Banning Sociality Is Costly

Our obligate sociality makes us vulnerable to necessary pandemic controls.

Posted Nov 29, 2020

It’s time to consider whether we should channel our inner marmot. I’ve learned a lot from a career spent studying marmots — large, charismatic, alpine ground squirrels — in the wild. Notably, for the current stay-at-home orders that I and my fellow Angelenos must follow, the yellow-bellied marmots I study in Colorado are social, but they don't really want to be. Indeed, more social females have fewer offspring per year and live shorter lives. And, highly social marmots are more likely to die over winter. It makes sense that females get less social as they age — I would too if I faced these costs! And it makes sense that there is tremendous social variation in marmots — not all individuals have these social costs imposed on them.

But we are not marmots and restricting social interactions is tough on us.

Humans, unlike marmots, are obligately social and we benefit from maintaining social connections. A landmark review summarizing previous studies concluded that not being socially connected is as bad for our longevity as smoking a pack of cigarettes each day. Many studies have shown adverse health consequences associated with social isolation. Loneliness hurts us. Loneliness may kill us.

Obligate sociality has its own costs and benefits. Working together we, but not marmots, can design and build vehicles ranging from simple boats to extraordinarily complex airplanes. These conveyances transport humans and the resources we need throughout the world. The global supply chain ensures that our Amazon or Walmart or Etsy orders provide us with what we need, think we need, or simply want, almost instantly. These conveyances are also responsible for the transmission of pests and pestilences throughout the world, including our novel coronavirus.

Evolving and maintaining complex sociality is tough because, at times, individuals may have to make individual sacrifices for the common good. The logic of evolutionary biology shows us that true altruism is rare in nature. When we think we see altruism we look deeper and often find that individuals are benefiting by helping their relatives, thus ensuring that their genes persist. Survival of ones’ genetic lineage, not the species, is the logic of evolution.

Yet I find this hard to translate to humans when I see or read about truly heroic acts. The firefighters running up the stairs of the World Trade Center towers moments before they collapsed. Bronze star winning soldiers running into the line of fire to rescue injured comrades. Heroic acts that save non-relatives define us as humans.

Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett write in their new book, The Upswing that over the past 120 years America has gone from an I-generation during the Gilded Age, to a We-generation from World War II to the 1970s, and back to an I-generation now. I-generations are characterized by selfishness, massive income, educational inequality, and lack of social cooperation. We-generations, by contrast, are characterized social cooperation and relatively more social and income equality. We are happier in We-generations.

The current stay-at-home orders prevent us from associating with non-household members inside or outside our homes. We’ve had months of practice with this and we’ve learned that substituting Zoom for in-person events creates new challenges. As many of us have learned in the past months, there are only so many Zoomtails one can drink without impacting longevity! And some of us have learned that Thanksgiving dinner with family over Zoom is a poor substitute for the normally chaotic gathering of excess eating and family dynamics we’re used to.

Obligate sociality means that we crave physical interactions with others. We need them. But obligate sociality also means that we can work together to solve problems that each of us alone cannot solve. Controlling COVID-19 is like building a rocket ship, requiring the coordinated actions of many. Marmots can’t coordinate their actions to solve this collective action problem, but we can.

By wearing masks, physically distancing, and reducing interactions beyond which are vital, we can reduce viral transmission. By reducing viral transmission, we will save our fellow citizens' lives, be able to re-open our schools and businesses sooner and have a greater individual chance of surviving until we can build immunity with vaccines. Of course, this is individually costly, more so with the coming holidays. But the alternative is an overwhelmed hospital system and the needless deaths of more Angelenos and indeed, more Americans. We are not marmots. We have the ability to make individual sacrifices for the common good.