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Omicron

Evolution on a human time scale

The covid-19 virus is showing us Natural Selection in action. Since the time of Darwin, evolution was seen as a process that worked too slowly to be directly perceivable by humans. Evolution worked on time scales of hundreds of thousands of years. Recent research has been able to detect evolution in some species of birds and fish but this requires precise measurements of individual examples and statistical analysis. So the evolution was visible in the sense that things are visible under a microscope - visible if you have the right equipment and technique. With covid-19 we've seen 5 or 6 variants in a couple of years just in the daily news. Wiki reveals dozens of other variants that have been detected.

Now we have this Omicron variant that is sweeping the globe at a shocking rate. It seems to be very much more infectious than earlier variants. And vaccines seem less effective against infection by Omicron.
The health authorities are going - uhoh.
And the population is getting restless - lots of people want to go home for Christmas and are impatient with travel restrictions - not to mention the anti-vaxxers. The situation looks grim.

In terms of biology it may be a normal situation.
Humanity has faced many pandemics even within the last 2000 years. The bubonic plague killed 25 million people in it's first outbreak and a third of the population of Europe in it's second and in fact the disease is still among us but the death rate is in the hundreds a year globally. Point is here; that pandemics fade away naturally even without our contemporary medical capabilities. I think that pandemics sweep through animal and plant populations just like they do through human populations and those terminate too.

I've read that there is an evolutionary mechanism that accounts for this. It's basically that if a pathogen kills its host quickly then in self limits its ability to spread. And variants emerge that are less fatal and faster at replicating and eventually those variants replace the ones that are more fatal.

When looking at plants and animals evolving the process seems to be serial in that we focus on chains of replicators and replicants. There is a parallel process at work too. A herd of wildebeests has evolution happening on each individual in many parallel threads. With a virus this parallel aspect of evolution may be a dominant factor because rather than replicating in herds of thousands, a virus replicates billions or trillions of times within each individual it infects.

So a virus can explore the possibility space of its genome much faster than an animal or plant perceivable by people.

I think we are seeing this evolutionary process almost in realtime with covid-19. The Omicron variant seems to be greatly more infectious but also significantly less fatal, which is what natural selection would lead us to expect.

In the wild, without our capabilities of medical intervention, a pathogen like the bubonic plague might cause a speciation event. That is, if some individuals are naturally immune to the pathogen (for whatever reason) and the pathogen kills everyone who is vulnerable, then basically a new species has come about.

Perhaps, then our medical capabilities are preventing humans from evolving. Perhaps medical intervention is preventing a new species of human from emerging. This is a bit like suggesting that eyeglasses weaken the race.

Of course the response to that is that evolution in humans works on many levels and there are levels where the evolution is much faster than genetic evolution. Far from being weak compared to other species, humanity is competing very well - perhaps too well.

I'm amazed at the level of information that is available about things like the pandemic these days. The mainstream media has many critics; me among them. The story about the pandemic that has emerged rings true to me and it's been quite detailed. I've noticed that that story has changed a lot as we learn more about the virus and how to treat it and how to slow its spread. That's not a bug in the story; it's a feature. A couple of years ago the virus was unknown. There are generic ways of reducing the spread of a virus but which method was effective was unknown.
So we saw disinfectant efforts with guys in hazmat suits spraying disinfectant around.
Hand sanitizing was important.
Social distancing
Mask mandates
Lockdowns
Vaccine mandates.

Once it was thought that people picked up the infection from surfaces they touched and that implied certain ways of reducing transmission. Then research showed that infected droplets were important which implied other ways of reducing transmission. Then we learn that aerosols greatly increase the radius of infection We learn and change - a good thing.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.