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MURDER IN THE GENES?

Polonium, peacocks — and a dead spy

by Rowan Hooper

It’s one of the biggest stories of the year — and certainly the most unusual. I’m talking about the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy living in London who was poisoned with a radioactive isotope last month. Nothing like this has been seen for nearly 20 years, back when the Cold War was raging.

The main questions still baffling everyone are, of course: Who did it — and why? Sure, they are obviously the most important questions now being addressed by the British authorities and others. But there’s another that hasn’t been asked as urgently, but my theory is that its answer will shed considerable light on the main questions. It is this: Why was Litvinenko murdered in such an unusual, expensive way? I’m probably biased, but I think a little Darwinian reasoning may shed light on the mystery.

First, the facts

First, the facts as they stand. Polonium-210 — the metalloid element used to kill Litvinenko — has now been found at 10 locations in London, traces have been detected on two Airways planes, at the British Embassy in Moscow, at a sushi shop in central London, and even at Emirates Stadium, the home ground of Arsenal, a north London soccer club. It has also been detected at the Hamburg home of a Russian businessman, an associate of Litvinenko named Dmitry Kovtun.

Polonium-210 is 250 billion times as toxic as the same weight of the deadly poison hydrogen cyanide. A mere 120 nanograms (that’s 120 billionths of a gram) of the stuff can kill you if you inhale or eat it. It’s easy to carry it about, and it wouldn’t be hard to get it through security checks at airports. But it is not so easy to get hold of it in the first place.

Polonium-210 is made by bombarding another radioactive element, Bismuth 209, with neutrons. To do that you require a nuclear reactor. Because Polonium-210 emits alpha particles, it has the effect of reducing static electricity, so for that reason it is sometimes used, for example, in satellites.

One report I read in a London newspaper estimated that the amount of Polonium-210 used to kill Litvinenko would have cost £20 million ($39 million).

Now, I don’t know about you, but this makes me think, why not just shoot the guy? Or cheaper still, why not stab him to death? Why spend so much money, on such an obscure, hard-to-come-by element? It is flagrantly wasteful in cost-”benefit” terms — and herein lies the clue. Wastefulness is something that evolution knows all about.

Look at the most famous of wasteful traits — the adult male peacock’s tail. This huge, elaborate structure is no use for flying. In fact it hinders him, and makes it easier for predators to catch him. And he has to expend a significant amount of energy just growing the thing. So, in evolutionary terms, why do they do it? Because it’s a signal to females of the species of his power, beauty and general good quality and desirablity. The peacock is saying to any peahen who might be watching, “Look at me! I’m so powerful, I can afford to grow this gigantic ornamental tail. Come and get me girls!”

Outside commentators

Polonium-210 is the peacock’s tail of a murder weapon.

So who is so powerful that they would waste millions on a murder that presumably could have been carried out for a fraction of the cost?

Most outside commentators, including this newspaper in an editorial on Dec. 4, have speculated that the Russian government had some involvement in Litvinenko’s death. It is reasonable to speculate so, since Litvinenko was an outspoken critic of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. But surely the Russian government would and could have quietly got rid of Litvinenko, if they wanted to, in any number of ways.

I think the use of the extravagantly wasteful Polonium-210 points to a different suspect. Someone — or more likely a group of people — want to send a message to the world: “Look at us! We’re so powerful we can afford to destroy our enemies in absurdly expensive ways. You’d better think twice before you mess with us.”

It was initially thought that the sushi bar was the site of the poisoning, but now police investigations are centering on a central London hotel where Litvinenko met two Russian businessmen on Nov. 1, the day he was poisoned. On that same day, Arsenal played a European Champions League soccer match, at home, against CSKA Moscow. Among the soccer crowd in London that day were those same two business associates — the aforementioned Dmitry Kovtun and a multimillionaire entrepreneur named Andrei Lugovoi. Scotland Yard — the headquarters of the London police force — are investigating the possibility that Lugovoi and Kovtun were used as cover by the assassins who killed Litvinenko.

“Someone is trying to set me up,” Lugovoi has reportedly said.

The police seem to have come to the same conclusion — though probably not through Darwinian reasoning. I wonder if I should start a Darwinian detective service?