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What can Charles Darwin teach us about Covid?

Centuries ago, William of Ockham (1287-1347) taught us that the simplest answer was often the best one. Charles Darwin’s theory of adaptation and suitability provides a beautifully simple explanation of what might be likely to happen in the Covid experience, both from the perspective of humans, and of microbiology.


Nigel Pocock


Unpleasant as it might sound, and it is unpleasantthe most poorly adapted to survive in the face of coronavirus are those most likely to die prematurely, unless they are helped by others not to do so. For adaptation is collective, as well as individual.

This means that people with previous health deficits, either due to poverty, poor genes, epigenetic pressures, age, lifestyle choices, personality factors, and more, will die first. This will be the case, even where the health service is first-rate, at least in relative terms. As the most vulnerable die, then a new relativity of life chances emerges, for there will always be those whose adaptation is more suited to conditions as found around them, than others not so adapted.

As governments react to provide the economic resources needed to maintain care, then clearly infection transmission must increase, at least in the shorter term, as social contact increases, even if there is an overall drop in infection.

In practice, this means a series of mini-spikes in infection rates, even if overall the trend is towards decreases in infection. These spikes are again of those least adapted and most vulnerable, as well as those most exposed, such as carers and health professionals.

This is true, even if the risk is due to wealththe ability to engage in foreign travel is mostly possible in wealthy countries (the exception being societal pressures, such as war and famine).

The wealthy businessman or woman bringing the infection back to their country of origin, together with other countries on the way.

But hasnt it always been thus, with bubonic plague travelling the trade routes, and likewise diseases like measles and smallpox (to which westerners were to some extent adapted) wiping out poorly adapted indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere?

Developing vaccines and providing T-cell therapies are both a part of a collective adaptation. Even in Palaeolithic societies (as Penny Spikins of York University, England, has pointed out) there was care for the disabled, as skeletal analysis shows.

People have an innate need to care for people within their group.

This is essential to their survival.

People had to love, care and trust each other, for a group to cope with the pressures of survival. But choosing to supress this natural affinity to care, causes groups to begin to disintegrate and to function poorly.

Could coronavirus thereby, through the tragedy of economic and health disaster, actually work towards a fairer and more democratic society, in which the spread of wealth is reduced, as people learn to care and trust more?

We would like to think so. At least some criminality appears to be reducing, in anecdotal evidence, although others will always seek to exploit their fellow beings. With greater equality, nearly all social and health pathologies start to reduce, as epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown, so convincingly.

If there is no positive adaptation at both a social and individual level, then there is a fearful warning: adapt or die! Indestructible bacteria (such as MRSA) might well be the next pandemic, as westerners over- use anti-bacterials, encouraging the adaptation of ever more resistant bacteria which are immune against everything that medical technology can throw at them.

Let us, then, as humanity, learn to cooperate, not to supress the need to care for others, especially the most disadvantaged in society. May especially the pride and arrogance of tyrants and despots, who will not share, beware, lest they destroy us all!

(Photos: Pixabay)

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