Thomas Friedman uses a bad biology analogy

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?”

74 Comments

  1. BobTerrace
    Posted April 29, 2020 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    “…the goal is not to defeat her. No one can. She’s just chemistry, biology and physics. The goal is to adapt.”

    Developing a treatment drug is defeating her. Developing a vaccine is defeating her. Using antibiotics, antifungals, antivirals is defeating her. His basic premise is wrong.

    • Simon Hayward
      Posted April 29, 2020 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      Following on from Bob, the species becomes more adapted by letting the vulnerable die so that the most resistant carry on. That is working with Mother Nature (she’s not benevolent!) We are, after all, the descendants of the survivors of many pandemics.

      • phoffman56
        Posted April 29, 2020 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        “We are, after all, the descendants of the survivors of many pandemics.”

        I wonder whether the percentage of people over 70 who died in those much earlier big pandemics has ever been estimated.

        Expected years of life has increased tremendously with modern scientific medicine, that itself being unnatural in some sense. Or at least, it’s a novel way of using the brain to ‘naturally’ avoid deaths, much of non-microscopic life having a brain.

        I’d be surprised if that estimate above was not easily over 75% deaths in any earlier serious killer viruses. I doubt if that would be a popular way for the sadly mistaken Swedish regime to explain its policies to the populace. Of course, it will be nowhere near 75% of oldies there; along with Norway and a few others, they have the best public health system in the world.

        It has occurred to me to ask a few idiots around here, kept 6 feet at bay, whether they think that the WW I and II enemy country whose (female as it happens) leader has a Ph.D. in chemistry is doing so much better than the country whose leader suggested gulping down Chlorox chemicals as an antidote (and whose anti-science ignoramus policies will in the end be an order of magnitude worse than even now, when the toll from climate change is seen in a few generations).

        Mass Murderer Donald will not sound like exaggeration then.

        • Filippo
          Posted April 29, 2020 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

          ” . . . has a Ph.D. in chemistry . . . [versus] gulping down Chlorox chemicals as an antidote . . . anti-science ignoramus policies . . . .”

          Mass Murderer Donald will not sound like exaggeration then.

          I wonder if “Disinfectant Donald” has caught or will catch on.

          • Posted April 30, 2020 at 3:05 am | Permalink

            It has with me. From now on, he will always be disinfectant Donald, unless I can think of a similar alliterative alias that uses “Trump”.

        • Posted April 30, 2020 at 6:18 am | Permalink

          An interesting aspect of the 1918 pandemic is that there would at that time have been a much smaller percentage of people over 70 in the first place. I can’t find figures but understand that fewer people in general survived beyond 70 back then.

      • eric
        Posted April 29, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        But arguably, this particular pandemic will result in little to no genetic change in the population, because the vast majority of those affected are 70+. Now, a 70-year-old guy can hypothetically still have children, but not many do. The next generation is not filled with the descendants of 70-year-olds who had an unusually good resistance to the virus; it’s filled with the descendants of average 20- and 30-year olds who just had an average reaction to it.

        Covid-19 could literally wipe out everyone above the age of 70 and we’d still not see any adaptation against it evolving in the gene pool.

        • Simon Hayward
          Posted April 29, 2020 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

          Clearly killing the elderly will not have much lasting effect on population genetics. Sorry, that wasn’t what I meant to suggest.

          There are smaller groups of younger people dying who might represent particularly vulnerable genotypes. Genomic analysis of young victims will be a fundable research field in the next few years. Similarly analysis of elderly survivors might provide complementary data. It’s easy to imagine specific SNPs providing increased or decreased susceptibility to infection or altered infection response.

          These data may also be important in the personalization of therapies as and when multiple options become available.

          • Posted April 29, 2020 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

            When, sometime in the future, we can count the numbers of deaths in various age groups, we may have a better notion of what the loss is in groups with the potential to procreate. Older people may be more affected. But people with health conditions or poor immunity can be in any age group and can be affected as well. We don’t know as yet which genetic elements may predispose some people to get it vs. others. It is thought now that inadequate living conditions, lack of health care, etc. may have more to do with the greater percentage of blacks and hispanics getting Covid-19. Since the disease may return again soon if we aren’t careful, we may have many more ill and/or dying people to count during this pandemic. And, since the virus may mutate into an illness that returns annually, there could be many opportunities later to observe humanity’s success or failure in dealing with this it. While those of us who live are trying to adapt, the virus also is adapting and it may be more successful than we are.

            We won’t know until much later what countries that were more successful in fighting this virus did than we did that made such a significant difference. There is much too much that is still unknown.

            In the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 – 19, 26 family members of my grandfather died and they were not all old people.

  2. phoffman56
    Posted April 29, 2020 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Friedman is correct that this should be looked at—-for about 22.3608 seconds, and then discarded as a bad in the end.

    He did only suggest that, but maybe for longer. Otherwise he’d have stuck his pen up his ass till thinking up a better isea..

    Firstly it’s not 11, but 12times better in Noway now for difference in deaths. But actually maybe it should only be 6 times, because Norway has half the population.

    But, even if you think killing older people in those numbers has merit (Hitler might; one other Mass Murderer Donald might also–not many others I’d hope), you get to herd immunity among the younger people just when a vaccine comes out to use on the leftover older people. That’s what he said. Wonderful.

    Except you could have done the same as Norway, and at that point used the vaccine on ALL the people. Minor advantage: you had 6 times fewer deaths.

    • phoffman56
      Posted April 29, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      bad—>bad idea
      Noway—->Norway
      isea—>idea
      Sorry, 78 year old fingers.

      • JezGrove
        Posted April 29, 2020 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        Sweden–>IKEA?

        • phoffman56
          Posted April 29, 2020 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

          ‘k’ ain’t near ‘s’ and ‘d’!

    • Nicolaas Stempels
      Posted April 29, 2020 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      One should note that since the virus kills overwhelmingly people beyond their reproductive age, selection pressure will be low, just killing off our beloved grandparents.
      There are three countries that (at least initially) went for the ‘herd immunity’ model. The UK, The Netherlands and Sweden. All three of them are in the top eight countries doing worse than the US, as measured by Covid deaths per capita (the death rate per tested positive is useless, since testing varies so greatly per country, the more you test, the lower that death rate).
      Even the death rate per capita is moot: in Belgium any death that could possibly be Covid, even if not tested, is counted as a Covid death, which inflates their death rates. In other countries actual Covid deaths that were not tested are not counted, which tends to lower the official death rate, of course.

      • phoffman56
        Posted April 29, 2020 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

        Yes, Belgium’s claims, that their horrid-looking stats are because of counting more types of, or untested, deaths, have so far been born out by the people who have studied statistically expected deaths versus the present excess. So Spain really is much worse, by that measure, with which I agree.

        But US also maybe in the end. The nasty stuff didn’t get over here to Canada and US till somewhat later, so it’s harder to compare, until a month later maybe.

      • Posted April 30, 2020 at 3:48 am | Permalink

        I would argue that all the strategies of every country are geared towards herd immunity. Given the highly infectious nature of the disease, there is nothing else to be done.

        The UK, for example, started out by introducing some mild measures to smooth out the bump but then toughened them up when it became clear that their original strategy would overwhelm their health services.

        If you acknowledge that the aim is only to prevent your health service from being swamped, the British strategy has been a complete success. The government requisitioned a number of conference centres throughout the country and fitted them out as ICU facilities e.g. the Excel Centre in London. They’ve barely been used and the stats show that the use of hospital beds for COVID19 patients is in decline and using less than 50% of total capacity.

        As for the numbers of deaths, you can be sure that the British numbers are completely accurate as long as you understand what the numbers are measuring. There are three such numbers.

        For most of the time, we have been using “people in hospital who died having tested positive for COVID19”. Since pretty much everybody who goes into hospital gets tested, that’s a good consistent representative number.

        The government has now added a second number which is the same as the first but includes care homes. This is obviously higher than the first but is harder to count. Judging from yesterday’s pandemic briefing, this is the number we will be using going forwards to measure the progress of the pandemic.

        The last number, collected by the ONS, is the weekly number of excess deaths. They count all registered deaths in the UK and compare them to previous years. For the second week of April they found 10,000 excess deaths (normal value would be around 18,000 deaths) of which 6,000 mentioned COVID19 on the death certificate. Presumably the difference is people with non COVID19 conditions that either failed to seek treatment or couldn’t get treatment. This number is bigger than either of the two previous numbers but takes a couple of weeks to get and publish.

        I doubt if anybody in the UK believes the US numbers. It’s well “known” here that the US healthcare system is a basket case and people over there often have to choose between medical health and financial health and therefore never go to hospital. Americans are dying in droves and not being counted – at least that is the perception. But it doesn’t actually matter unless you are indulging in oneupmanship. As long as the figures are counted consistently, so you can compare them day to day, that’s what matters.

        • phoffman56
          Posted April 30, 2020 at 7:22 am | Permalink

          “..the strategies of every country are geared towards herd immunity”

          I’d have to disagree somewhat with that, even though you presumably you mean ‘largely geared’ but not ‘entirely geared’

          It seems for example that Norway, Iceland, Denmark, Finland have largely geared it towards saving lives now, gambling slightly about how soon a successful vaccine will become available. Relative to Sweden, that saving of lives is probably far more dramatic so far than any of them expected.

          The US feds of course have no strategy at all, the only prominent regime members showing a bit of that, Fauci and the other MMDonald TV show person (woman with scarf..) are actually pretty feeble despite the media’s lionization. So I agree with what you say there, and also about the difficulty of comparing figures.

          However, just looking at a tricky figure like ratio of deaths to cases, the number is so ridiculous in South Dakota that one can be sure that it, with its Sarah-Palin-make-believe-governor, is doing everything possible to suppress death-by-virus numbers in order to make Mass Murderer donald look less bad than he is.

          The corresponding number for UK is looking pretty grim, but likely they are more honest than most. My wife is originally from ‘the Manchester ship canal’, i.e. Manchester towards Liverpool. We’ve lived over there in UK for about 6 years off and on, and with many relatives and friends. Fortunately so far no tragedies, even slight cases, as far as we know. Similarly but less surprising for a lesser number of close Norwegian friends. Here it’s okay for us so far as well.

          • Posted April 30, 2020 at 8:00 am | Permalink

            Sorry I misspoke. I meant entirely geared.

            There are two ways to acquire herd immunity. The first is for enough people to catch the disease such that eventually, its R0 value goes permanently below 1 through all potential hosts being immune or dead. The second is to vaccinate people until enough of them are immune to achieve the same effect on R0.

            Every country doing a lockdown is doing it to control the spread of the disease until a vaccine arrives that can be used to confer herd immunity safely. A lockdown is not a strategy that is sustainable in the long term. It’s a holding measure until something better comes along.

  3. Bruce Cochrane
    Posted April 29, 2020 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    To set the record straight, Friedman is not a trained economist, nor does he possess a doctorate in any discipline (other than likely honorary ones). And he has been wrong many times in the past, most notably with his support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His best work came early in his career, when he was a journalist covering the Middle East. Today, I place him in the ranks of squishy op-ed writers (like David Brooks) who want to sound important without offending anyone or risking their standing in the commentariat.

    • GBJames
      Posted April 29, 2020 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      I agree with your assessment although his work in the Middle East wasn’t particularly stellar. Beyond giving us the “Friedman Unit”, of course..

    • Filippo
      Posted April 29, 2020 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      What? One is not omniscient by virtue of being a reporter/journalist (as with being an MBA/JD CEO)?

    • Mike
      Posted April 29, 2020 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      “Look, Tom, I don’t pontificate about economics because I don’t know much about it. Could you do me the same favor with evolution?”

      Our host might be thinking of the other Tom who writes a column for the NYT (who is a Nobel-prize-winning economist).

    • Posted April 29, 2020 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      Well, yes, you’re right so I’ve fixed the “expertise” areas. That said, my post was about his misunderstandings of evolution.

  4. KD33
    Posted April 29, 2020 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    As for Sweden, I have my doubts as to whether its approach would work in the U.S. Consider the recent NYT report that only *6%* of hospitalized covid patients in a major NY hospital system did *not* have an underlying health condition. That is, severe illness from covid correlates at >90% with already poor health (much stronger even than with age, though of course those are themselves correlated). Now consider that obesity is 3x more prevalent in the US than Sweden. No doubt similar ratios hold for heart disease, diabetes, etc. So you can expect a far higher proportion of infected Americans requiring acute care than in Sweden. Goes to show how having a relatively unhealthy population limits choices and puts people at risk.

  5. Posted April 29, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    I have to say, this is a post about evolution; I didn’t intend it to be about Sweden vs. the U.S. But if you all want to talk about it, be my guest.

  6. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 29, 2020 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    As others have observed to humorous effect, the geographic and topological analogies employed by the NYT’s ranking porn mustache haven’t been all that precise either.

  7. Posted April 29, 2020 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Yes — well worth pointing out Friedman’s error. It’s not that complicated, and if a professional writer wants to refer to a scientific concept, they should take time to find out if their understanding of it accords with a text or a medieval fantasy.

    Regarding Sweden, their death toll is three times higher than Germany’s, which is now starting to re-open (infection rate is 0.75). I suspect that having held fairly well to the lockdown regulations, the country is well place to cautiously start opening up some areas again.

  8. Posted April 29, 2020 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Some species seem more durable than others, such as cockroaches. And I guess horseshoe crabs, although they may not survive humans bleeding them. Is this just accidental, or can we say a species is well adapted to its environment or durable to changes in said environment?

    • phoffman56
      Posted April 29, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      The biggest change in the environment for a great number of non-human species is simply the proliferation everywhere and in large numbers of us. Few are at all adapted to that, if there is such a possibility of becoming adapted to that, other than being one of those cockroaches or similar.

      • Posted April 29, 2020 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

        Cats and dogs have done well.

        • phoffman56
          Posted April 29, 2020 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

          It is said that chickens have harnessed the human species to vastly increase their numbers, fooling us into thinking we are exploiting them.

          OTOH, there is also the warning about the breeder chicken who strongly believes in statistical regularity, especially with respect to the farmer who always arrives in the morning with a nice breakfast on offer–oops, that axe today does look a bit peculiar??

  9. Posted April 29, 2020 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I have no problem with Friedman referring to “species” to represent the endeavor of all humans taken collectively. This is often done metaphorically. The problem is that he takes it further, mixing up biological concepts with cultural and economic ones. It is hard to know where the metaphors start and end. Using mixed up stuff like this, Friedman is contributing to the general misunderstanding of evolution by most of the species (ha!).

  10. Stultis the Fool
    Posted April 29, 2020 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Bravo!!!

  11. Ken Pidcock
    Posted April 29, 2020 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    That notion that adaptation is a process is very common and, to be fair, it takes some thinking to get past it. Even biologists have to catch themselves to avoid suggesting that adaptations arise in response to the environment.

  12. Posted April 29, 2020 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Let me just stop here and say this to Dr. Friedman: “Look, Tom, I don’t pontificate about economics because I don’t know much about it. Could you do me the same favor with evolution?”

    You’re too modest. Anyone can write on economics in much the same way as anyone can write on astrology — there’s no real knowledge involved in that field. The little bit of genuinely good work could fit into any number of other disciplines, math, game theory, (behavioural) psychology and so on.

    • Filippo
      Posted April 29, 2020 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

      “Anyone can write on economics in much the same way as anyone can write on astrology — there’s no real knowledge involved in that field.”

      May I congenially opine that perhaps that is debatable.

      That said, I have the (however subjective) perception that (like journalists and MBA/JD CEO’s) economists are omniscient by virtue of being economists.

      Professor Dawkins has uttered at at least a few public, recorded gatherings that his opposition to the public voting on Brexit is based on the complexity of the issues involved, and therefore best left to the experts, which I gather includes economists.

      I presume to think that most anyone not suffering a cognitive defect, and who is intellectually-curious and self-disciplined, can study and learn and be not totally incompetent to hold forth on a given topic.

      (Otherwise, why should there ever be the least possibility of the public voting on anything? Where does one draw the line on what the public should vote on, and who is qualified to draw that line? Why particularly should some editorial board’s collective opinion be worthy of notice?)

  13. Posted April 29, 2020 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    I think your last paragraph says it all. When one doesn’t know what one is talking about, it’s probably best to be circumspect. (I don’t think he has a doctorate, but that doesn’t really matter regarding your point…for a moment there I had him confused with Milton Friedman, but I don’t think they’re even related…and, of course, Milton is no longer with us).

    • Filippo
      Posted April 29, 2020 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

      ” . . . of course, Milton is no longer with us).

      Our loss in that he, by virtue of being an economist, and by his manifest self-confidence, would have the solution to any given problem.

  14. JezGrove
    Posted April 29, 2020 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    “The goal is to adapt”? I would hope even school kids would understand that the “goal” is to survive long enough to pass on your genes. And you don’t get to even choose which ones, of course – hence hereditary diseases.

  15. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted April 29, 2020 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    I see. Interesting.

  16. Posted April 29, 2020 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    As for the other issue about whether Sweden is doing it right, that depends on how much you tolerate policies that literally kill people. If you think its ok to sacrifice human lives — a lot of human lives — while keeping a relatively intact economy, then hooray for Sweden.

    • Paul Matthews
      Posted April 29, 2020 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

      I’m not an epidemiologist but, as mentioned in the article, isn’t it too soon to know whether Sweden’s approach is good or bad? A second wave could hit the countries that have had much stricter lockdowns much harder than it hits Sweden. The famous curve that, we were constantly told, needs flattening is far from complete. When the dust eventually settles, I think it’s quite possible that Sweden will not have had more casualties (adjusted for population, population densities, and any other relevant factors) than other countries, including their neighbours, and with a much healthier economy. Only time will tell whether the architects of Sweden’s buck-the-trend approach were very brave or very reckless.

      • phoffman56
        Posted April 29, 2020 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

        I would not completely dismiss the longterm possibility which you discuss. But I’d be quite ready at this point to bet 5 to 1 against it.

        Countries like Norway, Finland, Germany, Iceland and, maybe to a lesser extent Denmark, will be as follows:

        1/ They are likely to do a very careful partial restoration of their economies this year.

        2/ By 2021 early, or even a month earlier, there will very likely be a vaccine, which all can take. (In Sweden it will be mostly older people taking it, the ones who survived.)

        3/ Within a few months of that, their economies, including Sweden’s, will compare much like they have done in recent decades, though all will be somewhat poorer.

        4/ Sweden will have a (deaths per million due to the virus) far worse than the others. It might not be 6 times worse than Norway’s, as it is now. But it might be even higher. That number has gone from 4/1 to 6/1 in the last 3 weeks or so.

        About a week ago the Faux ‘News’ know nothings Hannity and Ingraham were intermixing this kind of stuff about the wonders of the Sweden method with their usual litany of lies. That may even be a factor in my prognostication above, I hope not.

        • Paul Matthews
          Posted April 30, 2020 at 8:54 am | Permalink

          Thanks for your reply. It is surely a delicate balance between preventing as many deaths as possible and avoiding excessive damage to the economy. Some jurisdictions are now gradually opening up, but for many of them I don’t see what’s changed: the virus is still out there (i.e., new cases are still appearing). Was the shut-down therefore overkill for them?

          I think that getting a vaccine as soon as possible is crucial, but I sometimes hear doubts as to whether there will be a vaccine, which is really scary.

          Also really scary are know-nothings (as you aptly describe them) with a lot of influence on health policy, such as one finds in the US and certain other countries (e.g., Brazil). I’m glad I don’t live in one of those countries.

          Just to be clear: I’m not advocating Sweden’s approach, just not prepared to dismiss it quite yet.

          • GBJames
            Posted April 30, 2020 at 8:59 am | Permalink

            “Was the shut-down therefore overkill for them?”

            I think those jurisdictions were, like South Dakota, rural and therefore late to the game. They were led by Republican governors who reasoned “We’re not China or New York”. They didn’t need to worry about it much because the power of prayer protected them. They are only not hitting their stride in the pandemic race.

            • GBJames
              Posted April 30, 2020 at 9:00 am | Permalink

              *only now

              • Paul Matthews
                Posted April 30, 2020 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

                Actually, some of the jurisdictions I was thinking of are right here in my country (Canada). The province of Quebec has decided to start opening up, amid considerable controversy, controversy that is justified in my opinion, as I don’t see that the situation has really changed in that province. Shutting down and opening up can’t both be the correct strategy for the same situation— if you’re opening up it seems to me that you’re tacitly claiming that shutting down was overkill. New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are also planning to start reopening, but these provinces are in a different situation: neither has recorded any new covid cases in some time; indeed PEI has hardly recorded any cases at all. As an island, PEI can control entry to its territory more easily than other provinces, although there may be far more boat traffic (in normal times) from neighbouring provinces than I realize. PEI is tiny, so being open internally but closed to the outside may not help them economically that much. I think they rely a lot on tourism. Indeed they are planning to allow people in from outside if they have summer homes in PEI and if they agree to quarantine for 14 days.

      • Steve
        Posted April 30, 2020 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        Is it too soon to say that the Sweden’s approach is good or bad? The question is a result of confusion in the media. Under Sweden’s law, the central government cannot order a lockdown, but Sweden has encouraged their citizens to shelter in place. Something that is relatively easy to do for many Swedes, and they seem to be complying. I am sheltering in place under a NY state order that no legal authority is actually enforcing (except to prevent big gatherings). So, Sweden is not really doing anything that different than most Western countries are doing. No one in the West has been punishing people who walk around. Each country is going to have varying levels of social distancing compliance, but the existence or non-existence of a law ordering social distancing does not determine the amount of social distancing.

        • Posted April 30, 2020 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

          You are aware, aren’t you, that, in contrast to most of the U.S., Sweden has schools and stores open, as well as cafes and barbershops. You’re talking only about sheltering. So when you say, “Sweden is not really doing anything that different than most Western countries are doing,” you don’t seem to know what you’re talking about.

          I’m not saying that Sweden’s approach is better (it could be; we just don’t know yet), but it’s certainly different from ours.

  17. Posted April 29, 2020 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Scientists don’t do themselves any favors when they take plain old English words and redefine them. Regular folk use “adapt” to refer to goal-seeking behavior and “adaption” to refer to the process. They also use it in reference to collective behavior, not just individual. I can see why evolutionary biologists saw the need to restrict the definition of “adapt” but they shouldn’t be surprised that it interferes with their ability to teach the subject to non-biologists.

    I suspect that this kind of definition mismatch contributes greatly to regular folk’s difficulty with science. Redefining words can seem like deliberate attempts to obfuscate. People often resent scientists’ private jargon. I realize it is hard for scientists to do otherwise as they need to communicate concepts precisely but they should be aware of the trouble it causes.

    • darrelle
      Posted April 29, 2020 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

      This is true, but heck, it’s true for any activity you could care to name. From basket weaving to zoology. I lean more towards the view that people should realize that all “trades” have their own special “language” and understand that if they don’t know it they should take the specialists word on the intended meaning rather than insisting on their own or the dictionary meaning.

      • Posted April 29, 2020 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

        Fair enough but it does mean people need to make it clear when they are using one of these sub-languages, especially when they are trying to communicate to non-specialists.

        I guess my main complaint here is that it is not fair to accuse Friedman of using evolution words incorrectly as he is not writing for that audience or on that subject. Sure, he does talk about adapting to what Nature throws at our species which leans toward evolution but he is not claiming to be explaining evolution or using evolution to make a point.

        “Species have no goals.” Well, our species actually does, both individually and collectively. Sure, I know what our host means by this but Friedman obviously was referring to our goals.

    • GBJames
      Posted April 29, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      That pairs well with “Scientists don’t do themselves any favors by coining new word all the time. Jargon should be avoided whenever possible.” Eh?

      • Posted April 29, 2020 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        You just misquoted me and then expressed incredulity at what I didn’t say. Eh back at you!

        • GBJames
          Posted April 29, 2020 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

          Huh? I didn’t quote you at all. I offered the other half of the no-win situation.

    • phoffman56
      Posted April 29, 2020 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      It would be interesting to know whether the verb ‘adapt’ was much used before Darwin, and what its common meaning was then: as now, or different. Perhaps always pairing ‘random’ with it, as well as with the molecular mechanism, would make it easier to avoid misconceptions. But if you took a random survey about ‘random’, there might be a low percentage saying anything remotely knowledgeable about that word.

  18. Posted April 29, 2020 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    Scientists and Mathematicians try to maintain precision in the language they use. Social Sciences, Literature, History, etc. tend to modify word usages over time in a more flexible manner. Take a quick glance at the OED about the evolution of word meanings over time.

    I once took a poetry course in which we read the wonderful British poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. In his poem, “The Windhover” he uses the word “buckle” which has about 17 different meanings. My poetry professor stated that most, if not all, of the meanings
    were applicable in this poem. The poem is about a bird hovering in the air before the sun. From the perspective of the poet, all of a sudden the bird flies downward and was seen to “buckle” (which can refer to a belt or something breaking apart). (Back to the OED). This is thought by many readers to beHopkin’s best poem. He also thought it was his best poem.

  19. Posted April 30, 2020 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    First of all, species are not “adaptive” but “adapted”. Species have no goals, much less to “adapt” (to what?).

    I’m not sure I understand this. If you have a population of individuals in a species and you put it in a new environment, after a few millennia, you’ll find that all the living individuals are adapted to that environment. Is it wrong to say “species adapt to their environment over time”? Or is that incorrect usage of the term “species”?

    Of course individuals definitely don’t adapt, they either live to reproduce or they don’t and a lot of people seem to selectively forget about the second part of that “our ancestors survived Spanish flu”. Yes, but, lots of people still died.

    • Posted April 30, 2020 at 4:24 am | Permalink

      Clarification: it’s the first bit I don’t understand. I fully understand that species don’t have goals, but I don’t think having goals is a necessary precondition to being able to adapt. Water adapts to the shape of the container you put it in but it doesn’t have goals.

      • Posted April 30, 2020 at 9:26 am | Permalink

        Yes, but when water adapts it isn’t evolution.

        • Posted April 30, 2020 at 9:29 am | Permalink

          I’m not claiming it is. I’m only claiming that things can adapt without having any goal.

          • ThyroidPlanet
            Posted April 30, 2020 at 9:41 am | Permalink

            In this case I’d argue that the word to use to describe the water and the vessel is “conform”. Water conforms to the container (at room temperature LOL).

          • Posted April 30, 2020 at 9:44 am | Permalink

            My point has been that the confusion noted in this post is over the definition of words such as “adapt”. Evolutionary biologists would prefer that their restricted definition hold sway whenever the conversation makes any reference to “evolution”, “survival of the fittest”, etc, as Friedman did in his article. I have no problem with your use of “adapt” in its more general sense as you were not writing a scientific paper on evolution.

            • Posted April 30, 2020 at 9:46 am | Permalink

              But the overall point is that things can adapt without having any kind of goal. All the nitpicking about my water analogy doesn’t affect any of that.

              • Posted April 30, 2020 at 9:52 am | Permalink

                I see. So you’re saying your use of “adapt” is consistent with the evolutionary biology definition as it isn’t being used to describe goal-seeking behavior. However, you can’t say “water adapts” but only “water has adapted”. 😉

      • GBJames
        Posted April 30, 2020 at 9:30 am | Permalink

        Water doesn’t adapt. It flows.

  20. Path coin
    Posted April 30, 2020 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Some principles:
    To stop the virus, herd immunity is required. Herd immunity emerges when a significant portion of the population develops a protective immune response.

    To treat an individual with the virus requires a nuanced approach.

    An individual can be:
    Infected but not symptomatic.
    Infected and minimally symptomatic.
    Infected, symptomatic and progressing with onset of shortness of breath.
    Infected, symptomatic, onset of shortness of breath, and development of ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome)

    This progression is a continuum and not a discrete step.

    This can be visualized as pyramid. Only those at the top of the pyramid need to be treated.

    This begs the question: why some and not all?

    Here we have some insight:
    Those with DM-2 (diabetes type 2) are at most risk for developing shortness of breath and ARDS.
    Why? the mechanism is straight forward: They are an altered immune system and hyperglycemia. Hyperglycemia inactivates IRF5. IRF5 is necessary to keep the immune system under control. They have an altered immune system with an overly robust TH17/TH1 arm. This is the basis of autoimmune disease. Add to that the loss of IRF5 and the result is a cytokine storm.

    You can have all the selective pressures you want. This will not alter the underlying biology. (There probably is a degree of a genetic component in some patients).

    The only selective pressure needed is the removal of food stuffs in diets that induce hyperglycemia.

  21. Steve
    Posted April 30, 2020 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    I blame all of the biologists. If you stopped using the term “evolution” and used Darwin’s phrase “descent with modification” it might be easier for people to understand that the process has no direction, that “selection” is just a filtering out of what happens not to be reproducing at any moment rather that a process that select for a trait, which is where the source of the confusion comes from. But, I guess it is too late to change terminology.

    • Posted April 30, 2020 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Nope. Biologists like Gould, Dawkins, and even I have emphasized what evolution is. It’s the public’s fault for not understanding what evolution is. And what evolutionist in popular writings have said that evolution HAS a direction. In fact, evolution popularizers have said just the opposite.

      “I blame ALL OF THE BIOLOGISTS”? You blame US for Friedman’s misunderstanding? Give me a break!

      • Pathcoin
        Posted April 30, 2020 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        The problem is the term. Evolution means moving from an inferior state to a superior state. What is inferior and what is superior is a matter of perspective. In terms of numbers, viruses, bacteria, the entire microbial world is superior to homo-sapiens. In terms of robustness and adaptability the same is true. The superior nature of homosapiens appears to be species centric fallacy.

        Most the time evolution means adaptation. The systems are already in place. The selective pressures of the environment bring the systems to the forefront.

        True evolution, with the advent of novel genes, novel functions, novel networks, runs into the conundrum of irreducibly complexity; and the natural conservatism of all organisms to maintain the integrity of their DNA/RNA.

        • Posted April 30, 2020 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

          Clearly you don’t understand evolution, either. NOBODY says “evolution means moving from an inferior state to a superior state”. That’s only true insofar as one construes evolution as “natural selection” and “superior” meaning “a gene that leaves more copies than alternative forms of the gene.”

          Sorry, but you’re purveying gobbledygook with your talk of conflating “superiority” in this way with “numbers.”

          I see from the “irreducible complexity” trope that you’re an intelligent design proponent and most likely a creationist, but certainly an anti-evolutionist. I suggest you go post at the Discovery Institute. Oh wait–they don’t take comments.


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