In response to the threat of COVID-19, governments across the globe have adopted emergency measures to curb its spread. Public health authorities are advising social distancing – a set of behavioural practices including limiting face-to-face and bodily contact, maintaining safe distances when in physical proximity, preventive self-isolation and closure of public venues.
To understand the behavioural implications involved, however, let us start by turning the argument on its head.
“Have you ever wanted to get away from it all? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to free yourself from the hustle and bustle of modern life and retire to a place of quiet and solitude?”
Many of us have. We want to take a break from everyday duties and the stresses we routinely put up with. We typically come back feeling renewed and somewhat invigorated, perhaps even slightly nostalgic for the good old days when our living conditions weren’t so cramped, when our cities weren’t so crowded, when we had the time and the space to find ourselves so we can be ourselves. This certainly sounds idyllic. So, shouldn’t we all be making a dash to voluntary self-quarantine in our private abodes? Why is social distancing proving to be an issue?
“First off, the human species has evolved psychological tendencies towards sociality.”
The case of Admiral Byrd provides an illustrative anecdotal example. Byrd, an American polar explorer and decorated naval officer, volunteered for a meteorological assignment in the polar regions motivated by a desire to spend some time alone. Things did not end well for him. He started strong, but over time his mental health deteriorated to the point where he started hallucinating about encounters with representatives from a long-lost civilisation – in the Antarctic.
The reason for this, according to evolutionary psychologists, is that sociality is a condition that has enabled our survival over time. As far as species go, an isolated human specimen makes easy prey. It has weak natural defences, it doesn’t run very fast, and it doesn’t have great camouflage either. As a result, humans have evolved a tendency to band together in times of need and hardship, to face common challenges together as a group, a village, a tribe, or a nation. In unison, human beings are dominant. This is also why altruism is adaptive – you scratch my back, I scratch yours, meaning we face hardships together by helping one another out in times of need.
We are hardwired for sociality from birth. Newborns are capable of identifying their primary caregivers from the start and seek to be held over being fed. Realistic Conflict Theory provides a clue for why sociality has proven adaptive. In situations where resources are limited and when only securing sufficient resources ensures survival, successful collaboration with some ensures effective competition with others.
“Our tendencies for sociality have, as a result, shaped our ecological arrangements”.
We have gone from families to bigger coalitions like hunter-gatherer settlements, tribal alliances, nation-states, and cosmopolitan cities that never sleep. We have built environments that cater exclusively to the human condition and that relegate other species to objects of entertainment. In other words, as a species, we have evolved culture. This too has profound consequences for the human condition. Scientists now speak of ‘gene-culture co-evolution’, where our behavioural tendencies (rooted in our genetic baggage) are catered for by the living environments we build, which in turn influence which genes presently prove adaptive.
In light of all this, social distancing seems largely antithetical to our naturally evolved behavioural tendencies. When facing a common threat, as we are now, we are naturally inclined to seek out one other so we can face the challenge together. We feel secure when in the presence of others, even though in the present case this is a false sense of security.
“In isolation, we tend to feel lonely. The feeling of loneliness pushes us out and away from our isolation.”
In this sense, emotions, including loneliness, are adaptive. They lead to behavioural strategies that have ensured our survival as a species. The environment we have built over the years caters to these very tendencies. So where does this leave us?
Will social distancing prove to be an evolutionary pitfall for the human species? It might have been, some years ago.
“But today, we are capable of overcoming the challenge by recourse to technology.”
Lectures can be held remotely; emails resolve the need for face-to-face interaction; shopping can be done online; and we’re all pleased to not have to be stuck in traffic during lengthy commutes to and from work. Technology, like genetics, evolves to meet environmental demands that enables our adaptation. Some social scientists have proposed that the current human condition is no longer inter-subjective (i.e. involving exchanges between interacting subjects), it has become ‘inter-objective’ (i.e. mediated by the use of artefacts).
In a sense, with a smartphone in our pocket, we have all become cyborgs to some extent. With a smartphone in our pocket, we can maintain physical distance between us without necessarily being socially isolated. This wasn’t at all possible a few years ago. Technology, however, has evolved to fill that gap. And in so doing, it helps us survive another day.
“Will we all end up living in small, personalised, incubated, hi-tech, hyper-connected pods?”
Maybe, who knows (wasn’t there a Black Mirror episode about that?!).
The workings of human evolution, be it genetic or cultural, only become evident in hindsight. Naturally, those who withstand the inconvenience of social distancing by recourse to technology will enjoy better survival prospects than those whose lust for company and weather pushes them in the grips of COVID-19. In the meantime, behavioural scientists scramble to identify nudges that make social distancing a more plausible alternative than springtime weather. No mean feat, but perhaps our very survival as a species might be at stake.