Home/ Opinion / Views/  An evolving bug risked distorting our evolution

It is true that the threat of covid isn’t over, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said this week. We must stay alert, as he asked, even as India’s genome trackers were directed to renew their vigil on the evolving virus that causes the illness. Yet, for most practical purposes, it isn’t out of line to speak of this pandemic in the past tense. Three years after the country went into lockdown, we can safely review early expectations of its impact on our own evolution as a host species. One major forecast was of a sharp global escalation in state control over human lives, a likelihood talked about by Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari among others, and a corresponding increase in popular submission to authority. We faced a menace we could not fight by ourselves, after all, and it clearly called for drastic action only a government could take. And if locking ourselves up at home was not just okay, but a bona fide must-do, what else might we have been ready to accept?

The paradigm shift feared was a retreat from axioms of individual liberty that had long led the modern age. Covid erupted in China, an autocracy that not only set the initial model of response, but seemed way better at enforcing behavioural codes for public safety. In early 2020, video clips that went viral online offered a study in contrast: Chinese citizens in Wuhan dared not cross police barricades, while unruly Italians in Milan’s public spaces scolded cops for their graceless advice to go home. Some countries in the West, of course, only issued advisories on staying apart and left it at that—on the logic that innocent folks could not be caged in, no matter what. The prognosis of covid turning people more submissive was drawn less from a political ideology than from social psychology—or theories thereof. Some suspect it was the advent of agriculture, settlements and civilization that first created a hierarchy of command for people to be better fed. Others go back further. They posit that as hominids evolved to survive in groups, we began looking up to assurers of survival, and so leaders inevitably popped up to take charge of society. Either way, studies suggest that a human tendency to obey authority survives to this day. Often cited in this context are the findings of Stanley Milgram, an American psychologist who conducted a bunch of obedience tests in the 1960s. All it took was the instruction of an authority figure, he found, for subjects of his experiment to knowingly harm others. While it did not prove that we exercise little will or judgement of our own, and variation among us should make us question the validity of his sample, it did make a broad point about human folly: We tend to do what we’re told. The public legitimacy granted by covid to political regimes as micro-managers of our lives, went the worry, would worsen a trait that had possibly evolved over millennia but lent itself easily to abuse and was thus past its sell-by date in democracy’s quest for progress.

So, did any of it pan out as predicted? As Zhou Enlai said of the French Revolution, perhaps it’s still too early to tell. Regimes grew sinister in some places, more lenient elsewhere. As for the attitudes of people, we have scant evidence of any notable change in submission to sarkari authority. Signs of restive populations, however, have arisen across the globe in varying degrees. In India, we have wheels within wheels and trends within trends, so nothing definitive can be said. It’s good to be warned of any risk to liberty, though. It reminds us to up our vigil.

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Updated: 23 Mar 2023, 10:55 PM IST
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