Part 2: Using Evolutionary Social Science to Deal with Pandemics

Part 2: Long read: Cultural evolution, Covid-19, and preparing for what’s next

Continued below (previous email here)

An alternative cultural evolutionary explanation is one that requires little knowledge of the effects of different beliefs, but instead allows for successful beliefs to persist through selective learning from successful believers. One mechanism that would create a downward trend in violence is a process of cultural-group selection whereby people cooperate within larger groups as they discover new mechanisms of cooperation. And discovering these mechanisms and sustaining cooperation may require sufficient resources that larger more cooperative groups can access by working together. For example, increased resource availability, fuelled by the fossilised energy released from burning millions of years’ worth of dead organisms, could create the necessary conditions for shoving us into a positive-sum world. But by this account, there is peace within larger cultural-groups, but there is not necessarily peace between these larger cultural-groups. That is, cultural-group selection predicts a downward trend in violence, interrupted by occasional large spikes: when the scale of cooperation is greater, so too is the potential scale of conflict. Rather than tribes against tribes or even nations against nations, we have coalitions of nation-states against coalitions of other nation-states, each bound by a common religious and cultural history. Cultural-group selection makes a different prediction: the world is more peaceful, but also more dangerous.

Cultural-group selection can help explain how lower scales of cooperation are suppressed, such that higher scales can flourish. For example, institutions supporting larger-scale cooperation can arise and outcompete lower scales of, for example, kin-based cooperation, when there are sufficient resources to be gained and shared by the larger institution. Slowed growth or limited resources would threaten this progress and lead to lower scales of cooperation.

Indirect evidence for this logic comes from studies using the “joy of destruction”, whereby participants are offered an endowment that they can use to remove money from another’s endowment at some cost to themselves (e.g. pay $2 to remove $4 from another player). Under positive-sum conditions, there is no rationality to this decision—you can outcompete others by working harder and accessing more of the plentiful resources; another’s success can be predictive of your success if you copy their successful strategy. However, destruction can be adaptive under zero-sum conditions, where another’s success is predictive of your failure; they have taken a piece of a limited pie which is no longer available to you.

Consistent with these theories, rates of destruction are much higher in a low yield, low-rainfall region of Namibia relative to a high yield, high-rainfall region, and higher on average in Namibia than rates in Ukraine or the Netherlands. And indeed, during a crisis, we can see these dynamics in the behaviour of some countries competing for a limited resource (e.g. the number of N95 masks is effectively zero-sum). The competition for masks and other medical supplies has been described as a modern day Wild West and indeed even the West will become wilder under resource constraints, when mumbling and grumbling becomes something more. From a cultural evolutionary perspective, there is always variation in beliefs, but who gets selected can depend on the circumstances. For example, populists and parochial isolationists always exist, but may find themselves handed a microphone during times of slowed growth or resource scarcity.

Assuming no mutation in SARS-CoV-2, there are many features that make it more tractable: The disease is not spreading through the water supply or through the air (except through droplets that linger), and many parents are no doubt grateful that children, for the most part, are not dying. But as bad as this current crisis is, the next pandemic with traits in the Goldilocks’ zone of spreading quickly, but killing slowly, may be even more difficult to manage. Our current crisis is a pandemic whose implications will be felt for years. But just as Gates’ warned us of the well-understood inevitable threat epidemics pose, there are other well-understood, inevitable challenges on the horizon. With any luck, our lack of preparation for Covid-19 will serve as a warning to better prepare and a lesson that the unimaginable but scientifically inevitable can become very real very quickly.

“… preparation and adaptation to a climate-changed world with all the challenges it entails becomes increasingly important.”

What’s next

The latest climate change report promises fires, floods, famine, and disease. Despite some progress on mitigation, we’ve continued to fly past supposed safe limits. Even though our consumption of beef per person has decreased, our technology is more energy efficient than ever before, and renewable sources of energy continue to replace fossil fuels, atmospheric CO2 concentration needed to remain below 350 ppm to prevent a tipping point. We passed 400 ppm in 2015 and CO2 continues to rise to levels unseen in millions of years: 415 ppm in 2019. If there were a doomsday clock for the climate, we’re well past midnight. And thus, while a focus on mitigation by slowing the economy to save the planet is still worthwhile, preparation and adaptation to a climate-changed world with all the challenges it entails becomes increasingly important.

An inconvenient truth about climate change is that while overall the planet will be worse off, there will be winners and losers. Some places will become more liveable (e.g. parts of Canada) and others far less liveable (e.g. Bangladesh and most of the Middle East). People moving from less liveable areas to more liveable areas will become more common, and movements may be sudden, due to crises. Mass movements of people have geopolitical implications. When millions of Bangladeshis find themselves under water, they’re going to need to move in masses toward neighbouring regions. Can India handle millions streaming into their borders? How will that affect Pakistan and then the Middle East and then Europe? Such sudden surges place increased pressure on already stressed infrastructure; a challenge even to polities with well-functioning institutions like Europe. Moreover, as places become warmer, disease vectors such as mosquitos multiply and spread in a now larger liveable area, increasing disease, which can also spread with the movement of people. And long-forgotten diseases may re-emerge as permafrost melts.

A recent and consequential conflict that some have argued was catalysed by climate change is the Syrian civil war that began in 2011. Syria’s most intense drought took place between 2006 and 2011. As farms failed, rural workers found themselves without food and without work, and so moved to the major cities. The physical and institutional infrastructure was not prepared for masses of people streaming in, which may have led to discontent, protests, and riots. It would be superficial to attribute the Syrian civil war to droughts alone, ignoring the demographics, geopolitics and wider Arab Spring. Climate change was at best a catalyst. The implications of this war will be felt by Europe for some time—it takes time to assimilate masses of people, and in the meantime, already stressed hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure are put under stress, leading to aggrieved locals. When resources seem limited, zero-sum biases can be triggered and mumblings and grumblings that always existed can become anti-social action.

It’s easier to be nice when there’s lots to go around. Imagine trying to find a parking spot. If you arrive at a spot around the same time as another car and there’s plenty of open spaces, you might graciously allow them to take the spot. But if everything is full and you’ve been driving around for 30 minutes looking for a spot, your behaviour may functionally change. As good public schools become even harder to get into, as wait times at hospitals increase, local populations can become understandably resentful of these new pressures, and more resentful still when resources are devoted to helping newcomers. Are our physical, institutional, and cultural infrastructure prepared for these challenges?

Democracy too is easier when everyone is on the same page. When people are mostly in agreement with one another, the debates are at the margins—for example, if we agree on socialised healthcare, we can vote for who can best implement it. But when groups are vastly different to one another, they’re forced to argue over fundamental principles. Rather than picking the best person, voters pick people who agree with them—someone who represents their tribe and their views, which inevitably leaves members of the other groups unhappy. Some evidence suggests the relationship between diversity and conflict is U-shaped: Conflict is lowest in highly homogenous places where people mostly agree with one another and in highly diverse places where people don’t have sufficient numbers to form a critical mass of competing cultural-groups. Conflict is most likely when you have large internally cooperative groups who disagree with the other large internally cooperative groups.

A post-climate change world might require us to exploit new, more powerful, sources of energy; it might require us to get even more energy efficient; or it might require us to get better at climate engineering. But our ability to develop and implement these technical solutions is contingent on well-functioning institutions of governance and administration and their invisible normative cultural support pillars (e.g. belief in rule of law). Solutions for surviving in a climate-changed world will depend on our ability to coordinate, cooperate and collaborate at a larger scale than we have yet achieved. So, preparing for a post-climate change world also requires us to better understand human behaviour, cooperation, and cultural evolution—cooperation is challenged when resources are scarce. Despite vast progress in climate change mitigation, we’re now faced with future scenarios that range from bad to worse. Even the relatively good outcomes can lead to chaos if we’re not prepared for how to live together successfully on our post-climate changed planet.

Our psychology leads us to overestimate our understanding of the world, which is usually not a problem because as individuals we do not need causal models for everything we benefit from. But good decision-making under novel circumstances does require causal understanding unless solutions already exist in the society. Thus understanding how societies evolve and innovate is critical. This pandemic has reminded us that in a highly connected, globalised world, a wet market in Wuhan can grind the world economy to a halt. In our connected age, other people’s problems are our problems, but their solutions might also be our solutions.


[a] The answer is 47. At that rate of growth, another day would cover another lake. And in case you’re feeling confident because you got the answer right, how much of the lake was covered on day 24?

[b] The answer is 18,446,744,073,709,551,615, which is more grains of wheat than there are stars in our galaxy (400 billion as an upper estimate). In fact, that’s around 46 million Milky Ways worth of stars.