Author and Yale Professor Nicholas Christakis in his book “Apollo’s Arrow” in describing humans as a species states, “The imperative to be generous is hardwired in us, and indeed the survival of our species has depended on an exquisite balance between altruists and free riders, between the people who run into a burning building to save lives and the people who take advantage of others. Across time, humans evolved to live socially, and cooperative impulses won out.”
Christakis wrote further, “Evolutionarily speaking, however, when it comes to our response to collective threats, something even more fundamental than cooperation is going on. The very fact that we knew what to do when the pandemic struck partly reflects another extraordinary ability in our species; the capacity for teaching and learning.”
We are the only species capable of this kind of behavior. Other species survive by nature. We have the choice between nature and nurture. Over the last couple of decades, there are less people willing to run into burning buildings to save a life because it either does not concern them, or there is nothing in it for them. It was not always like this. I remember the times when it was not. It is the way I was raised.
For the record, and not for a pat on the back, I am someone who will always run into a burning building to save someone. While I have not actually had that particular experience, there have been events that are on that same level of danger, requiring me to think of others, before myself, leading me to act. While no act of danger, acts of kindness also work that same way. Back in the day, we called it “giving the shirt off our back.”
But as a child, and young adult, this is how I was raised, and how I remember people. I remember us all caring about each other. I know that I have a tendency to be self-absorbed in my personal world, I did not pay attention to when many changed to a society of impulsive people “taking advantage of others.” I struggle with this, because I do not concern myself with help someone may receive. I am not aware of everyone’s personal circumstances, and who am I to worry about them in the first place?
I really struggle today with what is going on. It makes no sense to me. Even as recent as the attack on the US on September 11, 2001, we were still a society that could unite behind each other, to look out for each other, to help each other. What is it about that day that made us want to stand with each other, while in today’s crisis, we could not be further apart? But unfortunately, this is exactly where we are, how Christakis describes, selfless or selfish.
Could it be because we do not see the physical destruction of property with Covid that we saw on 9/11? That with all the rubble, we were able to put a face on the three thousand plus dead to make us more concerned, more resolve? Perhaps that is part of it.
We are now numb, to 9/11 daily tallies of Covid related deaths. And whereas we could blame someone else for the terrorist event and the deaths that came from it, there is no face to tie the Covid crisis to. Sure, in the beginning, we were able to hear some of the stories of those who lost their lives to the virus, and at that point, we still had hopes that Covid would not end up as dire as predicted. But then those predictions came through, and we could not keep up with putting faces to the death totals. We have become numb to the totality of lives lost of over 360,000 human lives, as those who try to deny the reality, by minimizing the loss to a smaller and much less scary number, a percentage, less than 1% fatality rate. Sure, that one percent does not look bad at all. But so far, that 1% has still produced 360,000 human lives gone forever. And that can never be acceptable. The difference in the outlook, selfless, or selfish?
As Christakis pointed out, we know what to do. We may not have known at the beginning, but we learned. Again, no other species can do that. But we have an issue with our country these days, lack of trust. That lack of trust does not deserve to be thrown on the back of the scientists. Again, they can only do what they know, and what they learn from it. That is our advantage as a species.
People that run into burning buildings to save lives, and impulsive people taking advantage of others. That is literally where we are right now in dealing with this Covid crisis (and other issues). Unfortunately, too much noise has been allowed to infiltrate the minds of our citizens, solidifying the distrust that so many have. The misinformation about mitigation efforts, the defiance to cooperate, all in effort to help a loved one, a friend, or even a total stranger, no longer matter to some.
When this is done, I do hope that as Christakis pointed out, our species can learn from this. I am not too concerned about his other concern about when this is over, a revitalization of the “roaring 20’s” of the 20th century, but a 21st century version with all those who have “run into burning buildings to save others” following mitigation recommendations. We definitely will have earned it though.