Evolutionary Anthropology in the Time of COVID-19

We are in the midst of a global crisis and a national reckoning. As we move toward then end of our pandemic summer, with countries opening back up and protests sparking  worldwide as folks fight for the right of Black communities to live freely without fear and prejudice, one can question what these tumultuous events mean for the future of our species. I had the chance to speak with Agustín Fuentes, former chair of the Anthropology Department at the University of Notre Dame and incoming professor to the Anthropology Department at Princeton University, about this very question. I wanted to know his take on the evolutionary processes of SARS-COV2 and the impacts of COVID-19, but also what he sees our role is as anthropologists during this crisis. 

Pandemics and the evolutionary process

Fuentes makes clear that pandemics, in the contemporary context and as we experience them now, are extremely recent in our evolutionary history. Our current experience of population, group, and co-residential densities as well as the particular kinds of multispecies relationships that come together to facilitate pandemics at this scale are a relatively recent phenomena when looking across evolutionary time. Fuentes instead suggests that the question we should be asking is, How are pandemics changing?

Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first US case of COVID-19.
Image description: Circular blue objects with small black dots on them cluster together among black and white surroundings.
Caption: Transmission electron microscopic image of an isolate from the first US case of COVID-19, formerly known as 2019-nCoV. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-section through the viral genome, seen as black dots.
CDC Public Health Image Library


Only recently, evolutionarily, have we had the population numbers, densities, and social, cultural, ecological, and economic-political practices that facilitate the emergence of pandemics like that of COVID-19. We can instead look at if pandemics are going to shift evolutionary processes—a question that can only be answered by thinking about it on multiple levels. The extended evolutionary synthesis (EES) is an ideal tool to look at this. Fuentes comments that when thinking of evolutionary processes, one immediately thinks of the selective effects of SARS-COV2 and its resultant disease (i.e. natural selection). However, he argues that selection impacts are likely fairly minimal in a traditional sense, because those of post-reproductive age, such as the elderly, tend to be most at risk. But, this does not mean that evolutionary processes are not impacted; Fuentes points out that, in fact, what the viral impact and its pathological effects on humans is actually doing is radically altering behavioral and ecological profiles restructuring the contemporary niche, which has critical downstream effects on health, reproduction, and psychological well-being.

It is imperative that we see this pandemic as a biosocial event.

So instead, we can now ask how is the pandemic reshaping the way in which dynamic processes are occurring in the human niche? He gives the example, social interaction: social interactions are critical to healthy functioning and absolutely necessary for reproductive output, but they have been radically restrained through practices such as physical distancing, isolation, and quarantine. One could argue that this sort of change in the social niche has impacted the individual, not so much from the actual physiological morbidity or mortality of the virus, but from the broad scale social, political, and economic changes happening, and even the perceptions of risk, could be radically altering behavior and bodies.

He remarks that there is probably enormous variation in how human bodies are responding to this viral load, which is not necessarily being selected for or against, though the of impact on morbidity and mortality is also highly variable. Fuentes argues that this is because all of this is in the context of systemic processes of violence from racism, colonialism, and the variety of other contexts which have resulted in embodied developmental trajectories and impacts that predispose entire populations or large segments of populations to a much higher risk of morbidity from the same viral infection and the same viral load. He asserts that in this pandemic, what we are experiencing is not just a biological phenomenon, but also a social one.

A biosocial phenomena

It is imperative that we see this pandemic as a biosocial event. Though SARS-COV2 is a biological entity that has specific biological, deleterious, pathological impacts on the human respiratory system (among others), the biological information is meaningless without the social, historical, political, and economic context. Fuentes gives the example of hand washing. If you understand the structure of the coronavirus, you would see how just some soap and water lifts the outer layers and can save billions of people. But that knowledge of biology is completely useless when there is no access to running water like in a refugee camp or a homeless encampment, or even in some of the Indigenous reservations here in the United States.

Another critical question Fuentes feels anthropologists are poised to answer and that people should be taking much more seriously is, What is the role of human-other animal relationships?

He also discusses how as anthropologists that study the human experience, we must be the first to point out that COVID-19 is a result of colonial, racist, empire-building, and capitalist structuring of exchange and resource-use networks. This is the system that structures of violence want to exist in and in which biology is playing out. If we don’t connect those two things, we cannot curtail this pandemic. Though he feels optimistic about a vaccine, Fuentes warns that if we see the vaccine as a panacea we’re mistaken, because it solves only part of the problem. If everyone places all their chips on a vaccine and fails to address the health, economic, political, and social inequities, we will experience similar events in the future. And next time it may be worse. 

We can only guess when the epidemiological end of this pandemic will be, but Fuentes argues that the real optimistic outcome is that people recognize, for example, that health care in the United States is broken and that it does not work for any real stressor on the human system. And then if we really care about community, if we care about human beings, if we care about justice, then we will fix health care systems to the best of our ability. When thinking about our economic-political system, we must acknowledge the history, reality, and nuts and bolts of racism and inequity in our society. There may even be a chance of us coming out of this crisis and into a better world.

The role of anthropologists

When asked about the role and responsibility of biological and evolutionary anthropologists in a global crisis like this, Fuentes stated that our first task should be to do everything that can possibly be done to facilitate translation of the data, the science, and the analytics of SARS-COV2 and COVID-19 into publicly accessible context and content. He pointed out that people often do not understand viral infection, let alone basic human biology and the biology of viruses, and that knowledge is incredibly important for transmission. If we, as a scientific community, could get that information out to the public so that they actually understood the ecosystem of multispecies relationships between humans and viruses, we could maybe quell the fights about masks and social distancing. Perhaps then, public compliance would not be such a struggle.

He argues that anthropologists are incredibly well situated to inform on this crisis, because we take a deep and critically integrated understanding of human biology with things like multispecies relationships, viral infections, and the impacts of embodied social histories. Anthropologists can answer questions such as, Why is racism so starkly highlighted now when racism, particularly in the United States, has always been around? Why is the interface between racism and COVID-19 so overt? Fuentes points out that part of the answer to these questions is in the misrepresentation and misunderstanding of what human biological diversity and variation looks like. Place this disjunction in the context of a hyper-racist society that is brimming over with White supremacy, and the emergence COVID-19 sets up the stage for the kinds of national, and even global, recognition of racial inequity.

We must be the first to point out that COVID-19 is a result of colonial, racist, empire-building, and capitalist structuring of exchange and resource-use networks.

Another critical question Fuentes feels anthropologists are poised to answer and that people should be taking much more seriously is, What is the role of human-other animal relationships? This pandemic is not a product of a virus fighting with humans, but instead is emergent from a complex social, political, and ecological system where humans have used the manipulation and exploitation of resources that sets the stage for these kinds of expansive opportunistic mutations and jumps to occur. This involves thinking not just about animal markets, but also factory farming, and all the different ways in which we put ourselves at risk for these kinds of events. Asking and answering these kinds of questions, Fuentes says, “is what we do as anthropologists.”

So what should we do as anthropologists now? Do the reading, use our expertise, and translate. Fuentes recommends reading work by the journalist Ed Yong, who has done the translation work that anthropologists can and should emulate. He recommends reading the work of Margaret Lock and Nancy Krieger to start. Other resources include a special edited volume in Anthropology Now and the great essays at Somatosphere. Also, sociologist Alondra Nelson is heading a cornonavirus syllabus. Above all, talk to your nonacademic friends, talk to your family, publish in ways that are accessible to the public.

This column is written from an interview with Agustín Fuentes on May 28, 2020; our conversation has been condensed for this column.

Agustín Fuentes is professor in the Anthropology Department at Princeton University. His work looks at the biosocial, across humans, their ancestors, and a few other animals with whom humanity shares close relations. A few of his recent articles are “A (Bio)anthropological View of the COVID-19 Era Midstream: Beyond the Infection,”  “Towards Integrative Anthropology Again and Again: Disorderly Becomings of a (Biological) Anthropologist,” and “The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, Ethnography, and the Human Niche: Toward an Integrated Anthropology.”

Mallika Sarma is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Human Spaceflight Lab in the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Her research focuses on studying human physiology and behavior in extreme environments. She is a contributing editor for the Society for Evolutionary Anthropology’s section news column.

Cite as: Sarma, Mallika and Agustín Fuentes. 2020. “Evolutionary Anthropology in the Time of COVID-19.” Anthropology News website, September 2, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1480

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