Misc 09/01/2021

A new evolutionary transition to manage the pandemic

Global coordination based on new structures is necessary to control the virus

David Bueno
3 min
Segons el biòleg W. Ford Doolittle, cal una nova organització global que preservi el benestar econòmic i la vida de tots els organismes del planeta.

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has changed our lives. Words like quarantine or lockdown have become part of everyday life. There have been nearly 90 million people affected and nearly 2 million deaths worldwide. In Catalonia, more than 400,000 cases have been counted and more than 17,000 deaths have been recorded. This juxtaposed comparison forms part of human idiosyncrasy, of the groupalism inherent in our species. We are social beings. In this sense, the oldest social organization, the tribe, has become more sophisticated until it has become nations and states. And more recently, it has become attempts at inter-state coordination such as the United Nations, often quite ineffective since state interests predominate.

This last point is the beginning of an essay published by biologist W. Ford Doolittle of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, in the journal Current Biology. Based on currently accepted theories of evolution, the author proposes the necessary imminence of a new evolutionary transition. "Biologizing to avoid political polarization", he writes. That is: to use the biological perspective to avoid political polarization that is accentuating extremisms.

Evolutionary transitions

Doolittle starts from what are called "great evolutionary transitions", a concept proposed by biologists John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry a quarter of a century ago. These scientists argued that, in addition to the random mutations that alter the genetic message and the effects of natural selection, which favors the permanence of certain changes as a function of transformations and situations of environmental stress, there have also been great evolutionary transitions that have shared a common denominator: the grouping of simpler biological units to form more complex aggregates.

One of these great evolutionary transitions is the genesis of eukaryotic cells from prokaryotes. Eukaryotic cells like ours are characterized by inside organelles, and a cell nucleus that contains the genetic material. Prokaryotic cells, on the other hand, like bacteria, have none of this. It has been shown that eukaryotic cells come from the grouping and coordination of several prokaryotes that lost their individuality to form a new, more complex structure. The same thing happened when multicellular organisms such as fungi, plants and animals originated: individual cells grouped together to form a more complex individual. In this case, each one maintained part of its individuality, in spite of being subject to an overall coordination.

A new social organization

How does Doolittle use these biological facts in his essay? He argues that the covid-19 pandemic is putting ecological stress on a global scale similar to what natural selection has brought about in these and other major evolutionary transitions. In other words, if single-celled organisms had survived under specific environmental stress conditions as well as multicellular ones, this evolutionary transition would probably have not been perpetuated. This new environmental stress factor now underscores that states, as the most complex form of functional social organization, cannot fight the pandemic in isolation. Therefore, a new transition is needed, pushed, as others, by ecological stress factors, but in this case the transition has to be towards social organization. In fact, according to Doolittle, human social groupings of a tribal, national and state nature have also been emerging, pushed to respond to environmental changes of all kinds, which have favoured the coordination of increasingly numerous groups of individuals.

This fact has already manifested itself in the field of research. Never before have so many researchers from all over the world focused on a single problem, sharing information in a collaborative manner with a transnational perspective. Research crosses borders that are not yet crossed by states. Following this line of thought, Doolittle focuses on two specific points. On the one hand, the preservation of economic well-being and of life as a whole, not only human life but that of all living beings. And on the other, the type of transnational response that we can give, which can be centralized - which implies a bigger loss of individuality - or distributed - which implies a bigger coordination difficulty.

And it is right here where he situates the need for a new great evolutionary transition in social aspects that allows preserving both economic welfare and life as a whole, without losing individuality. In the same way that in pluricellular organisms cells did not lose individuality, this new transition would have to include a global non-subjugating coordination to preserve well-being and life on a global scale. As the end of the essay states, "perhaps the only way to survive this crisis, and perhaps climate change and socio-economic disparity, is to start acting as the unique species that we are, rather than as individual tribes or nations". Or, as the author also says, we must use biology lessons to avoid political polarization.

David Bueno is director of the UB-Edu1st Chair of Neuroeducation