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3 March 2021

Can humanity conquer the virus?

Evolution has always been indifferent to the myth of inevitable human progress. Now, in the age of Covid-19, it has turned against us.  

By John Gray

A mutating virus is destroying a world-view that has ruled governments, business and popular culture for a century or more. A model in which humankind was achieving ever higher levels of control over the planet has shaped much of modern thinking. Evolution has been understood as the ascent from primeval slime to unchallengeable human dominance over all other forms of life.

Fundamentally at odds with the theory of natural selection, this was never more than pseudo-science. Yet from the late 19th century onwards it became a ruling paradigm, captivating generations of thinkers and inspiring world-changing political movements. Today the myth is crumbling. For the first time in history, using genomic sequencing, natural selection is being observed, in detail and real time, at the level of genes. Evolution is continuing, rapidly, with the virus as the chief protagonist.

The disintegration of a near-ubiquitous world-view presents a curious spectacle. While science is providing a clearer picture of evolution at work than ever before, the impact of the pandemic is to reinforce archetypal fantasies in which evils and misfortunes are blamed on hidden forces and secret cabals. If there is evolution in ideas, it works to propagate some of the worst human beings have conceived.

With the aid of growing scientific knowledge, human beings can protect themselves from the virus and renew a reasonably secure way of life. Heroic dedication by doctors, nurses and other defenders of public health has been vitally important in coping with the pandemic. But adjusting to the irreversible changes the pandemic brings will demand clear-headed realism. Clinging to a cod-scientific view of evolution is a hindrance to the task ahead, which is adjusting to a world in which the virus is endemic.

In April 2020 I wrote in the New Statesman: “The belief that this crisis can be solved by an unprecedented outbreak of international cooperation is magical thinking in its purest form.” (“Why this crisis is a turning point in history”, 3 April 2020). Vaccine wars were wholly predictable, but the same magical thinking is expressed in the slogan that no one will be safe from the virus until everyone is safe.

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The Covax system of international vaccine sharing with low-income countries is under way, with 600,000 doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine produced in India arriving in Ghana last month. But how countries with failed states, capricious tyrants or ongoing civil wars can be expected to vaccinate the majority of their populations is unclear. It has not been explained how this can be done in the war zones of Yemen or Syria; in Haiti or Libya, where functioning government barely exists; in Tanzania, whose president John Magufuli believes God has eliminated Covid in the country; or in Belarus, where Alexander Lukashenko declared that not a single person would die of the disease in his country. Unless a vaccine can be devised that targets all variants of the virus and works for a lifetime, protecting these and similar populations will not be a one-off operation. Test and trace systems and a steady supply of therapies for those who contract the disease will be needed. While these measures are adopted, social distancing will need to be practised in refugee camps and Covid prophylaxis in hospitals.

[see also: Why it’s not too late for the UK to pursue a zero-Covid strategy]

Obstacles to vaccination are not confined to low-income countries. They exist wherever resistance is correlated with deep political divisions. The US, where the pandemic has become entangled in a culture war, is an obvious example. Estimating rates of infection and the success of vaccination programmes presents another difficulty. Given its history of cover-ups, including its initial evasions over the outbreak in Wuhan, any statistics coming from China must be treated with caution. Nor can international bodies such as the World Health Organisation, which are instruments of great powers more than they are independent institutions, always be relied on. Dreams of a global campaign against the virus collide with intractable geopolitical realities.

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In these circumstances it will not be surprising if some countries opt to quarantine themselves from the rest of the world. Some, such as New Zealand and Taiwan, may do so because they have come close to achieving zero-Covid. Others, like Israel and the UK, may close their borders in order to prevent the incursion of more dangerous variants. Red-listing particular countries means lagging behind the evolving pathogen. By the time a threatening mutation is identified, it is already here.

In a world where large numbers remain infectious, curbing freedom of travel is a precondition of ending lockdown. Governments face an unavoidable choice here. Relaxing lockdown while reopening borders – as some Covid denialists demand – would lead to disaster.

A powerful incentive to national self-isolation is that it allows safer and more sustainable patterns of human interaction. The psychological and social injuries of lockdown are profound, and increase over time. Loneliness, stress and depression are turning into common chronic conditions. Even putting damage to the economy and livelihoods on one side, this is not a stable condition that can persist indefinitely.

If closing their borders enables countries to recover a more tolerable way of life, many of them will do it. Because of the economic losses it incurs, national self-sufficiency is not a viable long-term strategy for many countries. But the current trajectory of events, wherever the pandemic is being effectively managed, is clear. Alongside impassioned declarations that all of humankind is in this crisis together, countries that can suppress the virus to levels they consider acceptable will seal themselves off from those in which it is out of control.

Slogans about universal solidarity in face of the pandemic express more than a lack of realism. They embody a ccoviategory mistake. “Humanity” cannot triumph over the virus, because the human species can’t do anything. Species don’t have goals or plans. Humans released the zoonotic pathogen by destroying animal habitats and creating huge factory farms. As a consequence, the virus will go on evolving whatever we do. Evolution is a process in which no one is in charge.

***

Ideologies that assert human dominion over the planet are not science, Darwinian or otherwise. Originating in the metaphysical speculations of Aristotle and Plato, and theistic beliefs about the creation of life, they imagine a Great Chain of Being in which humans are the most advanced life-form because they are most like God. This picture was absorbed into medieval Christianity and helped form the secular-seeming world-views of modern times.

In the half-century after he presented it to the world, the meaning of Charles Darwin’s discovery was turned upside down. Evolution occurs through the natural selection of random genetic mutations. Humans are like every other form of life in having come into the world by chance. Evolutionist ideologies reinstate the human animal as the highest form of life to date, and perhaps the aim of evolution all along. From being a theory that removed purpose and direction from the natural world, Darwinism became a rationalist myth in which the human animal is evolution’s providential destination.

Darwin himself surrendered to this myth on occasion. In his Autobiography, published in 1887, five years after his death, he stated:

There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course in which the wind blows.

However, at the end of the penultimate paragraph of The Origin of Species (1859), he had written:

We may be certain that the ordinary succession by generations has never once been broken, and that no cataclysm has desolated the whole world. Hence we may look with some confidence to a secure future of great length. And as natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress towards perfection.

Denying the logic of his own theory, in which natural selection operates without any concern for human values, Darwin’s canonical text initiated a fatal confusion of evolution with progress. Evolution came to be understood as a movement to ever higher forms of life. It was forgotten that natural selection, while producing complex organisms, regularly consigns them to extinction.

The conflation was particularly harmful when applied to society, as it was in theories of social evolution. Anyone who thinks evolution is “progress to perfection” will be tempted to accelerate the process. Darwin resisted that impulse, but many of his contemporaries and successors succumbed.

[see also: Where the wild viruses are: how the extinction crisis message is shifting in the wake of Covid-19]

Conceptions of progress come and go. For many in the 19th century it meant the supremacy of Europeans throughout the world, a state of affairs that was secured by colonialism but potentially also by “artificial selection”. It was not only the Nazis who used pseudoscience as a rationalisation for eugenics. The project of “speeding up evolution” by reducing the fertility of groups judged to be inferior was a prominent part of early 20th-century progressive thinking. In the years before and after the Second World War, the biologist and humanist Julian Huxley (1887-1975) was vice- president and then president of the British Eugenics Society. The Liberal politician William Beveridge (1879-1963), sometimes regarded as the founder of the British welfare state, was also a member. Sweden, a pillar of European social democracy, operated programmes of compulsory sterilisation directed at the mentally ill, people with learning difficulties and inheritable diseases, and the Roma population, among others, until 1976.

Greater good: Trofim Lysenko (right) measures wheat in a field near Odessa, Ukraine, 1930s.
Credit: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Earlier, in his speech at Karl Marx’s funeral in 1883, Friedrich Engels eulogised Marx for applying Darwin’s account of evolution to social life. (In fact, despite offering to dedicate Capital to Darwin at one point, Marx was hostile to Darwinism on the grounds that it replicated the reactionary ideas of Thomas Hobbes and Robert Malthus and was not progressive enough.) For the social theorist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), society was evolving towards a laissez-faire economy that promoted “the survival of the fittest”, an expression Spencer invented. For the Fabian reformer Beatrice Webb, for whom Spencer acted as an intellectual mentor in her early years, it meant collectivism of the kind that existed in the Stalinist Soviet Union. Webb’s fellow-Fabian George Bernard Shaw – a follower of the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829), who believed that life climbed a “ladder of progress” – celebrated Stalinist Russia as a great leap forward in human evolution. Within the Soviet Union, Stalin promoted the Lamarckian theories of the agronomist Trofim Lysenko, who argued that the quality of crops could be indefinitely improved by exposing them to the right environment, a policy that had catastrophic results for food production. More recently, for evolutionists such as the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek and the Conservative peer Matt Ridley, progress meant moving towards a global free market, and for Francis Fukuyama it signified the world-conquering march of American-style “democratic capitalism”.

These are different conceptions of how society is evolving, but they have some things in common. All have an ersatz- religious quality. Shaw described his theory of “creative evolution” as “the religion of the future”, while Huxley marketed his “evolutionary humanism” as a “scientific religion”. All of these ideologues extrapolate from a seemingly dominant trend to a single universal end-point, invariably one in which people like themselves come out on top. And all of these end-points have failed to materialise as history stumbled on.

Theories of social evolution are slippery intellectual enterprises. Social systems are not physically identifiable structures like genes, and there is no clear-cut way of telling when or why one is replaced by another. Some such as Richard Dawkins have speculated that social evolution operates through memes, units of meaning or information that somehow compete with one another. In fact, no one knows how memes interact with one another, or what a meme might be. (Is Donald Trump a meme? Is Bitcoin?) Nothing like the natural selection of genetic accidents has been shown to exist in the realm of ideas. But if it does, its workings are as value-free as they are in the natural world.

“Memetic evolution” is spreading some extremely toxic beliefs. The QAnon- supporting US Republican congress- woman Marjorie Taylor Greene was elected in 2020 despite having suggested two years earlier that California forest fires may have been sparked by a space-laser controlled by a cabal that included the Rothschild family. In an interview in December last year, Emmanuel Macron gestured approvingly to the wartime collaborationist leader Philippe Pétain and Charles Maurras, the theorist and leader of the 20th-century fascistic movement Action Française. Macron was careful to condemn their anti-Semitism, but the import of his remarks was to represent these malignant figures as belonging in a legitimate French tradition.

These cases may be dismissed as little more than political opportunism. Evidently Macron hopes to head off growing support for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally and the threat it poses to him in the 2022 presidential election. For the same electoral reasons, he has adopted a rhetoric of warring civilisations in regard to Islam and France’s Muslim population. Yet instances like these illustrate a pattern. Ideas based in fear and hatred are proving highly contagious, and poisonous tropes are infiltrating mainstream discourse. If this is evolution in action, so much the worse for evolution.

***

This is not the first time a world-view has been destroyed by plague. A series of epidemics in the ancient European world undermined the pagan belief in an impersonal cosmos in which remote and fickle gods intervened at their pleasure. As the American sociologist and scholar of comparative religion Rodney Stark showed in his brilliant book The Rise of Christianity (1996), Christian communities had crucial advantages in treating these epidemics as humanly meaningful events, sent by God to test their devotion to one another and prepare them for immortal life. Today the pandemic is undermining an evolutionist mythology that reproduced the Christian faith in providence.

One of the legacies of evolutionist thinking is the belief that humans are converging on the same kind of society. Convergent evolution – in which organisms independently evolve similar traits – is a reality in biology, and may be occurring in some strains of the virus. With regard to large-scale social systems, convergence is rare and usually short-lived. When it does happen, it is often in unexpected ways.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western capitalism was swaggering across the globe, and was supposed to be reproducing itself in China. Instead, Western capitalism is becoming more like Chinese statism. Both systems rely on unending monetary stimulus and use industrial policies to pursue geostrategic ends. The age of apolitical free markets, if it ever existed, is over. The state is expanding in many countries, but this is not leading inexorably to Chinese-style authoritarianism.

Extrapolating from prevailing trends, societies based on mass surveillance, thought control and the enslavement of minorities might well be the human future. But Xi Jinping’s China is not as stable as it seems. Jack Ma, the mega-billionaire and former chairman of Alibaba, was the chief poster-boy for the Chinese economic model until he disappeared from the public eye after venturing some criticisms of its regulatory regime. A system in which the chief executives of leading companies can be detained at the whim of a despot is not obviously a long-term winner. Again, the rapid economic growth that has so far secured stability is threatened by environmental degradation and a rapidly ageing population. Perhaps most importantly, it is not clear whether the high levels of innovation in technology that can be achieved in an authoritarian regime of the kind that existed in China after Mao can be maintained in a totalitarian dictatorship of the sort imposed by Xi Jinping.

Elsewhere, in Russia, the movement led by the now imprisoned Alexei Navalny has revived the belief that Russia is becoming “more like us”. But Navalny is not an evangelist for “Western values”. (That is one reason Putin fears him so much.) If he were to replace Putin – an improbable prospect, given popular apathy and fear of upheaval – Russia might actually become less like the West. In some contexts, for example, speech and expression might be less restricted. Few in Russia seem interested in importing a hyper-liberal model in which tolerance is regarded as repressive and ideological self-censorship in education and cultural life normal. The repugnant and absurd decision of Amnesty to deny the status of a prisoner of conscience to someone who was nearly murdered by the Russian state and has now vanished into the camps will only confirm Navalny’s long-held belief that he will get no help from “the liberal West”. It may not be long before anti-totalitarian movements are avowedly anti-Western.

All modes of government are being reconfigured by the pandemic. What matters is not their constitutional forms but how flexibly, and quickly, they can adjust to an environment that has been irrevocably altered. Here there are parallels with global warming. Abrupt climate change is already happening and is wired into the planet for generations to come. In each case human beings triggered a planetary shift they cannot control.

Humankind’s conquest of the natural world was a pyrrhic victory. Always indifferent, evolution has turned against us. The best defence comes from science and the stream of adaptive technologies it makes possible. Societies that use them intelligently can weather the storm. If they are moved by sympathy and compassion, they can help others that are struggling. The job in hand is making shelters against Darwin’s wind, as it blows without design or direction through the human world. 

[see also: Andreas Malm: “The likely future is escalating catastrophe”]

This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus