When species diversify by exploring new ecological niches, passing along novel behaviors, acquired knowledge and distinctive anatomical traits, we biologists call that adaptive radiation. Culture is the passing from generation to generation of learned and shared behaviors. Units for carrying such ideas, symbols or practices from mind to mind via speech, writing, rituals or other imitable ways are memes. Like genes in biological evolution, they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures. With so much rapidly transmissible misinformation, distortion of fact and conspiracy mongering, it’s time we Americans stepped up to the plate, pined less for the old, dysfunctional “normal” and started creating a better one. To do so, we need to use the same batter’s box: Reality.
We now have multiple, effective vaccines, developed in record time. Hopefully, they’ll manage COVID-19, but eradicating coronavirus entirely won’t happen. Too many biologic and sociologic challenges persist. The logistical conundrum of getting enough shots into arms to achieve herd immunity is complicated by nescient and contrarian refusals to get inoculated. Furthermore, sera have been slow getting to poorer countries, and the more people who contract SARS-CoV globally, the more opportunities the virus has to replicate and, potentially, mutate into newer, more virulent strains. That inevitable conveyor belt of variants, abetted by vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. and elsewhere, rollout snafus and failures to wear masks and social distance, means the current sprint between mutating variants and effective vaccines is really a co-evolutionary marathon. SARS-CoV will stay endemic (like the flu), spiking periodically, as parades of vaccines race to keep more virulent strains from getting catastrophic.
In simple, relatively homogeneous societies prior to 1800, natural law provided a frame of reference for rational order which countered the pluralism of rising national states, Church schisms, world commerce and specialized labor. But with the industrial revolution and mid-19th century revolts against authority and empire, as social psychologist Erich Fromm, philosopher-historian Etienne Gilson and journalist Walter Lippmann once suggested, gradual dissolution of objectively determined true and false, right and wrong occurred. Men and women no longer hid their loneliness and insecurities beneath perceived public order. Once-unchanging moral principles, regarded as bases for human conduct, vanished with 20th century wars, famines, the flu epidemic and Great Depression. Hitler, astute to human weakness, wrote in Mein Kampf how the masses, feeling deserted and alone, looked to the Nietzchean “ruler rather than the suppliant” to restore external security. We’re dangerously inclined again.
Just as in the late 1800s, the U.S. is highly individualistic, exhibiting a Gilded Age social isolation. It took the Progressive Era’s “WE mentality” to reverse that trend a half-century or so. Then, we reverted. Unlike fascists, progressives rejected social Darwinism, invented public high schools, and brought people together championing reforms like consumer protection, labor laws, environmental conservation and monopoly-busting. Today’s pandemic restrictions teach us we don’t have to shop aimlessly, pollute or get drunk to fill an inner void. No one is truly alone or threatened in societies of reciprocal responsibilities. In 2020, the U.S. was pummeled by 22 climate events costing more than $1 billion. Texas’ latest crisis (w/$1,000 energy bills) reminds us that a single natural law, reverence for all life, can take us out of echo chambers. Unity means mitigating climate change by building a green technology infrastructure.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.