Omicron and Punctuated Equilibrium
When Coronavirus first leapt across the world in early 2020, you couldn’t escape the whispers of some nefarious plan. Was this intentional? Is someone trying to hurt us? It’s origin in Wuhan China, also home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, made suspicions undeniable. In lieu of any news reporting, here’s the lab leak case made in its truest form by TV’s Jon Stewart:
Interest in the lab leak theory peaked in June of 2021, propelled by revelations that some of the scientists in the Wuhan Institute of virology might have gotten sick during flu season. Google Trends captures it’s interest nicely:
At the same time, a new variant of coronavirus emerged in India, whipsawed through large population centers. Official statistics indicate almost half a million deaths, but the true toll could be as high as 5 million. This variant then led to surging cases worldwide. Google Trends captures public interest in the new variant:
This time, there was no new lab leak theory. Nature had utterly crushed a weak all-to-human attempt to rationalize the randomness of nature as malicious intent from perceived enemies.
The Delta variant underwent a selective process, one of many diverging coronavirus lineages, until it happened upon a combination of changes in the spike protein that conferred it 2–3X the infectiousness of its predecessor that emerged in Wuhan China in 2019.
As the Delta conflagration was receding from the world, still another variant, Omicron, emerged. This variant not only shows exponential growth in infectiousness, it also is completely unrelated to Delta. It had split from the original coronavirus lineage, slowly evolving in an AIDS patient or spreading unnoticed among mouse populations. Once it had converged on numerous new mutations that made it ideally suited for human hosts, it burst into the world with tremendous impact.
Some of Omicron’s mutations were the same as Delta, but close analysis reveals that it is entirely different — it is merely chance that they have these changes. Though that change is likely linked to the spread of both. Nature tends to favor the same solution to a problem irrespective of relatedness — think of the wings on a dragonfly, bird, and bat as an example. But Omicron is strikingly different than all coronavirus infections to date. It’s ancestors disappeared from circulation when the original coronavirus pandemic began, and emerged seemingly out of thin air at the end of 2021.
This kind of “out of nothing” emergence of a new species is seen in the fossil record as well. A species will look unchanged for millions of years, then undergo raid change. Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldridge described this phenomenon as “Puctuated Equilibrim” — long periods of statsis interrupted by revolutionary changes. The problem with Punctuated Equilibirum is that while it worked as a description of the fossil record, it didnt’ match well with genetics. Did species radically change in short periods of time?
Coronavirus and it’s Delta and Omicron variances provide a simpler explanation of this phenomenon. The answer is that the “group” of related organisms evolves at the same rate. But once branch of the tree may grow much faster after it’s Rocky training montage that played in the background silently out of view.
Our own evolution mirrors this phenomena— Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and ourselves (Homo sapiens) each can be thought of as “variants” of the original Lucy species of australopithecine, each with its own adaptations. Like coronavirus, we all come from the same family tree. Like coronavirus variants, each species stumbled upon the keys to its success while in small isolated populations, and then subsequently grew to replace competing variants.
This trend utterly debunks creationism — whether it is a story handed down by our ancestors about why we are here or whether coronavirus was originally created as a weapon*. Nature never needed help with the variants, just as it didn’t with the OG coronavirus strain.
*One of the failings of the lab leak theory is that if it was a weapon, it is a pretty terrible one. A good weapon would be effective in a targeted radius. First, it has an extremely low fatality rate (probably less than 1%) — meaning it is not effective. Second, it is highly contagious, which eliminates the prospect of using it in a targeted area. No military in their right mind would want to strategically deploy a weapon that wouldn’t accomplish any objectives but massively amplify the risk of blowback.