Evolution, Paradigms and Drama: Three Pandemic Lenses

My brother! My brother! […] When has any such thing been even heard or seen; in what annals has it ever been read that houses were left vacant, cities deserted, the country neglected, the fields too small for the dead and a fearful and universal solitude over the whole earth?”¹

So wrote the Italian poet Petrarch to his brother in 1348, as the Plague was ravaging Europe.

Pandemics are not new. Since at least 1200 BC they have periodically devastated communities, reshaped nations and altered the unfolding of history. Still, once the horror passes and societies rebuild, their inevitability is routinely forgotten.

Much has been written on the latest one, yet no one knows how it will end. This piece doesn’t try to predict how it will unfold. Instead by applying three complementary lenses, it aims to cast some perspective on current events.

The 1348 plague of Florence, as described in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Etching by L. Sabatelli. Wellcome Collection gallery.

1) A biological lens: Evolutionary Strategies

“We are survival machines, but ‘we’ does not mean just people.”²

Ecosystems of living organisms tend to be stable most of the time until their equilibrium is upset by some novelty — such as a new virus.

Aggressive behaviors (that is, behaviors that favor an organism at the expense of the other organisms of the ecosystem) tend to fare well early on but usually falter over time. This is true because growing at the expense of others only works so long as there are others.

This rule holds for viruses. The evolutionary success of a virus depends on its ability to spread, which is (amongst other variables) a function of how long its host lives. Other things being equal the more aggressive strains will not propagate as efficiently as the less aggressive ones. Put differently, killing a host too quickly is a fairly poor evolutionary strategy.

Conversely, mutated strains that fail to kill their hosts, leaving them ample time to infect other hosts, will tend to fare better and propagate over time.

On the other side of the equation, as host we are also adapting to the virus. Our development of the scientific method means we don’t need to wait generations to adapt and fight back. We are reducing “R” by enforcing social distancing, ramping up the production of masks and hand sanitizer, and developing vaccines.

From a biological perspective, then, after a few months of rapid wins and growth for the virus, the tide will turn, and host and pathogen will settle in the new equilibrium of a slightly modified ecosystem.

From a narrow, biological perspective, it is quite likely that the pandemic actually won’t have much of an impact at all on the biosphere. To put it bluntly, it won’t have dented much, if at all, the trend of human population growth.

This is not to deny the reality of the tragedy we are living through. Nor is to suggest that governments over-reacted. Neither does it make sense to claim that the pandemic won’t have significant, long term consequences. One way to examine those is through the lens of epistemology.

Microscopic image of an isolate from the first U.S. case of COVID-19. The spherical viral particles, colorized blue, contain cross-sections through the viral genome, seen as black dots. CDC, 2020.

2) An epistemological lens: Paradigm Shifts

Two parallel lines can never meet.

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,³ Thomas Kuhn proposed the idea that science does not progress gradually but rather by thrusts, from paradigm to paradigm, alternating between “normal” and “revolutionary” phases.

Using this lens to understand social phenomena beyond the field of science must be done with caution. Summoning Kuhn’s idea of “paradigm shifts” will not help us understand why and how we might be moving from one paradigm to another.⁴

Yet Kuhn's ‘paradigm shifts’ can play a role in helping us pinpoint more precisely what has changed before and after the pandemic. Kuhn stresses the importance of the context — the current reigning paradigm — when interpreting data points. In “normal” phases, aberrant experimental results are treated as anomalies: “Normal science does not aim at novelty but at clearing up the status quo. It tends to discover what it expects to discover.”⁵

This has real-world consequences.

Until recently, a multinational company that held more than a few weeks of inventory, or that kept producing some goods locally rather than wherever in the world (often in China) it could be done at the lowest possible cost, was held to be making a management error. They were at odds with business orthodoxy.

Today, that ‘inefficiency’ looks like the emerging paradigm, one which will include the belief that production should be decentralized (with some of it relocalized closer to where the final products are sold) in order for the business to be more resilient.⁶

Similarly, the possibility of closing national frontiers would previously have been seen as ludicrous. Today hundreds of thousands of Europeans are not even able to cross borders to return back home.

The pandemic might be the exogenous shock⁷ that shattered the paradigm of unchecked globalization. No longer does it seem self-evident that the only way to economic (and societal) development is through the boundless increase of freedom of movement for people, goods and services.

What changed, then, is not so much the underlying facts (experts have warned about the likelihood of a pandemic for decades) as our interpretation of those facts. Broadly speaking, the “World”, by and large, is still the same. What has changed is how we make sense of it.⁸

The pandemic jolted us out of our frame of reference, letting us see that what we took as settled, universal rules (e.g. globalization, fiscal austerity) only held within a particular system of thought.

Two parallel lines can never meet, within the paradigm of Euclidean geometry.

“Kaninchen und Ente” (“Rabbit and Duck”) from the 23 October 1892 issue of Fliegende Blätter. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn reproduced this optical illusion, originally made famous by Wittgenstein, to demonstrate the way in which a paradigm shift could lead one to interpret the same information differently.

3) A narrative lens: Drama

As much as epidemics are biological threats they are also social constructs. They are stories — more precisely tragedies — and as such, they follow certain narrative rules.⁹

As stories of collective struggle against calamity, they typically unfold along three distinctive acts. In his 1947 novel The Plague, Camus used the epidemic as a metaphor for fascism. His book perfectly exemplifies this archetypal narrative progression.

Martin Munkácsi, A Field Full of Children (detail), Kissingen, Germany, 1929. © The Estate of Martin Munkácsi. Used as the illustration for the cover of the Penguin Classics edition of the Plague.

Act I: Denial of the inevitable

“Everybody knows that pestilences have a way of recurring in the world, yet somehow we find it hard to believe in ones that crash down on our heads from a blue sky. There have been as many plagues as wars in history, yet always plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”¹⁰

By definition, epidemics are always identified too late.

They start with discrete, early signs, the significance of which is only acknowledged retrospectively: a few ill patients in an obscure Chinese city, a doctor writing alarming blog posts, stranded cruise ships in remote Eastern harbors, the sight on our televisions of deserted Italian cities.

Yet as the disease inexorably creeps closer to home, its increasingly ominous signs accumulating, we are inexplicably holding on to the unshakable belief that it will, no doubt, stop its spread before it arrives home — a twisted, somber version of Zeno’s paradoxes, where the finish line is continuously getting closer, without ever being attainable.

And as we slowly become aware of the magnitude of the disaster that awaits, we refuse to accept it will, eventually, strike us.

Act II: Struggle to make sense of the unfathomable

“To some, the sermon simply brought home the fact that they had been sentenced, for an unknown crime, to an indeterminate period of punishment. And while a good many people adapted themselves to confinement and carried on their humdrum lives as before, there were others who rebelled and whose one idea now was to break loose from the prison-house.”¹¹

Acknowledging the existence of the calamity is just the beginning. It is here, it is affecting us, it is blindly killing loved ones, tearing society apart. That much cannot be denied any longer.

Yet the question this naturally leads to is why? What have we, as a society, done to cause this calamity? How to make sense of the inexplicable?

The first step in trying to understand an unfamiliar phenomenon is always the same: you name it. Only then can you summon it, point at it, curse at it. “Black Death”, “Great Plague”, “Spanish Flu”, “SARS” — it is as if the act of naming the epidemic confirms its existence. Once named, it can be fought.

And what better to fight than a war? And wars need enemies. Here, again, the human mind is dispiritingly predictable. If there is an enemy, it must be foreign, exotic (coming, more often than not, from the East). Of course, the narrative need not be grounded in fact: the real origin of the Spanish Flu is likely to be Kansas.

If imagining enemies helps mobilize, it still falls short of explaining. Explanations traditionally stem from the religious and the mystical. People sinned, lost their ways, and divine punishment ensued.

Then, from the 19th century onwards, proto-scientific explanations added a patina of sophistication to this explanatory framework. Moral weakness led to unsafe behaviors. “At risk” populations were identified and, by pointing at them, you were, in opposition, professing your own safety. As Susan Sontag impeccably put in Illness as Metaphor: “Any disease that is treated as a mystery and acutely enough feared will be felt to be morally, if not literally, contagious.”¹²

Runchore segregation camp, set up by the Karachi Plague Committee during the Plague of Bombay. Photograph, 1897. Wellcome Collection gallery.

Act III: Collective achievement

“No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all.”¹³

Yet eventually, societies adapt and overcome epidemics.

Epidemics tend to affect, foremost, the public sphere. They are collective problems that require a collective response. To overcome them, therefore, societies must vanquish centrifugal forces and come together around common beliefs and practices.

At this stage, the disease will have laid bare the society’s fractures and contradictions. The poor and disenfranchised will have died in disproportionately high numbers.

Yet, also, for months, people will have practised collective rituals: praying, staying “alone together” at home, clapping in unison. Instances of what Durkheim called collective effervescence: “a moment when a community ties together to simultaneously communicate the same thought and participate in the same action.”¹⁴ Heroic figures — doctors, nurses and other essential workers — will have taken centre stage. From these common rituals and shared icons will emerge a collective tale which should, for a while at least, hold society together.

“Balcony Concerts”. Illustration by Catherine Cordasco, submitted for the United Nations Global Call Out To Creatives — help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Epidemics kill, but they also reveal

These three lenses should remind us that a pandemic cannot be apprehended solely through daily statistics.

Epidemics are diseases. Viruses are so simple that they can’t reproduce by themselves.¹⁵ They need a host to multiply, and when they do, they reveal the faults and vulnerabilities of the environment they proliferated in. To study epidemics is to study the structure and governing rules of societies, reconstructing a shape through its shadows. As such, each epidemic is exposing the uniqueness of the societies in which it has spread.

One thing though is for certain: as societies evolve, new diseases will emerge. Yet our naive optimism has changed little since Petrarch, who seven centuries ago concluded his letter with a hopeful incantation: “Oh happy people of the future, who have not known these miseries, and perchance will class our testimony with the fables.”¹⁶

// Cyril Maury

[1] Cited in Deaux, G. (1969). The Black Death 1347. New York: Weybright and Talley. Chapter IV, pp. 92 94.

[2] Dawkins, Richard (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978–0–19–286092–7

[3] Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1st ed.). University of Chicago Press. pp. 172. LCCN 62019621

[4] In Kuhn’s analysis, generational change is an essential driving force behind the shift from one scientific paradigm to the next. A new generation of scientists develop new beliefs, then a sense of identification with their emerging theories, and finally a vested interest in proving the previous generation wrong.

[5] Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1st ed.). University of Chicago Press. pp. 172. LCCN 62019621. Cited in https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/aug/19/thomas-kuhn-structure-scientific-revolutions

[6] One of many examples: https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-and-chip-makers-including-intel-seek-semiconductor-self-sufficiency-11589103002

[7] Here we stray from the analogy with Scientific Revolutions, where paradigm shifts are caused by endogenous dynamics

[8] This, in turn, shapes what we decide to do or not. It’s the second, third, and xˆn order consequences that will reshape the world.

[9] Rosenberg, C. (1989), What is an Epidemic? AIDS in Historical Perspective, Daedalus Volume:118 Issue:2 Pages:1–40

[10] Camus, A. The Plague (1960), translated by Stuart Gilbert, London: Penguin, ISBN 978–0–140–18020–6

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sontag, S. (1978). Illness as Metaphor. Vol. XXV, №2 (February 23, 1978). Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data.

[13]Camus, A. The Plague (1960), translated by Stuart Gilbert, London: Penguin, ISBN 978–0–140–18020–6

[14] Durkheim, Émile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, (1912, English translation by Joseph Swain: 1915) The Free Press, 1965: ISBN 0–02–908010-X

[15] Can they even be considered to be “alive”? https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/are-viruses-alive-2004/

[16] Cited in Deaux, G. (1969). The Black Death 1347. New York: Weybright and Talley. Chapter IV, pp. 92–94.



We work with businesses to give them the know-how they need to identify opportunities and make decisions. Know-how to invent the future. stripepartners.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Stripe Partners

We work with businesses to give them the know-how they need to identify opportunities and make decisions. Know-how to invent the future. stripepartners.com