Darwin’s theory of descent with modification was composed of two great principles: “the unity of types” (history) and “the conditions of existence” (natural selection). Today, systematics (taxonomy) studies the former and evolutionary ecology the latter. But at least since the 1980s, it has been increasingly recognized that culture and social organization, not just genes, evolve by descent with modification. Sociocultural evolution is based on social learning by observation or linguistically encoded instructions, variation, and sociocultural selection. Moreover, genes and culture coevolve in interaction with each other, whether gene-culture or culture-gene coevolution, and whether within one or between species.
What does this have to do with COVID-19? Our culture is coevolving in interaction with their genes and recently their genes have favored our culture evolving in the direction of staying home, social distancing, wearing masks, etc. This, in turn, has depleted resources for the viruses and caused a leveling and decline in their population(s). However, our culture is now on the verge of reversing itself at least somewhat. What, if any, are the implications of that for the evolution of the virus? To address this question, we need to consider some basic principles of evolutionary ecology, in particular population density relative to resources.
Where/when density measured in cost per capita and/or frequency relative to resources is low within a population, (or in growing populations with a history of catastrophes) i.e. good resource conditions, natural selection favors spending on consumption (eating and excreting) and/or production (producing many, small offspring). On the other hand, where/when density is high (or in declining populations with a history of bonanzas), i.e. bad resource conditions, selection favors investing in digestion (breaking down and building up) and/or ‘reproduction’ (few large offspring capable of digestion in order to produce their own offspring). What should be built up in digestion and/or reproduction? In a homogeneous environment, it is mechanisms of social interaction whether cooperative, antagonistic, or a mixture of both, but in a patchy environment it is mechanisms of dispersal in time (maintenance), in space (motility), and/or in niche (mutability) – the 3 M’s.1
The distinction between ‘consume and digest’ and between ‘produce and reproduce’ are both about quantity versus quality, with the former in each case depleting and degrading the external environment while the latter depletes and degrades the internal environment. As well, the former in each case is associated with a small size because of the disproportionate surface-to-volume ratio of the small (good for consumption and production), while the latter of each is associated with a large size because of the disproportionate volume-to-surface ratio of the large (good for digestion and reproduction). Under the simplest set of conditions, if both functions utilize the same or positively correlated resources and the two interact synergistically, then at low densities relative to resources the more one consumes the more one can produce and vice versa, whereas at high densities the more one digests the more one can reproduce and vice versa.
What then of the future of COVID-19? Given that surely humans are a heterogeneous environment, our culture selecting on the viruses’ genes in the future should favor:
- maintenance: those that live longer (e.g. making the recovered or infected but symptom-free contagious for longer) and/or,
- motility: those that move further (e.g. placing themselves in small droplets, which disperse further rather than just in large drops, which tend to fall) and/or,
- mutability: those that either increase their blind mutation rate or, if already capable, switching strategies physiologically (called adaptive phenotypic plasticity) – seeking a new niche (e.g. infecting organs other than respiratory systems such as kidneys, liver, circulatory and nervous systems, etc.)
It is possible, therefore, that just as their genes initially selected for changes in our culture, that in the future those changes in our culture will in turn select for changes in their genes – if, (and it is a big if) the appropriate genes are or become available (see Figure 1.) If so, that would contribute to a further spike in the pandemic unless or until our culture responds yet again and on it could go until a vaccine becomes widely available or until the seventy to eighty percent infection rate required for herd immunity is reached.
Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:
- Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
- Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
- Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Will Kalkhoff, Richard T. Serpe, and Josh Pollock
- Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
- Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn
- Speculations About Why Sociological Social Psychology Largely Elides Evolutionary Logic by Steven Hitlin
- The Coronavirus Pandemic, Evolutionary Sociology, and Long-Term Economic Growth in the United States by Michael Hammond
- Institutionalization of Animal Welfare and the Evolution of Coronavirus(es) by Erin M. Evans
- The Coronavirus in Evolutionary Perspective by Alexandra Maryanski
- Gene-Culture and Potential Culture-Gene Coevolution: The Future of COVID-19 by Marion Blute
- For God’s Sake! What’s All This Fuss About a Virus? by Andrew Atkinson
1 Blute, Marion. 2016. “Density-Dependent Selection Revisited: Mechanisms Linking Explanantia and Explananda.” Biological Theory 11(2) 113-121.