“Disaster is like everyday life, only more so.” —Rebecca Solnit
A brief set of thoughts and observations about the (rather stunning) social dynamics of this entire COVID-19 fiasco—as always through the lens of evolution and its insights into the ways in which humans attempt (occasionally poorly) to confront and resolve a given set of adaptive dilemmas.
First, a reminder/bit of mansplaining. The first rule of evolution is that everything is ultimately a mating dance, more or less. Well, the first rule is to survive, of course, but you really only care about surviving long enough to reproduce. It’s really all about reproduction at the end of the day. Food and sex but….let’s be real. Mostly sex. Your clothes, your car, your house, your job—everything is either directly or indirectly an attempt to impress a potential mate with the best possible display of your personality and achievements. Your feelings and emotions are simply feedback about how your attempt to impress that potential mate seems to be working at any particular moment. (Yes, even if that potential mate is entirely imaginary.) This is a somewhat simplified version of reality, but it’s more or less what’s going on all the time. The birds in the trees sing a song called “MATE WITH ME,” and so do you. It’s why you care about where you live and what you wear and how dirty your car is, or if your team wins the Superbowl, or if your coworkers like the casserole that you brought to the potluck, or whether your kid passes geometry. And it’s why you care (or don’t care) about COVID-19.
Because the second rule of evolution is that you are a genetic snowflake, and your mating dance is all your own, emerging from the murky dictates of your specific genetic code. Humans attempt to advertise their gene quality to other humans in a kaleidoscope of very often completely baffling ways. (Examples include Ed Hardy t-shirts, toy poodles, and truck nutz, to name a few.) Your estimate of a successful mating display—the peacock feather that’s really going to work for you—is not something you come up with in a strategy session in a boardroom. It’s what the relentless dictators of your genes tell you is most likely to be successful. There’s no room for free will here. Not really. You are an unwitting (and largely unaware) genetic puppet. As Richard Dawkins puts it, a “lumbering robot” who serves the interest of replicating genes, not the other way around.
Humans fan out across the bell curves of personality not because of different childhood experiences (i.e., nurture), but because evolution hedges its bets through genetic variation. You just never know what’s going to impress the ladies more: shimmery green feathers or silky purple feathers. Better try both and find out which one is a more successful strategy, and let sexual selection do the rest. Personality is no different. What’s more likely to guarantee increased survival and (eventually) reproduction? Low conscientiousness or high? Low agreeableness or high? Low extraversion or high? Mix all the marbles up and let evolution sort it out!
The result is a mish-mash. There is no single master genetic strategy for any personality attribute, just like there’s no single master genetic strategy for eye color, or height, or butt shape. There are bell curves clustered around most-successful averages, and ranges that are more common and less common and extremely uncommon, but the specific set of genetic instructions that determine your personality—and therefore your mating display—is a snowflake, just like everyone else’s.
Snowflakes are each unique, but they can be grouped into general types (remember that from first grade snowflake manufacturing?), and so can personality. Your personality can be roughly but fairly accurately described across five major dimensions: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. This is what is known as “The Big Five” or the Five Factor Model of personality.
Okay. Now that we’ve established that evolution generates a spectrum of personality traits that are all competing with one another to produce increasingly more successful advertisements to get their lumbering robots laid, and that the individuals doing the bidding of their genetic dictators are very often going to be at odds with one another because they are reflecting wildly different instructions with commensurately different estimates of what is going to be “successful,” we can discuss the pandemic of the hour.
There are a lot of reasons to avoid social media, but it can also be a window into the soul of its participants—particularly in a moment that is amplified by crisis, as this is. I have an unusually schizophrenic social media feed—I follow just as many free-love hippie leftists as I do free-market libertarian entrepreneurs, and lo, everyone has found a way to fashion this crisis into ideological plumage. Tell me your personality and your immediate market incentives, and I’ll show you how you are responding to the moment—and how you are likely urging others to respond in the same manner.
Are you an introvert, and/or highly conscientious? Most introverts—particularly the more conscientious and/or disagreeable among them—are leading the charge for “social distancing.” They just couldn’t be happier about the idea. They post graph after graph of flattened contagion curves; they take every opportunity possible to use the moment as an opportunity to display their introversion and, when appropriate, also their disagreeableness and conscientiousness. Their peacock feathers are those of science, data, rationality. The opportunity to lecture (and occasionally scold) is impossible to resist. Introverts struggle to find good mating displays, and this is the best opportunity many of them have ever had to really run the field with reason and prudence and the virtue of social isolation, and they are (rightfully so) taking advantage of it. These are peacock feathers that say “I’m much more responsible and educated and therefore likely to survive this thing—stick with me and there is plenty of mating in your future. Otherwise, no promises. It’s scary out there.”
The introverts I know are absolutely vexed and generally horrified by the behavior of extroverts—especially more disagreeable, open to experience extroverts. That’s because the evolutionary edge for a successful mating advertisement for the extroverts is exactly the opposite. It’s going to be some sort of flagrant display of sociability. These people are out and about, posting photos of plane tickets and whooping it up in a bar with their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, refusing to “give in to fear” or “hide.” Their peacock feathers are shouting “I’m more fun! I’m the life of the party! You’re going to have a better time with me! Mate with meeee!” Remember the rooftop partiers who greet the aliens in “Independence Day,” much to their regret? Yeah, that’s you guys. (Sorry.)
Emotionally stable? You probably aren’t posting much on social media at all, because you aren’t that worried. In that sense, your lack of concern is your display. And if you are posting, it’s about how you’re not that worried and other people shouldn’t be either. Your peacock feathers say “Look how steady and easygoing I am. There’s no cause for alarm and therefore things are safer over here and mating is a better option with me.” Emotionally unstable? You are glued to Twitter and are posting every new set of numbers that comes in from South Korea. Your peacock feathers say “I know what’s happening first! I’ve got my finger on the pulse of this thing! I’m very useful! Mate with me!”
Open to experience? The highly open, spiritually-minded are going to do their best to inform us how the virus is a messenger from our higher self that is here to help us, teach us, lead us into ascended consciousness. We must rely more on one another as Saturn moves into Aquarius. Wuhan has seen blue sky for the first time in years, after all. Its citizens can finally hear birdsong. In Italy, they sing to one another. These are very fancy peacock feathers of imagination, optimism, transcendence of competition itself. Hope and magic sell well in a panic; they always have and always will. These peacock feathers murmur seductively: “I’m clearly very fancy and above the concerns of the rest of you simpletons. Very sexy. Mate with me. You know you want to.”
Empirically, scientifically, the display favored by the conscientious introverts—social distancing, posting informative hand-washing memes, spending unreasonable amounts of time on the CDC’s twitter feed—is the “right” display. It’s the behavior that is most aligned with the truth as best as we can identify the truth. But that doesn’t mean it is the most favored by natural or sexual selection, so the most truthful is not necessarily the most successful. Those for whom such behavior emerges naturally simply cannot understand why overwhelming evidence wouldn’t convince others to wash their hands more diligently or stay home from the bar. I would refer those people to a vast plethora of other evidence-rich value propositions that have been utterly ineffective at effecting population-wide behavioral change.
We are baffled by the “incorrect” reactions that others have to the same situation only because we do not understand the behavioral genetics of personality, and also we do not understand that most everything we do in life is an attempt to display our personality to others in order to gain evolutionary advantage (ie, get laid.) Introverted and conscientious people who thrill to the opportunity to gain an edge of social status by posting a hand washing meme are understandably furious with lower conscientious disagreeables who use the time off work to go on a #coronacation. But the genes that direct the coronacationers are just as (and likely more so) successful at replicating themselves. This is the basic idea behind that still under-appreciated example of classic American cinema, Mike Judge’s 2006 film “Idiocracy.”
Your life is many things, but mostly, it is a sexual display. So is everyone else’s. It would be an evolutionary disaster for a disagreeable extrovert to adopt the display of a conscientious introvert and vice versa; you would be advertising to the wrong people, in the wrong way, and compromising your gene survival in the process. No one is going to do that. No one is going to become someone they are not. Crisis amplifies the banal, and reveals the extreme distortions at all the tails of human bell curves—the best and the worst of them. Some people will start fundraisers to support their friends in the hospitality industry. Others will hoard hand sanitizer and sell it at a markup on the dark web. This is the human condition. Sometimes it’s truly exalted and glorious and beautiful. Sometimes it’s reeeeeeally shitty.
Which is all to say…the flip side of modern civilization and all of its immense benefits is that we must coexist with competing mating displays, some of which unfortunately come at some cost to us in the public sphere. Encountering the costs of those detrimental displays in the midst of a public health crisis is a little like encountering secondhand smoke while traveling. It’s not your house. You don’t make the rules. You can’t kick the smoker out of the restaurant. All you can do is try to get upwind as best as you can, go to a different restaurant, and try not to let it ruin your trip by stewing about it or using it as an excuse to pick a fight. In that sense, the rules that Dr. Lisle and I recommend to create your personal utopia share quite a bit in common with the logic of social distancing. Do the best you can do. Take care of yourself and those you love as best you can. But you cannot expect other people to respond to reality the same way you respond to reality. No matter how overwhelming the apparent evidence, or how obviously “wrong” their strategy may seem to you. Not when it comes to COVID-19, or the presidential election, or the virtues of a plant-based diet. They won’t. They can’t. Not unless they think it will get them laid.
Oh, and for the love of god, wash your hands. #flattenthecurve