Ecology is a great tool. It was created to make a systematic description of a species, all its needs, its predators and prey, how it behaves, where it lives and how it dies. I work on a rather theoretical study of human ecology. It's quite revealing and shows some problems humanity faces, some solutions, and some surprises. What it shows is the changes going on now are far greater than we usually think. The background of this is that when we created the farms and cities of civilization, we started leaving behind the old tribal ecology that we developed in and are still mostly adapted to. It has and is going to present a number of challenges. The surprise is just how complete those changes will be, but this latest coronavirus seems to show a broader principle of the change than I had really focused on when looking at how we need to respond to these changes. I have mostly take an individual view but this is broader. I've spent a number of decades trying to describe the problems humans face from these changes and some solutions. The challenge is that we have to create and adapt to a very new ecology. We left one ecology and we need another relatively stable one to develop and survive in the long term. That is how a species doesn't go extinct. It's even more difficult because it is not an ecology that exists in nature. It is one we must create and maintain. I refer to that new ecology as Civilization for a few reasons, though it might be an unusual name for an ecology. It works though and just a simple civilization can provide over twenty times the resources that a hunter-gatherer ecology could. It's more pleasant as well.
Nature gives all living things genetic and behavioral strategies. The trouble is that they tend to be very simplistic and limited. They are mindless, brutal and have been known as "red of tooth and claw". They aren't good enough for the complicated and quickly changing world of humans. We've had to create our own strategies such as laws, philosophy, science, custom, and culture. I wrote one book called Genetics For A New Human Ecology that described that Nature's genetic strategy, Natural Selection, wasn't going to be enough to support human civilization. Humans would have to add their own strategy to it. I've been working on a book called Strategy For A New Human Ecology but this new virus seems to show something more general. Just as nature's genetic strategies not only won't be enough to support human civilization and can actually become a problem, this principle is far more generally true. The Strategic Principles of Nature also not only aren't adequate for humans but actually seem to be a problem. Let me give a few examples and then a couple of observations from them that the problem of the virus seems to show.
The genetic strategy of nature is Natural Selection, a very blunt and dumb strategy that only works over long time periods. It is also very wasteful. It not only gets rid of the weak but by operating in mammals by aggressive competition, it also wastes a lot of the strong and a lot of resources. Humans have changed things though. We've created medicine and made other changes that have lowered the rate of natural selection. We are older parents, so our children have more mutations in each generation. We will accumulate a "genetic load" of broken genes which will lead to disaster. To maintain civilization, we need to find better genetic strategies. Our genes are our greatest wealth. The ethnic variation of humanity is the raw material we will need to adapt to an unknown future. We need to husband our genes like any other form of wealth. My Genetics book describes the problem as well as how to ethically and economically solve this problem by allowing everyone, weak and strong, to preserve and enhance the best genes they have. Husbanding our genes by using Pre-Implantation Artificial Selection would imitate natural selection at a low cost. It would not only clean out broken genes as natural selection does, but it would allow selection for "good" genes, something that natural selection can only do over vast time frames. We sort of need that because we are changing ecologies, a very demanding time for us. Also, in the tribal ecology, if you were healthy, willing to struggle to survive and got lucky, you could probably survive in an evolutionary sense. In the future, you're also going to need to be smart. Using artificial selection could allow us all to become much smarter and adapt to that new ecology.
The point of this is to outline some places where you can see that the behavioral strategies nature gave us for survival aren't very good or can even become a problem. Humans can make better strategies for the same problems.
You would expect to see this problem in cases of humanity's greater accomplishments. One of our greatest accomplishments is our governments. They are critically important to the functioning of the larger society of a civilization. The American government is based on a number of philosophical sources including the Ancient Greeks, the Rationalist Philosophers of the Enlightenment, Native American political systems and other sources. The Preamble to the American Constitution is probably among the two most profound moral statements in Western culture. The American Constitution is an extremely well thought out and developed piece of law. Right now, America is in a political crisis years in the making. Did some "Principles of Nature" lead to this? A lot of people will point to the start of the current dysfunctional politics as being Newt Gingrich's Contract For America. It brought a new kind of conflict to politics. Well, Mr. Gingrich is an admirer of biological systems and has said that he wanted to bring biological principles to government. Nature is uncompromising, human systems like democracy must be. Democracy was about compromise and consensus. Mr. Gingrich said it was about winning. Nature is win-lose. Democracy must be win-win or you no longer will have the consent of the governed. Loche described the result. There will be endless conflict.
Taking the view of a biologist it is easy to see many cases where we use principles of nature in our society. Ours has become a brutal society of Social Darwinism that has led to a great social and economic division. In nature, all the socially and economically disenfranchised would become the short or long term subjects of natural selection and frankly many are becoming so out of drug abuse and other stresses. Worse, many young people see no future or decide that they cannot afford to have a family. The problem of health care is well known. The cost of medical care or just the difficulty of getting that care can be more personally crippling than the medical problem. This can be very true of mental health problems. Once a person takes a personal hit of any kind, it naturally leads to a financial hit and recovery can be nearly impossible. Many live in dread of that one "natural" calamity that can knock them out of the social stream. Many still lead lives of silent fear and desperation.
At the same time, natural principles are all about efficiency and competition. Business follows those principles. Corporations seem like life forms and naturally function with those "natural principles" always striving for efficiency and competing. The problem is that humans are often already out of the competition. Machines are extremely efficient so we are rushing to "digital transformation", a nice term for automation. Sometimes it can be a benefit, but if "businesses" had their way, expensive and inefficient humans would not be part of their equation.
So the question is what does this virus reveal about our social systems, the natural principles they operate under and the problems from that. Does this apply to our response to the virus? Does it apply to our economy? You see the answers to questions like this when the system is put under stress, like now.
One of the first things we see is the lack of planning. A principle of Nature is that it may or may not prepare for change. When things change, some populations simply do not survive. A Darwinian system only has room for the fittest but that can mean anything including just the luckiest. Birds show a great example of this in the context of oil spills. Oil leakages have always been a natural, though uncommon feature of geology, sort of like volcanoes. While some animals have defenses against oil leakages, the birds just die. Why haven't birds developed any defenses or adaptations to the oil? Nature certainly doesn't care and the birds can just be quickly re-colonize from other areas outside the disaster. Human civilization though is something that is built. When destroyed by natural or human-made disasters, rebuilding can be a huge problem. Does that matter though? Not to nature certainly. It works by natural selection, that is by death, but a civilization is weakened if part of it is injured. There is also a matter of human choice. Looking at the Preamble of the Constitution again, we see an agreement that We The People will work for all our mutual benefit and due to the nature of civilization, it is the win-win of mutual benefit. Nature can't fight back against a disease or other natural disaster. It is just humans that do that. We do not "just let nature take its course". Certainly there is much that we cannot control and between human strategy and nature there must be a balance but just letting things go that we can control is simply giving in to the mindless strategies of nature. That is not a good strategy for humans.
What will this virus show us about our economic system? We've well seen how brutal unregulated capitalism can be. Instead of capitalism being about using capital as a tool of production, it is used as a tool of control and exploitation. It's brutal like nature is. We can see that this virus is going to hurt so many people and businesses. Because of the Social Darwinism that we have practiced, many of both will go under. It's going to hurt the entire society and economy. It will hurt our civilization. A large part of the problems that will come from the virus will be because the never ending "natural" fight for efficiency means there is little slack for disruption. People don't have the money or other resources to deal with disruption. The entire civilization suffers because a large part of it will be damaged. Our civilization is our ecology, which means it is our life support system. We can't be letting it take hit after hit from natural principles. We have to follow human patterns, like the Constitution, that overrides natural principles and protects People, Our Nation, Our Civilization and all we have built. Nature doesn't really build. Only humans use that strategy.
Our human strategies are embodied in our laws, our sciences, our culture, our moral principles and the body of knowledge called philosophy. The thinkers of early civilizations could look out their city gates and see humanity subject to nature. It's why they developed philosophies, to elevate humanity above the animals. In the larger scheme of things, there must be a balance between Natural Principles and Human Strategy, but the two tend to be very different and in a complicated conflict. It seems that human strategies should be used where they can because they are usually better than nature's strategies - when they can be sustained. Where human strategies can replace nature's strategies, nature's strategies will not occur. Where human strategies can not act, nature's strategies will. An example might be that nature's strategy of natural selection can remove de novo mutations, but if a human strategy of artificial selection removed de novo mutations, natural selection would not be acting on them. At the same time, there are things like moral instinct or immune systems that I really don't see humans being able to manage anytime soon with genetic husbandry. They are just too complicated so natural selection will still act on those. At the other end of the scale might be "status". Anthropologists can tell you all about the importance of status because it is a powerful part of our reproductive strategy to allow an individual to mate with the most fit individual they can get access to. At the same time, it is responsible for much of what might be called weird or even destructive human behavior, possibly including greed. If genetic technology can improve genetic outcomes greatly, then will the drive for status be reduced? Will we be able to afford to use status as a strategy less?
I'm going to have to think about this but it seems that the balance between nature's strategies and human strategies should be to use human strategies where possible for a better outcome, but nature will act if the human strategy doesn't take care of the problem. Sometimes human judgment will be able to understand that Nature's strategy actually leads to a better outcome or a more maintainable one but that too will be a human strategy.