WILL SELF considers the British response to the coronavirus lockdown.
There’s a curious fallacy at work in our culture – one I call ‘reverse Darwinism’. It goes something like this: characteristic X, possessed by humans in abundance, confers no obvious adaptive advantage – at least, not in societies that have, say, a fully-functioning health service – therefore it must have evolved during the long period of our prehistory to assist our forefathers’ and mothers’ survival under radically different circumstances. So far, so evolutionary biology – and psychology for that matter: phobic reactions may be counter-productive now – such as standing on a chair because you glimpsed some cable snaking from under your desk – but way back when ‘we’ were living on the African savannah, this was a lifesaver and gene-furtherer par excellence.
There’s various problems with this view – one is it encourages in us a sloppy sort of species sentimentality, one that closely aligns with religious mythologies which conceive of ‘humanity’ having experienced some sort of ‘fall’ from an instinctive grace into a realm of ugly – and neurotic – self-conscious calculation. The other is, that we simply don’t know the overall matrix within which selection pressures operate on us – as the finale of HG Wells’s War of the Worlds so elegantly demonstrates: one super-advanced species’ downfall could well be a humble bacterium’s triumph. Nor for that matter do we know who ‘us’ really are. Do we constitute only our awareness of being a unitary organism with a consciousness that likes copulating with similar – or should we include in ‘humanity’ all the myriad species – including viruses and bacteria – that are either in symbiosis, parasitize on us; or, upon whom we in turn parasitize? Looked at this way, we should be most admiring of the great adaptability of the coronavirus, which may deign to keep sufficient numbers of us alive in order to propagate itself.
Anyway, all of this spooled through my mind as I contemplated the end of lockdown in London – it crumbled quickly. One day the streets and parks were empty, the next there was large groups of Boden-sporting 40-somethings, complete with regulation whelps and labradoodles, playing boule in the posh square near my flat. Yes! I thought as I gave them and their Ho-ho-ho-ing! spume of virions a wide berth: You’re all going to die of the metropolitan elite complacency you evolved to adapt to the Brexit convulsions, but which will be disastrous in an environment with endemic Covid-19!
As for me, I’m already contemplating a move to somewhere more congenial – somewhere where random mutations do actually confer an adaptive advantage. Kanyemba in northern Zimbabwe springs to mind. Here reside the Doma people, who, over many generations, have given birth to ‘two-toed ostrich’ babies: human phenotypes, that, in lieu of conventional feet, have appendages that bifurcate at the ankle to form two giant prehensile ‘toes’, as well-adapted to grasping things as they are to walking through the thorny – and snake-infested – bush. Legend has it that when these extraordinary individuals were first visited upon the tribe, they exposed them as they did other deformed infants. However, as the mutation continued to appear, the witch doctors decided that they should live. Now it’s estimated that up to 15% of the tribe possess the mutation.
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Obviously, it would be impossible for me to acquire two-toed ostrich feet now – but nevertheless, I’d like to see both them, and this remote region of Africa. My Great Uncle Martin was a district commissioner here in the 1930s – and I remember meeting him in the 1960s, when he had retired to Cheltenham. He was a fussy little man, his white hair – in my mind’s eye – still surmounted by the solar topee he’d worn while doing his tours of the vast district nominally under his control. My father told me that Uncle Martin – who, in common with the entire family, was an enthusiastic golfer – had carried a full set of clubs with him, and whenever he saw a viable ‘hole-like’ section of bush he’d dismount his horse and play a few shots.
An interesting form of cultural adaptation for sure – but remote Africa, on the banks of the mighty Zambezi, was never likely to be an environment in which golf courses conferred an adaptive advantage – any more that imperialism. Indeed, I like to think that as my Great Uncle swished his way through the bush, the Doma kept a close eye on him – fleet-ostrich-footed-members of the tribe moving ahead of his party to alert their fellows to the drawing-near of this arresting spectacle: a sweaty, red-faced and khaki-clad figure senselessly beating at the undergrowth with a long stick. The Doma knew no more of genetic inheritance than anyone else in the 1930s, but I suspect they could have intuited what we now know to be the case: apart from certain protected reservations – such as Cheltenham – the British colonial servant was a dying breed.