Epidemics, empathy, and social change

Renzo Taddei – March 18, 2020

There is a post circulating on Facebook that tells the following story: someone once asked the famous American anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered the first evidence of human civilization. This was a heated debate in the mid-20th century in anthropology. Some authors said that the mark of the rise of civilization was the appearance of symbolic language (the ability to use metaphors, for example). Others said that the starting point was the emergence of the perception that some forms of behavior – such as incest – were unacceptable. Others, the invention of hunting tools. Still others, the creation of religious artifacts. Margaret Mead’s response was surprising: she said that the beginning of humanity was represented in a femur, found in an archaeological site dated 15,000 years ago. This bone had the mark of a fracture that had been healed (this story is narrated in the book The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life, Avery, 2012).

Mead’s explanation was as follows: no animal, in wild conditions, is able to survive with a fractured femur bone. Such an animal would be killed by another animal, or by the likely infection, before the bone could be repaired. In this way, the existence of a cured 15,000-year-old femur means that the individual to whom the bone belonged was helped by her peers, who cared for, protected, and provided her food for a long period of time, so that calcification of the bone was possible. Mead’s argument was, therefore, that the hallmark that defines human civilization is care for those who are sick or in a situation of vulnerability. To be human is to empathize with others.

It happens, however, that the journey of Western civilization – the most materially rich and powerful in the entire history of mankind – ended up producing, from the 19th century on, ways of life guided by individualism and hedonism (which is the idea that the purpose of human existence is to enjoy life, to have pleasure). Individualism and hedonism together produce selfish ways of understanding the world and life.

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, we see the Western world torn between selfish tendencies and the ability to empathize with those at risk. Selfish tendencies are visible when, for example, someone runs to the supermarket and buys all available bottles of alcohol gel, before others do it; or when the (usually healthy) young person thinks that, because she has a very high chance of recovery if infected, she does not have to worry so much about contracting the virus. Empathetic behavior is visible when someone offers to shop for the old couple who live in the condo, so that they do not need to leave home; or when the young person, who is generally healthy, stays at home when she realizes that she has the symptoms of the virus, so that medical attention and test kits for detecting the disease are used in those who are really in serious condition. Or even when someone realizes that many children in public schools need the food they receive there, and if they stay at home they will go hungry, and organize food collection and distribution for the families of such children.

Historically speaking, major epidemics have tended to turn the scales towards empathy (even though most people remain in a state of selfish panic). An article published in 2018 in the British newspaper The Guardian (https://bit.ly/39Y7L2p) described how the Spanish flu that killed more than 10 million people in 1918 was important in creating the welfare state in Sweden, and resulted in the fact that the country, one of the richest on the planet, has very low social inequality. The high mortality of the Spanish flu has disorganized society in such a way that injustices and inequalities that existed but were invisible came to the fore.

We can say that the epidemiological crisis can be understood, among many other more dramatic things, as a great sociological experiment. In other words, it is possible to observe things and behaviors that, in more “normal” situations, would not be visible. In this experiment, one could observe how this clash between individualistic selfishness and empathic behavior is unfolding in each location. Is there a turn towards empathy, or what characterizes most collective behavior is individualistic selfishness? What could be done so empathetic attitudes are promoted and amplified? And will people who feel more stimulated to be supportive and behave empathically continue to behave this way after the end of the crisis? In other words, will the epidemic produce real changes in society, as occurred in Sweden in 1918?

Another interesting thing that may help us think about the current crisis in different keys is that epidemics have important roles in the formation of contemporary civilization. Yuval Harari mentions that in chapter 5 (“The biggest fraud in history”) of his book Sapiens. Epidemics started to be part of human life at the time when plants and animals were domesticated, and most human groups started to live on the same land, practicing agriculture. Cities emerged, throughout history, without sanitary infrastructure, and this favored microorganisms that lived more or less in balance with the local ecology to start causing epidemics. From the invention of agriculture in the Middle East to the invasion of the Americas by Europeans, 10,000 years have passed. In these 10,000 years, epidemics of all types have overwhelmed the populations of Eurasia. What is the result of this? Natural selection: the European human being of the 15th century had immunity to a large number of microorganisms to which the indigenous populations of the Americas were not immune. This is one of the reasons (not the only one) why it was Europe that invaded the Americas, and not the Americas that invaded Europe. More than 90% of the entire indigenous population of the Americas died in the next 150 years, almost all due to epidemics brought by Europeans. There are authors who suggest that the carnage that victimized the original peoples was so intense that, when the forests grew on the rubble of decimated civilizations, they sequestered so much carbon from the atmosphere that it caused the planet to cool down (an event that became known as the small medieval ice age – see https://bit.ly/38TeoBC).

The interesting and delicate point here is the idea that epidemics can have other effects on populations besides simply causing a part of them to die. In fact, this is a poorly understood question of Darwin’s natural selection: the “advance” of a species, through adaptation to an ecosystem, depends on the death of a large number of individuals. Harari puts the question sharply in his book: evolution works for the species, not the individual. Of course, almost all of humanity’s efforts since it emerged have focused on disabling the mechanisms of natural selection. If we go back to our 15,000 year old ancestor, with a broken femur, whose colleague decided that, instead of letting her friend die and keep her food, she would donate her energy, time and resources (food, water, fire) so that the companion could recover, we will see that, at that very moment, humanity began to walk away from pure and simple natural selection, towards empathy. In fact, Darwin himself stated that empathy is a human quality that maximizes the survival of the species (today we know that many animals also experience feelings of empathy).

There are many interesting things to be discussed here. One is that, even if things are to be understood scientifically, one cannot approach the world from the point of view of the navel of humans concerned only with themselves.