STANDISH — The powers of natural variation and selection, both groping toward success, have given us such breathtaking paradoxes as lung-bearing mammals that live thousands of feet below the surf, large-winged birds that remain hopelessly land-bound and Republican social Darwinists.

The latter are a wonder in their ubiquity. As the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic worsens, many on the right are stampeding toward an illusory herd immunity. Calls have emanated even from the White House for us to “live with it,” which, of course, prompts the question of how many of us must then die of it. This letting the unfit perish for the sake of the fit is the essence of social Darwinism.

The administration’s new pandemic adviser, Scott Atlas, advocates somehow “safely reopening the economy” and letting the disease spread while simultaneously protecting “the known vulnerable,” never mind that everyone is vulnerable at some level.

At the onset of the epidemic, Sweden eschewed strict lockdowns while advocating some social distancing and “folkvett,” meaning leaving it up to individuals to practice common sense. Thus, early on, they groped toward the Holy Grail of herd immunity.

Herd immunity is the idea that, when somewhere north of 40 percent of the population becomes infected with the virus, enough people will end up producing antibodies that the disease would be stopped in its tracks.

Sweden, alas, has now lost almost 6,000 of its citizens. The country suffers a 6.6 percent case fatality rate, whereas its next-door neighbors, Finland, Denmark and Norway, which exercised strict lockdowns, have rates of 3.7 percent, 2.6 percent and 2 percent respectively.

A term exists for such “letting nature take its course,” for allowing the infirm to die while the fit continue shopping and attending indoor political rallies. It is called “natural selection.” This is the blind process of letting the chips fall where they may: Those who survive get to propagate their kind – that is, their genes – to the next generation.

But when such natural selection is aided, abetted and encouraged by the government, it goes by another, more jarring name – social Darwinism. That such savagery is being touted by pro-life Republicans is nothing short of a hoot, given what we know about what Republicans think of Darwin.

Vice President Mike Pence delivered an infamous address as a member of Congress in 2002, during which he made the tiresome error of referring to evolution as not a “fact” but “just a theory.” He also stated that “only the theory of intelligent design provides (an) even remotely rational explanation for the known universe.” One may conclude from this that not only does Pence not “believe” in evolution, he does not even understand what it is or how it works.

And what about Pence’s boss? What is his stance on the idea that philosopher Daniel Dennett called “the single best idea anyone has ever had”? Trump has remained strangely mum on the subject, but if he is asked whether he believes in evolution or in creationism, he has been told by advisers to respond, “I believe in both.” His evasions yield to a decidedly Darwinian policy on disease: that is what happens when we allow nature to have its way instead of sensibly intervening as a civilization.

Inklings of this right-wing feeding frenzy go back a long way. I remember when a new disease then called GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) began to spread around the country. Soon its name was changed to AIDS, and President Reagan’s then-press secretary, Larry Speakes, treated questions about it as a joke. “I don’t have it, do you?” Speakes said to journalist Lester Kingsolving.

Fast forward several decades to a tea party debate, when CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked presidential contender Ron Paul a hypothetical question about the fate of the uninsured should they become gravely ill. (Paul was against national health insurance.) “Should society just let them die?” Blitzer asked. From the audience came hoots, cheers and shouts of “Yeah!”

But now, it is not just subgroups (gay people, the uninsured) affected by incipient catastrophe; COVID-19, a novel product of natural selection, respects no orientations, political, sexual or otherwise.

Natural selection has also given us culture, a power that – paradoxically enough – allows us to understand and thus ameliorate the power of natural selection itself. The question is: Will we use such power wisely?


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