The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights | PNAS (Seitz et al, 2020)


The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights | PNAS

The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights

 View ORCID ProfileBenjamin M. Seitz, Athena Aktipis, David M. Buss, Joe Alcock, Paul Bloom,  View ORCID ProfileMichele Gelfand, Sam Harris,  View ORCID ProfileDebra Lieberman, Barbara N. Horowitz,  View ORCID ProfileSteven Pinker,  View ORCID ProfileDavid Sloan Wilson, and Martie G. HaseltonPNAS November 10, 2020 117 (45) 27767-27776; first published October 22, 2020;

  1. Edited by Michael S. Gazzaniga, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA, and approved September 16, 2020 (received for review June 9, 2020)


Humans and viruses have been coevolving for millennia. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19) has been particularly successful in evading our evolved defenses. The outcome has been tragic—across the globe, millions have been sickened and hundreds of thousands have died. Moreover, the quarantine has radically changed the structure of our lives, with devastating social and economic consequences that are likely to unfold for years. An evolutionary perspective can help us understand the progression and consequences of the pandemic. Here, a diverse group of scientists, with expertise from evolutionary medicine to cultural evolution, provide insights about the pandemic and its aftermath. At the most granular level, we consider how viruses might affect social behavior, and how quarantine, ironically, could make us susceptible to other maladies, due to a lack of microbial exposure. At the psychological level, we describe the ways in which the pandemic can affect mating behavior, cooperation (or the lack thereof), and gender norms, and how we can use disgust to better activate native “behavioral immunity” to combat disease spread. At the cultural level, we describe shifting cultural norms and how we might harness them to better combat disease and the negative social consequences of the pandemic. These insights can be used to craft solutions to problems produced by the pandemic and to lay the groundwork for a scientific agenda to capture and understand what has become, in effect, a worldwide social experiment.

Insight 1: The Virus Might Alter Host Sociability

Insight 2: “Generation Quarantine” May Lack Critical Microbial Exposures

Insight 3: Activating Disgust Can Help Combat Disease Spread

Insight 4: The Mating Landscape Is Changing, and There Will Be Economic Consequences from a Decrease in Birth Rates

Insight 5: Gender Norms Are Backsliding, and Gender Inequality Is Increasing

Insight 6: An Increase in Empathy and Compassion Is Not Guaranteed

Insight 7: We Have Not Evolved to Seek the Truth

Insight 8: Combating the Pandemic Requires Its Own Evolutionary Process

Insight 9: Cultural Evolutionary Forces Impact COVID-19 Severity

Insight 10: Human Progress Continues

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The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights | PNAS