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Excerpt from The Myth of Human Supremacy

Penicillin (p. 145)

From chapter "Narcissism"

Here’s a question: who figured out penicillin’s antibacterial qualities?

If you answer Alexander Fleming, I can, following QI, subtract points from your score and make a general hullabaloo. Then if you answer again with other scientists like Florey, Chain, or Heatley, I’ll subtract even more points and make even more of a hullabaloo. At this point you might get frustrated, call me a pedant, and throw out the name of Ernest Duchesne, a French physician who noticed that Arab stable boys at an army hospital intentionally kept their saddles in dark, moist rooms to encourage the growth of mold on them. When asked why, they said the mold helped horses heal more quickly from saddle sores. Duchesne then did some studies, wrote them up, and sent them to the Pasteur Institute, which didn’t even do him the courtesy of acknowledging receipt.But here’s the thing: if you throw out his name, I’ll subtract even more points and make even more of a hullabaloo.

So then let’s say you do some heavy soul searching, and at last you say, “Fine, I get it. I was being racist. The real ones who figured it out were the Arab stable boys.”

I smile and say, “ That’s a very important realization, but you lose ten more points.” Then I make even more hullabaloo.

Surprisingly enough, instead of strangling me, you get up and start pacing the room. Five minutes pass. Ten. Then you turn to me, an intense look in your eyes, and say, “I’ve heard that during the Crusades, soldiers on all sides put moldy bread on their wounds. They discovered it helped their wounds heal. You’ve got to give me those points back now.”

Sadly, this leads to more lost points, and to more hullabaloo. Fortunately, it does not yet lead to you strangling me.

You say, “Oh, now I really get it! I was still being racist, and excluding Indigenous peoples. I’m sure that some of them figured it out.”

“I’m sure you’re right, but you lose ten more points.”

I can see your fingertips quiver as you hold yourself back from forming your hands into claws.

So let’s get to the point. Who discovered penicillin’s antibiotic qualities? Why, fungi did, a very long time ago, when fungi of the genus Penicillium were trying to figure out how to keep pesky bacteria from eating food—humans sometimes call this “spoiling food,” and I’m sure these fungi and bacteria say the same about some of the things we do—before the fungi could get to it. After all, bacteria reproduce a lot faster than fungi. Well, perhaps asked the fungi, what if we just trim their numbers a bit? What if we invent some way to kill the bacteria who try to eat our food? Let them eat some other cantaloupe, not this one. And thus, not only did the fungi invent, but also discover, and indeed figure out, penicillin’s antibacterial qualities. The same is true of nearly all classes of antibiotics: they were originally discovered and put in use by either fungi or other bacteria.

Perhaps this is when you move forward to strangle me. Not for pointing out the human supremacism inherent in the way this question is nearly always asked and answered, but for being so damned annoying about it.