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Defeated by Randomness?

By all accounts, the absolute carnage that had been unleashed by Covid in its second coming, was the result of a new mutated Delta variant of the virus. Clearly, something changed between the first peak we saw last year and the second; the transmissibility of the virus was of a much higher order and the collective experience of its effects seemed to have been much direr.

It is both fascinating and terrifying that the cause of so much anguish and anxiety is at its heart nothing but a random accident. The new variant is a mutant, a slip-up by the virus in its attempt to replicate. Entirely by chance this new version has better capabilities to spread even more rapidly than its previous avatar, which is why in no time, it has become the dominant manifestation of the SARS Coronavirus not just in India but globally.

It is a paradox we often don’t think about adequately, this idea that so much of what we think of as progress, and this case, devastation, is a result of genetic accidents. Evolution is the story of mutations, replicated through the laws of heredity and filtered through a process of natural selection. The mutations more suitable to surviving and thriving come to occupy a dominant place not through any intent but simply by the brute logic of numbers that manifests itself over successive generations.

That our journey from single celled organisms to the complex machinery of human beings is at its heart an exercise in randomness is a sobering thought. Our common-sense view of evolution is that it possesses a direction; the talk of things being ‘more evolved’ seems to attribute an inherent intentionality to the process, which simply doesn’t exist. The sense of ‘evolution as progress’ is the result of the process of natural selection where the better adapted organism has a higher tendency to survive and reproduce, resulting in it becoming more dominant. But by itself

evolution is simply dependent on chance events triggering off change, some of which makes the organism in question better adapted to its circumstances.

But human evolution is a beastly slow affair. Evolution lives in geology, we die in biology. Which is why we cannot wait for evolution to find us an answer to the threat that the rapidly evolving virus poses. We need to find our answers in vaccines and medicines capable of silencing the effects of the virus. A rudimentary organism like the virus evolves at a much faster rate than we do, going through many more cycles of reproduction than what our lifespans enable. In a sense, we are being attacked by the very process that has brought this far in our evolutionary journey. Only this time, it is the virus that is better adapted to replicate inside us, causing us untold damage.

Even scarier is the fact that the virus is not even a fully realised life form. By itself, it is a tiny piece of inert mater that needs a host to be able to perform the only significant task it is capable of – make copies of itself. The virus is a ‘edge-of-life’ form, dead till it becomes devastatingly alive. Lacking metabolism or cells, the virus needs to piggyback on the energy provided by the host. Once activated, however, it is ferociously efficient in reproducing and overwhelming the host’s immunity very quickly.

The fact that we lack truly effective mechanisms to tackle and eliminate viruses is because the virus gives us so little to attack. Since it is using the body’s own mechanisms to attack the body, any attack on the virus runs the danger of attacking one’s own body. In fact, the greatest damage that is done to our bodies by Covid is by the cytokine storm, which is nothing but the body’s immunity defences being fooled into a mounting a disproportionate response. The devastation caused at this stage is our result our own bodies lashing out at an enemy that isn’t what it thinks it is. As James Somers puts it in New Yorker, “Individuals with Covid-19 face the same challenge as nations during the pandemic: if they can’t contain small sites of infection early—so that a targeted response can root them out—they end up mounting interventions so large that the shock inflicts its own damage.”

The dexterity with which the virus is able not only to beat the body’s defences but stay ahead of our attempts to find solutions suggests a higher form of intelligence. In fact, a lot of news report speak of the ‘cleverness’ of the virus as it finds ways to continue devastating our lives. The truth, however, is that the current mayhem in the world is the result of a life form that isn’t quite one, and far from being clever, lacks something as basic as a metabolic system. It has been made worse by this strange form of being making genetic mistakes that have somehow made it even more powerful.

The virus is proof that intelligence is overrated. As is all that we call progress for that matter. The virus utilises all the progress we have made against us. Its genius, if one can call it that, lies in the simplicity of its actions. For most part what the virus does is use the body’s complex machinery against itself. It is a master of evolutionary ju-jitsu, by turning the vastly superior powers of its chosen enemy against itself.

The vaccines are here, and the world hopes that we have found a way to get ahead of the virus. But the longer it takes us to vaccinate everybody, and not just the privileged few, the more time we give the virus to stumble on to a deadlier version of itself. The clock is ticking, genetic mutations are continuing to take place as the virus goes through millions of cycles of reproduction, and we can only hope that human intelligence can outrun the virus’ luck.



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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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