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New ISU Class Explores How Pandemics And Plagues Shape The Human Condition

Lefteris Pitarakis
The Black Death, or bubonic plague, is thought to have killed at least 75 million people, including more than half of Britain's population.

It’s hard to see past COVID-19, to picture what life will be like when the coronavirus is not the most important thing in front of us—and to conceive of all the ways it will stay with us as cultural artifact. (And not just the ubiquity of Zoom meetings.)

Abigail Stone can see time a little differently than the rest of us. She’s an archaeologist and anthropologist at Illinois State University. This fall, she’s teaching a new course called “Pandemics, Plagues, and People.” Stone and her students will explore the human condition through disease—everything from arts and culture to evolution and socioeconomic shifts.

Abigail Stone
ISU Assistant Professor Abigail Stone.

“I believe in the past as a window to understanding the present, understanding who we are and why things are happening in certain ways,” Stone said on WGLT’s Sound Ideas. “I want the students to evaluate on that, on their own. Do they get a better understanding of our current situation through these past diseases?”

The course will start with two fairly different diseases: the Black Death that hit Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa in the 1300s, and malaria.

Their social effects will be central to the course, Stone said.

The Black Death, for example, didn’t strike the world's population equally. Those concentrated in cities and the poor were much harder hit, Stone said, whereas people who could retreat to their country estates were largely spared.

“Because such a huge part of Europe’s population was killed off through the Black Death, it actually led to increasing wages for working-class populations. So they were hit particularly hard with death and disease, but then in subsequent decades actually had rising levels of wages, better access to land, and things like that,” Stone said.

Some argue the Renaissance happened in Italy as a result of the Black Death because people were seeing so much death and destruction around them that they became newly focused on spirituality and patronizing the arts as a means to understand existence, Stone said.

Pandemics and plagues also are major “selective” events that change our evolutionary track, she said.

“The 20% of people who survived those infections had some sort of different genetic variation compared to the rest of the population. At least, many of them did. So that generic variation becomes more common in the population thereafter,” Stone said.

Take malaria, for example. People living in parts of Africa developed a genetic mutation that became a form of resistance to malaria. But that same mutation can lead to sickle cell disease.

“Evolution isn’t perfect. It’s not this march to a more perfect form,” Stone said. “Because we have these selective events that lead to fixes that happen. So, a way to survive malarial infections can also have huge downsides. If you have one copy of the disease, you’re more resistant to malarial infection. But if you have two copies, you have this hugely debilitating (sickle cell) disease.”

WGLT asked Stone what it’s like to be an anthropologist during COVID-19.

“It’s reassuring. Because you see that humans have survived through all of these adverse events. It’s scary in certain ways because you see how big a disruption a disease can be. But humans have survived and things have, in many cases, gotten better in many unexpected ways.

“So I’m hopeful that things can change, and that the confluence of this current pandemic with the #BlackLivesMatter movement—I feel optimistic this could be a moment of truly profound transformation in our society. And we can see in the past that big transformations have happened as a result of these kinds of upheavals.

“I also have two kids, and I have to remind myself to put on my archaeology hat, and my anthropology hat, and think about the bigger picture. Because most of the time I’m just exhausted and running after children and changing diapers and things like that.”

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.