The evolution of the human healthcare system and implications for understanding our responses to COVID-19



Kessler SE & Aunger R (2022) The evolution of the human healthcare system and implications for understanding our responses to COVID-19. Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, 10 (1), pp. 87-107.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed an urgent need for a comprehensive, multidisciplinary understanding of how healthcare systems respond successfully to infectious pathogens—and how they fail. This study contributes a novel perspective that focuses on the selective pressures that shape healthcare systems over evolutionary time. We use a comparative approach to trace the evolution of care-giving and disease control behaviours across species and then map their integration into the contemporary human healthcare system. Self-care and pro-health environmental modification are ubiquitous across animals, while derived behaviours like care for kin, for strangers, and group-level organizational responses have evolved via different selection pressures. We then apply this framework to our behavioural responses to COVID-19 and demonstrate that three types of conflicts are occurring: (1) conflicting selection pressures on individuals, (2) evolutionary mismatches between the context in which our healthcare behaviours evolved and our globalized world of today and (3) evolutionary displacements in which older forms of care are currently dispensed through more derived forms. We discuss the significance of understanding how healthcare systems evolve and change for thinking about the role of healthcare systems in society during and after the time of COVID-19—and for us as a species as we continue to face selection from infectious diseases.

evolutionary medicine; animal behaviour; primatology; human evolution

Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health: Volume 10, Issue 1

Publication date31/12/2022
Publication date online28/02/2022
Date accepted by journal14/01/2022
PublisherOxford University Press (OUP)

People (1)


Dr Sharon Kessler
Dr Sharon Kessler

Lecturer in Psychology, Psychology