Face Off: the Problem With Social Distancing

Where the kids routinely outscored the apes was in tasks that involved reading social cues. When the children were given a hint about where to find a reward – someone pointing to or looking at the right container – they took it. The apes either didn’t understand that they were being offered help or couldn’t follow the cue. Similarly, when the children were shown how to obtain a reward, by, say, ripping open a box, they had no trouble grasping the point and imitating the behavior. The apes, once again, were flummoxed. Admittedly, the kids had a big advantage in the social realm, since the experimenters belonged to their own species. But in general, apes seem to lack the impulse toward collective problem solving that’s so central to human society.

Elizabeth Colbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

In the twelfth chapter of The Sixth Extinction Elizabeth Colbert turns her attention to Neanderthal Man. There seems no doubt that we, our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, drove the Neanderthals and other “archaic human” species to extinction. In an interesting twist it turns out that our ancestors had sex with Neanderthals and that as much as 4% of the DNA of modern man is Neanderthal.

Neanderthal men were bigger, stronger, had big brains, knew how to make and use tools, and managed to survive ice ages using fire. But they were no match for us, nor were any of the other archaic humans we drove to extinction. Apparently it was no contest. When we arrived they disappeared.

Colbert speculates as to the source of our superiority. She offers the suggestion that it was our ability to work together, as evidenced by our sensitivity to social clues. Alone, we don’t seem to be that much smarter than orangutans. Of all the extant apes, we are the only ones who can work with one another and learn from someone else’s experience. We have the power to educate and work together for a single purpose over time.

If Colbert is correct then “social distancing” as forced by the Covid-19 pandemic, deprives us, Homo sapiens sapiens, of our special talent. I must admit that I have always found close collaboration with another person in the pursuit of some worthwhile difficult goal more than merely a pleasure. It has always been the source of real friendship and intense love. Soldiers invariably insist that the friends they make in the military are the one good thing about war. Surviving some nightmare together builds an intense human connection. Building something, a house for example, might make a less intense but nevertheless strong bond. On the other hand friendships that don’t involve such an activity eventually become uncomfortable. There seems to be nothing really to them.

I must admit that, very unscientifically, I sometimes find myself observing a creature and imagining it having a good time with it’s special power. Sparrows, at dusk, when it is becoming hard to see, dart about catching mosquitoes in the air. It is amazing. Am I wrong in thinking they enjoy it? Or that the hawk, gliding in an updraft, searching for mice, is feeling good about life? Wolves, even in a zoo, seem self satisfied as they lope along with such a liquid gait. How about the lowly cabbage butterfly. As a caterpillar it spends all its time in the inner leaves of the cabbage. It’s universe is food. Then, as a butterfly it sips nectar from flowers. I don’t think this creature is hoping to have a different life. But how miserable they all seem when deprived of their natural activity. How will we feel with Covid enforced “social distancing?”

Social cues and much more are seen in faces. Faces, if you haven’t noticed, are important. Try to imagine a friend without her face. Can’t do it can you? Well, you’re going to have to now that everyone has to wear a mask. How long can we go without seeing another human face? What will happen to families hunkered down, each member mesmerized by his own screen? Will they get used to masks passing in the hallway?

So it looks like we really are being deprived of our special power – doing things together, looking into one another’s faces and seeing all there is to see there. We are spiraling into a madness far deeper even than what we have been falling through. Is there something eerily appropriate about it all? Do we, Homo sapiens sapiens,, having driven so many species to extinction using our special power, deserve this end? Deprived of our essential nature. will we, like other species shorn of their strength, fall into confusion and perish, or will we somehow drag ourselves on for some while longer. After all, we can all work from home and see images of faces on the screen. Will our experience of faces become a kind of on-line pornography that offers to make up for the loss of the real thing?

But enough of these squishy thoughts about other forms of life. This playing together and passing on knowledge is in the endgame. War, all that giving and following of orders, might not have been so bad when men fought with swords and spears, but industrialism has blown it to bits. The knowledge of many generations passed on and built into our giant mechanism of death is the ultimate product of our special talent.

And in the Former United States, faces were already in a bad way. Just about the entire population is completely bewildered. We are living in a world of hastily generated lies pieced together into a bogus history that reads like a suicide note. And then scientists assert that everything solid is really mostly empty space, including you and me. No wonder a bright ironic look is all we can muster. Perhaps we have already lost the ability to see the human soul in the human face. Our extinction would then wipe out an already defeated creature.

Michael Doliner studied with Hannah Arendt at the University of Chicago and has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He can be reached at: planeofexistence@gmail.com.