For many years now, my conviction has been that the great undeveloped area of human education is a suitable understanding and appreciation of human nature, especially commonalities of the mind—the ways in which we habitually think, and what each of these patterns is suited to do, or ill-suited to do.
One consistent challenge is the persistent underestimation of our primate inheritance.
This was assuredly promoted by indoctrinated human exceptionalism. I presume it was exacerbated by entrenched culture that rates the verbal, and the conscious, far above nonverbal and unconscious aspects which come to us from other animals. Consider our silly expectations to rule over more direct sources of habit by mere assertions of intent to change them.
In a nutshell, humans became far too convinced of special status apart from nature—even a power above their own human nature—by virtue of talking. Now, this means more than an appreciation of our having language, which sets us apart. Our talking about things gives us the power to talk at some distance from concrete matters (abstraction), and to talk around things, for we human beings often talk with detachment from phenomena apparent to the senses or the psyche. This has left us—and our ancestors—able to pontificate or freely wish, instead of remaining tethered to phenomenal realities. We “talk our way into” flattering, unlikely, even impossible notions. This is also how our inquisitive ancestors could have missed the obvious about themselves and their origins for so long. It left them able to spin their own rather preposterous stories, talking their way into a divine origin in which we are separate from the mammals and primates we ostensibly resemble in so many respects. Today, talking willfully above the anthropological facts, which are by now carefully-described, allows many people to ignore them, still.
Essentially, all our “human” emotions are shared with primates, as are many other behavioral routines, like political cliques, reading faces and cue-taking within social groups. To start looking for ethological parallels in earnest is to find thousands, and soon realize that the differences comprise exceptions (albeit important ones). Yet the majority of human beings alive on Earth in the 21st century either flout what evolutionary science says about the descent of Man and dispute their relation to the primate mind and brain, or scarcely think of it.
In my view, denial or neglect of our evolutionary mind—the common failure to reckon with the available knowledge, and better explore it—is the incomparable and potentially fatal error of the modern age, which endlessly gets in the way of much else that needs doing. Misunderstanding oneself will wreck every attempt at social change, every time.
Recent hysteria over this year’s coronavirus reminds me of the same lesson that hysteria over “terrorism” did, not so long ago. A strong case can be made for a more specific contention than the above, that the biggest problem of all is not connecting our primate aversion, fear, and panic to our Homo sapiens information-gathering.
In order for those three feelings and deep mental grooves to become useful assets, we must practice feeling them when deserved, and work to maintain perspective. Otherwise they are not only woefully inadequate to navigating in a world more complicated than the environments in which the hominids or hominins evolved, or the Paleolithic in which the genus Homo evolved; they represent active disadvantages instead of adaptive tools of survival.
Ill-placed fears misdirect resources on a grand scale, and make people easy prey for fearmongers. People fear “terrorists” they will never encounter, while they ignore the politicians and bureaucrats who regularly take their property, or the warmongers who endanger their lives in conflicts fueled by unnecessary hostility. It’s worth remembering, in the context of a pandemic, first that “experts” are human and aren’t immune to feeling fear, and second that appealing to fear can pay off for scientists seeking the lifeblood of their labs and careers: grant money. There are professional incentives for accuracy in science, but there are also incentives for alarmism, particularly in politicized fields that depend on public funding (such as ecology, climate, energy, or pandemic vaccines).
Aversion prohibits seeking advantages because they smell different in some sense, seeming alien or foreign. I would file under this the mistrust of infectious people wearing masks to protect others from coughs and sneezes, a typical, considerate east-Asian practice, widely unaccepted in countries like the United States. But exclusion of people based on aversion towards difference is pervasive and peculiar. During my adult lifetime, I’ve frequently encountered people who were suspicious or hostile towards my wearing black clothing, either because their cultural subgroup wouldn’t, or because of incompetent threat identification based on a hysterical media overreaction to a single incident (the Columbine massacre).
Panic manufactures crises where none exist, or deals with a manageable crisis desperately. Both become more and more dangerous with the accretion of technologies that enable people to do things like communicate hysterical exchanges instantly around the world, or cause accidental nuclear winter if war breaks out between powerful rulers.
A good argument can be made that an ongoing failure to modify our instincts for fear using our capacity for knowledge is the salient cultural immaturity squarely in the way of human potential. I would certainly argue that it’s at least the greatest remaining threat to human beings, who show undeniable ability to navigate and manipulate their external environments, societies, and cultures, except when change requires improved navigation of their inner, psychological environments, also.
Because of the powerful gravity those mental grooves exert, and the general boredom with a modern life characterized by anomie (alienation by mismatched values or lack of values) instead of by participation in life and points of connection, we are drawn to dramatic and apocalyptic conclusions, even if they are illogical or untested.
But if anything kills off the human race, it will almost certainly stem from fear or panic reactions that are uninformed, or do not care about gathering useful information. It won’t come from outside; it will come from inside. The older aspects of mind are more powerful than the newer, and in a perceived crisis, the mind defaults to vertebrate or mammalian routines that predate us by a great many millions of years.
Back to this year’s coronavirus pandemic. I’ve recently observed otherwise-reasonable people who conspicuously lack any knowledge of respiratory disease express shock that the coronavirus is “airborne“, as though every cold or influenza virus does not spread through tiny coughed or sneezed droplets of mucous or saliva in the air. They have no doubt heard this as children, but forget it now. (We have already answered why they forget it.)
No more than casual reading about cold and flu season will also tell them that it’s typical for far more people to die from complications of respiratory infections during a typical season than have so-far succumbed to the recent coronavirus.
Or that the usual pattern of respiratory infections is that elderly people (and those with pre-existing cardiac, lung, and immune risk factors) are the most at-risk of fatality. Yet I have seen expressions of shock and suspicion upon discovering that this coronavirus is doing precisely what one ought to expect, at least one aware of a basic fact of human mortality: old and sick people have frequently been killed by respiratory diseases in history, and continue to be killed disproportionately.
Unfortunately this is normal and natural, not evidence of the end of the world, or a conspiracy theory about the virus, or of mismanagement. If anything, we ought really to be grateful for the unnatural progress made in reducing millions of viral and bacterial pneumonia deaths to thousands, thanks to sanitation, vaccinations, and especially, antibiotics.
I have even seen alarm at hearing that this virus may be “mutating.” Well, yes; viruses normally mutate.
None of this potential application of sense to fear I’ve mentioned so far requires sophisticated understanding of epidemiology, virology, or immunology, but of course that could be beneficial. For example, it’s helpful to know that counting severe cases of respiratory disease tends to inflate estimated fatality ratio, because asymptomatic carriers and those with mild symptoms have no reason to seek medical attention (and be counted).
Another example of specific knowledge: knowing about the much more dangerous phenomenon of a disease causing cytokine storm puts the recent coronavirus into perspective. Cytokine storm turns a healthy immune system against the host, and that means that the young are much more likely to die than from a typical respiratory disease that primarily kills the elderly. This is probably one reason the so-called Spanish flu of 1918, caused by H1N1 influenza, was unusually dangerous to young populations, not just the old or sick (another being soldiers and refugees having been packed together in unsanitary, insalubrious conditions). Greater frequency* of this hyper-inflammatory reaction in cases is also thought to be the reason why the SARS outbreak of 2003 (caused by a different bat coronavirus) was a more dangerous infection to acquire than the coronavirus causing the pandemic of 2020. It would be more reasonable for the healthy people under 50 who are currently afraid of the coronavirus to be afraid of catching a flu more likely* to cause cytokine storm, like the H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic that already happened in 2009, or H5N1 (“avian flu”).
The most ludicrous conspiracy theories and accusations out there—those self-contradictory tales of an engineered bioweapon (inexplicably far less deadly than WWII-era bioweapons), of plots to cull humanity so devious they are publicly discussed, of genetic modification to cross coronavirus with HIV fueled by a withdrawn preliminary paper and attempts at antiviral treatment, and the like—are certainly the work of paranoiac mental illnesses. They attract believers already experiencing paranoia and seeking the delusions to fit—the means to rationalize their existing neurogenic experiences—including believers who suffer from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Like superstitions that perform a similar role, paranoid delusions are confirmed by frenzied apophenia and never to be questioned, much less disproven.
But it would miss the larger point to separate the crazy reaction to a perceived threat from the fearful reactions of sane people, as though one were irrational and the other rational. The former is simply the delusional reaction instead of the suggestible. Both routines may resist being challenged by facts or contrary information, and stubbornly resort to hostility in defense of an assertion. Although this is all the more likely in support of a paranoid delusion, it is a defensive reaction, ego- and turf-driven, that we are all familiar with. One kind of reaction represents the deep end of fear instead of the shallow, but both sorts represent fear being rationalized after the fact, instead of being driven by facts. The exaggerated pathology of the mind blurs into a much more common misdirection of mental labors. These belong on a continuum, and are not opposites, due to the universal primate propensity for anxiety with or without cause.
Fear is human, not anomalous. Its origin is internal—psychological—not external to our person, in some “fearful threat” outside ourselves. We cannot rid ourselves of reflexive fear by projecting it onto a culprit. We must own it, or we shall be possessed.
* Edited 3-21 to clarify this may be a relative distinction, not an absolute distinction. I have now seen some mention in ongoing research suggesting that cytokine storm syndrome might develop in some of the severe COVID-19 cases; previously and at the time of writing, it had seemed there were no cases. If this new picture turns out to be accurate, cytokine storm remains an unusual complication in a subgroup among severe cases, and not a typical immune response. Reactions to virus depend on individual immune systems and are not generic.