Change, Mutation, Evolution and the Real End of History?

The latest pandemic threat, Omicron, raises contrasting theories. If change is inevitable, then the recent spat of viruses only reminds us that we were too comfortable in our previous lives. We should always expect some change. On the other hand, if Omicron is a mutation of a virus that came from a laboratory error, then there is nothing inevitable about the threat. Stuff not only happens, but we are also responsible for it. Finally, in the larger picture, we may be witnessing blowback for our hubristic way of life. Just like with climate change, the biosphere is telling us that we have gone too far.

There are those who welcome change and those who fear it. The first includes risk takers, the second true conservatives. But whatever camp you are in, change will happen. Time will move forward. The role of nostalgia should never be minimized. Early 20th century generations lived through two world wars. Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) lived through a golden age of Western growth following World War II. It is natural for the first group to want change; it is natural for the second group to want the good times to continue to roll.

The mutation of the virus poses considerable quandaries. For now, experts simply call it a “variant of concern”. Will the new variant be more contagious? Will it be more virulent and deadly? Will the existing vaccines be effective against it? For the moment, there are no answers, just as there are no answers about where the original COVID-19 came from. Whatever the answers to these questions, the latest variant implies that a series of mutations has taken place from the original virus. There have been at least five known major variants of the original SARS-CoV- 2 virus; the English variant (Alpha), the first South African variant (Beta), the Brazilian variant (Gama), the Indian variant (Delta) and the new South African variant Omicron.

If we accept the mutation/variant thesis, we assume that more mutations and variants will appear. Once a new virus gets started changing, why should it stop? How will we live with that? Will one type of vaccine be able to protect us from all future mutations? A drug resistant strain of tuberculosis has proliferated.

The larger picture is always the most difficult to understand and predict. (A dear friend continually reminds me that I spend too much time surfing current news and should spend more time diving below the surface to deal with a larger picture.) The good times have allowed us to ignore restraints. The good times have rolled to the detriment of the climate and Planet Earth. The good times now may be rolling to the detriment of our immediate health as well.

Despite considerable efforts and advances in science and technology, we may be suffering from our exorbitant lifestyles. While polio and other diseases such as influenza seem to be under control, Mother Nature has given us another reminder that we are not the ultimate determinants of our fate. We may be pushing the rock up the hill, but there is no definitive point at which we can successfully reach the summit and relax. Climate change and pandemics will not go away.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, people took the Soma pill to find happiness. Under its influence, there were no violent storms, droughts, volcanic eruptions or pandemics. Wellness was simple to find with a simple pill. No mediation or effort was needed. (A little alcohol from time to time was also helpful.) The book was written between the two world wars (1932) and gives the illusion that there was a simple means of finding happiness. Forget all worldly problems, pop the pill and float. The society’s motto was “everybody’s happy now”. More recently, LSD prophet Timothy Leary proposed much the same solution: “Turn on, tune in, drop out”.

But, it seems, the outside world is upon us. Whether one believes it is through inevitable change, biological mutation or simple evolution, we are being confronted with a different reality than we had in 2019. No one will argue against the change although we do argue about the causes and solutions.

We could lose ourselves in Soma-like medication. We could also totally despair. Or we could show that the word “resilient” is not just a description of individuals, but also of societies including and up to the entire biosphere. But that kind of theorizing I leave to the true deep divers. It is enough for this dedicated surfer to just raise the questions and quandaries.


Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.