In the movie version of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, a shipwrecked passenger is fished out of the sea by a cargo ship on its way to deliver crates of apes, lions, and other wild animals to a reclusive and mysterious scientist on an island in the South Pacific. At one point the passenger asks a member of the ship’s crew, “Hey, what is all this mystery about Moreau and his island?” “I don’t know,” says the sailor. “If I did know, maybe I’d want to forget.”
Dr. Moreau is tinkering with evolution. He has moved to this remote island laboratory to create a hybrid race of beast-men. He wants to change “the physiology, the chemical rhythm” of these creatures, something similar, he says, to vaccination. Moreau believes he is working in the service of mankind and science, but in the end his beast-men turn on him and destroy his laboratory and everything else on the island. Reading The River, Edward Hooper’s book about the origin of the AIDS epidemic, I began to wonder whether Hooper had ever read Wells’s book or seen Island of Lost Souls. I also wondered just how prescient Wells might have been about what goes on in modern biology labs. “The spirit of Dr. Moreau is alive and well and living in these United States,” says the science-fiction writer Brian Aldiss in the afterword to a recent edition of Wells’s book. “These days, he would be state funded.”
Thirty-three million people living in the world today carry HIV. So far fourteen million have died of AIDS. In some urban areas in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Malawi more than 20 percent of sexually active adults are infected with HIV. The UN estimates that AIDS is responsible for 5,500 funerals a day in Africa. The disease is ruining families, villages, businesses, and armies and leaving behind a sadness so immense that it may take hundreds of years to heal.
AIDS is caused by a family of viruses called HIV that destroy the immune system that protects the body from disease. These viruses pass from person to person in bodily secretions during vaginal, anal, or oral sex; they also pass through blood transfusions and pharmaceuticals made from blood products and through bloody hypodermic needles. Infected mothers may also transmit these viruses to their babies in the womb or through breast-feeding. There is no cure, and the immune defenses of even the lucky patients who can afford the newest, most expensive treatments eventually falter. Death, often painful, follows diseases caused by strange microbes that once were extremely rare.
Some African monkeys and apes carry viruses that closely resemble HIV, and most AIDS researchers now believe that the HIV viruses are really primate viruses that somehow jumped into human beings. HIV-1, the virus responsible for most cases of AIDS to date, probably came from a chimpanzee, and HIV-2, a less aggressive virus more common among West Africans, almost certainly came …