Nicholas Christakis, is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University. His work is in the fields of network science, biosocial science, and behavior genetics. An elected member of the US National Academy of Medicine, in 2009, he was named in Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. He is the author of Connected, Blueprint, and Apollo’s Arrow.
Transcription of the video
What the pandemic is doing is exploiting some very deep and fundamental aspects of human nature. We humans evolved to live in groups in very particular ways. And in some ways, you could even argue that the spread of germs is the price we pay for the spread of ideas. In other words, I come near you in order to benefit from the opportunity for social learning, and teaching, or we assemble ourselves in groups in order to be able to cooperate, for example, and achieve benefits as a group we couldn’t as individuals. And these contagious pathogens have evolved to take into account the kind of network structure that we have, and the kind of social behaviors that we manifest. So if we didn’t live socially, there’d be no opportunity for the germ to spread from me to you. These germs that we’re facing, the pandemic we’re facing right now, is exploiting that and attacking us, if you think about it, at our most fundamental humanity, at the fact that we are living as social animals. And ironically, therefore, in order to combat the pathogen, we have to abandon a whole set of behaviors that ordinarily are very normal to us, like spending time with our friends, or touching each other, consoling each other physically, for example, living socially in general. So we have to spread physically apart. But there are some things that the germ does not take away from us that are equally social and important and that we can use to combat the pathogen. And one of those things is that we can band together, to work together, to stay physically apart, for example. And another example is that we benefit from our capacity for cumulative culture, we benefit from the capacity that we have over millennia acquired information which we transmit about how to deal with pandemics. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we don’t need to needlessly die. Because we’re rediscovering how to deal with a deadly germ, we can open up a book, or look online or consult an expert, all of those activities, opening up a book looking online consulting an expert, our social learning, and teaching and that is a key fundamental aspect of our species. What the epidemic is highlighted, the positive things that it’s highlighted, is this kind of banding together and helping each other by a teaching. One example of that is also our very capacity to develop drugs and vaccines to develop pharmaceutical interventions to fight this germ, which other animals can’t do. And that’s another wonderful quality that we have.
I’m dispositionally a very optimistic person. And I have a very optimistic perspective on our species. I think we’re pretty remarkable species. And in “Blueprint: The evolutionary origins of a good society”, the title says it’s all. I think we evolved to have a good society with very wonderful qualities. I would say that the epidemic has highlighted our ability to collaborate to work together. And, and we evolved to do this thing, and we do it typically when we’re threatened. And here, we’re threatened by a pathogen. I think that survival instinct is important, but in addition to that, I think, a kind of goodwill. Now, I should say, because some people listening to this will rightly observe that, in times of deadly pandemics, people can also be horribly violent and brutal and cruel to each other. We have many examples of this, during the outbreaks of bubonic plague in Medieval Europe, during a smallpox outbreaks, that of course, when the Conquistadores and the other settlers of the New World, you know, brought smallpox here, it decimated the native populations. We know of many examples of people that act abysmally, when there’s catastrophes, there’s no doubt about that. And I don’t want to be seen as minimizing that, but equally, we are prone to these wonderful qualities. And generally, I would argue, that the benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs. There is more good in human beings than there is bad, at least that’s my belief.
Many people have highlighted things like increasing loneliness, and which is true. And many children being out of school will experience adverse childhood events. There’s an epidemic of this even in the United States right now, of children whose parents get divorced or die, or live in poverty, many of our children are harmed by, unfortunately, even though they live in a rich country like ours, just by being children. And the pandemic has no doubt exacerbated this. It’s killing people. It’s stressing people out people lose their jobs, they suffer, their children suffer. There is, of course, the lockdown measures have led to an epidemic of loneliness, there’s been a rise in intimate partner violence because people are stuck at home, their police are less able to respond. So there’s a lot of bad stuff that has happened as a result of the pandemic. There’s no doubt about it. I mean, you have to understand that something very unusual in the life of our species has happened, it happened to have happened in 2020 when we’re alive, it happens every 50 or 100 years. It just happens to be happening now, which is that a new serious pathogen is being introduced into our species and this germ SARS CoV-2 is going to circulate among us forever now, and it’s going to do what it wants. There’s some debate about whether viruses are living, but for the sake of argument, it’s acting like a living thing. And it’s had an ecological release. We’re a wholly susceptible population. It’s like releasing rats on an isolated island. And then they just decimate the local wildlife because that’s what they do. That’s what this germ is going to do. It’s just going to move among us. It has its own will to survive, and it’s just gonna kill us, until it ends.
I don’t think I have anything unusual to say about that, except, the classic “Do unto others, as you wish would have others do unto you.” I think a kind of Zen-like perception on our common humanity is required. I think cultivating in yourself a kind of sense of concern for other people is very important. It’s very tempting to be selfish when there is a catastrophe and I think that’s something that one needs to use will to combat. And we all have these natural tendencies to, with few exceptions, great majority of people have these natural tendencies to be nice. And I think sort of reflection on that, and a kind of desire to be a good guy right now is necessary and admirable. And frankly, it’s good for you too. It’s not just that you’re being altruistic for altruism sake. There is good evidence that this these types of sensibilities rebound back to you. First of all, you feel better about yourself, and then others also treat you better. So, everyone benefits when people you know, act positively. There’s that whole thing about mask wearing, my mask protects you, and your mask protects me. So, when I wear a mask it cultivates a sensibility in those around me that this is normative and beneficial behavior. Incidentally, is a kind of interesting footnote and kind of epidemiological detail that might interest some of your listeners, there’s some intriguing evidence from experiments that have been done that one of the ways that masks help is that when I wear a mask, it makes you stay further away from me. So, one of the behavioral impacts is not just that it stops me from inhaling what you exhale, my mask wearing is a signal that I take this seriously. So, you stay away. And they did these experiments where they got people to, randomly assign them, to wait in lines and wear a mask or not wear a mask. And then had a hidden observer track, how far away did people stay in line. And they found that when I was wearing a mask, people stood farther away from me than when I wasn’t, for example.
As I discussed in “Apollo’s Arrow,” this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. So I don’t have any kind of psychological or philosophical wisdom, I just have some epidemiological wisdom, which is we’re not at the beginning of the end, we’re not even at the end of the beginning, frankly. We’re still at the beginning of the beginning of this pandemic! And it’s sad news. I mean, probably in the United States, in North America, probably no more than 4 or 5% of people have ever been exposed to this pathogen. And in the end, about 40% of the planet will be exposed. So I think we have many hundreds of thousands of deaths to go. And even if we get a vaccine, which I think is likely, but not certain, in the early part of 2021, if we invent it. We still have to manufacture, distribute, and accept the vaccine. We have to persuade people to take it and at least the United States, we’ve done such an abysmal job in maintaining the credibility of public health officials, that I’m very worried that people won’t believe the officials when they say that the vaccine is safe. And of course, if there are any complications, those will be breathlessly reported by the media. And so people will lose confidence. So even if a vaccine is invented by early 2021, it’ll take at least a year before we could successfully roll it out. And by there, the germ is still spreading. So the germ is going to keep spreading for a while. We’re gonna have multiple waves of it. And I just think it’s important we accept that unfortunate reality.