The Threads of History


It is no coincidence that the novel coronavirus emanated from China. We need look no further than the Silk Road, which reminds us with great immediacy that humankind has never occupied isolated worlds, but shares a single space that flourishes because of and despite of our interactions with one another. (Dear reader, let me interject at the beginning that New Utopias has not succumbed to a global urge to write about the present pandemic, but still pursues the no longer rhetorical question of “How shall we then live”.) 

Our dealings have always taken place across vast distances, ones which led to the creation of famous historic routes. Although these have contributed greatly to our culture and enriched life in general, what has become a rampant human interconnectedness and free-flowing movement of populations now presents dangers as never before. 

It was the constant movement and mixing of populations along the Silk Road which had such a profound impact on the history and civilizations of the peoples of Eurasia. The route started at Xi’an, and stretched for 6400 kilometres, passing the Great Wall of China, the Takla Makan Desert, crossed Afghanistan, and continued to Levant. From here merchandise was shipped across the Mediterranean Sea. Revived in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Silk Road was travelled by the Venetian Marco Polo to Cathy, and in all likelihood was the main way that plague bacteria responsible for the Black Death pandemic in Europe in the mid-14th century moved westward from Asia.

Just as an aside, and regarding the nomenclature, the Silk Road was not a single thoroughfare from east to west, and the term 'Silk Routes' has become increasingly favoured by many historians, though 'Silk Road’ is the more common and recognised name. 

We owe to the Silk Road the rapid development of ideas, knowledge, beliefs and culture, of science, the arts and literature, but also of crafts and new technologies. All these were shared and disseminated amongst societies along the length of the route. 

The common good can be recognised here. By way of a significant caveat: wherever people, animals and goods have moved and brought enriching effects, undesirable phenomena such as disease have also been transmitted on a broad scale. Global movement and concomitant inter-connectedness are nothing new. They have always carried the potential to create epidemics. And various pathogens, to include parasites, bacteria and viruses, were transmitted along the Silk Road. The Plague was one of the most notable. This disease is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, commonly carried by fleas; three pandemics occurred in human history, the largest and most horrendous was the second outbreak, which is often referred to as the “Black Death”. 

Vast numbers of people across Eurasia were infected, and deaths are estimated to have been somewhere between 75 and 200 million. The outbreak peaked between 1347 and 1351, and reached the trade ports of Europe by 1346. Many theories try to explain exactly where the 14th century plague originated and how it spread. A plethora of historical citations points to rodents carrying the rat flea Xenopsylla cheopis and hence spreading the disease along the Silk Road, where it then reached Europe having first infected merchants.

In the late Middle Ages, societies lacked any real ability to prevent the spread of plague or to treat it effectively. There was just no accurate knowledge available on the exact cause of the disease. The best response was to flee. This remained the only effective preventative measure for the population, as any attempted cures for plague had practically no effect. The Black Death did have one positive outcome: because the disease had a habit of returning periodically, it prompted Europe in subsequent decades and centuries to draw up public health measures. One key way to prevent the spread of plague, as introduced by Venice, was to put suspected marine vessels and travellers into isolation for 40 days before anyone was allowed to enter the conurbations of the city. This is still practiced today, and it is from this practice that we derive the term “quarantine”.

More anon . . . 



God Sends Meat, and the Devil Sends Cooks

"In our truly remarkable and unexampled civil peace, where there are rarely fist fights; where no one is born, is gravely ill, or dies; where meat is eaten but no one sees an animal slaughtered; where scores of millions of cars, trains, elevators, and airplanes go their scheduled way and there is rarely a crash; where an immense production proceeds in orderly efficiency and the shelves are duly cleared – and nevertheless none of this comes to joy or tragic grief or any other final good – it is not surprising if there are explosions. They occur at the boundaries of the organized system of society: in juvenile gang fights, in prison riots, in foreign wars.

Paul Goodman: "Gestalt Therapy" 

Recent outbreaks of the coronavirus have confirmed what has been known for a long time now: conditions in the meat industry (a terrible term) in Germany are scandalous. Cheap labour from various foreign countries endures inhumane living conditions in order that the population can consume vast quantities of cheap meat. It is not only the working environment which must be changed, but also the substandard accommodation for this workforce. 

Now that several hundred Eastern European workers at a slaughterhouse in Germany tested positive for the coronavirus, it is patently obvious that people will pay with their lives for the price of cheap meat. Many companies running abattoirs only retain a small number of actual employees, and rely on subcontractors, who, in turn, draw on cheap labour forces from Poland, Bulgaria and Romania. This is modern slavery. In legal terms, the slaughterhouse itself can not be held responsible for filthy, cramped living conditions for the workers. 

The system of subcontractors started to expand in the 1990s. In essence, workers are not employed directly by a slaughterhouse, but by a third party, a company that pays minimum wages, and also provides accommodation but docks rent, and even charges for use of protective clothing. For their part, the subcontractors argue that the government should set and enforce labour laws and concomitant health standards. In Germany, this, as with much else, remains the prerogative of the respective Federal States. This situation is exacerbated by intensive lobbying both in Berlin and locally by farmers’ unions, who are interested in one thing only: selling as many animals as possible to the slaughterhouses. What happens within and without is none of their business they argue. 

The conflict has escalated. For some time now, the industrial meat-processing sector has been a thorn in the side of politicians - regardless of party affiliation. Now, following the recent outbreaks of corona, the federal cabinet has, according to government circles, decided on a ban on so-called "Werkverträge" (lit. work contracts, but read outsourcing) and the hiring of temporary workers in an "occupational safety programme for the meat industry". As of January, only employees of their own company may slaughter animals and process the meat, according to a recent German cabinet meeting. The regulation is limited to companies whose core business is slaughtering and meat processing. The butchery trade, on the other hand, with its usually much smaller operations, would remain exempt from the ban.

After several Corona outbreaks in German abattoirs, everything moved on apace. Critics blame the shared accommodation for Eastern European workers, which is widespread in the meat industry, as well as poor hygiene standards for the rapid spread of the virus there. Finally, the Federal Government wants to introduce stronger controls to force employers to comply with health standards. Employers should also be required to keep digital records of working hours. The fines for violations of working hours would be doubled to up to 30,000 euros. 

The Federal Government now has a chance to overhaul the entire system of meat production and animal husbandry. The severe price hikes at the expense of animals, farmers, the environment and workers might finally be stopped. What is absolutely necessary is a ban on outsourcing contracts. If up to 90 percent of butchers and meat cutters do not work at the company but with subcontractors, responsibility will continue to be outsourced. The rules have to be tightened in order to stop exploitation. Coupled with higher animal welfare standards and strictly monitored, mandatory labelling of husbandry and place of origin, an animal welfare levy could also help to finance the conversion of the meat industry (that term again) to animal husbandry appropriate to species.

The Pursuit of Pleasure: A Nietzschean Trope on Benthamist Ideals (Part the Second)

As we have seen, when it comes to examining moral stances, Friedrich Nietzsche and John Stuart Mill held wholly different views. Mill’s basis for morality rests on the idea of Utilitarianism, an epistemological construct at the heart of which is the "Greatest Happiness Principle". Here, actions are right only in the proportion to which they promote happiness, and wrong when they produce pain. Nietzsche would say that this principle fell under what he would call “slave morals”. 

For Mill, certain kinds of pleasure experienced by human beings differ from each other essentially in qualitative ways: only those who have experienced pleasure in both ways are able competently to judge any relative value. Thus is established a higher moral worth that promotes largely intellectual pleasures among sentient beings, even if their momentary intensity may be less than that of alternative lower, i.e. largely bodily, pleasures.

Master morals, argued Nietzsche, are the morality of elite groups, ones which class their actions as either good and bad, i.e., virtuous and not virtuous. This leads to a concrete classification of people and actions that revolving around the objective truth of all actions being either good or bad. In contrast, slave morals are not borne out by logic. Slave Morals are held by the plebes and determine good or bad not based on merit but based on what masters do. Nietzsche pleaded for a resurgence of “noble morals” and was unstinting in his criticism of Utilitarianism as a system. For him, examining morality through a Utilitarian scope means that we have donned moral spectacles. These, moreover, are not interchangeable, leading him to suppose that we can not make decisions of morality for everyone, as Mill had suggested when arguing the case for Utilitarianism. 

Mill admitted that the achievement of happiness by the individual is easy, but its effect on humanity often difficult to ascertain. And if we are justified morally in seeking in our actions primarily to reduce the total amount of pain we experience as sentient beings, then pain, or even the sacrifice of pleasure, is warranted only when it acts directly in achieving the greater good of all.

There are those who argue that this utilitarian theory propounded by Bentham and Mill makes unreasonable demands of individual agents, calling for them to devote any primary energies to a rational and perhaps even cold-hearted calculation of anticipated effects of human actions. Mill counters this by offering a significant qualification: it is exactly because we lack the time accurately to calculate the consequences of our actions that we must allow ourselves to be guided by a strict set of moral rules. He considered these moral principles to be secondary but maintained that they provide ample guidance for every-day moral life. In especially challenging cases, Mill held up as a gold standard the principle of utility itself. 

So what exactly is it that motivates people to do the right thing? Mill claimed there was universal agreement on the role of moral sanctions and how these would elicit correct conduct from human agents. However, his theory of social order moved well beyond that of Bentham’s, as Mill did not restrict himself to any socially-imposed external sanctions of culpability, blame and punishment – these the obviously painful consequences of improper action. For Mill, we are motivated by internal sanctions such as conscience, guilt and self-esteem. And because we have the ability to show empathy, the unselfish wish for the good of all is often enough to move us to act morally. Whether or not an individual suffers for reprehensible actions taken, or is even punished by others, there is likely to be a reaction best described as self-blame. It is this uncomfortable feeling and the fear of consequent pain which help an individual reasonably to consider before deciding how to act.

Whether the “proof” offered by Mill on the principle of utility is of any value is debatable. Nietzsche viewed the Utilitarians with some contempt. For the record, Mill maintains that the best evidence of the desirability of happiness is that we actually desire this – a circular argument at best, and a fallacious one at worst. Since every human being desires this happiness, it follows that we all desire the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. This is then morally desirable. But on psychological grounds Mill may well have been correct. In seeking pleasure and avoiding pain we create the touchstones by which most of us typically live.



Two Haikus on the Mutability of Nature

Look death in the eye,
Or stare into the sun, and
One will look away.

A fluffy blue tit,
Thirsty and rheumy-eyed, you
Sedentary bird. 

The second haiku relates recent press reports on the current demise of many blue tits in Germany, where the birds are infected with the bacterium Suttonella ornithocola. Symptoms include feathers that appear to be fluffed up, and an insatiable thirst. Blue tits never really stray far from the nest where they were fledged.  

The Apprentice and the Docent

The summer of 1972 was marked by the floating of the pound by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Bloody Friday, the worst UK air disaster bis dato, a strike by thousands of dockers in solidarity with the miners, the premiere of Jesus Christ Superstar, the first Gay Pride March in London, the admission of the first women to Cambridge University colleges, the Cod Wars with Iceland, and the hated ROSLA act – the Raising of the School Leaving Age.

I had just left school, getting out when I could, but found myself "kicking out into space", as the composer Percy Grainger once put it. Fortune then entered the fracas that was my personal and family life, for the so-called clearing house scheme had offered me an interview at what is now the University of Chichester. I recognised at once that I had found a mentor. It was Michael Waite, Head of Music of what was at the time Bishop Otter College. And it was he who gently guided me towards composition. And yes, there really was a bishop called Otter. 

Three years passed faster than words can adequately describe. I had learned to sail – the college had a Fireball, had vastly improved my hockey skills, and had even ventured occasionally into the classroom for what was called teaching practice.

But music exerted a stronger pull than education, and after an uneasy year in a minor public school I was an undergraduate once again, at the University of London, studying Composition with Anthony Milner at Goldsmiths’ College before migrating across the river, where I read Historical Musicology at King’s College, becoming a personal student of Brian Trowell.

In the 1970s, Bishop Otter College was a markedly liberal and quite radical think tank. It offered places to those whose career paths were obviously already set in stone, but handed out the occasional wild card to the more refractory – to me in this case, someone who patently lacked direction but in whom it apparently saw talent. Examinations, ones set by the Music Department at least, were designed to test what we knew as opposed to that which we did not. Course work was challenging but set at an achievable level. And the tutorial system ensured originality of thought as well as commitment – there were no line managers in those days.

It is a sunny afternoon in Munich, my present home, and the intervening years were no less marked by my experience in Chichester than the later ones in London. The Technische Universität Berlin offered me the chance to start a doctoral thesis, and I spent eight years as a lecturer at the University of Maryland. One thing led to another, but I realise now how important was that ‘one thing’.

I have good reasons for thinking that musical life at the University of Chichester is as healthy as it always was. Tradition breeds tradition. Leafing through my early compositions (I kept every score and every sketch) I can make out the musical seeds out of which more substantial works were to be generated. The results of good teaching are there for a lifetime it would seem.

This article was first published in the University of Chichester 'Alumnus Magazine' in May 2014. The reason for posting it on New Utopias should, I hope, be self-evident; it was how we (or I in this case) lived then.  

The Dark Arts: Or a Dance to the Music of Time

The task with which British politicians are currently confronted is inordinately challenging and plainly immense. However, to offer care workers a badge, and not the personal protective equipment they need, is politically inept at best and, at worst, derisory, merely adding insult to injury.

To be fair to the current UK Government, infrastructure in the country — at political, medical, educational, social, business, economic and so many other levels — started to crumble decades ago, and politicians can only work with that which they inherited. But if ever there were a time in which conspicuous honesty would be the order of the day, then this is it. Perhaps they might seize the chance to convey to the population just how parlous is the state of nation.

Whether the coronavirus will bring any good to the country is controvertible. What it does do is highlight how much certain professions are valued, or not, as the case may be. I would like to think that the British are, deep down, good people — like all of humanity —, and are still willing to give and give and give. But at some point this virtual treasure chest will become empty, and politicians will no longer be able to rely on this ingrained altruistic response. Of course, the health market (terrible term), like any other, is subject to the whims of supply and demand; thus, as long as there are enough Filipinos to be exploited as cheap labour, British medical care, its NHS will, creaking at the seams, somehow continue to operate — no pun intended.

On another note, it is surely to be resented that the Government has resorted to the rhetoric of warfare: doctors, nurses, and care workers are not on the front line. There is no front line. We are not at war. This is cynical Churchillian language, redolent of a final linguistic hideaway inhabited by politicians caught on the back foot. As for the claim by politicians that the Brits are ‘world leaders’, and ‘lead the way’ in dealing with the pandemic, this is so patently not true. They should count the dead.

Finally, the televised UK Government press briefings are a caricature of the relationship between journalists and politicians. But before I raid the thesaurus for words even more exotic than derisive, misanthropic, sardonic, sneering, scornful, insolent and supercilious, and transform myself into another superfluous, nay supererogatory, keyboard warrior, I shall simply sign off, having vented enough steam.

Three Haikus: The Vicissitudes of Fortune

Blooms at my window,
But the young nurse’s smile is
Covered by a mask. 

Prisoners, detailed, 
Shovel soot on unclaimed dead
In the green of spring.

This March witnessed drought.
Death is a bend in the road;
Dying shields our view.

As many readers will know, the haiku is a Japanese poetic form which, in English at least, is rendered in three lines, containing respectively five, seven, and five syllables. Each syllable roughly corresponds to an 'on' in Japanese, whereby this is more akin to a sound, and not a single word, i.e. it is a discrete phonic entity meaning that, e.g. a two-syllable word in Japanese might contain three or even four 'on'. The Japanese masters of the haiku were not always constrained to the 5-7-5 pattern we note here. 

Traditionally, two contrasting ideas are juxtaposed in a haiku; a 'cutting word' or 'kireji' is used to transition between them; and often a 'kigo', or reference to a season, is included. 

In the second of my own contributions, above, the reference is to burials in New York, and the inmates of a state penitentiary on Hart Island who were filmed carrying out what has bis dato been part of their duty. 

The Pursuit of Pleasure: A Nietzschean Trope on Benthamist Ideals (Part the First)

As the nineteenth century dawned, a small number of influential British thinkers drew up some basic principles with which to address social problems of the time. Their work was based on the views of the epistemologist David Hume, who had argued that humans had a natural interest in utility. Notable at the outset of this new movement was the reformer Jeremy Bentham, who proposed an ethical doctrine that was a straightforward quantification of morality by referencing purely utilitarian outcomes. 

This radical moral theory was founded on the assumption that in order to evaluate the merit of human actions their consequences must first be examined. For Bentham, human happiness is simply the achievement of pleasure and avoidance of pain. He maintained that the hedonistic value of any such action is easy to calculate by evaluating three parameters: first, how intense might be the pleasure felt, secondly, how quickly it follows the said action as that is carried out, and thirdly, how likely it is to produce individual benefit as measured against collateral harm.

Now, Friedrich Nietzsche was not well disposed toward the English. His vision of life was strongly Dionysian, and one in which the singular spiritual aristocrat strives for supremacy in a world which has been gripped my mediocrity and the banausic. Nietzsche’s system of thought was needs be diametrically opposed to any other philosophical edifice that would extol the virtues of utilitarianism and egalitarianism. The dictum proffered by Bentham that society should seek to achieve the “greatest happiness for the greatest number” he saw as patently sentimental, nay plebeian and in the end manifestly unreal. His judgements were often harsh. Hence, those pragmatic, utilitarian views shared by so many English thinkers in the nineteenth century are dismissed by Nietzsche as ignoble and base, a kind of perverted worldview. His comment that “one has to be English to be capable of believing that human beings always seek their own advantage” reveals how he looks down on the indefatigable, inevitable English utilitarians with some derision because they evince neither any creative powers nor artistic conscience. 

It would be naïve to posit that Nietzsche was wrong and Bentham was right, or vice versa. The former thinker saw as his duty the stoical bearing of pain; the latter supposed we should consider the extent of pleasure.What we can safely say is that both maintained that the happiness of the community as a whole is merely the sum of individual human interests; the difference lies in whether this state of communal bliss is to be brought about by subjection to individual pain or the pursuit of pleasure per se. 

It took just a single generation before utilitarianism found another effective exponent in John Stuart Mill. Raised under strictly Benthamite principles, Mill devoted his entire life to defending and promoting the general welfare of society and became a powerful champion of quite lofty moral and social ideals. 

For Mill, utilitarianism was capable of being systemically bettered, and he offered several significant improvements to its structure, meaning, and application. Like Bentham, Mill contended general agreement could easily be reached as to how the consequences of human actions contribute to their moral value. He stated that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” Nietzsche, for his part, called him a “typischer Flachkopf” (a typical blockhead, lit. ‘flathead’).

. . . more anon





Late Beethoven and Green Asparagus

What do the last string quartets written by Ludwig van Beethoven have in common with asparagus? No, this is not a joke with a punchline coming up. What it is, is a rhetorical question. Which is to ask whether classical chamber music is more important than food on the table. This plainly begs the question some may say, pointing to a prime example of petitio principii in terms of classical logic. Putting that aside for a moment, let me contend that my postulate is worthy and fit: the arts nourish our soul; comestibles keep us alive. Whether we really 'need' both is controvertible. We certainly consume both. Quite why we do that is because we value both. As ever, there is a price to be paid, not just in the sense of a bill to be met — so that working musicians on stage and farmers tending the fields can make a living — but also in terms of what stresses these activities put on the environment. 

Now this puts me in mind of a saying variously, if wrongly, attributed to Sitting Bull, Chief of the Sioux tribes or Chief Seattle, of the Suquamish tribes: "When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money." (For the record, the earliest instance is found in a collection of essays published in 1972 entitled “Who is the Chairman of This Meeting?” In the chapter 'Conversations with North American Indians', Alanis Obomsawin uses these words, and is described as an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve, about seventy miles northeast of Montreal. The saying became a motto. Since then it was rapidly taken up by environmental activists, famously by the organisation Greenpeace.)

As many of you reading this blog will know, I have lived in Germany since 1982, and took German citizenship last year. What concerns many farmers here is that the recent entry ban on Eastern European seasonal workers imposed because of the Corona pandemic brings a serious grievance into focus: the working conditions for the temporary harvest labourers in the fields of Germany are usually pretty miserable. The vast majority of well over a quarter of a million employees receive the statutory minimum wage, which is currently just short of 10€ per hour. The employer moreover deducts money for accommodation, among other things. Time and again, fraudulent calculations of piecework wages allow actual remuneration to fall below the prescribed minimum wage. Much accommodation is indescribably bad, with cramped shared rooms in containers, and run-down, unhygienic lavatories. These people have to work hard for this: lifting asparagus in all weathers. The working conditions in agriculture are simply neither attractive nor competitive. The large discounters here promise, for example, at least 12€ gross per hour for a job in sales or logistics. Physically, that is usually less demanding and cleaner than constantly bending over and working in a field in blazing sunlight. These are the reasons why only few people from Germany help out in the agricultural sector.

The same holds true back in the UK.The British farming industry currently needs to fill almost 100,000 picking jobs for fruit vegetables, otherwise a scarcity of fresh comestibles may become a reality, as produce is simply left to rot in the fields. Almost 100% of seasonal workers in Britain have traditionally come from eastern European countries such as Romania or Bulgaria. All efforts in recent years to induce British labourers to work the fields of that green and pleasant land have failed miserably. But all of this began pre-Brexit. And there is good anecdotal evidence of farms hiring a couple of hundred workers, of whom maybe four or five were Brits, only to see this tiny minority drop out suffering from acute symptoms of Fragum defatigatio on day two.

What, then, of the raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries, which will ripen in May and June? The significant shortfall in workers from outside the UK is of huge concern to British farmers at present. It would seem that large farms have even considered chartering flights to bring in labour from eastern Europe, but these plans have been foiled by border restrictions and a more or less nationwide lockdown, the situation further compounded by grounded airlines. Flying in fruit pickers can not be the solution. It is rather like the flying Bishops of the Church of England who came into being in 1993 at the time of approval of the ordination of women to the priesthood.They were, just for the record, all male of course, and were charged with offering pastoral oversight to parishes which would not accept the ministry of women priests. There are so many people in the UK who are out of work and in need of an income. But has the tired old mantra of ‘get out and get a job’ ever held true?  And is there some kind of moral responsibility to the country where one lives and its economy? Should composers, whose income forecast for the rest of 2020 might well be as dire as many other individuals in many other branches or industries actually be forced to go out and lift asparagus or pick strawberries? Answers to these perhaps not so rhetorical questions I have none. A heads up: the blog New Utopias is simply food for thought. In this case, food on the plate. 

Thus, if farmers were to pay their temporary workers more, would they would find more local labour? And are there enough unskilled or indeed skilled people in Germany who would be interested in temporary jobs in agriculture? Well, large asparagus farms needing workers in four figure numbers at a stroke for their huge areas under cultivation are unlikely to find enough people locally. Smaller farms, on the other hand, will be able to fill their needs more easily. The irony or, if you will, simple fact is that consumers need not fear the consequences of harvest workers being paid more fairly. In the shops, the price of asparagus would only rise by a few cents. 

All this reminds me of an excellent cartoon some years back in the British satirical magazine "Private Eye", where the sign in the first frame has the words, emblazoned in large letters, 'Pick your own strawberries'. In the second frame we read 'Pick your own bloody strawberries'. 

More on Beethoven anon . . .

Manis javanica: The Pangolin Strikes Back (Part the First)

The Chinese pangolin is a mammal that is covered in scales and which resembles an armadillo but behaves more like an anteater. It is now a critically endangered species, but was commonly found in forests and grasslands across southern China, parts of Southeast Asia, Nepal, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The sheer scale (no pun intended) of poaching and trafficking has decimated the population. And despite protection measures, pangolin meat is still considered a delicacy, its scales also being used in traditional medicine. 

Manis javanica, to give it its biological name, has no defence against humans, lacking even teeth. The underside is soft and unprotected, and poachers often use dogs to find pangolins in their burrows and dig them out. When threatened by predators such as big cats, the pangolin quickly rolls into a tight, scale-covered ball.

Now the world has done the same. But the enemy without — the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 — is such a small aggressor, one which can only be seen under an electron microscope, that every individual offers easy ingress. 

Many scientists claim that the virus jumped from an animal host, in this case a bat, to the pangolin as an intermediary host. One research team searched DNA and protein sequences isolated from pangolin tissues for similar strings in SARS-CoV-2. The researchers identified protein sequences in sick animals' lungs that were 91% identical to the human virus proteins. Moreover, the receptor binding domain of the spike protein from the pangolin coronavirus had only five amino acid differences from SARS-CoV-2, compared with 19 differences between the human and bat viral proteins. This evidence points to the pangolin as the most likely go-between host for the new coronavirus.

So why are pangolins still being sold at wet markets in China? Even a brief and superficial glance at Chinese historical writings from the Tang dynasty of 7th to 10th Century reveals that the meat of pangolins was believed to cause ailments, and not actually cure any. Apparently, it tastes bitter and was believed to be poisonous. “Beiji Qianjin Yaofang” (备急千金要方), a collection of prescriptions compiled by the alchemist Sun Simiao, advised in 652: “There are lurking ailments in our stomachs. So do not eat the meat of pangolins, because it may trigger them and harm us.” And in the 16th Century the “Bencao Gangmu” (本草纲目) a Compendium of Materia Medica, Li Shizhen, a herbalist, naturalist and physician, warned that people who eat pangolin are prone to “contract chronic diarrhoea, and then go into convulsion and get a fever.”

This is not the point to criticise an entire nation for failing to heed the warnings of ancient physicians. A fair target, however, is the inherent culture that legitimises the consumption of an animal we might do best to leave alone. It is the culture of status.

Pangolins are considered a delicacy in many Far East cultures. But it is being eaten to death, this unsustainable harvest fuelled by two factors: meat and myth. In Africa, pangolins are extensively hunted for bush meat. The main factor tipping the creature toward extinction, however, is its mythic power in traditional medicine. Pangolins are today highly prized in Vietnam and China, a result of a wholly unfounded belief that their blood and scales (which are actually made of keratin) are somehow medically beneficial. One might as well just chew one's fingernails. The pangolin is seen as a kind of walking medicine chest, and animals are being slaughtered mercilessly, ostensibly to cure everything from asthma to cancer.

The price of pangolin parts has thus soared, with scales now valued at about well over €1000 a pound. Here is the nub: given its exorbitant price, pangolin meat is seen as a status symbol. Pangolin-foetus soup (this is not for the faint-hearted) allegedly costs as much as €1500 a bowl; in some restaurants, it is possible to order a live pangolin, and have it delivered to your table, whereupon its throat is slit and its blood is added to your glass of wine. 

The pangolin however, that apparently defenceless creature, has just struck back. 

. . . to be continued