(March 31st, 2020 update and disclaimer: This article is not meant, nor can it be interpreted as medical advice, or as adopting an epidemiological position. The figures cited in the article reflect estimates at the time of writing in February 2020. This article is written from an evolutionary behavioural science perspective to comment on cognitive dimensions of the way humans reason about viral threats, and the co-evolution of human psychology and societies with animal-born pathogens. Readers looking for up-to-date medical information must consult their local public health authorities, the CDC, or the WHO. For a positive take on social consequences of the pandemic, see my second post on the subject.)
Ask yourself the following: Would you feel confident taking an over-the-counter medication if you were 98 percent sure it would work safely? Would you dare to gamble all your savings in a one-off scheme in which you had a 98 percent chance of losing it all?
The coronavirus is a similar no-brainer. As a generic member of the human species, you have about the same odds of dying of the coronavirus as winning in the gambling scenario. These are overall rates, meaning that unless you are already in very poor health, are very old, or very young, the odds for you are much lower. Or next to nil.
Why then are so many countries implementing quarantine measures, shutting down their borders, schools, and soccer games for something that is less likely to happen to anyone than drowning in a single year, or even being hit by lightning in one’s lifetime? Why is the stock-market crashing, and why are school and workplace mass emails, news headlines, social media feeds, and face-to-face conversations dominated by stories about what is essentially a new strand of mild to moderate flu?
Our minds like to jump to threatening headlines with big, alarming numbers. As this post was first aired, a total of 80,000 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in 40 countries. To put things in perspective again, this is a mere 0.0001% of the world population. In comparison, seasonal outbreaks of influenza make 3 to 5 million people sick enough to seek treatment worldwide (up to 0.06% of the population) while many more cases go undetected. The seasonal flu results in 290,000 to 650,000 deaths each year — up to 0.008% of the population.
To grasp the full — and very real — power of the coronavirus, we need to enter the rabbit hole of evolved human psychology.
The coronavirus is quite simply, and almost exclusively, a moral panic. This is so in the most literal sense. Human bodies, minds, societies, systems of meaning, norms, and morality have co-evolved with pathogens. Determining who drove whom in this dark scenario is currently unclear.
To understand this strange dynamic, consider people’s blatant inability to make statistically correct inferences about actual risk in the current epidemic of catastrophizing about COVID-19. The human propensity to ignore basic probability, and our mind’s fondness for attending to ‘salient’ information is well-documented. The negativity bias is one of the most potent of such pre-programmed mental heuristics: Any cue that contains information about potential dangers and threats will jump to mind easily, will be easier to remember, and easier to pass on. In the lingo of cultural epidemiologists, we describe danger cues as possessing "high learnability, memorability, and teachability" — or high feed-forward potential in epidemics of ideas. There is a clear evolutionary advantage to this trait: We are better off over-interpreting rather than under-interpreting danger. In most cases, these instant associations work well. Cues that signal the presence of pathogens tend to elicit automatic disgust responses, so as to help us avoid dangers. Over time, we’ve also evolved the ability to react instantly to a range of visual and auditory cues that convey a high likelihood of pathogen presence. This is why most of us are grossed out by the presence of mice, rats, or bugs, or by the sound of sniffling.
But this mental heuristic is known to glitch in other ways. Racism and xenophobia, for example, also recruit pathogen-detection brain mechanisms. The language and metaphors we routinely use to justify moral outrage and our fear of the other also employ pathogen metaphors. We speak of undesirables as “vermin”; we are “grossed out” by offensive ideas; we worry about our girls being “soiled," and our young people's minds being “infected” by “sick” individuals and groups. Studies have shown that germaphobes and people who score higher in disgust sensitivity tend to be more ideologically and politically rigid.
The plot thickens — or, more to the point, tightens — again. A growing consensus in the social sciences plots the historical rise of societies with 'tighter' social norms and more conservative cultures to the presence of pathogens in the environment. Western cultures tend to be 'looser' than non-Western ones for this reason — northern latitudes do not sustain as many pathogens as tropical zones — and they have become even looser since the advent of improved sanitation and antibiotics. Countries with higher historical pathogen prevalence are also associated with less gender equality and more rigid gender roles than those with cleaner environments.
But it gets weirder again. Deadly viruses like smallpox, the plague, measles, and influenza evolved in conditions of high population density between humans, animals, their detritus, and their excretions. More to the point, zoonotic (animal-borne, contagious to humans) diseases co-evolved under new selective pressures exerted on humans, plants, and animals as they domesticated one another in the Neolithic period, starting 12,000 years ago. By ‘domestication,' I refer to the evolutionary strategy of species who selectively breed and reshape the life histories of other species for their own needs. Over a million years ago, following the domestication of fire, for example, our hominin ancestors were able to burn vast expanses of forest and savannah to reshape animal migration patterns for their hunting needs. Neolithic humans, to be sure, appear to have started the trend of selectively breeding plant species (millet, wheat, rice) and animal species (dogs, camels, pigs, goats, sheep, cows) for their nutritional, survival, and energy-conservation needs. As human and animal population density rose in the Neolithic, multiple waves of uninvited commensals like rats, mice, sparrows, pigeons — and, following those, fleas, lice, ticks, ants, flies, bees, and other insects joined in. Parasites, bacteria and viruses soon followed. Anthropologist James C. Scott refers to these radical niche transformations as “Late-Neolithic Multi-Species Relocation Settlement Camps."
Recall that evolution is a numbers game: At a population level, species seek to maximize their numbers by exploiting — and bending to their will — the vulnerabilities of other organisms in the niche. From Scott’s perspective, commenting on the backbreaking toil of humans who became tied to their ploughs in the course of a few centuries, it is unclear who domesticated whom in the Neolithic. Judging by the exponential spread and 'success’ of such plant species as wheat, corn, rice, or marijuana, and the radical modes of restructuring of human activities and human bodies following their adoption as mono-crops, one might suggest, as Michael Pollan once did, that these plants colonized us. The abandonment of varied sources of proteins and fibre, as well as the flexible modes of livelihoods and environmental knowledge that sustained hunter-gatherer lifestyles gave rise, in record evolutionary time, to deep physiological changes and damages to the human body. By many accounts, the human species has yet to recover from the shock of the agricultural transition, which, for a while, led to lower statures, tooth decay, and lower bone density from malnutrition; a spike in auto-immune diseases; and increased mortality from new pathogens. On another cynical account — judging this time by the bending of human psychology, norms, social roles, moral codes, and patterns of migration and conflict — the new pathogens clearly won the numbers game.
By this account, COVID-19 is turning out to be a remarkably intelligent evolutionary adversary. By exploiting vulnerabilities in human psychology selectively bred by its pathogen ancestors, it has already shut down many of our schools, crashed our stock market, increased social conflict and xenophobia, reshuffled our migration patterns, and is working to contain us in homogenous spaces where it can keep spreading. We should pause to remark that COVID-19 is extraordinarily successful epidemiologically, precisely because it is not extremely lethal. With its mortality rate of 90%, for example, Ebola is a rather stupid virus: It kills its host — and itself — too quickly to spread far enough to reshape other species’ life-ways to cater to its needs.
The bad news for you is that, if you live in a densely populated area, you are very likely to contract the coronavirus — if not this year, next year, or the year after as it undergoes its seasonal global migration pattern with its zoonotic cousins.
The good news is that you will almost certainly not die from it, and it may not even register that you are slightly more sluggish than usual for a week or two. Much more relevant to the terrible threat caused by our Pathogen Overlords, you can prepare to fight the yearly Corona invasions to come by resisting your own neuroticism, your own prejudice, and your own irrationality. As far as numbers games are concerned, our Pathogen Overlords are much more noble, and much more worthy of our hatred than our fellow human pseudo-enemies in political, religious, and culture wars.
Humans of the world, unite: You have nothing to lose but your bad health.