Stress-tested by a highly infectious microorganism

My editorial on You Tube

I want to go sideways – but just a tiny bit sideways – from the deadly serious discourse on financial investment, which I developed in Partial outcomes from individual tables and in What is my take on these four: Bitcoin, Ethereum, Steem, and Golem?.  I want to try and answer the same question we all try to answer from time to time: what’s next? What is going to happen, with all that COVID-19 crisis?

Question: have we gone into lockdowns out of sheer fear on an unknown danger, or are we working through a deep social change with positive expected outcomes?

What happens to us, humans, depends very largely on what we do: on our behaviour. I am going to interpret current events and the possible future as collective behaviour with economic consequences, in the spirit of collective intelligence, the concept I am very fond of. This is a line of logic I like developing with my students. I keep telling them: ‘Look, whatever economic phenomenon you take, it is human behaviour. The Gross Domestic Product, inflation, unemployment, the balance of payments, local equilibrium prices: all that stuff is just a bunch of highly processed metaphors, i.e. us talking about things we are afraid to admit we don’t quite understand. At the bottom line of all that, there are always some folks doing something. If you want to understand economic theory, you need to understand human behaviour’.

As I will be talking about behaviour, I will be referring to a classic, namely to Burrhus Frederic Skinner, the founding father of behavioural psychology, and one of his most synthetic papers, ‘Selection by Consequences’ (Skinner, B. F.,1981, Selection by consequences, Science, 213(4507), pp. 501-504). This paper had awoken my interest a few months ago, in Autumn 2019, when I was discussing it with my students, in a course entitled ‘Behavioural modelling’. What attracted my attention was the amount of bullshit which has accumulated over decades about the basic behavioural theory that B.F. Skinner presented.

I can summarize the bullshit in question with one sentence: positive reinforcement of behaviour is stronger than negative reinforcement. This is the principle behind policies saying that ‘rewards work better than punishments’ etc. Before I go further into theory, and then even further into the application of theory to predicting our collective future, please, conduct a short mental experiment. Imagine that I want to make you walk 100 yards by putting your feet exactly on a white line chalked on the ground. I give you two reinforcements. When you step out of the line, I electrocute you. When you manage to walk the entire distance of 100 yards exactly along the chalked line, I reward you with something pleasurable, e.g. with a good portion of edible marijuana. Which of those reinforcements is stronger?

If you are intellectually honest in that exercise, you will admit that electrocution is definitely stronger a stimulus. That’s the first step in understanding behaviourism: negative reinforcements are usually much stronger than positive ones, but, in the same time, they are much less workable and flexible. If you think even more about such an experiment, you will say: ‘Wait a minute! It all depends on where exactly I start my walk. If my starting point is exactly on the white chalked line, the negative reinforcement through electrocution could work: I step aside and I get a charge. Yet, if I start somewhere outside the white line, I will be electrocuted all the time (I am outside the allowed zone), and avoiding electrocution is a matter of sheer luck. When I accidentally step on the white line, and electrocution stops, it can give me a clue’. The next wait-a-minute argument is that electrocution works directly on the person, whilst the reward works in much more complex a pattern. I need to know there is a reward at the end of the line, and I need to understand the distance I need to walk etc. The reward works only if I grasp the context.

The behavioural theory by B.F. Skinner is based on the general observation that all living organisms are naturally exploratory in their environment (i.e. they always behave somehow), and that exploratory behaviour is reinforced by positive and negative stimuli. By the way, when I say all living organisms, it really means all. You can experiment with that. Take a lump of fresh, edible yeast, the kind you would use to make bread. Put it in some kind of petri dish, for example on wet cotton. Smear a streak of cotton with a mix of flour, milk, and sugar. Smear another streak with something toxic, like a house cleaner. You will see, within minutes, that yeast starts branching aggressively into the streak of cotton smeared with food (milk, sugar, butter), and will very clearly detract from the area smeared with detergent.

Now, imagine that you are more or less as smart as yeast is, e.g. you have just watched Netflix for 8 hours on end. Negative stimulus (house cleaner) gives you very simple information: don’t, just don’t, and don’t even try to explore this way. Positive stimulus (food) creates more complex a pattern in you. You have a reward, and it raises the question what is going to happen if you make one more step in that rewarding direction, and you make that step, and you reinforce yourself in the opinion that this is the right direction to go etc. Negative stimulation developed in you a simple pattern of behaviour, that of avoidance. It is a very strong stimulus, and an overwhelmingly powerful pattern of behaviour, and this is why there is not much more to do, down this avenue. I know I shouldn’t, right? How much more can I not do something?

Positive stimulation, on the other hand, triggers the building up of a strategy. Positive stimulation is scalable. You can absorb more or less pleasure, depending on how fast you branch into cotton imbibed with nutrients (remember, we are yeast, right?). Positive stimulation allows to build up experience, and to learn complex patterns of behaviour. By the way, if you really mean business with that yeast experiment, here is something to drag you out of Netflix. In the petri dish, once you have placed yeast on that wet cotton, put in front of it a drop of detergent (negative stimulus), and further in the same direction imbibe cotton with that nutritive mix of flour, milk and sugar. Yeast will branch around the drop of detergent and towards food. This is another important aspect of behaviourism: positive reinforcements allow formulating workable goals and strategies, whilst a strategy consisting solely in avoiding negative stimuli is one of the dumbest strategies you can imagine. Going straight into negative and destroying yourself is perhaps the only even dumber way of going through life.

One more thing about behaviourism. When I talk about it, I tend to use terms ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ but these are not really behaviourist ones. Pleasure and pain are inside my head, and from the strictly behaviourist point of view, what’s inside my head is unobservable at best, and sheer crap at worst. Behaviourism talks about reinforcements. A phenomenon becomes reinforcement when we see it acting as one. If something that happens provokes in me a reaction of avoidance, it is a negative stimulus, whatever other interpretation I can give it. There are people who abhor parties, and those people can be effectively reinforced out of doing something with the prospect of partying, although for many other people parties are pleasurable. On the other hand, positive reinforcement can go far beyond basic hedonism. There are people who fly squirrel suits, climb mountains or dive into caves, risking their lives. Emotional states possible to reach through those experiences are their positive reinforcements, although the majority of general population would rather avoid freezing, drowning, or crashing against solid ground at 70 miles per hour.

That was the basic message of B.F. Skinner about reinforcements. He even claimed that we, humans, have a unique ability to scale and combine positive reinforcements and this is how we have built that thing we call civilisation. He wrote: ‘A better way of making a tool, growing food, or teaching a child is reinforced by its consequence – the tool, the food, or a useful helper, respectively. A culture evolves when practices originating in this way contribute to the success of the practicing group in solving its problems. It is the effect on the group, not the reinforcing consequences for individual members, which is responsible for the evolution of the culture’.

Complex, civilisation-making patterns of both our individual and collective behaviour are shaped through positive reinforcements, and negative ones serve as alert systems that correct our course of learning. Now, COVID – 19: what does it tell us about our behaviour? I heard opinions, e.g. in a recent speech by Emmanuel Macron, the French president, that lockdowns which we undertook to flatten down the pandemic curve are something unique in history. Well, I partly agree, but just partly. Lockdowns are complex social behaviour, and therefore they can be performed only to the extent of previously acquired learning. We need to have practiced some kind of lockdown-style-behaviour earlier, and probably through many generations, in order to do it massively right now. There is simply no other way to do it. The speed we enter into lockdowns tells me that we are demonstrating some virtually subconscious pattern of doing things. When you want to do something really quickly and acceptably smoothly, you need to have the pattern ingrained through recurrent practice, just as a pianist has their basic finger movements practiced, through hundreds of hours at the piano, into subconscious motor patterns.

In one of my favourite readings, Civilisation and Capitalism by Fernand Braudel, vol. 1, ‘The Structures of Everyday Life. The limits of the possible’, Section I ‘Weight of Numbers’, we can read: ‘Ebb and flow. Between the fifteenth and the eighteenth century, if the population went up or down, everything else changed as well. When the number of people increased, production and trade also increased. […] But demographic growth is not an unmitigated blessing. It is sometimes beneficial and sometimes the reverse. When a population increases, its relationship to the space it occupies and the wealth at its disposal is altered. It crosses ‘critical thresholds’ and at each one its entire structure is questioned afresh’.

There is a widely advocated claim that we, humans, have already overpopulated Earth. I even developed on that claim in my own book, Capitalism and Political Power. Still, in this specific context, I would like to focus on something slightly different: urbanisation. The SARS-Cov-2 virus we have so much trouble with right now seems to be particularly at ease in densely populated urban agglomerations. It might be a matter of pure coincidence, but in 2007 – 2008, the share of urban population in total global population exceeded 50% ( ). Our ‘critical threshold’, for now, might be precisely that: the percentage of people in urban structures. In 2003, when SARS-Cov-1 epidemic broke out, global urbanisation just passed the threshold of 43%. In 2018 (last data available) we were at 55,27%.

When Ebola broke out in Africa, in 2014 ÷ 2016, three countries were the most affected: Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Incidentally, all three were going, precisely when Ebola exploded, through a phase of quick urbanisation. Here are the numbers:

 Percentage of urban population in total population
Sierra Leone40,8%41,2%41,6%42,1%

I know, this is far from being hard science, yet I can see the outline of a pattern. Modern epidemics break out in connection with growing urbanisation. A virus like SARS-Covid-2, with its crazily slow cycle of incubation, and the capacity to jump between asymptomatic hosts, is just made for the city. It is like a pair of Prada shoes in the world of pathogens.    

Why are we becoming more and more urbanized, as a civilisation? I think it is a natural pattern of accommodating a growing population. When each consecutive generation comes with greater a headcount than the preceding ones, new social roles are likely to emerge. The countryside is rigid in terms of structured habitable space, and in terms of social roles offered to the newcomers. Farmland is structured for agricultural production, not for the diversity of human activity. There is an interesting remark to find in another classic, reverend Thomas Malthus. In chapter 4 of An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), he writes ‘The sons of tradesmen and farmers are exhorted not to marry, and generally find it necessary to pursue this advice till they are settled in some business or farm that may enable them to support a family. These events may not, perhaps, occur till they are far advanced in life. The scarcity of farms is a very general complaint in England. And the competition in every kind of business is so great that it is not possible that all should be successful.

In other words, the more of us, humans, is there around, the more we need urban environments to maintain relative stability of our social structure. What would happen in the absence of cities to welcome the new-born (and slightly grown) babies from each, ever growing generation? In Europe, we have a good example of that: crusades. In the 10th and 11th centuries, in Europe, we finally figured out an efficient agricultural system, and our population had been growing quickly at the time. Still, in a mostly agricultural society which we were back then, a growing number of people had simply nothing to do. Result: outwards-oriented conquest.

We need cities to accommodate a growing population, still we need to figure out how those cities should work. Healthcare is an important aspect of urban life, as we have a lot of humans, with a lot of health issues, in one place. The COVID-19 crisis has shown very vividly all the weaknesses of healthcare infrastructures in cities. Transportation systems are involved too, and the degree of safety they offer. A pathogen preying on our digestive tract, such as dysentery, should it be as sneaky as SARS-Cov-2, would expose our water and sanitation systems, as well as our food supply system. I know it sounds freaky, but virtually every aspect of urban infrastructure can be stress-tested by a highly infectious microorganism.  

Here comes another passage from Civilisation and Capitalism by Fernand Braudel, vol. 1, ‘The Structures of Everyday Life. The limits of the possible’, Section I ‘Weight of Numbers’: ‘Looking more closely at Western Europe, one finds that there was a prolonged population rise between 1100 and 1350, another between 1450 and 1650, and a third after 1750; the last alone was not followed by a regression. Here we have three broad and comparable periods of biological expansion. The first two […] were followed by recessions, one extremely sharp, between 1350 and 1450, the next rather less so, between 1650 and 1750 (better described as a slowdown than as a recession) […] Every recession solves a certain number of problems, removes pressures and benefits the survivors. It is pretty drastic, but none the less a remedy. Inherited property became concentrated in a few hands immediately after the Black Death in the middle of the fourteenth century and the epidemics which followed and aggravated its effects. Only good land continued to be cultivated (less work for greater yield). The standard of living and real earnings of the survivors rose. […] Man only prospered for short intervals and did not realize it until it was already too late.

I think we have collective experience in winding down our social business in response to external stressors. This is the reason why we went so easily into lockdowns, during the pandemic. We are practicing social flexibility and adaptability through tacit coordination. You can read more on this topic in The games we play with what has no brains at all, and in A civilisation of droplets.

In many countries, we don’t have problems with food anymore, yet we have problems with health. We need a change in technology and a change in lifestyles, in order to keep ourselves relatively healthy. COVID -19 shows that, first of all, we don’t really know how healthy exactly we are (we don’t know who is going to be affected), second of all that some places are too densely populated (or have too little vital resources per capita) to assure any health security at all (New York), and third of all, that uncertainty about health generates a strategy of bunkering and winding down a large part of the material civilisation.

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