The Humans and the Viruses: The World Economic Forum and the Coronaviruses

23.06.2020 - Limache, Chile - Howard Richards

The Humans and the Viruses: The World Economic Forum and the Coronaviruses
(Image by Juan Carlos Marín)

The humans and the viruses are two forms of life with parallel but different adaptive strategies. According to the abbreviated story I am offering you, our pre-hominid ancestors crossed the line separating non-human from human and became homo sapiens when they became the cultural animals. It culminated a long process. The human body gradually became the home of a soul, designed to live in a group possessing a culture.(i)

Our hominid ancestors, who were relatively slow and weak compared to many other mammals, adapted to environmental challenges by inventing innovative ways to work together for the common good; for example, gathering, hunting, caring for children, and defending against enemies together. They passed functional customs (also known as morals or ethics)(ii) on to their descendants by education. As the evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson put it, compared to the slow pace of change of many species that adapt by random genetic mutation followed by natural selection, not just the brain but indeed the configuration of the human body as a whole, ´allows human history to be seen as a fast-paced evolutionary process with cultural rather than genetic mechanisms of inheritance.´ (iii).

Viruses won an adaptive advantage over other species accelerating their responses to environmental challenges going a different route. In the words of Wikipedia: Viruses have short generation times, and many—in particular RNA viruses—have relatively high mutation rates (on the order of one point mutation or more per genome per round of replication). This elevated mutation rate, when combined with natural selection, allows viruses to quickly adapt to changes in their host environment. In addition, most viruses provide many offspring, so any mutated genes can be passed on to many offspring quickly.(iv)

We and the virus are similar because our survival strategies succeed by innovation. In our case the innovation is normally a culture that educates people — often employing ceremonies and storytelling–, to work together for the common good. Charles Darwin explained the competitive advantages of collaborating for the common good this way: ´Selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above ´ (cooperative HR) qualities would spread and be victorious over other tribes: but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other tribe still more highly endowed. Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world.´(v)

A common argument against Darwin, and against whoever believes that pro-social emotions were hard-wired into the human body by the requirements of survival during the 90% or more of human evolution that transpired before the circumscription of available land, the agricultural revolution, patriarchy, empires, militarism and modern economies is, that they prove too much. They prove that we behave better than the evidence shows that we actually do behave.

In reply, let me add below just four drops to the oceans of literature(vi) relevant to the thesis of moral realism that it is possible to survive humanity’s present crisis through unbounded organizing. It is possible to reconfigure human institutions to move surplus resources from where they are not needed to where they are needed. It is possible to meet human needs in harmony with nature, bringing out the best in human nature while coping with the worst.

First drop: remember that it is a principle of realism that the causal powers that generate phenomena retain their identities when humans describe them with different words and theories. They continue to exist and to act even when the results of their action are not apparent. Why? Because in an open system –and almost all systems are open—there are many causal powers at work simultaneously. Any given power may be overridden by others, or the conditions for its manifestation may not be present. But that does not mean it ceases to exist and to act. For example, it is hard-wired that being loved at birth and during infancy contributes to normal pro-social moral development. Lawrence Kohlberg once said with a tense frown, ´Children abused in infancy will find it very hard to achieve stage three.´(vii) Stage three in his conceptual scheme is the stage of moral development when normally people want to be perceived as good persons and to be good persons. This aspect of reality remains real even when it is described by other scientists and by the traditional wisdoms of various cultures with different terminologies. It remains real even when most infants are emotionally deprived and consequently ‘normal’(viii) moral development is the privilege of a few.(ix)

Why do I mention this? Because it underpins the practice of moral realism and unbounded organization of starting with where people are, with the norms found here and now. In principle: work together in practice and engage in necessary theoretical conversations with people who think, talk, do science, do culture and do politics differently.

Second drop: Consider my following effort to write a précis of a plausible socialist analysis of why the very essence of capitalism has to change to save humanity and the biosphere:

Why do the accumulators (regarded as the quintessential capitalists, whose purpose in life is to turn money into more money) win out over the carers and sharers? Why do the accumulators win and the carers and sharers lose, even though the practices of the latter are enjoined by the world´s main religions, are hard-wired into the human body, and must have been practiced for thousands of years by our ancestors or they would not have survived and we would not be here today? Why does modernity tend to be, as Max Weber said it was, an iron cage that traditional peoples can enter but cannot exit? It is because once their daily bread comes to depend on the confidence of investors that producing bread will be profitable, they become prisoners of the homeostatic mechanisms described below.

The key word is: Accumulation.(x) Capital accumulation is called ´profit ‘or ´´the profit motive´ by many. This is another illustration of the realist principle that the underlying reality and its causal powers can remain real while humans name it and theorize about it differently.

There is a reason why the world is not ruled by moral development, and a normal diversity of cultures multiplying the options of moral systems (also called cultures or societies or social structures) for achieving cohesion and meeting needs.(xi) The reason is that accumulation rules the world. Notice here that the meaning of the word ´normal´ tends to mix ´normative´ and ´average.´(xii)There is a reason why after a century of struggle most of humanity ended up in the year 2000 dominated by the same free market ideology that was dominant in 1900. It is that accumulation (also called the free market, or simply freedom, or capitalism, or economic rationality, or the rule of law, or investor confidence) has a homeostatic quality. When accumulation is perturbed, compensatory mechanisms are set in motion: For example, capital flight, tax competition between countries, –lowering taxes to attract business; thus defunding the welfare state while at the same time funding neoliberal think tanks and university chairs; inflation and unemployment. These unintended consequences force the establishment of one or another regime of accumulation by the ballot or by the bullet. (A regime of accumulation is, roughly –with apologies to the Grenoble and Paris schools and others who have developed it and related concepts with great precision– a set of institutions that motivates investors to invest. Sometimes, as in Chile after the 1973 coup, the goal of raising investor confidence is lowering wages, lowering taxes on business while raising VAT (sales) taxes, breaking unions, violating elementary human rights (e.g. ´disappearing´¨opponents, privatizing the public sector, offering guarantees to foreign investors, and so on. Many of the people who did it were ´Chicago Boys´ convinced that their theories were correct, supported by military leaders convinced in their own minds that they were patriots saving their country. (xiii)

Third drop: Compare the paragraphs above with these (renumbered) highlights of the Davos Manifesto of the World Economic Forum declared on March 20, 2020:

i. A company treats its people with dignity and respect. It honours diversity and strives for continuous improvements in working conditions and employee well-being.

ii. A company considers its suppliers as true partners in value creation. … It integrates respect for human rights into the entire supply chain.

III. A company serves society at large through its activities, supports the communities in which it works, and pays its fair share of taxes. … It acts as a steward of the environmental and material universe for future generations. It consciously protects our biosphere and champions a circular, shared and regenerative economy. It continuously expands the frontiers of knowledge, innovation and technology to improve people’s well-being.

IV. A company is more than an economic unit generating wealth. It fulfils human and societal aspirations as part of the broader social system. Performance must be measured not only on the return to shareholders, but also on how it achieves its environmental, social and good governance objectives….

V. A company … acts … as a stakeholder – together with governments and civil society – of our global future. Corporate global citizenship requires a company to harness its core competencies, its entrepreneurship, skills and relevant resources in collaborative efforts with other companies and stakeholders to improve the state of the world.

The complete Davos Manifesto can read at

The second and third drop are not incompatible. Drop Two can be regarded as for the most part a description of what is; while Drop Three can be regarded as for the most part a recommendation of what should be and is already being pioneered in the best practices of the best companies. Hence they are on different logical planes: the plane of description and the plane of prescription.

In any event, to what extent to regard drops two and three as (1) complementary, or (2) as opportunities for practical cooperation and theoretical dialogue, or (3) as ideologies defending opposed interests, is more an ethical decision than it is the conclusion of a logical deduction that it is obligatory to accept to avoid being classified as an irrational person.

A practical point: If all companies operating were to comply with the ideals declared at Davos in 2020, there would be fewer companies. At least there would be fewer companies operating without some form of subsidy. Many companies today (for example some that source from Asian sweatshops) do not generate enough revenue to pay a living wage to the workers who produce their products (much less comply with all the Davos ideals) and still make what Alfred Marshall called a normal profit. (A normal profit is a profit large enough to motivate the entrepreneurs to keep the business running). Here is a cue for unbounded organization to take centre stage. UO develops methodologies for organizing dignified livelihoods for all. Such a dénouement does not mean unemployment for managers. One of the many things it means is that many of those with a vocation and a talent for leadership will be leading different kinds of organizations. (xiv)

Fourth Drop: Consider these six conclusions

While the humans remain divided and confused, and many are indignados, the viruses are attacking them repeatedly: EBOLA, SARS, AIDS, and now the Coronavirus (also called COVID 19).
This latest attack has given the viruses an unanticipated strategic advantage, comparable to the strategic advantage gained by the allies in World War II when the Germans ran out of fuel and the Luftwaffe was grounded. The pandemic triggered the collapse of the humans´ principal economies. This happened for two principal reasons: (1) The existing economy is not designed to be compatible with following the best medical advice. (2) The viruses have a fifth column working for them in the form of people so depressed that they really do not care whether they live or die –a common complaint of doctors about AIDS patients who do not take their medicines; in the form of people living from pay check to pay check, or without a pay check or otherwise too poor to do what medical science recommends; in the form of populations who once had access to quality care and now under neoliberalism no longer do, as well as those populations who never did have it; and in the form of mentally ill people who for poorly understood psychological reasons side with death and against life (like those who do mass shootings).

It is not only that the viruses are getting better and better at mutating into indecipherable forms that it takes human scientists longer and longer to understand well enough to combat. It is that the humans are getting worse and worse at generating the culture shifts needed to cope with changing physical realities. Property rights are set in stone. Individualism (what André Orléan calls séparation marchande) is set in stone.(xv) We have lost much of the cultural flexibility and much of (Gandhi´s phrase) the unity of hearts, that originally empowered humans to survive as tribal gatherers and hunters.(xvi) The viruses are beating us at our own game.

When officials of central banks, governments and parliaments debate how to solve the economic problems they see as caused by the viruses, usually the generic question is, How much money? How much money to tide the workers, the businesses and the banks over so they can pay their bills and get by? How much will it cost to prevent the general public from losing faith in the system, until normalcy returns? And what would it take to persuade investors that it would be profitable to start hiring workers again? And where would the money come from? My take on all this is that the normality to which reference is made is bounded by socially and historically created structures and conventions whose time has come and gone. It is a normality where investors are expected to provide employment for everyone who needs it Every individual is expected to be able to get a job and earn some money to pay her bills. It is a normality unlikely to return. If it did return, then it would resume its normal bounded organizing, leading to even more social and environmental disintegration. It is high time to work on the nurturance of the human capacity to invent new normalities. The present decadence of that capacity was lamented in conclusion 3 above. Its past creativity organizing patterns of adaptive behaviour (Wilson´s ´moral systems’, ´ Darwin´s ´cohesion´, Durkheim´ s ´social cement´ and to give more concrete examples: Iroquois initiation ceremonies, Ubuntu´s respect for ancestors, Jean Calvin´s Institutes for the city of Geneva) explain why our species is not extinct already.

Once again, as in the cases of mass unemployment and ecological destruction discussed earlier, unbounded organization opens a path from the impossible to the possible. We are in a situation where our scientific knowledge of physical reality leads to medical advice incompatible with ´reopening the economy´. Something has to change: either belief in the best advice physical and biological science are able to give us at this point in time must change, or the economy must change. I argue for changing the latter, or, rather for changing the latter according to realistic ethical criteria, since it appears to be certain that the latter will change in any event, either for better or for worse.

VI. It is time for more community and less economy. Building communities, with the support of today´s technologies, with existing assets, with the collaboration of existing institutions, to mobilize resources to meet needs in harmony with nature, while complying with what medicine tells us about how to fight the viruses; should not be an impossible task. Bounded thinking makes it not only appear impossible, but in fact impossible. The next note will discuss practical aspects of making the impossible possible, taking an unbounded approach to the science of organization (also called management). Many pioneers –using a variety of vocabularies and theories — are taking promising approaches to building viable futures already.

It is time for more working together across sectors for the common good, bringing out the best in human nature, classically described by Aristotle as finding pleasure in being pro-social.(xvii). It is time for less unrealistic belief that the ´selfish and contentious´ aspects of the rules of the game of life that have in the past been more the problem than the solution, would save us in the unlikely event that life post-pandemic simply replicates life pre-pandemic.


i Nancy Tanner (1985) On Becoming Human. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Naomi Eisenberger. (2012). The Neural Bases of Social Pain. Psychosomatic Medicine. Volume 74, pp. 126’135

ii C.H. Waddington (1960). The Ethical Animal. London: George Allen & Unwin; Howard Richards (2019). Moral and Ethical Realism. Journal of Critical Realism. Volume 18, pp. 285-302; John Dewey (1898). Evolution and Ethics. The Monist. Volume 8, pp. 321-341.

iii David Sloan Wilson (2011) Darwin s Cathedral. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Position 724 of Kindle Edition.

iv From the article Viral Evolution in Wikipedia, consulted 13 May 2020.

v Charles Darwin (1871) The Descent of Man. London: John Murray. P. 362 (Luarna e book reprint)

vi An indispensable source relied on here is John C. Gibbs (1919). Moral Development and Reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

vii In his summer school course at Harvard. I do not remember which summer I attended it.

viii Concerning this use of the term ´normal´ associated with ´normative´ more than with ´average´ see the discussion of the valeurs de la vie of Charles Canguilhem in Richards 2019 and the works of Canguilhem himself.

ix See the discussion of the impact of the stress of coping with today s global economy on parenting and child development in the opening pages of Daniel Goleman (1995) Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam.

x Rosa Luxemburg (1913/1951) The Accumulation of Capital. New York: Monthly Review Press. Samir Amin (1970) Accumulation on a World Scale. New York: Monthly Review Press. Maria Mies (1986/2015) Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale. London: Zed Books. David Harvey (1987) The Condition of Postmodernity. Oxford: Blackwell. Michel Aglietta (1997 ) Régulation et crises du capitalisme, 1976–1997.. Paris: Odile Jacob. Thomas Piketty (2020) Capitalism and Ideology. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

xi John Maynard Keynes (1933) National Self Sufficiency. Yale Review. Volume 22, pages 755-769.

xii For further discussion of the concept ´normal´ see Richards 2019 cited twice above The purpose of these notes is not to resolve theoretical issues, but rather to motivate the reader to study UO and MR theory by showing that they have practical consequences.

xiii Jonathan Haidt (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Vintage To begin to understand better how this general psychological principle applies to the Chilean example cited see the historical novel Caroline Richards (1976) Sweet Country. New York: Simon and Schuster; the Wikipedia note ´Chicago Boys¨ and the motion picture of the same name released in 2015.

xiv See

xv André Orléan (2011). L´Empire de la valeur : Refonder l´économie. Paris :Seuil

xvi It seems reasonable to agree with Darwin that cultures like the Yanomamo studied by Napoleon Chagnon and the mountain people studied by Colin Turnbull normally proved to be less adaptive and to flourish and to prevail less than more cooperative cultures.

xvii Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics. Book II, III, 10 (various editions)

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