We hear a lot, in science fiction, about things that now serve us but will soon kill us. Like robots. But what about the reverse — things that used to kill us in droves, but now serve us?

Predatory animals, microbes, and the elements themselves — they all held dominion over us. Once. Celebrate the triumph of humanity with our list of 10 conquered enemies. Suck it, Nature!


Top image: Lightning and lava from eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano, via Boston.com/Reuters.

10. Wolves

As anyone who watched The Grey knows, wolves will mess you up. They will band together in packs and hunt you down, picking you and your friends off one by one. Or, at least, they'll slaughter your cattle. In the past, they were even more fearsome than they are now, with giant wolves prowling the Americas in huge, slavering packs. It took humanity a long time to overcome them. We started by taking in their young, and warping their minds and bodies. The floppy ears and endless need for affection we see in today's dogs are expressions of neoteny — when an adult animal keeps the traits of its pre-adolescence. We bred that into them. Once we found out about their incredible ability to change form, from dachshunds to Great Danes, we went to town on that species.

Now what do dogs do? They herd our cattle, and guard our houses, and yap at our annoying neighbors, and alert us to diabetic attacks. Mostly, though, they prance around for our entertainment. Dance for us, you once-proud predators!

9. Viruses

These once took down large fractions of civilizations. They altered the course of history and brought mighty empires down. And sure, they still do plenty damage. But many of the worst viruses are being wiped out. And we're wiping them out by turning them against themselves. They work for us.


What do many killer viruses of yesteryear actually do now? They give us their corpses, so that we might use them to make ourselves immune to their living relatives. This has happened ever since cowpox made people resistant to the more deadly smallpox, and derailed the spread of the disease. Sometimes, we don't even need to modify them into vaccines to cure ourselves. People mainly worried about H1N1 because it affected young, healthy people. The old people had gotten a strain much like it when they were young and had built up an immunity. Every limp virus corpse we inject into ourselves brings us closer to crushing a virus uprising later in life. Welcome to our world, little guys. We will use your dead bodies to blight the lives of your children.

8. Sewage

Oh, this was a clever adversary. It got in our water and food, infecting us with every awful thing it could possibly carry. Plus, it tasted bad. This cunning foe even worked out a system in which we produced it ourselves, so no matter where we went, there it was. But we got our own back, eventually. Now, some sewage makes plants grow. Some sewage is a harvesting ground for important elements. Some sewage lets us track early human movements. Some sewage might let us re-create extinct animals, since it can contain some of their DNA. We're even developing technologies that let us convert sewage into energy. Take that, excretion!

7. Bees

There's no way to know how far back in history human ancestors ate the honey produced by bee's ancestors. What is certain that there was a time that the honey was fought for, with casualties (or at least terrible pain) on both sides. Bees were the bitter enemies of humans, and would kill people trying to get at their hives. They still occasionally kill people — when they're not busy making stuff to sweeten our oatmeal and pour over our pancakes. Bees now devote their entire lives to making our breakfasts more pleasant. Even their venom has become something we use. Bee venom now helps people with arthritis reduce pain. When bee venom isn't meant to reduce inflammation, it's meant to induce it. There was a whole line of bee venom lip balms, meant to puff up lips. Between that, honey, and providing the design specs for adorable Halloween costumes for toddlers, bees serve us entirely. Truly, all that bees are is now ours to do with as we wish.

6. Ice and Fire

Probably the best way to put the progress of our use of ice and fire into perspective? Otzi the Ice Man. He was found in the Swiss Alps after dying there over five thousand years ago. Many people think he froze to death. Killed by ice. He was found by a couple of hikers who liked looking at the ice. He was brought down and examined by scientists who used ice to keep him cool. The documentary, made about this process, was watched by people who were probably using ice to chill their sodas. Our relationship to ice has changed, is what I'm saying.


And Otzi, and his contemporaries, would have probably gloated in a similarly snotty fashion about fire. Fire used to kill Otzi's great-great-extended-great grandparents. They themselves used it to warm themselves and cook their food. We've come a long way, baby. Twice.

5. Volcanoes

Once terrifying spectacles that razed entire cities. Now a nice source of geothermal energy for Iceland. (Occasionally they cause delays in European air travel, but it's still a far cry from the trouble we used to have with them.)

4. Radioactive Materials

Perhaps a better way to title this entry is '4. Radioactive Materials?' This is an uncertain section for two reasons. The first is the fact that we don't actually know that we won't kill ourselves off with these sometime in the future. The second is the radioactive particles themselves weren't doing us too much harm until we isolated them and starting putting them in our skin creams and on our watches and in our health tonics in the twenties and thirties. Still, radioactive particles are being used to power nuclear reactors and energize our cities, and in nuclear medicine, to give us clear pictures of our insides, so I'd say we've brought them under control. For now.

3. Electricity

Pretty much all this ever did, once upon a time, was to come down out of the sky and let people know their gods were mad enough at them to fry them alive. Occasionally, it would start fires that also fried people. The important thing is, it was never good to people. Then came the scientists and the machines. Now electricity reinforces our fences, provides our entertainment, lights our houses, lets us talk to people on other sides of the globe, and lets us play Solitaire without the hassle of actual cards. If there were a modern story of Prometheus, electricity would be the fire that we stole from the Heavens that utterly changed our lives. Hey, whatever happened to that Prometheus guy, by the way?

2. Cyanide

This poison first killed those feeding on chokecherries, spoiled cabbages, and bitter almonds. Once humans caught on, the real fun started. Cyanide murdered its way through the centuries. Nero was said to have used it to kill his family. Napoleon told his soldiers to dip their bayonets in cyanide. And it made a memorable appearance in plenty of James Bond movies.


What does cyanide do now? It helps us dig for gold! Sodium cyanide is put into a solutions with rocks proven to contain gold. The gold gloms on to the cyanide, and when the cyanide separates out from the solution, the gold comes with it. What used to make us die now makes us rich.

1. Botulism

A friend of mine wants to get Botox, not to correct any flaw in her face, but to simply showcase human achievement. Clostridium botulinum has plagued our steps since the beginning, luring us close with food and then killing us off horribly. It killed us off when we hunted animals, it seeped into exposed wounds, and it murdered us in droves when we started canning. It doesn't need air to live, so it can be anywhere. It's been sitting there, lurking in the air, the water, and soil, waiting to kill us by paralyzing our breathing and muscles movement.


And now where is it? That's right. It's in our freaking faces! Making us look pretty! We are now so lacking in fear of one of our most pervasive and difficult-to-conquer foes that we deliberately put it in our body to make ourselves look nicer for a few weeks at a time. The only thing it can kill now is well-known movie stars' acting ability! Feel shame, botulism. And know that one day, we'll be using deadly meteors as nail files. Nothing can stop us now!

Virus Image: Public Health Image Library

Bee Image: Jon Sullivan

Second Volcano Image: Wiki Commons

Lightning Image: Wiki Commons

Botox Image: Flickr

Via UCI, Medscape, DRCordas, Medicienet, Scientific American, Ice Man.