The term “unintended consequences” defines outcomes that aren’t visible, or predictable at the moment of an action. They are grouped into three main types:
- unexpected benefit – like a touch of luck, or serendipity
- unexpected drawback – when the benefit is tainted by some inconvenient inherent to the solution
- perverse result – when the result is massively invalidating the benefits of the initial action
What this has to do with this article?
Well, as you probably have noticed, for the last year the planet have been turned upside down in an effort to battle a pandemic. A virus infection that affects the entire population, to various degrees. The first response, social distancing, has been maintained in an overwhelming majority of countries, until vaccines came out. But, as vaccines are starting to roll out, a recent development puts this entire last year in a new perspective.
And this development can be summarized in three words: the virus mutates.
As any living being, the virus can adjust and evolve. We usually see evolution as a very time consuming process, stretching over geological epochs. Humans, for instance, have evolved from their closest relatives about 100,000 years ago. But that large time window seems to apply only to bigger living beings, because very, very small living beings, like viruses, can evolve much faster.
We’ve already seen this during the flu season. Even if we had the flu last year, when the flu season “hits”, we’re very likely to have the flu again, only this time is a tiny mutation of the last year flu virus.
Well, this seems to happen to the coronavirus too, but there’s a little bit of a disconcerting behavior around this.
In an article published yesterday in New York Times, a few mutations of Covid-19 virus are described. What makes these mutations interesting is that they occurred in different places more or less at the same time, and it’s impossible to track down the actual carriers – and even the possibility that there were any is still debatable. The most probable scenario talks about “convergent evolution”.
From the same article, here’s an easy to understand example of convergent evolution:
Birds gained wings as they evolved from feathered dinosaurs, for example, just as bats did when they evolved from furry, shrew-like mammals. In both cases, natural selection gave rise to a pair of flat surfaces that could be flapped to generate lift — enabling bats and birds alike to take to the sky and fill an ecological niche that other animals could not.
It looks like the virus started to mutate more or less identically in different physical locations. It’s like the mutation has been triggered more or less at the same time, by an identical trigger.
And here comes the disconcerting fact: these mutations may be the result of what the virus perceives as a common, identifiable threat: the vaccine itself. Of course, they might be just the result of natural selection too, we have no way of knowing this at the moment.
And with that we may finally start to put together the unintended consequences, convergent evolution, and those stranger things (which are just stranger things, no connection with the TV show, sorry).
Unexpected Benefits of The Pandemic
I can clearly see some benefits of this pandemic. I’m not talking only abut opportunistic business moves, like investing in Zoom stock, or buying tons of masks and disinfectant gel in the early days, these are mainly speculations, but still, they have been perceived as a strike of luck for many.
There are also benefits in terms of more free time, which, theoretically, may account for more introspection and a balanced state. This is not always the case, as we will see below.
In my personal case, I openly admit that, if it weren’t for this pandemic, I would have never started to learn to play the guitar, a pastime that is clearly very positive for me, even if I’m still a beginner (and I have a hunch I will turn into a perpetual one).
But yes, let’s be fair and account for the positives unintended consequences too.
Unexpected Drawbacks of The Pandemic
The first and the most important one is by far the rise in mental health illnesses. That extra free time, combined with a dramatic disconnection, had adverse effects on many people. Psychologically, we’ve been hit hard, because we’re wired to interact, to connect, to share our time and regulate our emotions with each other.
There’s also the economical downturn that is poised to happen, sooner or later. You simply cannot print money for ever, in the absence of labor (which is shut down in many areas, because of the lockdown). Or you can print, but the inflation spiral will be just as deadly as the virus itself.
These are probably the most visible drawbacks contained inherently in the solution.
How Would A Perverse Result Will Look Like?
And here comes the nasty part. The part that seems so improbable that we may not even want to imagine it. I’m talking about us, humans, losing the top place in the food chain. About a degradation so strong and so powerful of our status, as a species, that we cannot even fathom something like this.
And yet, the last year showed us that reality has a way bigger creative potential than we credited it with. In other words, stranger things had happened.
So, what if this lockdown + vaccination combo will have a really perverse result, one in which we’ll witness (as much as I hate the word and the perspective) an evolutionary catastrophe for the human species?
How this could happen, you asked?
Well, first of all, aggressive lockdown did slow the spread of the virus, but it also gave it time to “learn” its host and, potentially, mutate faster and more clever. A scenario in which the virus would have hit the immune system of its potential hosts in a shorter time window, on a bigger surface, may have minimized the time in which it can mutate. Less than 15% of the world population had the illness so far, in the last 12 months.
Second, by fabricating unnatural threats for the virus, like the vaccine, we are actually forcing it to adjust, to evolve. Vaccines, while protecting the vaccinated against severe symptoms, are also training the virus, so to speak. It’s like we’re building a gym for the virus.
Of course, all of the above should stand true for any other virus, and, as we know, no virus reached the top of the food chain so far.
Yet, the coronavirus seems to have hit all the nails: it’s highly contagious, it’s not dangerous enough to kill the host very fast (depleting itself from resources too) and it has the “luck” to be managed in a way which leaves a lot of unintended consequences on the table.
I have no way to know if this gloomy scenario will unfold. I may be even wrong in my assumptions about the virus biological behavior and convergent evolution – which may be, and I’m not discarding this possibility, a false flag.
But we’re limited. And we forgot that. We became infatuated with our own solutions, our own ways to face a potential threat, and we’re leaning towards dogma, not towards science, which is always questioning its hypothesis.
We simply don’t want to accept that there might be unintended consequences for our actions.