Agustin Fuentes

A Bad Science-Fiction Movie That is Real

Air Date: September 27, 2021

Biological anthropologist Agustin Fuentes discusses the future of the pandemic and how culture must evolve.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome today’s guest Augustin Fuentes. He’s a biological anthropologist at Princeton University, formerly at the University of Notre Dame. Welcome Augustin.


FUENTES: Thanks for having me.


HEFFNER: Let me begin by quoting a story in the New Yorker magazine which has really struck a chord with me. And it has stung as we think of the fallout from this year’s long pandemic. You said this is a bad science fiction movie. That is real. And you further contemplate and now it’s not really speculation, but reality, how this pandemic will have a profound, evolutionary impact on the survival of our species and of this planet. And I wanted to get your current thinking on that question of what you think the long-term effect of this pandemic will be on our American citizenry and on the globe.


FUENTES: Yeah, well it’s really important because there’s two things here about the long-term. One is what do we know is going to happen? Right? What do we know biologically and structurally? And then the second one is, what can we hope will happen and hope will not happen. So we know, right that coronaviruses and humans have had a relationship for a long time, but this novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and humans have a particular relationship, and it’s getting worse. That is it infects us and affects us in ways that are seriously damaging and have these long-term repercussions. I don’t just mean illness and death, but it looks like it alters some of our physiological functioning. So we don’t even know yet how bad this pandemic is going to be in the sense of our bodies and our future generations, but we know it’s going to be bad. So that’s, that’s the thing we know. But let me just add one little bit here. What we can hope for is that we learn from this, you know, it’s actually not very hard to avoid getting infected by SARS-CoV-2. And it’s not very hard to set up the world in ways such that these kinds of viruses can’t do what this one did to us, but only if we change things.


HEFFNER: Right, change things. I want you to expound on, on how we can change things.


FUENTES: I mean, let’s just think right away from the beginning of this, what really struck home, what SARS-CoV-2 showed us is that our current health systems and our current systems of transportation and delivery and infrastructure actually are pretty fragile, right? This little virus came and messed up the entire world. So we’ve got to, I think, rethink sort of how we engage in economic, political and transportation issues, with the recognition that this is not just a one-off. This is going to happen again, and we better be prepared.


HEFFNER: Technically speaking, I imagine you’re alluding to the fact that once SARS-CoV-2 is out of its bag, you know, we have to take precautions that is involving masking and social distancing, for a generation. You know, barring some great intervention through oral vaccines and there are companies, and I want you to comment on this, that are thinking about vaccine regimens, that will be more effective than Moderna and Pfizer, in the long-term, because we know that there’s a vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. and in some places around the world, and there likely would be hesitation to get injections every six months. Whereas if you create an oral vaccine and you pop it like an antibiotic, or even better like a Tylenol or an Advil once every six months, and you guard yourself and have a degree of 90 percent efficacy protection, then that could be a real miracle-making intervention beyond the social interventions of the social distancing and the mask wearing. So, so where do you come out on that in terms of the innovation of the future?


FUENTES: So here’s the thing that’s so important is our current vaccines are really good. They’re really good. But vaccines aren’t perfect, right? So, it’s vaccines, plus social distancing, plus masking, plus not being an idiot.


HEFFNER: (Laughs.)


FUENTES: And I know that sounds a little ridiculous, but it’s true. We know how to do this. But you’re right. Our vaccines are going to get better. Our delivery systems will get better. Moving forward we will have a great sort of biomedical and structural control of the virus. However, that’s not all we need to rethink, for example how we work, what our jobs look like, what are we requiring of everyone in the service industry? And how do we think about what our cities look like and where people live? I know these are huge things, but all of those are equally important. If you look at the COVID-19 pandemic, what you see is huge inequity in who got hit, right? In who’s suffering and how badly those people who have it are suffering. There’s a lot of variation and that variation is not due to some, mostly due to biology of the humans. It’s actually due to the social economic structures that we put humans in. So vaccines are great, behaviors are real, but it’s not enough to save us from this happening again and happening worse.


HEFFNER: Right. And a lot of your research and writing focuses on the origin of our biology and evolution. And so if you were to envision, you know, a happier ending to that bad science fiction, nightmare turned reality for a lot of Americans. And again, those who are hardest hit, but also those who are everyday Americans or citizens of this new world, I mean, when people said new normal, it was really a new abnormal and that abnormal continues for those people who don’t want to be idiots. I mean, you say that colloquially, but you mean it in terms of people continuing to have a sustained practice of distancing and strategic and intelligent behavior. And that’s not easy. So, I mean, there’s a whole mental health crisis and a whole change of psychology around behavior that continues because as long as there are breakthrough infections and the Madonna and Pfizer vaccines don’t make you basically invulnerable you know, that kind of thing continues. And so in terms of just the ways that this can further evolve if the status quo continues, I think you’ve forecast something, you know, in one way, a certain trajectory. Whereas if we sort of take ownership of the new abnormal in a way that empowers us, maybe it goes into a different trajectory.


FUENTES: Yeah. I mean, that’s evolutionary processes, right. We know, right, unless everyone, a hundred percent of people are vaccinated, unless a hundred percent of people are being careful, we know there’s always the opportunity for innovative mutations in the virus, new viral strains that could be worse or it could be better. We don’t know, but that’s going to still keep happening. That’s the way evolution works, stuff changes on this planet. So that’s a given. So what we can do then is think structurally not only should everyone be vaccinated, but even those who won’t vaccinate, we can think about restructuring, for example, who goes to work when they’re sick, right? Well, our, our reality is right now that a huge percentage of people, for example, here in the United States have to go to work every day, or they can’t pay rent, right? Or they can’t put enough food on the table.

That’s problematic when we’re going to ask them to be out for two or three days to take a vaccine, or when they get sick, we say, don’t come in. We need to rethink that system, right? So that’s an important part because evolutionary processes, right, the virus is going to evolve no matter what. All we can do is constrain its window for evolution. And we only do that by, as you said, making the new abnormal or typical, right. Let’s think, and act and redo things in ways that restrict the virus’s ability to enter us and mutate.


HEFFNER: Are there examples historically, you know, we can go back however many centuries you want, Augustin, where we did accomplish this or other species accomplished this adaptation, because that’s what is required now. And it’s required not just by the individual, but by like you are alluding to the corporation, any entity in the social fabric of civilization. Are there models of successful adaptation that we need to emulate right now?


FUENTES: Yeah. We need to think about this because we always think about evolution as just biology, right? You know, we’re, we’re, we’re not going to grow some giant mask parts of our mouth so that we become immune to viruses. That’s not the way it works. Biological change is pretty slow, but what humans have been doing for at least a million, if not more years, is something called cultural evolution, right? So when humans 5, 600,000 years ago start to moving into really cold areas. They didn’t just show up there and die because of the cold. They started wearing furs and started making clothes and shoes and using fire. They used their material culture, their incredibly bright minds to figure out how to reshape bits of the world to make it work for them. And that’s what we got to do here. Cultural evolution is really fast and we can evolve culturally before our bodies catch up to the kind of resistance we’ll need to defeat the virus.

HEFFNER: And anthropologically speaking, we’re in this climate of continued viral strain. And the evolution of the virus itself potentially becoming more debilitating then even the Delta strain. And that’s a result of folks who are vaccine skeptics or hesitant. And that’s a result of, of folks who are, who are not wearing the mask and at a very human level, this is exactly what you study. The alpha male who refuses to be vaccinated or who refuses to wear a mask. And now it’s not really just a theoretical notion. I mean, there has been story after story of people in the public profile, in the public spotlight, who were for nefarious reasons, or just because they were uninformed, who were on their radio show or who were gathered with friends or family, or who posted something to a social media platform, you know, denying the validity or a wellness of the vaccine. And then they got sick and died. So, I mean, there’s so many case studies like that now. But yet, the vaccine rate just inches up and it doesn’t seem like we’ll get to a hundred percent vaccinated for quite some time. So what say you about the kind of alpha male, and it wrong for me to narrow cast it that way in terms of what the problem is right now?


FUENTES: No, and the only thing I wrong is I would challenge the term alpha male. Alpha male doesn’t mean what they put. Most people think it means actually most things that we use for alpha aren’t alphas at all. It doesn’t work that way, but let’s take that off the table. But what you’re saying is prominent individuals misrepresenting and lying about the science for political or economic gain, right? And that’s very powerful and why it’s so powerful right now is because the people who’ve been doing that are part of an emerging belief system and structure in the U.S. and that belief system means that the people who take what they say, the people who say, don’t believe in vaccines, don’t worry about the virus, don’t mask. It’s my freedom, or my choice. They’re wrong. Scientifically the data clearly show that. But they’re part of a system of belief. So the people who listen to them and buy into them, think it’s real. So belief means, like humans have the ability to really commit to ideas, whether or not they’re based in factual reality. And so there are so many people doing that and what we need to do, what our job as scientists, what the media’s job is as sort of the disseminators of information, or the translators of information is to get this out there again, and again and again. And one of the biggest challenges is social media, right? Because it’s so open and sort of uncontrolled is that you get a lot of this lying and misrepresenting of science and data, and that’s dangerous. So leaders need to step up and really do the right thing. And my biggest concern for places like the United States is that we have a lot of prominent figures, mostly men, as you pointed out who are saying stuff that they know is not true, for political gain. And that’s going to kill tens of thousands, if not millions, more than it already has.


HEFFNER: Right. The President of the United States referred to this as kind of Neanderthal thinking, right? And back to your area of expertise. So is it, is it not alpha male, but is sort of a degenerative Neanderthal, now I see you shaking your head …?


FUENTES: Nope. Not at all. Look Neanderthals were us. They’re humans. They’re incredibly bright. They lived on three or 400,000 years. We interbred with them. We shared incredible things. They used fire, they made art, they made stone tools. So that whole representation of Neanderthals is wrong. They are us. We are them, but here’s the problem. People think, oh, I’m tough. Our caveman ancestors were tough. Let’s just stick it out. Let the old people die. The tough will survive. That’s a misrepresentation of Darwin. That’s a misrepresentation of how evolution works. And in fact, it’s not at all what our ancestors did. You know what our ancestors did? When they got sick or someone got injured, they came together, and they cared for that individual. When the children were growing, groups came together to help nurture them and parent them. When a group faced a challenge from the outside, they came together and figured out how to solve that challenge creatively and collaboratively. What we see through out, every evidence we have of human evolution is not individuals being jerks, but rather people getting together and working together, sometimes a great risk to themselves. to make a difference for everyone. That’s human tradition.


HEFFNER: Right? No, but I am afraid though, that there is a cohort of scientists or folks even in the medical community, not necessarily scientists, but doctors and medical professionals who occupy that space. I’m not saying that they suggest, you know, only the strong will survive in the way that you and I are talking now, but who believed that as long as there’s a vaccine-hesitant public, that, you know, the idea of herd immunity is unrealistic and less, a lot more people do get infected. And our only path to truly overcoming this is a combination of protection through infection and vaccination.


FUENTES: Right. And that’s just incorrect, right? So we’re not going to achieve herd immunity in the given context, but herd immunity is not what most people think it is. It doesn’t mean just let everyone get infected and over time everyone develop an immunity. That’s not true, especially with something like SARS- CoV-2, where we’ve got, it’s not as fast mutating as some other coronaviruses, but when it does mutate, it’s really good at tricking our system. Right. So the whole idea of just let’s just let the virus spread and we’ll eventually adapt biologically. That’s just untrue in the short-term and by the short-term, I mean, one or two generations from now. So if people are cool with hundreds of millions dead, then yeah. Maybe that’s the right way to go.


HEFFNER: No. I’m only saying that, that I’ve, I’ve heard more than one medical authority or professional say this. They may be unprofessional in saying this, but this notion that it will be that combination, that dynamic that enables fuller protection and ultimately for us to win, you know, to defeat the pandemic.


FUENTES: Yeah. We, we don’t, we don’t when we work with it to do better, right? That’s the thing. And so a lot of, as you said, a lot of doctors are not scientists and there’s a cluster of, I’m going to use quotes here, scientists who are out there on social media and in public contexts, lying, misrepresenting the actual evolutionary, and biological data about the virus and about the illness caused by the virus, in order to gain some kind of prominence. What we need to do as scientists is what most scientists are doing right now, which is coming together and collaborating. I mean, look at the vaccine development. That was incredibly fast because everyone put aside their sort of arguments and got together to share data. And to really think this through, we can do this.


HEFFNER: No, I was going to ask you, do you think that the oral vaccines actually hold promise because people who refuse to get the vaccine as an injection would get it administered orally?


FUENTES: I mean, the thing is, I’m not sure if it’s the injection thing, right? I mean, that’s a shot is scary, but we get shots for all sorts of things. There’s always a small percentage of people who are terrified of needles or shots, but I think different modalities, different ways of delivering the vaccine are going to be very important. And I think unfortunately, what we have to have is we need more highly prominent individuals getting vaccines in public, promoting vaccines in public. And we need more science literacy. You know, most people are afraid of the people, many people, not all, but some people are afraid of vaccines are afraid because they don’t understand what vaccines are or how they work. They don’t understand what an MRA is. mRNA is. They don’t understand antibodies. If we actually had better biological education in high school, our vaccine, anti-vax rate would be half of what it is today.


HEFFNER: Right? And also with oral vaccine, you are able to administer it more frequently and potentially as you know, the Deltas emerge, the next Delta variant, the next variants emerge, you may be more equipped to protect yourself and be able to access it. And the oral vaccines also, if it’s not magical thinking, and if it actually does work, and we don’t know that yet, then, you know, distribution around the world could be far more efficacious and expedited. Well, let me ask you about the origin of this, because there is something of an asterisk or unknown connected to this pandemic that does make it feel like a science fiction movie because of the complete lack of transparency around the origin and the fact that this Corona virus laboratory existed in the place where it began. Some of the earlier reporting that this was trafficking around Europe pre-December 2019, so far, that is not proven. And if anything, that might’ve been false. So Wuhan was the epicenter and the origin initially. And, and there is something just devastating about knowing that we might have done this to ourselves.


FUENTES: Yeah. But here’s the thing. The first main line is that it doesn’t matter where it came from. It’s here right now, and we’ve got to deal with it. And I think we can get caught up in worrying about this origin. Now the reality is though humans and other animals exchange viruses all the time. I mean, I’ve studied this, I’ve done some work on this with humans and monkeys. We’re doing this a lot. All the time. People would be surprised how common it is, the exchange of pathogens between humans and other organisms. What’s uncommon is that those pathogens are definitely harmful to humans. Right. And in this case, that’s really a big one. Everything, if you look at all the literature currently that we have, everything suggests, this is one of those or a few of those transmission events, probably in the Wuhan region of China. And it might’ve happened a few times before that it just didn’t get out. And it doesn’t necessarily mean it was from, could have been from further south in China as well. The bottom line here is that this happens all the time. And if people are worried like, oh, was this designed in a lab? It wasn’t designed. That’s absolutely unequivocal, right? We know this was not designed by humans to do what it does. It’s a naturally occurring and mutating virus. Now did it, was it in a lab? And did it get out? The odds are strongly against that, but either way, it doesn’t make any difference for us right now, because right now we know how to control it and it needs to be controlled. Otherwise we’re going to continue to suffer and suffer even more in the years to come.


HEFFNER: I don’t know that I don’t know that we know with certitude that the kind of research that could have been going on in that lab, that it’s impossible that research made it more harmful, right?


FUENTES: You know, the thing is you, okay, we can look at the sequence. We now have a ton of evidence it’s publicly available on sequence variation and rates of mutation with SARS-Cv-2. We can compare that to SARS-CoV, early one and to MERS, the different coronaviruses that are related to it. We can actually look at the protein sheaths and the spike proteins. We actually can look at the biology of this virus and clearly demonstrate this is not a Frankenstein virus, right? This is not something that people put together. You can tell structurally by mutation rate and patterns. And of course, what the protein sheaths look like. So this was not sort of created in the lab virus. This is a naturally occurring virus. Now could this naturally occurring virus been in a lab and there was a mistake made and it was released into the world. Sure. That’s possible. Did it happen in this case? The odds are extremely low, but again, it doesn’t matter. We understand the virus, we understand what it does, and we clearly know how to keep it from making it worse. and we’re just not doing a good enough job on that third part yet.


HEFFNER: Yeah. As we conclude here, I just want to emphasize that the long-haul symptoms and, you know, we were aware of, of the SARS or MERS where you were, you know, it was fatal, instantaneous, basically death. You were infected, you die. But this was really the first Corona virus, unlike the common cold coronavirus where you see these crazy, you know, what medical professionals who’ve been around all the time, even if you went back and interview medical professionals, pre you know, 20th century, if you interviewed people from the era of the Spanish flu pandemic, the idea of a Corona virus carrying with it the risk of long-term ailment, whether that is neurological heart attacks, strokes you know, we’ve seen everything associated with that. And that’s the one thing that, you know, keeps me alert to the idea that it could have leaped from a lab. I mean, because I connect the novelty to it, of it, not necessarily to the lab or the lab escape or the engineering gain of function research, but to something novel here that people haven’t been able to identify.


FUENTES: Well, it’s actually not true because both the early SARS and then the MERS didn’t mean instant death, but we had a very good understanding of their physiological mode of attack and their engaging with the immune system. We have a better, a good understanding of SARS-CoV-2’s sort of engagement with the immune system. What we don’t understand is the immune system response. So it’s actually very interesting that, that these long-term these long-haul, it looks like SARS-CV-2’s possibility is to confuse our systems and to get these inflammatory processes and this sort of misguided immune response to cascade around the body. That’s really scary, right. But there’s no evidence that that is an engineered component. So if you look at the sequences of RNA in the SARS-CoV-2 relative to other coronaviruses, or if you look at all the mutations that have happened in the different lineages or strains of SARS-CV-2, again, there’s no evidence that this has been manipulated, but what you just said about long haul, that’s our concern, because we don’t even know what the long-term consequences are. Aside from, it turns out that a lot of people who get infected, who don’t show any immediate symptoms do have long-term consequences.

HEFFNER: I just you know, continue to think that the fact that, that this has existed in a way for asymptomatic carriers to infect folks, combined with the long-haul symptoms. I mean, again, going back to your quote in the New Yorker, if you were designing something in a science fiction film to wreak havoc, you would actually maybe not design something that would kill someone instantly, or, you know, soon after being infected, but design something that would paralyze, you know, not only the human body in a disparate set of ways that are confounding, but the whole transportation, political and economic grid, you know, if you will, in the way that this did. So to me, your quote resonated on a variety of levels, but it can’t be, it can’t escape the human mind or imagination to understand that this is something that is radically different from anything we’ve experienced before. And therefore it’s not impossible for your mind to leap to that thought, not conclusion, but thought, that if someone were to design something, to have a paralyzing effect on society for years, it would be like, what this is.


FUENTS: You’re right. But I would twist it the other way. If someone were to design a society that could be paralyzed immediately by a small virus, that’s what we’ve done. So, I mean, I think, I think the thing is we’ve created a world where this can happen, right? So yeah, in the sci-fi fantasy version, maybe someone designed it, but evolutionary processes, the natural world, biology is fascinating, smart, and quick. And we just put it, we wait, what did he say? We gave it to them on a silver platter, right? SARS, CoV-2, sauce. And it was like, I’m on this, I’m all over this. And they took advantage.


HEFFNER: We have delved too, to some extent into how we repair, how to reform society. And we’ll have you back Augustin, Augustin Fuentes, professor of anthropology at Princeton. Thank you for your insight today.


FUENTES: Thanks so much for having me.


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