COVID-19 has touched every corner of the earth resulting in catered economies, mounting mortality rates, and personal traumas. How can we break the grip of this wily foe? With a vaccine many months away, it is time to reach beyond medicalized wisdom by tapping into multiple spheres of scientific knowledge. One fertile source is evolutionary sociology because preventing the further spread of the disease requires a public effort, which is a demographic process and not an individual one. Curbing the virus also depends on public messages to rein in self-interest and promote a unified ground-swelling of support, which in meeting this challenge would benefit from a little insight into our evolutionary history and why human behavior and the public good do not easily harmonize spontaneously.
Julian Huxley once remarked that “Medieval theology urged men to think of human life in the light of eternity…I am attempting to rethink it…in the light of evolution.”1 Let me borrow Huxley’s similitude and “in the light of evolution” ask: What pan-human qualities might help or hinder combatting the pandemic in a concerted way. What is endemic to human nature?
In the playing field of evolution, humans belong to the hominoid lineage along with gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. Fossil and molecular records tell us that proto-humans (or early hominins) evolved in tropical Africa after branching away from a last common ancestor with chimpanzees about 4-6 million years ago. Early Homo sapiens appeared about 300,000 years ago but, for reasons unknown, experienced a population bottleneck so ominous that it reduced the surviving human population to less than a few thousand individuals.
Species decimated by population bottlenecks typically die out because of reduced genetic variation. Humans bucked the trend, although the 7.7 billion of us are still genetically “less variable than any other living primate”2 including chimpanzees, a fact reflected in the nonexistence of any meaningful biological or “racial” distinctions between human populations.3 This underscores what social scientists have long maintained—that there are more human differences within populations than between them. So little variation is of value during this pandemic because it signals that despite cross-cultural differences, we can be confident that what works medically to curb COVID-19 in one population will work in another and what does not work for any population can be confidently set aside.
Human primates also share genes with their great- ape cousins. When chimp and human genomes were compared, their DNA is nearly 99% identical (with gorillas and orangutans closely behind), an indication that at the genome level “the chimpanzee-human difference is far smaller than that between species within a genus of mice, frogs or flies.”4,5 This means that humans and great apes are cognates, and if we employ a powerful scientific tool called Cladistics we can glimpse facets of ape and human-derived traits or “evolutionary novelties” that they jointly retained from their last common ancestor.6
So what is baked into hominoid DNA?7,8 One novelty is a greatly enhanced neurobiology overall monkey species and one outcome of this cognitive leap is a self-identity. All primate species (and living organisms) have a species identity, which is essential for mating and reproduction; all 200+ primate species have a social identity, which is essential for social interactions and coordination; but only great apes and humans evolved a self-identity, a rare and truly liberating force because it opens the door to self-awareness, self-agency, self-reliance, and rugged individualism. Cognitive research also confirms that great apes possess “a theory of mind” or what George Herbert Mead called “taking the role of the other,”9 that includes the ability to feel empathy and to share in the collective emotions of others.10 In humans, a personal self even allows individuals to feel the emotions of imaginary others in plays and stories.
Another novelty of great apes is the absence of kinship ties to anchor social organization and integration. Most monkeys (and social mammals) live in micro-level bounded groups anchored mostly by genetically controlled tight-knit kinship lineages. If not kinship ties, how do the great apes organize? For chimpanzees, the anchor is a macro-community, an intangible “commonwealth” with up to 120 members and with the only stable grouping being a mother and her dependent offspring. In lieu of stable groups, community members socialize in impromptu short gatherings with friends or acquaintances and, moreover, they reveal only a few strong ties and many weak ties to conspecifics. Yet, they share what Jane Goodall called “a sense of community,” although the entire community rarely, if ever, gathers as a collective unit.11 Even orangutans are now believed to organize in fission-fusion communities, albeit with very weak ties since individuals are reclusive and nearly solitary.
Humans share with apes a personal self and individualism and given that species usually build on the social structure that they inherit, early Homo likely started out with a weakly tied communal organization similar to chimpanzees today. But here’s the point: the trinity of individualism, a personal self, and community not only had a compelling influence on human social evolution but as brain volume expanded in human evolution, selection greatly enhanced and refined these traits. For example, the legacy that characterizes a community is what makes it possible for humans to live in large-scale macro-societies where weak ties and cooperation with strangers is essential. It also explains the unsolved mystery of the apparent conflict humans have between a personal self and collectivism—individualists don’t like to be governed. Yet, humans also seek a “sense of community,” an emotion that generates such positive sentiments that it can integrate individuals without direct linkages.
Nor is this all. Human primates alone have the ability to unite with others by virtue of an attachment to an external entity of any sort by entwining individuals into a symbolic and emotional field, even without ongoing face-to-face relations. After George Floyd’s death on Memorial Day 2020, thousands around the globe who never met or knew him rallied around his image as a totemic symbol of inequality and police brutality. And, it is worth noting that this universal relational force can be used in all kinds of socio-cultural formations such as large religious communities.
In light of these data, humans appear well equipped to successfully combat the virus with union and harmony, but innate tendencies only predispose us toward particular behaviors—they don’t determine them. Attitudes, beliefs, and values can easily override these predilections or guide their expression. Governments in Taiwan and New Zealand, for example, easily achieved voluntary compliance because of leadership at the helm, compelling facts, and a unified public message. The United States, in contrast, achieved a faltering response because of science defying views, mixed messages, and weak leadership.
Instead of activating a collective response, it sparked a “war of words” over government authority that unleashed egoistic passions. It is no wonder the public ignored the rules. Yet, the human aspiration to “experience community,” “support community” or to live where there is a “sense of community” is deep-seated and always there waiting to be expressed. And it is this amazing social potential to cooperate with others —even strangers that will eventually ignite a collective response to fight COVID-19 around the globe.
Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:
- Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
- Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
- 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
- Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
- Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn
- Speculations About Why Sociological Social Psychology Largely Elides Evolutionary Logic by Steven Hitlin
- The Coronavirus Pandemic, Evolutionary Sociology, and Long-Term Economic Growth in the United States by Michael Hammond
- Institutionalization of Animal Welfare and the Evolution of Coronavirus(es) by Erin M. Evans
- The Coronavirus in Evolutionary Perspective by Alexandra Maryanski
- Gene-Culture and Potential Culture-Gene Coevolution: The Future of COVID-19 by Marion Blute
- For God’s Sake! What’s All This Fuss About a Virus? by Andrew Atkinson
 Huxley, J. (1953) Evolution in action. New York: Harper.(quote page 152)
 Barbujani, G., Ghirotto, S, and F Tassi (2013). Nine things to remember about human genome diversity. Tissue Antigens 82: 155-164.
 Barbujani, G. (2015). Race: Genetic aspects. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences 19, 825-832.
 King, M. and Allen W. (1973). Our close cousin, the chimpanzee. In N.Korn (eds) Human evolution (pp. 88-94). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
 Waterson,R., E. Lander and R. Wilson. 2005. Initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome and comparison with the human genome. Nature 437:69-87.
 Foley,P., C. Humphries, I Kitching, R. Scotland, D. Siebert and D. Williams (1994) Cladistics: A practical course in systematics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 Maryanski, A. (2018) Émile Durkheim and the birth of the gods: Clans, incest, totems, phratries, hordes, mana, taboos, corroborees, sodalities, menstrual blood, apes, churingas, cairns, and other mysterious things. New York: Routledge.
 Turner, J. and A. Maryanski. 2008. On the Origin of Societies by Natural Selection. London: Paridigm
 Mead, G.H. 1974. Mind, self & society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 Call, J. and M. Tomasello. 2008. Does the chimpanzees have a theory of mind? 30 years later. Trends in Cognitive Science 12: 187-192.
 Tuttle, R. 2014. Apes and human evolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.