Author Archive

August 27, 2020

Corona and Deacon

by John Doyle

It’s been a long time since we discussed Terrence Deacon’s Incomplete Nature here and here at Dead Voles. I’ve forgotten most of it by now, but the book came abruptly to mind the other morning when I woke up from a dream. Coronavirus was delivering a speech; it stopped to reconsider, then it began again with a second speech. I don’t remember what Corona was talking about, what information it was trying to convey. What struck me was that the virus was trying – exercising intentional agency.

Even the rain runoff has agency, self-organizing into rivulets that carry pine straw and twigs, fill up the overflow reservoirs, flood streets and basements. In Deacon’s lingo the runoff rivulets are “morphodynamic systems,” the pull of gravity on the water constrained and channeled by the terrain over which it flows. But it’s just hydraulics interacting with topology: the water doesn’t care about getting down to sea level; the land doesn’t care about retaining its structural integrity.

Is this the same sort of agency exercised by Coronavirus, its individual virions accumulating and cascading through airborne droplets from host to host? Or does the virus care – does it in effect want to enter into the new host, appropriating the host’s cellular metabolic functions in order to replicate itself, gathering its forces in a life-and-death battle with the host’s immunologic system, activating the host’s cough reflex in order to fly into other nearby hosts, extending its territory? “Want” is too strong an attribution. Deacon would characterize the virus as a “teleodynamic system,” its actions to survive and to replicate itself as “ententional” – not full-fledged intent, but an evolutionary precursor. The consequences of the virus’s action sequence aren’t just happenstance; they’re in effect the point of undertaking those actions. The expected effect of the action – shaped by generations of mutation and natural selection that increase the likelihood of the species’s self-preservation and reproduction — is the action’s cause.

Ententional actions are spontaneous, instinctive, internally generated – what Deacon calls “orthograde.” Sometimes the orthograde behaviors of two teleodynamic organisms act in opposition to each other. In that case, one or both organisms must generate a “contragrade” response to the adverse situation in order to survive and thrive – a non-spontaneous response that requires work.

Confronted by the orthograde assault of the human immunologic system, a virus has no flexibility in its behavioral repertoire. The only sort of contragrade adaptation available to it is mutation. Humans, in contrast, can override at least some of their own instinctive behavior patterns in order to resist environmental threat. Some human contragrade behaviors are themselves instinctive – fight, flee, affiliate. Other contragrade behaviors, like driving on the right side of the road, are learned and, through repetition, converted into habits – second nature that doesn’t require much work to perform. Sometimes environmental constraints demand that the organism act in opposition to its own instincts. Resisting the internal pull of instinct and habit in order to survive environmental assault requires work. It’s the work of acting with intent.

We come at last to the matter of humans resisting the threat posed by Coronavirus.

Most human instinctive or habitual contragrade activities are triggered by environmental threats that can readily be perceived: a coiled snake, the stench of rot, an onrushing automobile. We might instinctively avoid someone who’s coughing, but not someone who’s shedding virus merely by talking, or singing, or breathing. Even recognizing the threat posed by Corona requires intentional work.

Viral contagion can be regarded as a kind of ententional dynamic equilibration process, in which the virus migrates from a saturated environment – the infected host –  into the viral vacuum of the uninfected person. To resist the threat, humans have to partition the environment so as to sustain the virus-human disequilibrium, physically separating themselves from their would-be submicroscopic invaders. Physical constraints must be imposed on the spontaneous flow of proximate human interaction via lockdown, social distancing, masks, quarantine. Performing these contragrade behaviors to protect against Corona requires intentional work.

Several aspects of the pandemic militate against humans effectively separating themselves from the virus. First, the threat doesn’t manifest at the human scale of granularity. Contagion is interpersonal, passing from one person to another at close distance. Immunity is even more intimately local than contagion, acting out its drama inside the individual human body. But the virus itself operates at an ecological microlevel in which humans are ill-equipped to engage; the threat it poses, while viscerally real, is recognized not through spontaneous instinctive perception but abstractly, intellectually. A dead body is as real as it gets, but a mortality rate? It’s an algorithm, an artifice, a simulation, shaping the contours of a probabilistic ecology that’s removed from the actual here-and-now physicality of individual human beings getting sick and dying.

All the while the epidemiologic aspects of the virus are being played out at an ecological macrolevel for which humans are not well adapted. Fetid corpses of the infected piling up in the streets is one thing, but case-positive percentages, effective viral reproduction rates, even daily death counts of people you don’t know who died sequestered in ICUs? Too abstract to trigger an instinctive orthograde response. In social aggregates the relevant metrics are also aggregate: averages, trends, demographics, surveys, forecasts, confidence intervals, statistical models. Effective contragrade responses to the threat must be adopted and practiced that demand intentional conscious monitoring of the self in response to abstract representations of the environment. That’s work.

The intimate, microscopic, visceral interplay between viral proliferation and antibody response, playing out between and within individual bodies and across entire populations – that’s where the covid action is. illness and recovery are just proxies and sequelae. But for humans the microbial cellular level and the aggregate statistical level are equally abstract. Humans spontaneously engage the world at neither the microlevel nor the macrolevel but at the mesolevel. I started feeling sick, then I got sicker, then I started feeling better, and now I feel fine: immunity at the mesolevel. And then you tell me that I can be infected, and contagious, without experiencing symptoms? Social distancing, like the virus and the pandemic, feels abstract, theoretical, unnatural, maybe unnecessary — remote from the reality of staying well versus getting sick.

It’s hard enough mastering any new behavioral repertoire, performing it flawlessly in every appropriate circumstance – that’s why they call it work. Making matters worse, the contragrade behavioral responses effective in neutralizing the coronavirus fly in the face of instinctive and habitual orthograde responses to the human social environment. Isolating oneself physically and avoiding close contact with strangers: these actions are typically prompted by fear, shame, disgust, sorrow. Covering one’s nose and mouth: fear again, or disgust, perhaps embarrassment or submission, maybe even malevolent intent. Distancing oneself physically from family and friends might be prompted by anger, shame, treachery. In short, people instinctively tend to distance themselves physically from others when they feel either repulsed by, or repellant to, others. Social distancing behaviors also send signals – to those shut out by the other’s self-isolation, to those evaded in close quarters through avoidant maneuvers, to those who can’t read the facial expressions hidden behind the mask. Physically, emotionally, interpersonally, it’s hard work to exapt instinctively antisocial defensive reactions as prosocial and proactive actions.

So, what’s to be done when the environmental threat isn’t perceived instinctively, and when the actions required for evading and minimizing that threat in social interactions are diametrically opposed to what people would ordinarily do spontaneously? One possibility is to amp up the intentionality. Learn to evaluate covid risk probabilistically rather than viscerally. Practice mindful attentiveness to specific interpersonal situations that call for evasive distancing maneuvers. Simulate situations that one might encounter in daily life in order to increase the likelihood of responding appropriately in real time to a real situation.

Another possibility is to amp up the ententionality. Alter the social environment so that the appropriate distancing behaviors are deemed prosocial rather than antisocial, altruistic rather than self-absorbed. Alter the interpretation of social distancing behavior not as a fearful reflex of self-abnegation but as a bold stroke of self-assertion. Alter the social affordances so that performing the effective contragrade behaviors for resisting contagion align with the spontaneous orthograde instinct to be perceived by others, and by oneself, as proactive and prosocial.

Another strategy for amping ententionity is subjecting to social sanction those who fail to act in accord with antivirus protocols. Moral and legal codes impose threats on those who don’t restrain their exercise of spontaneous impulse. Those who through misfeasance or malfeasance fail to perform the mandated protective behaviors incur the disapproval of gods and men, are consigned to purgatory or jail, must perform ritual sacrifice or pay a fine.

This should have been pretty easy. The environmental threat posed by the virus is lethal, providing ample motivation. The protective behaviors required to partition human space from viral space aren’t difficult to perform. Though the virus is highly transmissible, any individual who’s been infected remains contagious for only about ten days. Three or four weeks of serious lockdown, social distancing, and masking would do the trick, stopping the pandemic in its tracks with only localized intermittent outbreaks to be cleaned up as they arise.  What could go wrong?

Disseminate ambivalent, inconsistent, and incomplete information about the magnitude of the threat. Promulgate ambivalent, inconsistent, and incomplete recommendations for what  antiviral behaviors should be performed. Establish ambivalent, inconsistent, and incomplete social norms as to whether intentionally inhibiting spontaneous but dangerous acts of social self-expression is deemed proactively altruistic or reactively fearful, a voluntary expression of freedom or a totalitarian suppression of freedom. Implement ambivalent, inconsistent, and incomplete enforcement of recommended antiviral behaviors.

In the US the virus isn’t running rampant, but neither is it quashed and contained. Instead we’re occupying a semi-stable equilibrium between viral and human agency, in which the covid reproduction rate fluctuates between 1.3 and 0.8, with new infections and deaths alternately waxing and waning across the population and localized spikes shifting from one state or city or county to another. A thousand deaths and 120 thousand new infections, plus or minus, every day.

The American ethos celebrates the exercise of intentional agency in pursuit of personal and societal goals. Some neurophilosophers argue that intentionality is epiphenomenal, a conscious recognition after the fact of what’s already been “decided” in the cause-effect cascade of interactions between organism and environment and the synaptic pathways that those interactions activate. It seems – maybe I read it in Deacon? – that the reality of intent is demonstrated in part when intent fails, when we’re unable to accomplish what we’ve decided to do.