Can Evolutionary Mismatch theory explain Covid madness?

‘Mismatch theory represents the idea that traits that evolved in an organism in one environment can be disadvantageous in a different environment. ‘

I have tried, in earlier posts, here and here, to pin down the reasons for the wholly disproportionate response to Covid by politicians, health professionals and the population at large. Finally, I have a name for the phenomenon that I theorise lies behind this mistake.

In August 2020 a nationwide survey revealed that the British public held a shockingly exaggerated belief of the severity of the Covid threat (see graph below). Argument has raged about the correct way to interpret these results. Furthermore, the actual mortality figure, by then about 0.1%, was not given as an option (why!?), so I’m prepared to be generous to the 50% who answered 1%, and credit them with something closer to the truth. But it still seems clear to me that about a quarter of the population believed the mortality figure to be many orders of magnitude greater than the real figure.

That being so, it’s not surprising that so few people have objected to the ruinously expensive, and socially destructive measures imposed upon them by their governments, who in turn claim to be ‘following the science’. But the question remains: why are people in our kind of society predisposed to exaggerate the dangers they see in their environment? Why did the fantasy predictions of the likes of Neil Ferguson find such ready acceptance, and why was his extensive record of observationally contradicted forecasts so readily forgotten? Why has every suggestion of a potent treatment or prophylaxis for Covid faced both an outpouring of scorn, and a burden of proof far greater than that faced, for instance, by the unproven theory that ‘lockdowns save lives’?

The medical professionals, who arguably are the people with the responsibility to correct an exaggerated public fear of an epidemic virus, have a positive disincentive to do so, because their moral hazard operates to punish perceived underestimates of hazard, while the absence (pace Sweden) of a counterfactual pretty much sees to it that exaggeration can be expected to go unpunished. Add to this the almost pathological aversion of the medical profession to uttering the words “we just don’t know”, and its contribution to the panic that has gripped the western world has been considerable. But the seeds of panic could surely not have produced such a rich crop of terror if they had not fallen on highly fertile ground. So, what is the source of that fertility?

My suspicion has been that the answer lies in evolutionary psychology, but I have been dissatisfied by my efforts so far to describe the phenomenon I have in mind, and I certainly didn’t know that it had a name. Watching a Youtube clip about Vitamin D and Covid, however, I learned not only that it’s a good idea to maintain your Vitamin D, but that chronic Vitamin D deficiency is thought to be a consequence of our having evolved in warm, sunny parts of the earth, where an existence spent largely outdoors would produce adequate levels of Vitamin D. Our intellectual prowess, however, enabled us to colonise successfully environments where sunlight exposure is greatly reduced, with a speed which outstripped our ability adapt, resulting in a tendency to Vitamin D deficit. This phenomenon has a name – evolutionary mismatch.

‘Evolutionary mismatch is the idea that physiological and psychological adaptations operate in environments that differ meaningfully from the environments in response to which they originally evolved.’

Vitamin D deficiency is an example of physiological evolutionary mismatch. I suggest that the (literally) demented response to Covid 19 – a moderately nasty virus from which 99% of our population can expect to recover, and which a good third of the population, if they get it, will experience asymptomatically – is an example of psychological evolutionary mismatch; a mismatch between the risk environment to which homo sapiens has adapted, and the rapidly (in evolutionary terms) reduced risk environment which most of us now experience in our daily lives.

Any organism which had to evaluate, consciously and from first principles, the inherent risks, and potential rewards of each choice it made would be at a great disadvantage to rivals equipped with the innate ability, with reasonable success, to spontaneously perform the risk/reward calculation. And for a species, that’s probably true even if the former gets it right 100% of the time, and the latter makes the odd bad call, and gets eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger. So long as the individuals getting eaten by sabre-toothed tigers are predominantly male, and don’t all get eaten, the species will propagate. For an intelligent, imaginative species like homo sapiens, a highly evolved, innate risk/reward calculator is a strong predictor of evolutionary success.

Challenged by a threat, a good risk/reward evaluation has several elements:

  • Evaluate the risk, as accurately as possible;
  • Identify plausible responses to the threat;
  • Evaluate, in the case of each response, the extent to which it diminishes the risk (the reward)
  • Evaluate the extent to which each response entails contingent risks;
  • Choose the response that offers the best balance of risk, reward and contingent risk.
  • Having acted on the choice, evaluate the outcome, and use it to inform and improve future choices.

The last step is crucial, since it provides a mechanism through which the individual’s inherited risk/reward assessment ability can be improved in the course of a life.

Since the Newtonian revolution in science, though, and certainly since WW2, the lives of individuals in the developed world have been characterised by rapidly diminishing numbers of risk vs reward challenges, which have largely been replaced by ‘reward vs more reward’ evaluations, at a pace far greater than evolutionary adaptation could match. We therefore continue to inherit an expectation of risk challenge which is mismatched to our experience.

Emile Durkheim, trying to explain the rise of suicide in 19th century France, proposed that the division of labour that accompanied industrialisation had deprived workers of the sense of purpose that was necessary to their psychological health, leading to a dystopic condition he called ‘anomie’. I suspect that something analogous may occur when we are deprived of risk challenge. Deprived of risk, we tend to become anxious and alienated. Evidence for this can be seen in the growth of risk-seeking recreation. Skiing, surfing and hang-gliding may be one way of restoring our sense of equilibrium – another may be to ‘big up’ real, but trivial risks until they match what our primitive instincts tell us to expect of the world.

Furthermore, and perhaps more crucially for our response to real, but increasingly infrequent risk challenges such as Covid, it may be that just as our immune systems depend for their effectiveness upon frequent challenge, so do our inherited risk/reward calculators, and that, insufficiently challenged, they atrophy, or simply go haywire.

This would certainly go a long way towards explaining the Covid craziness that I see all about me.

I’m painfully aware that this post may be re-inventing some evolutionary psychologist’s wheel, but in researching it I couldn’t find any work which addressed this form of evolutionary mismatch directly. Can any Harrumpf reader do any better? If so, please leave a comment/link.

Tom Forrester-Paton

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