Evolution and the Coronavirus

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Evolutionary Perspectives on the 2020 Pandemic

We’ve all experienced the misery that comes with contracting an infectious disease. Now, in early 2020, we all have the privilege of participating in a global event that will eventually become a lasting part of human history — the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

A scary proposition considering the coronavirus is able to spread through the air, has no current vaccination or antivirus, and packs a mortality rate of ~4%.

Given the uniqueness of this situation and, even more so, our ability to observe it, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the evolutionary nature of our current pandemic. These thoughts include:

  1. Evolution is Alive and Well in the Virus Community
  2. A Quick Thought Experiment — What if Coronavirus had Appeared 5,000 Years Ago?
  3. Evolution and Changing Human Environments
  4. Evolutionary Survival Tools on Display
  5. Final Thought — The Big Human Lesson to Learn from Coronavirus

Evolution is Alive and Well in the Virus Community

Viruses represent a unique type of lifeform, as they are unable to operate without coming into contact with other life forms. Viruses consist of genetic material (DNA/RNA) but not the enzymes necessary to generate the chemical reactions needed for life. Thus, viruses require an infected host in order to replicate.

The origins of viruses in the evolutionary history of life are unclear: some may have evolved from plasmids — pieces of DNA that can move between cells — while others may have evolved from bacteria. In evolution, viruses are an important means of horizontal gene transfer, which increases genetic diversity in a way analogous to sexual reproduction.

Viruses have infected humans and created pandemics for millennia. Notable virus-induced outbreaks include Cholera, Influenza, Typhus, Smallpox, Measles, Tuberculosis, Leprosy, Malaria, Yellow Fever, Ebola, and Zika.

Like many others, the coronavirus is zoonotic — meaning that it is transmittable between Homo sapiens and other animal species. It’s believed to have originated in Chinese bats. The zoonotic nature of Cornovirus is one of the most important aspects of its evolution.

Although the coronavirus originally infected bats, the similarity in the biology and genetic code of our two species first allowed the virus to survive within human bodies then, a mutation in a single virus, allowed it to begin attacking the human system.

"This is because viruses evolve. Viruses like the corona originate in animals, such as bats. When they jump to humans, initially the viruses are ill-adapted to their human hosts. While replicating within humans, the viruses occasionally undergo mutations. Most mutations are harmless. But every now and then a mutation makes the virus more infectious or more resistant to the human immune system — and this mutant strain of the virus will then rapidly spread in the human population. Since a single person might host trillions of virus particles that undergo constant replication, every infected person gives the virus trillions of new opportunities to become more adapted to humans. Each human carrier is like a gambling machine that gives the virus trillions of lottery tickets — and the virus needs to draw just one winning ticket in order to thrive."

Yuval Noah Harari

Evolution is all about opportunity. Viruses experience mutations constantly and, when a mutation takes place in a favorable environment, that mutation becomes a competitive trait, allowing the virus to begin thriving and thus spreading quickly.

The coronavirus is an opportunity for us to observe the evolutionary process take place. It demonstrates to us that we can expect new viruses and bacteria to arise at any time. We should remember that everything evolves always, including our species, and that evolution is alive and well.

A Quick Thought Experiment — What if Coronavirus had Appeared 5,000 Years Ago?

It’s not difficult for us to imagine how much worse the 2020 Pandemic could be if we lacked our current levels of information, communication, and technology. History is littered with examples of pathogens that humans could neither understand nor combat.

The Plague or Black Death spread across Asia and Europe during the 14th Century, killing between 75 million and 200 million people.

The Spanish Flu ravaged the world following World War I, killing between 17 million and 100 million people.

Author Jared Diamond lays out the case for why Eurasian populations were able to adapt to many more pathogens than those living on other continents in his book Guns, Germs & Steel. The most significant variable Diamond argues for is domesticated livestock (cattle, horses, pigs, goats, sheep, camels, donkeys, and chickens), which carried pathogens that also crossed over species. Eurasians experienced millennia of deadly pandemics caused by close proximity to other species. Those that survived were more resistant to these pathogens and they passed that resistance on to their progeny.

Unfortunately, when Europeans arrived in the New World, the Natives had not had the same time to adapt to non-human pathogens. They were suddenly facing highly-evolved, zoonotic viruses for which their bodies had no resistance.

Smallpox and other Eurasian pathogens first reached the Americas in the 16th Century and, over the next 200 years, killed ~95% of the Native American population.

Today, we’re fortunate to have modern medicinal and communication infrastructures in place to help us prevent the spread of pathogens.

But, what would it look like if the coronavirus had evolved to infect humans over 5,000 years ago?

The journey of the virus would have looked quite different than it does today. First of all, the regional mortality rate in China would likely have been much higher. Without proper medical facilities or a working understanding of pathogens, the number of deaths would have been overwhelming.

The virus would spread slowly from the source outward — carried by traders and merchants, military personnel, settlers, explorers, transients, and especially those tending to the sick. Over the course of years and even decades, the virus would reach southeast Asia, India, the Middle-East, North Africa, the Mediterranean, and mainland Europe.

Death rates would be astronomical.

Efforts to stop the virus would have included religious washings, prayers, and animal sacrifices. All of which would likely help in spreading the virus. Some would effectively use “social distancing” but when food and water ran low, risks would be taken (as they are being taken today).

Over time, the virus would arrive in the Americas and Australia, carried by ships, in the cells of multiple un-knowing crew members. The crew would disembark and the native populations would be set on an unalterable course leading to the miserable deaths of 95% of their family and friends.

Is this outcome still possible today?

Absolutely — if there is anything history has taught us, it’s that a deadly virus is not to be taken lightly.

Evolution and Changing Human Environments

Core to the Theory of Evolution is the idea that competition for resources within an environment, particularly between members of the same species, moves evolutionary processes forward. To the victors go the spoils and the privilege of passing on their genes to the next generation. This leads to further generations that are well equipped to survive in that same environment.

But, what happens when the environment changes suddenly?

A rapid and severe change in an environment will leave the existing species ill-adapted to survival. This is why mass extinction events are often the result of sudden, drastic changes to global environments. The main challenge is that adaptation takes time and is best done in slowly-changing intervals.

One interesting perspective to consider regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is the environment in which Homo sapiens exist. Human environments have changed drastically over the past 10,000 years. As a species, we’ve gone from living predominantly as hunter-gatherers to living predominantly as employees.

In the past, our daily activities were directly connected to our survival. As hunter-gatherers, we used our own hands to collect the food and water we consumed, we built shelters with the materials we gathered, and we protected ourselves from danger with weapons we crafted.

In the modern version of surviving, we perform tasks on behalf of others, who compensate us with currency, which is deposited into our bank accounts every two weeks after taxes, insurance, and other necessary deductions are removed. We then pay someone else for the services we need to survive — we write checks for our rent or mortgage, swipe credit cards for our food and water, and give tax money to institutions to keep us safe at home and abroad.

In our modern environment, the human version of surviving is performing tasks with only an indirect correlation to our actual survival needs. The economy is our environment and we’re trying to hunt down and gather as much money as possible.

The economy is our environment and we’re trying to hunt down and gather as much money as possible.

Things have changed so drastically that many people fail to recognize their daily activities are performed in the same pursuit as the daily activities of a fish, a bug, a mouse, or a chimpanzee — survival.

In any environment, those best adapted tend to flourish. In modern human environments many biological and social traits can lead to a greater chance of said flourishing; such as wealthy and/or educated parents, opportunities for education, access to clean water and healthy food, mental aptitude, mental health, social intelligence, competitive drive, emotional maturity, and even physical attractiveness.

Now, the current COVID-19 pandemic is changing the human environment in some very interesting ways.

Perhaps the most profound change to our current environment is “social distancing” or quarantining whether voluntary or otherwise and the impact it will have on those mal-adapted economically. For some, working from home is an option — if all one needs is a computer and an internet connection to keep working, then they have access to the resources necessary in our environment.

On the contrary, if one is not able to work from home, then their situation becomes much more dire. Those who work outside, perform manual labor, have service jobs, or entertain others for their paycheck are now watching their bank accounts very closely. If they are not able to return to work soon, they may no longer be able to access the resources necessary to survive — food, water, shelter, and safety.

As much as the coronavirus has impacted the working of the economy, it cannot entirely remove the necessity for the economy to function. There will always be a need for food and water. Rent checks will come due, as will water and electricity bills, phone bills, and, as always, medical bills.

So, what happens if the economy slows down and the quarantine lasts for months?

In that case, our entire environment may collapse and those most adapted for the new environment will possess a very different set of traits.

Grocery stores may not carry enough food. Gas stations may run out of gasoline. Electrical outages may take longer to be repaired (if they are repaired at all). Clean water may stop flowing from the tap? Traveling on long distances may not be safe.

Suddenly, “preppers” or those with wilderness survival skills may find themselves most well equipped to survive in the changing environment.

This result seems far less likely than service workers falling behind financially for a month or six. However, from an evolutionary perspective, it is interesting to consider the environment we live in and how we would survive if that environment changes so rapidly that social structures begin breaking down.

Will we be able to adapt to a more ancient form of survival?

Evolutionary Survival Tools on Display

As we’ve just explored, various traits can become more advantageous than others given differing environments. On the plains and prairies of the world, speed, strength, and endurance are a must. In rivers, lakes, and oceans it’s critical that individuals be strong swimmers and possess extreme lung capacities. In forests, mountains, and jungles camouflage, subterfuge, and down-right sneakiness are a must.

Intelligence, while clearly an advantage in certain situations, is not the end-all-be-all of evolutionary tools. However, in the case of microscopic pathogens attacking your species, intelligence may be the only available tool for survival.

The ability of humans to create languages, societies, processes, technologies, and institutions is an extension of the social intelligence trait. Homo sapiens can actually identify deadly viruses, take large-scale social actions to isolate and avoid them, and prepare medicines and vaccines to cure them.

Institutions, such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) are natural extensions of biological evolution leading to social/cultural evolution.

These institutions are the evolutionary tools Homo sapiens have evolved to reduce the existential risks that we face.

Medical technologies such as test kits, respirators, and vaccines are not just modern tools for fighting diseases, they are actually evolved tools that have come to us slowly through evolutionary principles.

Additionally, the communication technologies we’ve developed to spread information quickly, stay connected, track the spread of the virus, and communicate proper actions are evolutionary advantages.

A great example of this type of advantage is the coronavirus dashboard developed by the folks at Johns Hopkins University. In a real sense, this dashboard has acted as the Virus Tracking Headquarters for hundreds of thousands of people, all making decisions on their own to help prevent the further spread of the virus.

"…the best defense humans have against pathogens is not isolation — it is information. Humanity has been winning the war against epidemics because in the arms race between pathogens and doctors, pathogens rely on blind mutations while doctors rely on the scientific analysis of information."

Yuval Noah Harari

Sure, it’s a bit scary being human right now, but we also have the unique privilege of observing the power of evolutionary tools in real-time. If you can see past the gripping panic, this is an amazing event and an exciting time to simply notice the workings of life on earth.

Final Thought— The Big Human Lesson to Learn from Coronavirus

Nothing has demonstrated the amazing power to unite people in a common goal quite like the risk of imminent doom. Something about warding off death as a group — usually due to war — has the ability to create solidarity and cooperation.

One aspect of this effect is clearly survival, as we’re all programmed with survival as one of our most basic instincts.

But, there is another aspect to a group’s survival mentality that can be just as important — particularly from a social perspective — and that is seeing each other as more “the same” than we see each other as “different”.

The coronavirus has made it clear that we are all the same species. While we may come from different regions of the globe, speak different languages, eat different foods, subscribe to different religions, and support different governments the truth is that we’re all genetically related and we’re all susceptible to the same deadly viruses.

Can the coronavirus be the existential risk that brings us all together?

We’re all Homo sapiens and all part of the human family. We’ll all get through this smoother, safer, and with a better outcome if we listen to each other, trust each other, and help each other.

This is not a China problem, an Iranian problem, or an Italian problem, and this is certainly not a United States problem.

This is a Homo sapiens problem.

We’ve established borders all around the globe to help us outline where one group of humans begins and another ends. But, the truth is that we’re all part of the same evolved family of apes. Borders don’t exist to viruses because borders are just in our heads.

Borders don’t exist to viruses because borders are just in our heads.

Below are two final quotes from Yuval Noah Harari that capture the sentiment I hope to share.

"History indicates that real protection comes from the sharing of reliable scientific information, and from global solidarity. When one country is struck by an epidemic, it should be willing to honestly share information about the outbreak without fear of economic catastrophe — while other countries should be able to trust that information, and should be willing to extend a helping hand rather than ostracize the victim. Today, China can teach countries all over the world many important lessons about coronavirus, but this demands a high level of international trust and cooperation."

Yuval Noah Harari

“The origin of all technical achievements is the divine curiosity and the play instinct of the working and thinking researcher."

Albert Einstein


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