The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19, has led to a pandemic. Although its future course is unknown, a biological and cultural evolutionary analysis can help us understand our current situation and predict our possible futures. You are now immersed in a global cultural evolutionary process (but you always have been).
Just as biological evolution is a way of understanding the change over time of the characteristics of organisms, cultural evolution is a way of understanding the change over time of the characteristics of cultures. Both involve the same three fundamental features: (1) inheritance, (2) variation, and (3) competition.
Over generations, evolution leads to significant changes in populations, such that variation that originated within just one individual comes to be present in the majority of individuals in future generations. This can happen slowly over many generations, or it can happen very quickly under conditions of extreme competition. Importantly, evolution is not aiming at anything—it is the purposeless product of the interplay among inheritance, variation, and competition.
Whereas the gene is the source of variation in biological evolution, in his book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins identifies the ‘meme’ as a source of variation in cultural evolution. He describes a meme as like a gene, but rather than being a code in genetic material, it is an idea in a human brain. Memes move from brain to brain as shared ideas. Just as genes lead to expressed traits in biology, memes lead to expressed traits in culture. The ideas of social distancing, smartphone apps that track contacts, and more broadly, government policy settings and fundamental cultural values (including ideas about how to balance competing moral, social, and political values) can all be understood as memes.
Although it is tempting to think of cultural evolution as purposeful, it too is not aiming at anything — again it is the purposeless product of the interplay among inheritance, variation, and competition. One of the most powerful claims in The Selfish Gene is that organisms are merely ‘survival machines’ for genes. So too, culture is the ‘survival machine’ for memes. Memes are as selfish as genes. Dawkins himself recognized this point when he characterized religious ideas as viruses of the mind (and in this sense, all ideas are viruses of the mind).
Now let us turn our attention to the current pandemic using our understanding of evolution.
Variation: SARS-CoV-2 emerged as a result of variation in the genetic material within an earlier generation of the virus. It now exists in human populations and is very effective at moving from human host to human host. As it moves from human to human, it reproduces, and its genetic material will continue to vary during that process of reproduction.
Inheritance: Viruses require a living host to reproduce. They enter the cells of living organisms and use the mechanism within those cells to make copies of themselves. Those copies exist within the host and may leave the host within small droplets when the host coughs or sneezes, thus spreading the virus to other potential hosts.
Competition: Different forms of the virus will be more or less effective at making copies of themselves. The more effective forms will become more common than the less effective ones. But there is a balance struck by the selective process at the heart of biological evolution concerning how deadly the virus is. If the virus is too deadly, it does not spread as quickly among the host population because dead bodies are not good hosts. SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted very easily in part because it does not kill the vast majority of the hosts it infects. Humanity, thus, will not eradicate this virus globally in the foreseeable future. It may be temporarily eradicated in local areas, but as soon as global travel recommences, it will be back.
Will the virus cause human biological evolution? Not yet.
COVID-19 predominately kills people past reproductive age, and so, as it currently exists, it will not significantly affect the genetic material present in the next generation of humans. However, if the virus changes in the future such that (1) it kills large numbers of humans who have not reproduced, and (2) there is a relationship between the genetic material of an individual human and the chance that individual survives the virus (and retains the ability to reproduce), then it could cause human biological evolution.
Will the virus cause human cultural evolution? Yes, it will.
Different ideas (variation) about what to do in the face of the pandemic are already being produced in human brains and shared as ideas (inheritance). These different ideas will have different effects. Those different effects will change the hierarchical relationships among human cultures (competition). As a result, the socioeconomics and geopolitics of the world will change.
Different ideas about what level of social distancing to employ will have different effects. Differential adoption of contact tracing apps will have different effects. However, social distancing and contact tracing apps are just the tip of the cultural evolutionary iceberg.
Different ideas about balancing health, social, and economic impacts will have different effects. If ‘safety comes first’ is a dominant meme in a culture, that will constrain reopening the economy in that culture. Alternatively, if ‘freedom comes first’ is a dominant meme, that will promote opening up the economy, even in the face of rising numbers of deaths.
Different ideas at the heart of political systems themselves will have different effects. If ‘freedom of the individual’ is a dominant meme in a culture, that will dampen large scale social control. If ‘sacrifice for the community’ is a dominant meme in a culture, that will increase the propensity of members of that culture to limit freedoms.
Finally, the tensions between the memes of ‘democracy’ and ‘authoritarianism’ will also impact how government policy decisions are implemented.
All this means that some cultures will come out of the pandemic in a more or less dominant position globally relative to other cultures. As those selection effects are amplified over time, the relations between cultures will change. A snapshot of the pre-COVID-19 socioeconomics and geopolitics of the world (including which cultures were dominant and which cultures were not) may look very different after the pandemic plays out.
SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus. As it currently exists, it will not have much of an effect on human biological evolution. But it will have a profound impact on human cultural evolution. And we are watching that effect play out in real-time.