In today’s New York Times, economist Thomas Friedman debates the issue of whether Sweden’s more open approach to attaining herd immunity (if that’s possible with this virus) is preferable (or even feasible) compared to other strategies. The answer to his title question is “we don’t know”. To wit:
Here’s the stone-cold truth: There are only different hellish ways to adapt to a pandemic and save both lives and livelihoods. I raise Sweden not because I think it has found the magic balance — it is way too soon to tell — but because I think we should be debating all the different ways and costs of acquiring immunity.
And I agree with him. We shouldn’t completely dismiss a more open-society way of fighting the virus, but right now we need a wait-and-see approach before we start lifting our restrictions. Let’s look at what’s happening in other places. But that’s not why I’m writing this post.
Read by clicking on the screenshot:
I’m kvetching because Friedman uses a really bad biology metaphor—it’s either wrong or a tautology—and does so without making any point at all. Here’s what he says:
But when you’re in a struggle with one of Mother Nature’s challenges — like a virus or a climate change — the goal is not to defeat her. No one can. She’s just chemistry, biology and physics. The goal is to adapt.
Mother Nature does not reward the strongest or the smartest. She rewards the species that are the most adaptive in evolving the chemistry, biology and physics that she has endowed them with to thrive — no matter what she throws at them.
First of all, species are not “adaptive” but “adapted”. Species have no goals, much less to “adapt” (to what?).
All species evolve through natural selection acting on individuals. It is individuals who are adapted, not species, though some species can be more resistant to extinction than others. But, in fact, it’s perfectly possible for natural selection among individuals to result in a species that is not resilient at all. Perhaps the dinosaurs were well adapted to their niche, but didn’t have the right adaptations to resist the sequelae of the asteroid. The fate of 99.9% of all species is extinction— often extinction that has little to do with whether the species is currently well suited for its niche. (An invading predator or parasite, for instance, can decimate a species, as has happened many times on oceanic islands. And genes simply can’t anticipate that.)
So if the “reward” is persistence—and that’s not clear in Friedman’s tortured sentence—then what you can parse his sentence to say is just this: “The species who survive are the species who had the features that allowed them to survive.” There isn’t a really good a priori way to determine that in advance.
Further, Mother Nature doesn’t endow a species with “chemistry, biology, and physics” to thrive: individuals outcompete others by having genes that are better at leaving copies of themselves. (This can, by the way, drive a species to extinction, as in the spread of some “selfish” meiotic-drive genes that can ultimately cause their species to die out.) The idea that an entire species is endowed with properties that allow the species as a whole to thrive is biologically nonsensical. And the idea that species are adapted to future contingencies—”whatever Mother Nature throws at them”—violates the way natural selection operates, which is adapting individuals to conditions obtaining here and now.
Anyway, Friedman’s produced a meaningless tautology to make a simple point not about biological/genetic evolution, but about human creativity: we will be better at surviving surprise attacks like coronavirus if we are mentally creative about our solutions. That’s why he wrote the article.
Who but a petulant biologist like me would beef about Friedman’s distorted evolutionary ideas? Well, it’s bad because he could give people the impression that species adapt as units and survive through “species selection”, an idea that misrepresents how species really do evolve. And it also misrepresents the idea that the species who persist have evolved to be flexible to environmental contingencies. That may happen sometimes, but it’s not a rule of biology.
Let me just stop here and say this to Dr. Friedman: “Look, Tom, I don’t pontificate about globalization and foreign policy because I don’t know much about it. Could you do me the same favor with evolution?”