Germs, memes and extremes 

Plagues were a part of life (and death) in times past and they were no respecter of class. People in all stations of life died as a result. And, in turn, those deaths will have changed history in very many ways, both good and bad. It is impossible to see how things would have been in the absence of those changes, but it can still be illuminating to look back at what happened in previous times.

One of the earliest examples of the effect of a pandemic was, possibly, that of Akhenaten in the ancient Egypt of the 14th century BC. He had previously been called Amenhotep IV and lived with his court in Thebes. Relatively early in his reign, however, he decided to change his name, build a new capital city in a place called Amarna and move there with his court, except for the priests, whom he tried to get rid of. Why? Because he had also changed the state religion from polytheism to monotheism and obviously he would need new (although fewer) priests for the new religion.

Now, many are the speculations as to why all this happened, including the fact that the priestly caste was getting above itself. That may, however, only be half of the story. Since the coming of Covid, the suggestion that it may have been a reaction to a plague, a pandemic, has gained more traction in the archaeological world.

After all, when no-one had the first idea what caused diseases and therefore how they spread, it may have been thought that a new start somewhere-else with a new god for protection might be just what was required. The old gods were obviously not up to the job and, although the idea of localised gods is a strange idea for us, Thebes was where they lived. So then, leaving Thebes and their ineffective protection could well have made perfect sense.

During our time with Covid, we have seen so many different versions of how we should act in order to avoid falling foul of it. An alternative advisory group of (independent) scientists was set up by Covid-sceptics. This criticised the decisions made by the government’s (independent) scientists, even though the alternative group didn’t have full access to the data necessary to form an informed opinion.

And of course we had travel restrictions between countries, kept in place long after they could have any significant effect. All a bit of a mess, but it bowed to the idea of the foreigner as a danger.

Individuals’ reactions ranged from a complete indifference to the disease (by those believing that it was all super-exaggerated), to the taking of ineffective drugs and arcane disputes as to the efficacy of masks. Quite a lot of the disagreement came from conspiracy theories - one was that the whole pandemic thing was a way of controlling society. A bit of an odd way of doing it when the controlling authorities told us all to stop work and paid us to sit at home. Not the usual authoritarian line.

But then no-one ever said that conspiracy theories had to make sense. In fact, just like other beliefs, they are likely to be many and varied.

They are of course our old friends, memes, and as such they are subject to Darwinian selection, just like genes. In the case of those believing that they could ignore the virus, it was often a sure road to the belief dying with the believer, with only Darwin winning.

Our own brush with the Covid pandemic has undoubtedly caused societal change, but the interaction between germs and social change may well be more complicated than it at first appears. Researchers are now seeing distinct correlations between, particularly, communicable diseases and social attitudes.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen found that there was a massive rise in the intensity of prayer in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, as measured across 107 countries by Google searches for prayers to say.

In April 2020, the Pew research Center in the US reported that a quarter of adults said that their faith had strengthened since Covid had erupted, even though this seems to be counter-intuitive: obviously Covid doesn’t support the idea of a benevolent god.

But other research explains this apparent anomaly. It shows that such a response tends to mean that such people are in fact looking for a stricter social order on the back of religion. The idea is that society’s norms need to tighten in response to environmental threats such as disease, famine and natural hazards. They go in the direction of requiring people to act for the good of society rather than just for themselves.

Now, one way to achieve this is to have a vengeful god who punishes those who violate the norms of society. In support of this hypothesis, in 2021, a group at Stanford University reported that US states with historical records of high environmental threat also have higher than normal levels of belief in a punitive god.

But it is not only religion which becomes more authoritarian. Particularly in response to communicable diseases, conservative, authoritarian social attitudes become more prevalent. The states with a higher than normal belief in a punitive god also had more ‘vengeful’ criminal law systems. A study by Cambridge University showed this tendency in 47 countries where communicable diseases were becoming more prevalent - and this after controlling for income, education and other factors.

That it relates mainly to communicable diseases implies that it is social in nature - to do with how we see others. What is more troubling, however, is that if we look back to the 1918/19 flu pandemic, we find the same effect then.

A study shows that among German cities, the higher the death rate during the flu pandemic, the greater that city’s votes for the Nazi party in the early 1930’s, again controlling for factors such as income and unemployment.

The suggestion is that pandemics cause a real fear of chaos, giving rise in turn to a wish to prevent disorder in society. This then encourages the acceptance of punitive gods but also a willingness to water down individuals’ rights and so cede control to increasingly authoritarian governments.

There is also a degree of racism which is involved. We inherently prefer our own group and this sort of thing seems to reinforce group prejudices, with all the old tropes of outsiders, particularly ‘the Jews’, being thought of as carriers of disease.

Is it then a simple coincidence that in a number of advanced economies we are currently seeing the rise of the right wing? In France and Germany, there have been recent hitherto unthinkable electoral successes for extremist parties. In Italy, their most successful government in recent years has been brought down by the extreme right in order to provoke an election in which the former party of Mussolini is confident of success. In the UK, we have two Tory leadership candidates putting forward policies based on an isolationist world view which seems, well, so ‘foreign’, at least to me.

In a modern world, where we can work out the causes of disasters and have ways of dealing with them not known to our forebears, how can our reactions remain so stuck in the past? Well, people’s ability to understand the facts and to remember what actually happened is, shall we say, somewhat limited. Their willingness to consider things in detail and listen to those boring experts is likewise very limited.

This means that there is a tendency to invent a simple, one-dimensional story to cling onto which will account for the disaster - whether government incompetence, foreigners, scientists in secret laboratories or the ‘Deep State’.

Of course these accounts are themselves memes and so, over time, will be subject to the predations of natural selection. The difficulty is that natural selection is not something which has any foresight or any effect beyond immediate survival for the organism or idea in question. Which all means that life might settle back to what it was. Or then again, it might not.

25 July 2022

Paul Buckingham

Home      A Point of View     Philosophy     Who am I?      Links     Photos of Annecy