The rapid spread of a virus on a global scale appears to be one of Thomas Malthus’ “Four Horsemen” riding through societies and overwhelming the human immune system. From a sociological view, this attack on the biological immune system is only one selection process. As has become so clearly evident, there is another level of selection operating in the social universe: selection on the social structures and cultures of each society being invaded by a small strip of RNA.

When we focus on the immune system, we engage in biological analysis, with solutions to the pandemic being seen in terms of medical science—e.g., testing for antibodies, developing a vaccine, and other medical technologies that can give immunity to the human body. When we shift attention away from the biological system under attack and view a pandemic as attacking key structures in the human sociocultural system, solutions look much different because attention shifts to such matters as: (i) the political response and coordination of policies to prevent infection, (ii) the capacities of various levels of governmental social structure and their cultures (federal, state, county, community) to deliver proper medical care, (iii) the organization of medical care systems in general within a society, (iv) the system of inequality as it makes certain categories (race/ethnicity, class, age, gender) of individuals highly vulnerable to infection, (v) the organization and capacities to produce necessary medicines of pharmaceutical companies and the nature of the market distribution system in a society, (vi) the organization of the world-level markets and capacities to distribute needed medical equipment, supplies, knowledge, and personnel, and (vii)  any other sociocultural formation created by humans to order social life.

Just as the skin is an epidermis protecting the body and its precious cargo—a life form—the social structures and culture of societies can be seen as both a sociocultural epidermis and immune system to the invasion of a virus. Evolutionary sociology recognizes that humans are organized at many different levels, and in larger complex societies, the body with its genetically controlled systems is the lowest level unit under selection. Human bodies operate inside many layers of embedded social structure and their cultures. Thus, groups are embedded in organizations, organizations are embedded in communities, communities and organizations are embedded in diverse institutional systems (economy, kinship, religion, polity, law, education, science, medicine, etc.), stratification systems are created by the distribution of resources by institutional systems and, in this sense, are embedded in them; and both institutional systems and stratification systems are embedded in societies, and societies are embedded in inter-societal systems. As Figure 1 outlines, individual phenotypes and genotypes are successively embedded in groups, organizations, communities, institutional systems, societies, and inter-societal systems. Darwinian selection works only on individual phenotypes (and underlying genotypes), whereas sociocultural selection can work at each and every level of the many sociocultural systems organizing human bodies in their daily activities. These sociocultural systems represent additional protections to human phenotypes, but if these sociocultural phenotypes are inefficient, they greatly increase the chances of a virus spreading across a population and killing many individuals.

Figure 1 about here

If we look at the pandemic, we can see that different societies have been able to respond with varying speed and effectiveness. Variations in responses have less to do with the medical systems of societies than with varying capacities to coordinate the institutional response to the threat posed by the invasion of the C-19 virus. The vulnerability of individuals to a viral invasion of their bodies is affected by the sociocultural formations in which they live their lives. In general, wealthy people can afford to use sociocultural systems to protect their bodies, whereas the opposite is true for those without resources. Stratification thus distributes yet another resource unequally:  the ability to protect the body from invasion by pathogens.  

Thus, from a sociological point of view, it is our sociocultural systems that have failed Americans, including the structure of our medical systems that, despite the valor of its practitioners during the pandemic, was handicapped by a lack of resources from other institutional systems and by the stratification of human bodies by their inability to pay for, or even have access to, the medical care system. At every level of American society, selection pressures were pushing on sociocultural formations to adapt to a new environmental reality, but instead, there was and still is chaos in almost every critical institutional system.

The decentralized polity was riddled with disagreements. The economic system was filled with capitalists willing to kill people to make dollars from their medicines. The medical care system, fractured by profit and non-profit orientations and highly decentralized and poorly coordinated in any sense, could respond more by acts of valor than with bureaucratic efficiency. The chaotic private and public systems of medical insurance could not present options to all citizens, especially since almost a quarter of Americans do not have insurance. Moreover, the politics of this system prevents the largest player (government-sponsored Medicare) from negotiating drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. The educational system failed to explain to generations of citizens what an exponential curve is and, indeed, even what a pandemic is. The private corporations could not provide needed products–from ventilators and face-masks to vitamins and drugs—because they had long ago outsourced their production overseas to make more profits. And, of course, the highly stratified system of inequality in the U.S. assured that many citizens and their immune systems are on their own.

My point in all this is that the U.S. and other countries that could not adequately respond to the pandemic now need to get their institutional house in order. If we cannot, then it is likely that the next pandemic, traveling to the U.S. at the speed of air travel, will impose yet another round of what we have just experienced, and will continue to experience until a vaccine is widely available. Just as we go “all-out” for a vaccine, let us begin to go “all out” for a re-organization of American society so that we will be better prepared to deal with whatever comes next. As is evident, the pandemic does more than kill people; it devastates the economy and hence the quality of life. Sociologists can offer real guidance for what needs to be done to shore up and make the institutional systems of America more capable of dealing with pandemics, as well as any of the other of Malthus’ horsemen that are ready to ride into America.

Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:

  1. Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
  2. Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
  3. Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Will Kalkhoff, Richard T. Serpe, and Josh Pollock
  4. Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
  5. Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn

Further Reading Suggestions:

Turner, J. H. (2021). On human nature: The biology and sociology of what made us human. New York and London: Routledge.

Turner, J. H. and Maryanski, A. (2008). The limitations of evolutionary theory from biology in      explaining socio-cultural evolution.” Sociologica 3, 1-38.

_________. 2020. Deep origins of society: An assessment of E. O. Wilson’s genesis.          International Sociological Review, online at Sage Publications, in hard copy print late      2020.

Turner, J. H. and Machalek, R. S. (2018). The new evolutionary sociology: Recent and revitalized theoretical and methodological perspectives. New York and London: Routledge.

Turner, J. H., Machlek, R. S., and Maryanski, A., Eds. 2015. Handbook of evolutionary    sociology: Toward an evolutionary social science. New York and London:        Routledge/Paradigm.

Turner, J. H., Schutt, and. Keshavan, M. S. (2020). “Biology and American sociology, part II: Developing a unique evolutionary sociology.” American sociologist, online at Sage Publications, in hard print copy late 2020.

Published On: August 3, 2020

Jonathan H. Turner

Jonathan H. Turner

Jonathan H. Turner is 38th University Professor of the University of California and Distinguished Professor of the Graduate Division at University of California, Riverside, and Research Professor at University of California, Santa Barbara. He received his B.A in 1965 from UCSB and his M.A in 1966 and Ph.D. in 1968 from Cornell University. He is primarily a sociological theorist, but has been committed in recent decades to brining biological analysis into sociology, and sociology to the general public. He is the author of 43 books and several hundred research articles.  His most recent book is On Human Nature: The Biology and Sociology of What Made Us Human (Routledge 2020).

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