American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

The COVID-19 Pandemic: A Lesson in Evolution, Biology, and Society (Evolution, Biology, and Society)

Russell K. Schutt, University of Massachusetts-Boston
Rengin B. Firat, University of California-Riverside

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues its devastating march around the globe and across the United States, only those who dismiss statistics about its deadly toll or denigrate the pain of those afflicted can ignore the handwriting on the chalkboard: We ignore at our peril the biological foundations of our being and the evolutionary processes that have shaped and continue to change our natural and social worlds. From the functioning of our social institutions to the consequences of our social divisions, nothing about us stands apart from nature. It is far from the first time that a pandemic has shattered social conventions and changed the course of social history, but the conjunction of the worldwide scope of COVID-19 with modern scientific tools for its investigation creates a better opportunity for learning the lesson a pandemic has to teach. The course of our society will depend on our ability to pass the test. 

The earlier chapters in the historical textbook are no less compelling, but they could not offer at the time they were written the lesson we can learn today. When one-third of Europe’s population died excruciating and public deaths during the 14th century plague, the pain experienced by families and communities was no less, but the confused response of barefoot penitents whipping themselves in public processions only exacerbated the threat (Tuchman 1978). When Christopher Columbus’s expedition and others initiated a pandemic that claimed the lives of 90 percent of indigenous Americans, it took more than 500 years for researchers to learn the lesson of what had actually happened (Mann 2011). By the time of the 1918 Spanish flu, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution of species and modern biology allowed basic understanding of the viral threat, but events that facilitated the virus’s spread like Philadelphia’s massive celebration promoting war bonds demonstrated insufficient recognition of the implications for social policy. It is only in the last 30 years that evolutionary biologists and sociologists have demonstrated that survival of our species depended not only on our capacity to detect environmental or social threats but also on our ability to respond with highly coordinated, cooperative action: a template for effective response in the face of a pandemic (Wilson 2015). 

Humans have evolved as a social species with a cognitive capacity for garnering feelings of safety and security from other individuals, a so-called ‘coalitional index’ (Boyer, Firat, & van Leeuwen, 2015). When historical conditions create inegalitarian societies based on social characteristics like race, ethnicity, sexualities, disabilities, these characteristics become perceptual cues triggering the formation of coalitional alliances and rivals, which create a bigger threat to our communities. But the exact evolutionary mechanisms that trigger group divides also serve as the infrastructure for human prosociality and altruism. Categorization based on perceptual cues like race is not inevitable (Kurzban, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2001); the concept of race itself belies the fact of the unity of the human species. And more importantly, when people form alliances across racial/ethnic boundaries, their well-being improves (Firat and Boyer, 2015), creating resilient communities that can bounce back in the face of calamities. 

We only became who we are as a species because of our ability to support each other (Christakis 2019); we will “be swept away by the gale of history” if we forget this fundamental foundation for our well-being (Cohen 2020, Schutt 2020). COVID-19 is not the last pandemic humans will confront, nor the worst disaster our species has experienced in the past or can anticipate in the future (Schutt 2010). Our very survival depends on our ability to learn from the past, plan for the future, and use not just our evolved brains but our unique social abilities (Schutt, Seidman, & Keshavan 2015).