In a community of pollinators there are bound to be some that skirt the usual mutualistic pact between flower and pollinator. As I wrote about in my previous post (Nectar Robbing Bees, Natural Evil and the Image of God) nectar robbing bees short circuit the nectar bribery system put in place by flowers leaving the flowers with less energetically expensive nectar.
This type of “cheating” behavior is rampant in the natural world. Why? Because it works. It’s a successful strategy for survival and hundreds of thousands of species of living things have adopted some form of cheating or parasitic lifestyle. It works because it increases the fitness–even if only for a short time–of the cheater even if it is at the expense of the victim.
As we saw previously, the plant pollinator mutualism also functions well, increasing the fitness of both partners, but only if both participants hold up their end of the deal on a consistent basis. In most communities of species there is a mix of both mutualistic and parasitic strategies occurring at the same time. The balance between these competing strategies for survival can oscillate over time given changes in the community environment.
It’s far from a perfect analogy (see my previous post for caveats) but we can apply some of the central principles we see in the dynamics of diverse behavioral strategies of bees and plants with some of our own interactions as we live in community with one another.
Anti-vaxxing as a cheating strategy?
How do vaccinations work to protect the public? They serve two purposes. The first is obvious. They serve to protect the individual being vaccinated from a potential viral infection. But there is a second and often more important role of vaccination: it is an act of community service. Even if the risk to one person is very low of disease by inducing immunity through vaccination they can stop the transmission of the virus to other more vulnerable members of the community.
A person that is resistant to a virus will not become sick and continue to spread the virus. Any virus must continue to find new hosts to continue its existence. Each time it runs into a dead end host the transmission of the virus in a population is slowed. If enough individuals in a community have immunity to the virus the spread of the virus can be prevented from increasing. Those are infection rates below 1.0 meaning each person gives the virus to just one other individual. Infection rates above mean that one person is spreading the virus to more than one person and so the spread will continue to infect an ever larger number of individuals.
Once a certain percentage of the population has immunity and transmission rates are less than one, we can refer to this as achieving a form of herd immunity (but see Fine et al. 2011).
Here is where the cheating analogy comes into play. Above that threshold there can be individuals that do not get vaccinated but they receive the protection from those that have gotten vaccinated. They have not taken on the risk (there is always a tiny risk inherent with vaccination side-effects) but they get the benefits of lowering their risk of getting the virus.
But just like nectar robbers and other parasites, if those that don’t vaccinate for any number of reasons are successful in convincing others they should not get vaccinated the benefits they received from not being vaccinated will be lost. The more that don’t vaccinate the more their own risk will increase and the risk to others that are unable to be vaccinated hence it isn’t solely a personal choice to take on risk. This is best seen in cases of communities that have low rates of vaccination for measles. Measles is highly contagious and so it only requires a small percentage of the population lacking immunity for the virus to spread in that community. In other words cheaters won’t prosper very long if they convince even a small number of other people to cheat.
There is some similarity here to a form of natural selection called negative frequency dependent selection. To illustrate, consider a population of flowers of a species of orchid that has two different flower color genetic variants. When one color, purple, is very rare it is visited more often because the bees learn to avoid the more common yellow color (ironically they do so because these particular flowers are attempting to cheat the bees by not providing nectar and the bees begin to avoid them as a result) and thus will get more pollinators and likely have more offspring. But because it has more offspring the next generation will have more purple flowers having inherited the purple-colored allele (variant of a gene). As the number of purple flowers increases in frequency compared to yellow flowers the bees will learn to avoid the purple flowers and so switch to preferentially pollinating the yellow flowers which were at one time common but are now rare. Hence, the negative relationship with frequency in this form of selection. As a result neither the purple nor yellow-causing gene variant will ever become universally fixed in the population and so both variations will be maintained in natural populations.
In the case of vaccinations, though an imperfect analogy, we could see that when there is high levels of vaccination there is an increased tendency for some to believe that they don’t need to be vaccinated because the risk is low to them personally. We could say the temptation to cheat increases with increased percentage of vaccination. But as more are tempted to opt out of being vaccinated which may continue to increase over time because the disease itself is forgotten (like measles and smallpox which present generations don’t have negative memories of). But at some point there will be so many cheaters that the cheaters start to pay the price causing some to decide to get vaccinated thus increasing the vaccination rates again.
We may see this scenario may play out over the next year. Today, fear of coronavirus and flu complications is pushing flu vaccinations up over last year. Clearly in the past there were many that didn’t consider the vaccine worth the discomfort, risk or inconvenience to get but now they do. As a result flu cases will probably be down significantly this season and many will think they didn’t need the vaccination and next year will pass it up thus placing next year at risk of having an above normal flu season.
A possible COVID vaccine presents even more challenges to the complicated dynamic of selfishness versus altruism in humans. It is clear that most people want the benefits of a vaccinated population so they can go back to “normal.” But there is a sizable fraction of the population that will refuse vaccination for a number of the same reasons that they reject other vaccinations. A form of herd immunity might still be achievable even with that many people choosing not to participate but still receiving the benefits from those that do. The problem is that there is an increasing probability of distrust of our government or simply that it is unnecessary because they don’t think the virus will hurt them personally. This may lead many who may otherwise believe in vaccinations in-principle to opt out for fear that the risks with whatever vaccine is pushed through first will outweigh the risks of the virus itself. If this happens the number vaccinated may not yield sufficient penetration to produce herd immunity and thus not lower overall risk to the community from the virus and not much will really change and the virus will continue to spread at an unacceptable attack rate.
For vaccinations and a potential COVID vaccination in particular, we also need to consider vaccination as a service to the vulnerable members of society. There are individuals that are immune compromised for which vaccination does not provide protection. By having a high percentage of vaccinations among those that can be vaccinated the community is protecting those that can’t protect themselves. We often sell the idea of vaccination to our vain and selfish side with the pitch that we are protecting ourselves but we ought to also consider the service we are providing in that action. Again, something that makes us human compared to the animals (see my previous post for more on this, Nectar Robbing Bees, Natural Evil and the Image of God). We are capable of true altruism.
We can choose to take on risks to ourselves to protect others at risk. We make the calculation that the small risk of a vaccination hurting someone who may have survived the virus itself is outweighed by the positive effect of saving thousands of vulnerable individuals that otherwise would have been severely affected by the virus. Of course, there will always be members of society that will refuse to take on risk for the sake of others. Society can absorb the cost of a small number of such outliers (cheaters) just like a store can absorb the cost of one shoplifter per day without passing the cost to the other consumers but if these numbers increase eventually everyone will have to share the cost of those that don’t participate in paying the normal costs.
Is not wearing a mask a cheating strategy?
I realize that calling not wearing a mask, cheating, sounds harsh. The effectiveness of masks is a contentious topic. If you don’t believe masks do anything to protect you or others from you, you won’t find my argument compelling but if you are convinced—and I believe there is adequate documentation of such—that masks do provide some measure of protection then let’s consider the effect of rates of non-masking on the ongoing pandemic.
What if we had data to suggest that if 85% of people would wear masks it would reduce transmission by 50%? If that were the case in many circumstances 15% of the public could forgo wearing masks and probably not do too much harm to others or themselves. In other words, they could suffer no inconvenience but they would get all the benefits conferred by those that are taking on the inconvenience. Unfortunately if any of the regular maskers were to look at tht 15% and become tempted to take their mask off because they see others doing so and not suffering any consequences of going maskless, their demasking would have far greater repercussions for the spread of the virus than the actions of those that already were not wearing masks.
The lesson here is that non-maskers, often without being aware of it, get the benefits of those that mask as long as there are enough rule-followers. In my previous post I mentioned flowers that don’t produce nectar but they get the benefit of nectar-hungry bees because they are living with neighbors that are producing nectar and so bringing the bees into the region. Everyone benefits if enough are willing to take on the burden for society in general but should participation fall below a particular threshold—and this is where there can be significant debate within the models—then everyone suffers though certainly some suffer much more than others and often are not those that didn’t wear masks (i.e. elderly individuals who wear masks will be at increased risk if more around them have the virus even if they have masks on because masks only reduce infection rate not prevent infection).
John MacArthur and the non-pandemic pandemic
Reverend John MacArthur is the pastor of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley CA. He has drawn attention to his church by actively opposing California COVID measures. His church does not require masks and they have been fighting for the right to meet without social distancing. Some point to the fact that their members have been in close contact without masks for months without an outbreak of COVID as evidence that these measures are not effective or necessary. In fact MacArthur himself has made the same claim: “We’ve all been suspicious of the fact that we’ve been meeting together now for weeks and weeks and weeks, and we don’t know anyone who’s ill.”
He doesn’t seem to be familiar with statistical modeling and risk assessment statistics. Fifty churches could forgo all measures of social distancing and most of them would not suffer the impacts from the virus even after many months. Only a few of them would experience any infections but any one of them can’t claim that just because they have not that others will have the same experience. For example, I might go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive but if I recommend you do as well you should not expect your outcome will necessarily match my experience.
Grace Community Church should realize their lack of cases is partly the result of the protection afforded to them by high rates of masking and social distancing being observed by other members of the community. In other words, because others are acting to prevent the spread of the virus MacArthur’s lack of personal contact with the virus is not the result of there not being a pandemic but rather the grace bestowed on his church by the rest of the community as reflected by probability statistics of chance engagements.
Of course there is some non-zero chance that on any given Sunday a sick person could come to a service there would be a larger outbreak there than at a similar church where more precautions are in place. That church is either going to have no cases or a lot of cases as opposed to no cases or a few cases in other churches that observe some measure of social distancing and masking.
The principle here is that if there are only a few isolated churches and groups not adhering to best practices this does not put them at significantly greater harm because all those people they criticize for being lemmings and following the guidelines are literally providing them the security they enjoy. Ironically, if MacArthur were successful in his call for churches to abandon social distancing measures and to not require masks the result would be a breakdown of the protections provided by those that are socially distancing and wearing masks, his success would result in failure to protect the wider church from harm. Like a nectar robber and anti-vaxxers, as long as everyone else doesn’t follow suit, some bees and humans can prosper by going a different direction than the majority.
As long as I am alienating a fraction of my audience I’ll comment further on my concerns with MacArthur’s fallible judgement.
MacArthur has taken a stance of resistance to secular authority that he claims is built on a biblical foundation but then he proceeds to conflate biblical truth with other ideas that are extra-biblical. Several times he has waded into making statements about the pandemic that are based on his fallible and fallacious understanding of the science of virology and epidemiology. Most recently he has claimed “there is no pandemic.” That is not a statement derived from the bible but rather one born of being fed and believing false information. When he made that statement MacArthur abdicated his right to claim religious persecution when he stood in front of the congregation and relayed false statistics to them. For example his remarks in a morning service on August 16:
“In truth, 6 percent of the deaths that have occurred can be directly attributable to Covid, 94 percent cannot. Of the 160,000 people that have died, 9,210 actually died from Covid. There is no pandemic.”
Being a pastor and biblical expert doesn’t prevent ignorance of statistics and being duped by fake news. At this moment he was not using the bible to inform him of this truth but rather fallible misinterpreting data from the CDC most likely as the result of trusting unreliable sources (possible a tweet by Trump to the same effect just hours before his sermon) to reason that they need not wear masks or be physically distanced because the pandemic is a charade. This belief did not flow from an interpretation of scriptures. Based on this and similar misuses of data it is my opinion that his celebrity pastor status has led to a measure of hubris and the susceptibility that comes along with that to accepting bad information which he then spreads as if it is gospel truth from the pulpit.
He speaks of “truth” here but this is not capital T truth but rather his personal truth and in this case that truth was nothing but a lie. If he were sticking to biblical arguments for resisting authorities that would be one thing but when he uses bad information and non-biblical sources as his evidence he opens himself to just criticism by local authorities who are claiming that he is a danger to those around him.