completely explained by naturally mutated pathogens. [h/t Instapundit] Bees are highly susceptible to infection because they live in compact groups of genetically similar individuals. Bees also rather routinely end up in the wrong hive. Such conditions are perfect for the rapid spread of disease and colony collapses have been documented for centuries. 

These social responses to two natural plague events are just two instances of a common practice to reflexively blame the productive elements of western civilization for any negative event or even neutral change in the natural world. Just as pre-scientific people blamed witches or Jews for disease outbreaks, some people in the modern world seek to blame the productive members of society for outbreaks of diseases in animals.  Just as with witch trials, the revelation that the initial suspicions were groundless does not seem to prevent the same suspicions from arising the next time something bad happens. 

In the 1970s, the cooling trend of the period of 1940-1975 was blamed on productive people cutting down trees and emitting particulate pollution. When the cooling trend ended and a warming trend began, the warming trend was blamed on the productive people. This suggests that when the earth cools again, we will see the blame for that laid upon the productive as well. 

We think we’re so much wiser than our forbearers, but we still wrestle with the same sociological expressions of the genetically programmed foundations of our psychology. We make the same errors as our forbearers, we merely dress them up in different costumes.  

6 thoughts on “On the Persistence of Witches”

  1. We humans are always looking for a human explanation for natural disasters. We don’t want to live in a meaningless universe in which things just happen for no discernible reason. We want to make sense of what happens, which is that we ourselves are at fault and fall short of the glory of God (as defined from time to time). So it was in the days of the Hebrew prophets, and so it is in the days of the environmental prophets. Nothing is new under the sun, the preacher said.

    It’s easy to scoff at this. Why shouldn’t the human race grow up and look coldly at things as they are in a world in which humans don’t matter very much? It’s the world of facts and just the facts. Shouldn’t that world be enough?

    Only the really bold and independent spirits can look that sort of reality in the face. Albert Camus wrote in “The Myth of Sisyphus” of the exquisite pleasure of knowing that nothing, absolutely nothing, exists outside the task of rolling that bloody stone up the hill until it rolls back down, and then rolling it back up again, endlessly and forever, at rest in the knowledge that nothing at all exists except that meaningless task.

    Camus was the enemy of old-fashioned religious belief. What he couldn’t have foreseen is the new faith of modern Godless man in bien-pensant liberalism – the belief that the world is manipulable by well-intentioned humans. This is an up-to-date and improved version of belief in the old evasive God of the Hebrews. We moderns believe in science – the God that comes when summoned.

    The horny toads and lizards have all disappeared from the West Texas I grew up in. That makes me awfully sad. Someone must be at fault, and something should be done about it, the liberal in me instinctively thinks. God, however, is keeping his cards close to his chest. The toads and lizards, I have a hunch, are in hiding and will survive me.

  2. Very good post,which one would expect.But… “Serious people such… Greenpeace”? Well,they like other members of the Chatterati take themselves very seriously,but that doesn’t make them serious,just earnest. Of course,they are seriously destructive.

  3. In a very real sense, this phenonmenon goes much deeper than scapegoating “evil capitalists”, although that is certainly an overwhelmingly popular cliche’ in both entertainment fiction and real life.

    I am reminded of the scene from Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”, so marvelously parodied in Python’s “The Holy Grail”, of the wandering self-flagellents who stagger and crawl through the town, whipping and beating and otherwise torturng themselves.

    These flagellents, convinced that the bubonic plague, or Black Death, was God’s punishment for mankind’s iniquity, sought to alleviate the waves of deadly sickness with their own suffering.

    In one of those delicious, but terrible, ironies that reality so seems to love, they were instead spreading the disease in their own flea ridden clothes and infected lungs.

    I’m afraid I find this same zealotry in a great many of the strands of the deep ecology movement, largely based on the fervently held conviction that mankind is a plague and a cancer upon nature and the earth.

    Having been told by so many sources for the last several decades that “the end was near” in one form or another, and always because of the evil greed of some, and the cruel indifference of the many, it seems almost natural that the first suspect when any problem arises in nature is people.

    There is a dark strain of self-hatred running through much of this theory, a hatred that has been turned from the interior focus of the suicidal to an outward projection embracing all of humanity.

    Most disturbing is the implacable hatred for any and all technology, as if the fact that humans use their minds to create instrumentalities is, in and of itself, a form of evil.

    If a person can look at the earth and find all natural things to be wonderful, except for the works of mankind, it suggests to me that it is the very nature of humans that is being judged and condemned. No other creature, whether animal, plant, or insect, is condemned for following the natural talents and drives that are inherent in their essential being.

    Only humans are condemned for exercising the skill of thinking, and then fabricating those thoughts into concrete form as instruments of technology.

    There is a foundation book of this theology, written by a British professor, which postulates a maximum allowable human population of 100 million. To ever reach such a figure would require human deaths on a scale that would dwarf the worst plagues and totalitarian atrocities of our history, in the same way as the moon landings relate to the flight of the Wright Brothers.

    This type of deadly ideology is not just some quirky environmentalism, but a pathological view of humanity that would gladly embrace anything that might help remove it from the face of Gaeia.

    It is not witches they condemn, but anyone who would think humanity beyond life at the subsistence level of our poor, undernourished, and disease ridden ancestors. You know, those “good guys” who lived in such harmony with benevolent nature.

  4. If these people can persuade themselves that “man” is the causation, then they can believe that man can be the cure. The alternative is to know that they cannot affect these changes and that they are at the mercy of nature. Their egos (or perhaps their fear) simply won’t allow that.

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