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This is the first post in a series. The next is here.

This is a bit of a review of my first year of graduate school. Unintentionally, many of my projects that year revolved around a question I’ve been mulling over for a long time. I’m calling it by a terrible nickname, “the germy paradox”, as a counterpart to the question posed by Richard Fermi on the apparent nonexistence of aliens in a vast and star-filled night sky: “If biological weapons are as cheap and deadly as is everyone seems to fear, then where are they?”      

There are few known state bioweapon (BW) programs, and very few at all since the 1970’s. This is despite greater interest and advances in life sciences, as well as a lot of active concern over biodefense. Why don’t we see many state BW programs? Is this for concrete and technological reasons, for strategic reasons, or for reasons of social unacceptability? If some of these reasons go away, for instance as biotechnologies become cheaper and easier to weaponize (as many, e.g. Mukunda et al 2009, Schmidt 2008, believe they will), how safe will we be then?

The history of the biological weapons taboo is multifaceted and will be addressed in greater detail. But some basic background will help kick off this series and explain the question. Biological and chemical weapons are often considered in the same breath (Smith 2014), referred to in early history as “poison” weapons (Cole 1998). Explicit prohibitions of the use of poison weapons in warfare began in the 1400s (Price 1995). Use of biological (or at the time, “bacteriological”) weapons was formally forbidden in combat by the 1925 Geneva Protocol, but several state BW programs went on to proliferate during WWII and the Cold War (Zanders 2003). These programs often stated that their weapons would be used only in retaliation against a nuclear or biological attack, in a version of the popular nuclear “no first use” policy, and they rarely developed clear strategies for BW wartime usage (see Wheelis and Rózsa 2018).

States today are constrained by the Biological Weapons Convention, an international protocol banning not only usage but development of BW. It was developed by the US in 1972 alongside removal of the US’s own program, and signed by all but a handful of countries (UN Office).

 Today, no nation claims to have a BW program, nor to have used BW for large-scale attacks since WWII.

I use the language of the Fermi Paradox to structure this series. 

The first part of this series, “The Empty Sky,” describes the modern history of biological weapons. It then makes the case that we have never seen large-scale usage or near-usage of these weapons since WWII. 

The second part, “Filters”, borrows from Robin Hanson’s model of “great filters” that stand in the way of planets creating space-faring civilizations, thus creating the Fermi Paradox (Hanson, 1998). This section explores reasons we don’t see biological weapons as much as we might expect.

Look forward to:

~~1.0 Introduction~~
2.1 The empty sky: A history of state biological weapons programs
2.2 The empty sky: How close did we get to BW usage?
3.1 Filters: Hard and soft skills
3.2 Filters: The shadow of nuclear weapons
3.3 Filters: A taboo
4.0 Conclusion: Open questions and the future of state BW

New posts in this sequence will come out twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, until it’s done. (This is to give readers time to keep up.)


  1. Mukunda, Gautam, Kenneth A. Oye, and Scott C. Mohr. “What rough beast? Synthetic biology, uncertainty, and the future of biosecurity.” Politics and the Life Sciences 28, no. 2 (2009): 2-26
  2. Schmidt, Markus. “Diffusion of synthetic biology: a challenge to biosafety.” Systems and synthetic biology 2, no. 1-2 (2008): 1-6.]
  3. Smith, Frank. American biodefense: How dangerous ideas about biological weapons shape national security. Cornell University Press, 2014.
  4. A. Cole, Leonard. “The Poison Weapons Taboo: Biology, Culture, and Policy.” Politics and the Life Sciences 17 (September 1, 1998): 119–32. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0730938400012119.
  5. Price, Richard. “A Genealogy of the Chemical Weapons Taboo.” International Organization 49, no. 1 (1995): 73–103.
  6. Zanders, Jean Pascal. “International Norms Against Chemical and Biological Warfare: An Ambiguous Legacy.” Journal of Conflict and Security Law 8, no. 2 (October 1, 2003): 391–410. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcsl/8.2.391.
  7. Wheelis, Mark, and Lajos Rózsa. Deadly cultures: biological weapons since 1945. Harvard University Press, 2009.
  8. “The Biological Weapons Convention.” The United Nations Office at Geneva. Accessed December 11, 2018. https://www.unog.ch/80256EE600585943/(httpPages)/04FBBDD6315AC720C1257180004B1B2F.
  9. Hanson, Robin. “The Great Filter – Are We Almost Past it?”. 1998. (Web Archive) https://web.archive.org/web/20100507074729/http://hanson.gmu.edu/greatfilter.html
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I think you mean Enrico Fermi, rather than Richard Fermi.

I don't think public discourse around this is a good idea. Same as the reports on nuclear weapons trying to demonstrate that a nuclear exchange 'wouldn't be that bad' or publicly wondering in detailed ways about why copycat attacks of certain kinds aren't more common.

I think this is a great point, and I think it's alright here.

The part of the series that I'm about to go into (as of today) contains a panoply of possible explanations for the apparent paradox, none of which are "it wouldn't actually be that bad" or "it just hasn't occurred to anyone."

And this series is pretty mild in terms of the large body of "are we prepared against X type of bioweapon attack" literature and analyses out there (for which the answer is usually "no, we are not prepared).

The series is also more theoretical than concrete, which seems like it should reduce the risk factor.

Does this hit on your concern? If you still have your concerns or have different ones, I'm interested to know.

Thanks for the substantive engagement even though I was pretty terse on justification. I'm less concerned when I see engagement with differential infohazard analysis (i.e. some parts of this might have problems and some might not). I still feel a sense of caution about EA getting involved in this area given its poor track record of taking into account existing best practices/chesterton fences.

+1 for comparing it to existing works in the area to help reason about this.

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