10 Ways the Pandemic Could Reshape Our Evolution
UMD Psychologist, Other Scholars Outline Sweeping Observations About Human Nature Amid COVID-19
How we choose mates. How our children’s brains develop. What grosses us out. Who’s minding the kids.
In a paper published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of prominent researchers and thinkers, including a University of Maryland psychologist, ponder the effects of the coronavirus pandemic—not only as a plague that has killed nearly 1.2 million people, but also as “a worldwide social experiment” offering deep insight into who we are as a species and where we’re headed.
The co-authors included biologists, psychologists and medical researchers on all aspects of evolution, with each contributing one section to the overall paper.
“The goal was to get as broad a perspective as possible on the virus—how it affects things like gender, mating, empathy and culture,” said co-author Michele Gelfand, a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Psychology. “It was a great scientific collaboration. We collectively edited the manuscript, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we all had to agree on what the insights were.”
Gelfand’s section stems from her major area of research: how societies respond to collective threats based on how their norms have evolved. “When you have massive shifts in the environment—as when there is a collective threat—it can take time for populations to strengthen their norms to coordinate, which can lead to very difficult and tragic circumstances,” Gelfand said—in the case of COVID-19, soaring infection and death rates.
Here are some of the ways the authors see COVID-19 influencing human nature, from the physical effects of the virus itself to psychological, social, and cultural shifts:
Infection might make us more sociable. One of the devious aspects of COVID-19 is its ability to spread when we have no symptoms. The virus may be altering human behavior by suppressing feelings of sickness during times of peak transmissibility to get us out there and spread it—and it may even contribute directly to mood disorders like mania that increase activity when we’re infected.
Quarantine is shielding us from the necessary bugs, too. Sequestering ourselves can keep COVID-19 at bay, but also deprives children and adolescents in “Generation Quarantine” of what the paper terms “critical microbial exposures” that contribute to the development of immune systems and brains. Extended quarantine could result in a generation whose development is unusually shaped by the microbes at home, rather than in the world.
Disgust is our friend. Eating, sexual behavior and physical contact with the world are all regulated by an instinct that humans evolved to make us go “ewwww” when something’s not right—including the presence of disease. COVID’s talent for spreading asymptomatically—which makes it more of an abstract threat—may short-circuit this effect, however.
The pandemic is changing the mating landscape. Viewed broadly, the risk of virus transmission during the pandemic seems likely to render the behavior of those who, as the paper puts it, “pursue a fast life history strategy,”—i.e., have sex with many different partners—as more far more costly. Yet while longer-term commitments may be more attractive, the pandemic is shrinking this market, and could reduce birth rates and thus affect the global economy for generations to come.
Gender norms may be backsliding. With schools and day care facilities shuttered, who’s picking up the slack? Disproportionately, the answer is women. Not only have women lost more jobs than men to pandemic-related closures, they already faced greater pressures in balancing work and family life. Furthermore, the prospect of a lasting deep recession could further reinforce old-timey norms as men compete for fewer positions of wealth and status and women compete for “access to desirable mates.”
A more empathetic, compassionate society isn’t guaranteed. From the London Blitz to Hurricane Katrina, previous catastrophes elicited an outpouring of mutual aid and support, as well as a temporary suspension of class and racial barriers. There’s little evidence the pandemic is creating such a situation, however; one study showed that while people become more interdependent with neighbors, belief that helping others “is the right thing to do” dropped; meanwhile, COVID-19 is sharpening partisan anger in the United States, and the jury is out on how coronavirus is affecting tendencies like empathy or xenophobia.
Evolution doesn’t lean toward truth-seeking. Humanity arose in small groups bent on short-term survival and reproduction—not a heritage that necessarily reinforces clear thinking about statistically abstract and global problems like a pandemic. We see this in everything from the proliferation of misinformation and conspiracy theories to fights over scientific findings medical recommendations as signs of tribal identity.
To fight the virus, we can cultivate our own evolution. The theory of “dual inheritance” posits that genetic evolution in humans can follow cultural evolution, such as when the rise of agriculture led to people’s increasing ability to digest certain foods. By studying how different nations reacted to COVID-19 and the resulting disease outcomes, humanity may be able to create a cultural shift that eventually leads to greater resistance to pandemics.
The evolution of different cultures impacted COVID-19 severity. Gelfand’s research focuses heavily on how societies that faced frequent threats evolved to become “tight”—able to enforce strict social norms to cooperate for the greater good—which is evolutionarily adaptive in such circumstances. “Loose” cultures that have confronted fewer threats, meanwhile, are less coordinated in their response and take longer to adapt. Consider South Korea—which quickly mandated masks and testing, and effectively protected its population—compared to the United States’ discombobulated reaction, and soaring rates of disease and death. Gelfand argues that in order to avoid such “evolutionary mismatches” we need to have clear and strong signals about the nature of the threat.
But… human progress continues. Although predictions of heightened inequality or economic disaster as a result of the pandemic are depressing, it is important to remember that humanity weathered earlier and far more deadly plagues, eventually emerging to create greater wealth, security and standards of living. Earlier infectious diseases “allowed us to discover vaccination, sanitation, antisepsis, antibiotics, antivirals and other advances in public health and medicine that have dramatically extended life expectancy.”