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What the Pandemic Tells Us About Adaptation

Adaptive change can be much faster than most theorists assume.

The COVID-19 epidemic has affected all of us in profound ways. It altered our social interactions and changed the way we work. These changes occurred in just a few days. This illustrates how fast behavioral adaptations are.

What Is an Adaptation?

For the purposes of evolutionary biology, adaptation is defined as some response to environmental variation that enhances survival or reproduction. If some new predator emerges, the prey learn to recognize it and take evasive action, for instance.

Evolutionary psychologists have long maintained that the predisposition to avoid such threats is inbuilt at birth but this view is almost certainly mistaken, as detailed in my new book.

The disposition of moose towards their ancient predators, wolf packs, is revealing. Some populations of moose in the US West got a break when wolves went temporarily extinct in their region. When the wolves were introduced by conservationists, the moose had lost all fear of them and were forced to adapt from scratch (1).

This did not take long. The moose quickly learned to avoid their old nemesis. Moreover, young deer that had not experienced a wolf attack became afraid of wolves thanks to their mothers' reaction to a wolf sighting.

When frightened, moose are likely to seek dense cover if the threat is distant and to put distance between themselves and the predators if the threat is close by and an attack imminent.

So the repertoire of behavioral responses to threats is limited and predictable but the threat itself needs to be learned.

For the human population today, the threat is posed not by a predator but by an invisible virus that we must imagine to be everywhere if we are to avoid infection. Just as wolves responded to the new threat of reintroduced wolves, we are responding to the threat of the novel coronavirus. Our defensive reactions are many, profound, and novel, particularly because other people that might have been perceived as a source of security are now possible threats.

The Loss of Physical Intimacy Among Friends

Intimate relationships within families are little changed apart from the claustrophobic reality of being compelled to spend more time together due to economic shutdowns and working from home.

While some commentators have stressed the additional burden placed upon spouses, and parents, that elevates the risk of family conflicts, close relationships do remain close.

The main casualty of the pandemic is relationships between friends. We can no longer express affection by hugging and kissing so that our interactions are emotionally impoverished.

For most people, remote interactions through social media, or Zoom, are a poor substitute for the spontaneity and intimacy of interpersonal contact.

Most of us miss the everyday rituals, such as sitting down to share a meal with close friends, or hosting larger gatherings where we share our friends with other friends.

The price being paid is substantial but we are adjusting to this new reality, with its ever-present threat of infections, just as prey species react when a dangerous predator is nearby. This is not like the lions and leopards who stalked our ancestors but an amorphous, invisible, undetectable enemy that reaches us through stealth and strikes us without our knowing we are under attack.

Our adaptive responses to threat are unprecedented in scale, and novel in character, such as avoiding stores, and workplaces.

Long-Term Consequences of COVID-19 for Social Life

Amid a host of novel precautionary behaviors, such as wearing face masks, and beefed up sanitary activities like hand-washing and object quarantining, or sterilization, we have made many changes in our social activities that seem to contradict our record as one of the most social species on the planet.

Instead of seeking social contact with acquaintances or strangers, we are avoiding social proximity.

When we meet at our homes, it is often outdoors, involves social distancing, and avoids an exchange of food and drink and all the other social rituals that make us feel connected to each other. Such events tend to be small-scale, tame, and somewhat lacking in intimacy.

The distances we maintain with others regulate the intimacy of our interactions from the infant held to its parents' body to friendships within arms reach to the eight-foot boundary within which we typically greet strangers.

Given the awkwardness of in-person interactions, many are relying more on social media and video conferencing technologies like FaceTime and Zoom. While such technologies are a convenient way of keeping in touch with people in other states, or countries, they are also more suited to formal interactions like business meetings than the undirected meanderings of an in-person conversation among friends

Instead of following the secular trend towards more virtual interactions, I suspect that the pandemic will increase our hunger for the real thing. Meanwhile, the drastic changes in our social lives in response to the pandemic are yet another example of how fast adaptive change can be.


1 Berger, J., Swenson, J. E., & Persson, I. L. (2001). Recolonizing carnivores and naïve prey: Conservation lessons from Pleistocene extinctions. Science, 291, 1036-1039.

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