Darwin and the Coronavirus


By: Keao Duke Liko

Charles Darwin popularized the concept of survival of the fittest as a mechanism underlying the natural selection that drives the evolution of life. Organisms with genes better suited to the environment in which they live are naturally selected for survival and pass advantageous genetics on to the next generation.

In any population of organisms, genetic variation exists. That variation encodes differences in the physical traits of organisms which affect their ability to survive and reproduce. Individuals with genes that lead them to have physical traits that make them less likely to survive and reproduce are selected against meaning that they starve, get eaten, or have another early death, sterility, or infertility. Their genes will not be passed one generation to the next. Meanwhile, the genes and traits that survive because they were faster, stronger, taller, etc. are favored and spread to the next generation.

When Charles Darwin first wrote about the law of natural selection, he imagined that the evolution in response to selection would be slow. Humans would be left, he thought, to study the consequences of natural selection but unable to see the process in real time. It would have delighted and horrified Darwin to know that in this way that he was wrong. Natural selection, evolution, and even the origin of species can be observed in real time. This is true, for example, with experiments done on bacteria in laboratories and it is also true regarding the virus that causes Coronavirus.

When it comes to survival of the fittest during a pandemic, who is the fittest? The answer is a not an easy or a simple response but must consider a patient’s immune system. The immune response is like a car. To reach a destination safely, you need both an accelerator (phase 1) and a brake (phase 2) that are functioning well. Failure in either can have significant consequences.

An effective immune response against an infectious agent, such as Coronavirus, rest in the delicate balance of two immune phases of action. When an infectious agent attacks, the body begins phase 1, which promotes inflammation — a state in which a variety of immune cells gather at the site of infection to destroy the pathogen.

This is followed by phase 2, during which immune cells called Regulatory T Cells suppress inflammation so that the infected tissues can completely heal. A deficiency in the first phase can allow uncontrolled growth of the infectious agent, such as a virus or bacteria. A defect in the second phase can trigger massive inflammation, tissue damage and death.

With Coronavirus, the “fittest” are individuals who mount a normal phase 1 and phase 2 immune response. This means a strong immune response in phase 1 to clear the primary Coronavirus infection and inhibit its spread in the lungs. Then this should be followed by an optimum phase 2 response to prevent excessive inflammation and allow infected tissues to heal.

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, who is the “fittest”? Survival against the Coronavirus infection depends completely on the patient’s immune response. With Coronavirus, it is not easy to know who amongst us are the fittest individuals. It is not necessarily the youngest, strongest, or most athletic individuals who are guaranteed to survive. The fittest are those with the “right” immune response who can clear the infection rapidly without mounting excessive inflammation, which can be deadly.

So, is it right then to submit entirely to survival of the fittest without knowing who these people may be? That is a moral question. Answering moral questions require knowing all the facts. Philosophers, like Darwin, are supposed to be able to answer these questions. After all, morality is their subject matter. The Kantian will say that you should treat people as ends and so you have a moral obligation to help the old and sick. The utilitarian to the contrary will say that happiness is all-important, and if the sick and weak amongst us must head for the crematorium, then so be it.

The Darwinian evolutionary ethicist, thinking morality is no more than and no less than emotions put in place by natural selection to help us get through this world, will wonder if there are indeed natural solutions to moral problems such as the Coronavirus. Morality works just fine for everyday issues—taking a casserole over for my sick neighbor—but when we have unexpected or extreme cases such as a loved one getting sick and dying, morality simply breaks down and doesn’t work.  

Natural selection does not fine tune adaptations. As animals fashioned by natural selection, we will continue to be human, so very human. There will never be disinterested right solution in the moral decisions we feel compelled to make. Thus, as humans, we just must muddle through natural selection and hope that we do not make too much of a mess of it.