More than ever, the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of our shared humanity. Everyone, rich and poor, old and young, from the developed world or the less developed world, of whatever color or creed, can get the virus. All over the world the most vulnerable to dying from the virus are the elderly, as well as males in all age groups (Global Health 50/50 2020). This is a pattern common at all times and in all societies – the elderly are more likely to succumb to any disease, and the excess mortality of males in all age groups is well known to demographers.
It is our shared humanity that a biosocial approach to sociology highlights. Whatever our different cultures, personal experiences, language, ethnicity and immediate ancestral background, we are all human and have the same human strengths and frailties. We can debate the strength of human altruism and cooperative tendencies, but all humans do cooperate within their groups, and this likely is a result of our evolutionary history as (somewhat) social apes. We can debate the extent to which emotions are socially defined and or/constructed, but all humans experience the emotions of joy, happiness, fear, and sorrow. We all celebrate birth and mourn our dead.
The emotional unity of humans was brought home to me many years ago, in a post office in a Mexican town in Chiapas, when I received news in a letter of my brother’s death. This hit me like a body blow. I don’t know what I did, and if I said something it would have been in English, but all the non-English speakers in the post office understood immediately and rushed to help me. I had limited command of the Spanish language, and couldn’t have told them what had happened if I tried, but they just knew.
The sex difference in mortality rates for COVID-19 reminds us that males, despite their patriarchal high status in many societies, are universally the more fragile sex. This too can be traced to human biology and, like everything in biology, is a product of evolution. Males are also more prone to risky behaviors that can lead to their early deaths, but this too is likely a product of the different selective pressures males and females faced over evolutionary time. I have used such an evolutionary approach in my research on sex differences over the past twenty years. This approach has provoked rage and consternation among some of my colleagues and fellow-sociologists. Yet regardless of one’s sociological views, I think few sociologists think we did not evolve as a species (creationism, anyone?), and that there are some distinct evolved biological differences between men and women, the most obvious being that biological women can bear children and biological men cannot. There are few that will disagree that this basic difference does shape the social life of women in distinctive ways in all societies. Not only that, but having children is often a pivotal moment for individual women the world over, and central to their subsequent lives and subjective experience. Women the world over are more likely than men to go above and beyond for their children – they are certainly much less likely to abandon them. I am often amazed that suggesting that our human biology plays any role in such sex differences gets me accused of being sexist.
Yet assuming no important differences between men and women typically means assuming that women are just like men (only shorter on average, so you can call this the “little men” approach). This is itself sexist, as it assumes the “best way to be” or perhaps “the only way to be” is to be male. This has been the opinion of the majority of scholarly writers (mostly men) throughout our patriarchal past, from Aristotle on down. Surely we can move beyond that.
Further, if in fact biological males are somewhat different on average to biological females, emotionally, psychologically, and behaviorally, then assuming women are just like men sets most women up for failure, as more men than women are going to be successful at being emotionally, psychologically and behaviorally like men. Full equality between men and women therefore requires acknowledging that men and women have some differences, on average. No “égalité” without “vive la différence.”
Note that saying that there are differences between men and women is not the same as saying that all biological males are alike and all biological females are alike. The differences I mention are average differences between men and women – individuals will always differ. As I noted in my 2016 book, Evolution and Gender: Why it matters for contemporary life, all individuals differ, and assuming that any particular individual has all the average characteristics of their biological sex is always discriminatory.
Along with the sexism trope, often sociologists who take a biosocial approach are accused of racism. It is assumed that their approach means they posit that certain people or certain groups are more affluent/successful because they are biologically and/or genetically better in some way. Yet most biosociologists (including sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists) posit that there are few if any differences between groups. Evolutionary psychology is in fact based on the idea that our human evolutionary history has created universal predispositions or tendencies that everyone shares! Sociobiology goes further to look at commonalities between all social species. E. O. Wilson’s radical step was to include a last chapter on humans in his book Sociobiology. Regardless, both these approaches are based on what they suggest are the shared characteristics of all humans, of whatever background.
Even those who study gene-environment interactions, and how different alleles or gene variants are correlated with different outcomes – health, education, and so on, will agree that genetic differences between individuals within groups are much greater than any average differences between groups of individuals, however that group is defined.
It is because of our biological and genetic similarities that the COVID-19 virus is such a threat to us all right now - to each of us personally, and to our economies and societies. As we face this problem, the like of which humanity has not faced for a hundred years—a highly contagious virus with no vaccine and no entirely effective treatment—we do well to remember that the tools we have to confront that virus are the tools humans have used to overcome problems for millennia: our creativity, our intelligence, and our ability to cooperate. It is also worth remembering that these tools are a product of our shared evolutionary history.
Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:
- Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
- Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
- Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Will Kalkhoff, Richard T. Serpe, and Josh Pollock
- Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
- Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn
- Speculations About Why Sociological Social Psychology Largely Elides Evolutionary Logic by Steven Hitlin
- The Coronavirus Pandemic, Evolutionary Sociology, and Long-Term Economic Growth in the United States by Michael Hammond
- Institutionalization of Animal Welfare and the Evolution of Coronavirus(es) by Erin M. Evans
- The Coronavirus in Evolutionary Perspective by Alexandra Maryanski
- Gene-Culture and Potential Culture-Gene Coevolution: The Future of COVID-19 by Marion Blute
- For God’s Sake! What’s All This Fuss About a Virus? by Andrew Atkinson
- How Covid-19 Reminds Us We Are More Alike Than Different by Rosemary L. Hopcroft
- From the Middle: Sites of Culture, Cooperation, and Trust in Risk Society by Lukas Szrot
- Evolution Does Not Explain Tyranny: COVID-19 Could Have Led To Many Fewer Deaths If Tyranny Had Been Less Prevalent in Washington, D.C. by Richard Devine
- The Epidemic and the Epistemic: An Exercise in Evolutionary Sociology by Doug Marshall
Global Health 50/50. 2020. COVID-19 Sex-disaggregated Data Tracker. https://globalhealth5050.org/covid19/sex-disaggregated-data-tracker/.
Hopcroft, Rosemary L. 2016. Evolution and Gender: Why it matters for contemporary life. Routledge.