by Navid Saleh
COVID-19 has exemplified how humanity is connected across race, gender, borders, and financial wealth. A microscopic zoonotic virus that reportedly originated in Wuhan, China’s meat market, reached the corners of the world within a few weeks and decimated the world-order as we know it.
We are the same species; we react to an unknown nearly the same way.
However, there is so much disparity between us. Some are surviving paycheck-to-paycheck, while some are losing in the millions. Many are struggling to make ends meet, while numerous are binge-watching Netflix originals.
As Yuval Noah Harari stated: “Humanity is united horizontally but divided vertically”. In the post-COVID world, will our differences push us away further or the commonalities among us will bring humanity together to collectively solve some of the most pressing global issues of our time? I will take you through a tour in history to explore this question with an open mind.
It was 12,000 B.C., i.e., 14000 years ago from today. The first Homosapien walked on earth in East Africa. Soon after, he took command of the world by eradicating many species; some through battles, e.g., those with Neanderthals, and some through the introduction of unique microbes, which the pre-historic species never encountered before, e.g., species in the Galapagos island.
Humans banded together in small groups, as large as 150 in number. That is the maximum number that we could manage in a group, just like the chimps. Our forager bands never had any settlements and were on a constant move. After two millennia, i.e., 10,000 years ago from today, humans began cultivation. The story goes that a forager group in the Middle East was storing wheat in a hut and then carrying it across fields; during transport, some of the grains fell on the ground and sprouted a few days later. The forager band soon realized that if they can cultivate wheat in large quantities, their constant struggle for food gathering can be curbed.
Humans began to settle down.
A band of 150 rapidly grew to a much larger group. Our biological instinct of surviving at any cost, took control. Battles broke out between the forager groups. The eternal struggle of survival turned into bloody conflicts.
Fast forward a few thousand years. Using his ingenuity, humans developed social constructs, which a large population could begin believing in. The key word is “belief”. A concept, an object, an entity, an ism, became necessary. A chosen leader had to assert such an abstract social construct that people could gather under. Informal and loosely defined “states” formed. Social norms got formalized into rules and laws. However, the innate desire for conflict persisted through such organization. Rulers in different parts of the world organized groups of warriors to stand their ground. Battles became more extensive, bloodier. Walls around their establishments needed to be erected. Empires were established. From Sargon the Great of Mesopotamia and Naqada III of Egypt in the third millennia B.C. to Hammurabi, the sixth King of Babylon a thousand years later, empires expanded across continents.
Humans died in thousands. They had no one to turn to; there was only one refuge, that of the supernatural. Another social construct, religion, was formulated and launched. Rituals and offerings to the unknown captured the imagination of the Aztecs and Indians alike.
Another feather in the crown of the rulers got added on. Ideas that united people, could now be used to divide them again. Holy wars and crusades are well known perils in human history.
A more organized ruling framework, i.e., a state was later born in Greece, where hierarchical governance was established. People were marshalled to perform certain functions within a society. Humans truly began to get “civilized”.
Greek city states did not form overnight though. The desire to construct a ruling class was well and alive in the Persian Empire, Dynasties in China, and among the Pharaohs in Egypt. When the mere idea of a single ruler became desperately unsatisfying, being ruled by a group of people was more amenable.
The chaos in wars persisted through such attempt of organization. There were wars to expand empires, protect a city state, or resolve religious disputes. The incessant desire of owning a physical object or an abstract idea was fueled by the inherent biological instinct of conflict. Human history continued to evolve through the pull of division and the push toward unity.
In the middle ages, when traditional battles raged on in Europe, human ingenuity and desire to know, drove humans toward a new discipline. The discipline of science, the discipline that asked questions and answered them with an organized framework, facilitated documentation of scientific evidences and propelled the civilization forward.
Between 1750 to 1850, within a mere century, Europe and the Western world edged ahead of the rest of the world by focusing on science. Industrial revolution in the 1760’s and Charles Darwin’s expedition of 1830’s, changed the course of human history at an unprecedented pace.
Though traditional battles raged on, as evidenced in American Revolution of the 1770s-‘80s and through the bloody end of French Revolution in early 1800s, human faculty turned out to be more refined during this time. Beginning in the 13th century, Renaissance men paved the path for this refinement of human mind, through art, music, and literature.
Science and art held hands and led the walk toward enlightenment. Scientific discoveries made our lives easier while artistic renditions stimulated human minds to extract one’s abstract sensibilities and express those through artistic media.
It is to be noted that the first chemical discoveries though took place in Greco-Roman Egypt by alchemists and material science progressed in China a thousand years prior to that (i.e., second century B.C.), when alloys were made with iron and aluminum for Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s chariot.
The organized framework for scientific discovery, however, was developed in Western Europe around 1700’s; first by Carl W. Scheele, who discovered oxygen, chlorine, and manganese. It is the organized scientific endeavor that impacted human history in an unparalleled manner.
During the 1800’s, a new demand for food pushed human capacity to its limits. Available agricultural land began to lose essential nutrients (i.e., nitrogen) due to over-cultivation. This was particularly true in North America in the mid-nineteenth century. After the westward expansion commenced, population exploded in the region and food supply began to drop. To increase agricultural production, supply of nitrogen, an essential nutrient, turned out to be a critical need.
United States occupied more than 4,000 islands in the hopes of collecting “guano”, which was accumulated excrements of seabirds that turned into rocks in some of the relatively dry Pacific islands and in the shores of Peru.
Animal excrements contain bioavailable nitrogen, which can be used as fertilizers. Guano was imported in thousands of tons to meet the nutrient-need in the U.S. and it lasted until the end of the nineteenth century. In 1913, German scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed the Haber-Bosch nitrogen fixation process. In this chemical process the double bonds between two nitrogen atoms were broken down by reacting it with hydrogen and ammonia gas was made as a product; ammonia stores bioavailable single-bond nitrogen and thus can be used in man-made fertilizer.
It is remarkable to note that during WWI, Haber-Bosch’s newly developed method kept Germany fed and allowed for the war to rage on; this was essential since fertilizers could not imported and Peruvian guano could not be brought to Germany. Science, for the first time, changed the course of military history in a profound way. Science’s impact in shaping the world order continued through the discovery of radioactive materials and the development of nuclear warhead.
Manhattan project-initiated deployment of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” over Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the fag end of WWII, is a vivid manifestation of the power of science to control a certain population.
I am sure you all are aware of the use of gas chambers at the concentration camps. Interestingly, the Zyklon B formula for the fumigant used in gas chambers was also invented by the great Fritz Haber. Scientific discoveries were used against humanity; however, the power of science was at full display.
It is not just the direct influence of science in society and world politics, science has also influenced nature in a profound manner.
Since the industrial revolution, carbon emission has blanketed our lower stratosphere, resulting in warming up of the earth’s surface. The immense benefits of scientific innovation are somewhat eclipsed by the effects of climate change.
Melting glaciers, bleached-out coral reefs, extinction of many species, even exacerbation in the spread of zoonotic viruses are examples of such grave consequences of climate change. Science thus has presented with two major issues, i.e., nuclear weapons and climate change, which may bring the end of humanity, if not controlled with strong handed global policies.
Science is ever present in our modern lives. From electrical gadgets to the internet, from life-saving penicillin to artificial organs and tissues, from electric vehicles to high-speed trains; life would have become quite challenging without these scientific discoveries.
As science has penetrated our daily lives, it has inadvertently exposed our personal details and secrets to a broader audience. Our privacy has been severely compromised. Government can surveil us, no matter which continent I am residing in. My whereabouts, purchases, interests, even relationships are a click away to be revealed to those who own my data.
Cyber ethicists though raised such concerns in the ’90s, we have accepted such intrusion of our privacy over time. It does not bother us if Google suggests us where to eat or Alexa plays a song that is quite fitting to my taste. It does not raise my eyebrow when my smartphone goes to sleep-mode as I enter the car and automatically wakes up as I put my foot out the door.
We have allowed such intrusion. This over-the-skin surveillance can only know so much about me. But with the advent of bid-data and artificial intelligence, government and institutions can now surveil under-the-skin. A biometric chip, if gets implanted on my arm, will not just monitor my body temperature and vitals, it can also surveil me for my feelings and emotions. Should I allow that to take place as well? Should I not raise my voice and influence the future policy on intrusive surveillance?
COVID-19 has impacted the entire humanity. It has arrived at a time when we are living in a deeply-connected world. When China and Italy were experiencing the wrath of this virus, U.S. was securing its borders and banning travel from these countries.
When the supply-chain in China gets impacted by COVID-19, its reverberation reaches the shores of U.S. and Canada. This unprecedented time of human struggle and helplessness will have a lasting impact on the global order.
COVID-19 can serve as a gateway to normalizing the intrusion of artificial intelligence on one hand, while on the other, can facilitate a dialogue for climate change across nations. This pandemic has shown the world, how interconnected we are. The call for nationalism, the go-alone type mentality, and the neglect for nature and climate have to stop.
During this vulnerable state, we have rushed to the doctors, held hands of the nurses, looked toward scientists to give us a breakthrough.
This state of human predicament has brought science and scientists at the center of the social dialogue. We keenly listen to the epidemiologists and infectious disease experts, we desperately engage our virologists to decode the SARS-CoV-2 genome, and we eagerly wait for science to rescue us from this perilous state.
In the post-COVID world, we must act together in friendship and cooperation to stop the three grave dangers facing the future of humanity; i.e., possible nuclear war, exacerbation of climate change, and intrusive surveillance.
As we helplessly stand at the foot of the skyscraper that represents our social stratification and differences, we should not look up at these divisions. Time has come to stare down toward the vast sea of people who stand on the same plane, with the same human condition, and hold hands of our fellow men. This is the only answer to the future quandary of the human condition. Together we can overcome.