Humans and viruses have been coevolving for millennia. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19) has been particularly successful in evading our evolved defenses. The outcome has been tragic—across the globe, millions have been sickened and hundreds of thousands have died. Moreover, the quarantine has radically changed the structure of our lives, with devastating social and economic consequences that are likely to unfold for years. An evolutionary perspective can help us understand the progression and consequences of the pandemic. Here, a diverse group of scientists, with expertise from evolutionary medicine to cultural evolution, provide insights about the pandemic and its aftermath. At the most granular level, we consider how viruses might affect social behavior, and how quarantine, ironically, could make us susceptible to other maladies, due to a lack of microbial exposure. At the psychological level, we describe the ways in which the pandemic can affect mating behavior, cooperation (or the lack thereof), and gender norms, and how we can use disgust to better activate native “behavioral immunity” to combat disease spread. At the cultural level, we describe shifting cultural norms and how we might harness them to better combat disease and the negative social consequences of the pandemic. These insights can be used to craft solutions to problems produced by the pandemic and to lay the groundwork for a scientific agenda to capture and understand what has become, in effect, a worldwide social experiment.
Insight 1: The Virus Might Alter Host Sociability
Insight 2: “Generation Quarantine” May Lack Critical Microbial Exposures
Insight 3: Activating Disgust Can Help Combat Disease Spread
Insight 4: The Mating Landscape Is Changing, and There Will Be Economic Consequences from a Decrease in Birth Rates
Insight 5: Gender Norms Are Backsliding, and Gender Inequality Is Increasing
Insight 6: An Increase in Empathy and Compassion Is Not Guaranteed
Insight 7: We Have Not Evolved to Seek the Truth
Insight 8: Combating the Pandemic Requires Its Own Evolutionary Process
Insight 9: Cultural Evolutionary Forces Impact COVID-19 Severity
Insight 10: Human Progress ContinuesConclusion
COVID-19 has brought radical change, through deaths, stress of extended quarantine, confusion that slowed adequate responding, social unrest at a massive scale, and a long and uncertain social and economic aftermath. This radical change is global—no human, anywhere, is unaffected by COVID-19.
To understand the virus and our response to it, we need to understand how viruses and humans evolve. We know that there is a long history of the coevolution of viruses and humans. Viruses evolve to exploit their hosts to encourage their own replication, but they also depend on hosts to survive. Humans can tolerate some manipulation by viruses, but we have also evolved to combat them. This delicate coevolutionary dance is why we often seem to be running as fast as we can, just to stay in the same place (90).
However, humans also possess the tool of scientific insight that gives us a broader view than what the virus can see. Perhaps this can help us stay one step ahead. By understanding the nature of viral strategies, we can better anticipate the spread of COVID-19 and try to block it. Likewise, by understanding human nature, we can try to activate evolved motivational systems that will help fight the virus, such as providing cues that trigger our behavioral immune system. Understanding human nature will also enhance our ability to address the aftermath of COVID-19, as it has disrupted so many of our fundamental human activities, such as mating, parenting, and simply maintaining social contact.
Herein, we have described 10 insights offered by a broad range of evolutionary thinkers, with expertise ranging from evolutionary medicine to broadscale cultural evolution. These insights offer possibilities for guiding science to address the spread of COVID-19 and its inevitable aftermath. However, these insights represent only a limited snapshot of this historic moment, and a selection of topics, although important, that an evolutionary perspective on the pandemic can provide.
The objective in providing these insights is to help make sense of the vast confusion that mars this pandemic and to illuminate paths for research. In addition to insights that can produce immediate action, the pandemic has provided us with unique opportunities to witness human nature as it unfolds, from changes in patterns of reproduction, shifting social norms, and curiosities of cognition that can warp our recognition of threat. This paper is a call to action in science—both in the application of existing knowledge about viral and human nature and also as an opportunity to make discoveries that would not be possible except when a global social experiment is underway.