Imagine a forest people whose children build forts in the trees.

What would you think of them if they permitted their children free rein to climb to their hideouts during a severe thunderstorm?

You might think such people know nothing of convection, static electricity, conduction and cardiac arrest.

“Tell your children to come out of the trees and seek shelter!” you advise.

But they are an intransigent people, and proud of their intransigence. “Don’t tell us what to do!”

Public Health New Laws

People celebrate Aug. 12 after the Salt Lake County Council voted to overturn a school mask order for kids under the age of 12 issued by the county’s top health official. Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

When you offer them information about electricity and biology, they respond with dodges and excuses. They act as if lightning is harmless.

“Our children were born to climb trees and it would harm them to forbid it.”

“Only 0.01 percent of lightning strikes lead to injury, and of those injured, only 0.01 percent die.”

“Mind your own children. Your fear stops at my child’s freedom.”

There are many problems with the analogy, of course. Thunderstorms exist completely independent of children’s behavior: Climbing trees does not make thunderstorms worse.

Short of all children joining hands, electrical shock, injury and death do not spread from child to child, or from child to grandparent.

And there is no known prophylactic to lightning strikes, other than seeking shelter.

The analogy does illustrate our current predicament, though, in which huge segments of the population act as if the principles of evolution by natural selection do not exist.

It is tragic, because the principles are freely taught and surprisingly easy to understand, despite the seemingly infinite complexities of biology.

In the last chapter of “On the Origin of Species,” his “big book,” Charles Darwin – who was nothing if not thorough – repeats and refines this list of principles for his lay audience.

The primary one is “Reproduction” (Darwin supplies the capital letter), of which all of us are products and in which most of us participate. This includes the coronaviruses. Arguably the most witless of all creatures – if viruses may even be considered as such – the profligate delta variant is perhaps the ultimate testament to replication as the primary driver of evolution.

Darwin next lists inheritance and “Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life.” Here Darwin is not just vague but wrong. He had not read about Mendel’s worldview-altering breeding experiments with peas and therefore could not know that variability is caused by mutating genes. And yet once the correct mechanism was plugged into Darwin’s theory, the theory became stronger, even irrefutable.

This variability might be called the whole point of reproduction. And it is key to understanding the current tragedy of having so many people resisting vaccination, masking and social distancing: Variability – with the capital “V” Darwin supplied – is slowly killing us.

We should have gotten the point in the forms alpha, beta, gamma and delta. This virus is not going to stop changing, and in fact, our complacent and nonchalant behavior is only ensuring its further mutation.

Finally, there is in nature, as Darwin describes it, “a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life.” This is the Malthusian core of Darwin’s theory, and it describes the teeth of our current dilemma: Either we change and adapt to this virus, or we sicken and die of it.

With culture, we humans have the never-before-seen ability to consciously alter the course of natural selection.

But it’s as if those hypothetical forest dwellers, watching their children getting struck down, were to plead ignorance of the principles of electricity and the effects of lightning on their bodies, all to just do what they have always done.

We now have actual choice in the Darwinian dilemma: Either vaccinate, mask and socially distance, or keep sickening and dying.

I’m sure Darwin would agree that huge segments of the population not heeding his views is indeed a sickening spectacle.


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