Biological Wisdom Coming at Last

The current disaster makes a case for smart ecology.

Posted Jun 02, 2020

It isn’t clear where the new coronavirus originated, although it almost certainly came from some denizens of the natural world, probably bats. But in any event, it is clear that as Hamlet pointed out, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In the clutches of a worldwide pandemic, there is obviously a whole lot here on earth—never mind heaven—that we still don’t encompass in our philosophy, our science, our ethics, or our politics. Nothing mystical, mind you, just the “things” of biology that are altogether real, but that we don’t yet completely understand.

We live in their shadows. Like a rat in front of a night-light, they project an enlarged, menacing image on our walls, with some of the silhouettes genuine, others exaggerated, but, as italicized by COVID-19, none of them fully comprehended. 

There may be a few silver linings within this terrible pandemic cloud, one of which could be a newfound appreciation that the cliché, “We’re all in this together,” is not limited to human beings. The CDC estimates that 75% of new and emerging human diseases are zoonotic, spilling over from animals to people. Here, what we don’t know outweighs what we do; Hamlet would understand.

We don’t know the exact nature of the next zoonosis, or the ones after that: whether they’ll be viral, bacterial, archaea, prion, fungus, or something as yet undreamt of in our collective philosophies. But this needn’t be cause for despair, “learned helplessness,” or rejection of science. Rather, it calls for more science, not less, more listening to the experts, more support for those experts, more information leading to more wisdom.

Socrates maintained that he was the wisest man in Athens, not because he knew so much but because he knew how little he knew. So if we as individuals, nations, and a species are to live up to our Latin designation—sapiens, “the wise”—it would help if in the process of learning all we can about the natural world from whence not only our lives but also a potentially large proportion of our deaths are likely to arise, we adopt the wisdom of taking very, very seriously one thing that we know for sure: we’re all in this together. Not just Americans, Russians, Chinese, Brazilians, Nigerians, and everyone else, but the bats, pangolins, whales, dandelions, anacondas, earthworms, dung beetles, avocados, fungi, baobabs, amoebae, and every other darned thing that makes up our inseparably interconnected web of life.

Francis Thompson put it thus: “All things … near and far, Hiddenly to each other linked are, That thou canst not stir a flower without troubling of a star.” We haven’t just been stirring the occasional flower; we have been wreaking havoc throughout the natural world. And in the process, as the pandemic makes clear, it isn’t just a random star that has been troubled. An old advertisement used to proclaim “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” and as Philip K. Dick notes, “reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” The reality is that our ignorant mucking around hasn’t so much fooled Mother Nature as fooled ourselves into believing that we are separate from her, and that we can keep doing so with impunity.

The innumerable downsides to the current pandemic make it unnecessary to detail them. But there are also some possible upsides, such as recognizing the importance of a competent federal executive, greater respect for science, potentially reduced fossil fuel use if, post-pandemic, we move to less commuting, and so forth. Maybe, just maybe, another benefit will arise if the forced immersion in virus-based vulnerability induces us to acknowledge, like Socrates, how much we don’t know, especially about the complex workings of the organic world, along with our dependent interconnection with it, and how terribly wrong things can go if we continue acting as though we are separate from it.

There are, of course, many reasons to show greater respect for nature, so many that once again detailing them here is unnecessary. But among them, a relatively new one deserves recognition, even by those so benighted that they consider themselves and our species to be disconnected from the greater whole. It is simply this: there is much too much that we don’t understand, so many risks that we take when we assault the natural world, so many pitfalls out there that even aside from the ethical and aesthetic considerations, we are playing Russian roulette—or worse—when we treat other living things and their habitats as disposable and irrelevant to our own well-being.

Examining COVID-19 transmission rates from March 15 to May 3 and then “backstrapolating” (my own word), researchers from Columbia University concluded that if social distancing had been initiated one week earlier, 36,000 American lives could have been saved. If two weeks earlier, more than 80% of deaths would have been avoided. Without doubt, the Trump Administration—and particularly the president himself—was horribly, unforgivably negligent. But ditto for much of the world, negligently raping and pillaging the nature herself, thereby stirring up one hornet’s nest of pathogens after another: plague, rabies, AIDS, SARS, MERS, West Nile, ad pretty much infinitum.

We hardly ever looked before we leaped.

It’s not too late, however. As some people begin to plan—prematurely or not—for the next, post-pandemic phase, shouldn’t we add something beyond economic, social, and political “re-opening”? We could learn from the current catastrophe and pick up the Horatio Challenge, expanding our philosophy, dreaming better and behaving more wisely, working with nature instead of ignoring, colonizing, damaging, and often destroying what are actually crucial and inseparable parts of ourselves. Or we can continue acting like toddlers, obliviously sticking our fingers in electric sockets, unprepared for the next shock.

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington; his next book will be Threats: Intimidation and its Discontents, coming this fall from Oxford University Press.