Monday, August 24, 2020

Was John Locke's Liberalism Proslavery?

In August of 1619, the English settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, bought 20 or more African slaves from English pirates, who had stolen them from a Portuguese slave ship that had forcibly taken them from the west coast of Africa.  This was the beginning of slavery in America, only 12 years after the English had first settled in Jamestown.  Over the next two centuries, over 12 million Africans would be taken captive by slave traders and sold as slaves in the New World.  Over 400,000 of them were sold to British colonists in North America.

In August of last year, on the 400th anniversary of that first landing of slaves in America, The New York Times began its "1619 Project"--a series of articles arguing that America was founded on and shaped by slavery.  It began with a special issue of The New York Times Magazine devoted entirely to the history of slavery and racial segregation in America.  This has sparked an intense controversy over whether these articles accurately depict the importance of slavery as manifesting the racist immorality of American culture, or whether these articles distort that history in ways that advance an ideology of cynical attacks on American traditions.

I will be writing about that controversy in a later post.  Here I am taking up a related controversy.  The 1619 Project has been influenced by historians and other social scientists who in recent decades have contended that the early modern liberal tradition was not only compatible with, but was even dependent upon, slavery.  It is said that the liberal defense of liberty included a defense of the liberty of European slave traders and slave masters to enslave Africans.  Moreover, it is argued that much of the wealth achieved in modern liberal capitalist societies was originally built up through slave labor.  One important piece of evidence for this view of liberalism as founded on slavery is the claim that the preeminent proponent of liberalism--John Locke--justified and profited from slavery.  If this is true, this might help to explain why the signers of the Declaration of Independence could affirm Locke's teaching about the human equality of the natural rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, while continuing to own slaves: the American Founders were following the example of Locke himself.


Those who argue for this view of Locke point to three kinds of evidence: Locke's helping to write the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, Locke's stock investment in the Royal African Company, and his just-war theory of slavery in the Second Treatise.  What I see here, however, is evidence that Locke engaged in secret writing in his often confusing and contradictory account of slavery--so that his careful readers could see that he was condemning slavery without explicitly saying so.  Nevertheless, I must admit that this does not resolve the question of Locke's apparent hypocrisy in supporting the Royal African Company and colonial slavery.

In 1669, the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina were adopted by the eight Lord Proprietors of the Province of Carolina, which included most of what is now North Carolina and South Carolina.  It has often been included in publications of Locke's works (Locke 1997).  One of the eight proprietors was Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the First Earl of Shaftesbury), who employed Locke as an advisor and secretary who was also a member of the Shaftesbury household.  Locke acted as a secretary to the Lord Proprietors from 1669 to 1675.  The original manuscript of the Fundamental Constitutions shows Locke's handwriting in the first two paragraphs and in most of the large number of amendments.  

For those who see Locke as a supporter of slavery the most notorious sections are the two sections that recognize slavery.  In section 98, it is made lawful for slaves to join any church that they prefer; but yet, "no slave shall hereby be exempted from that civil dominion his master has over him, but be in all other things in the same state and condition he was in before."  In section 101, it is declared: "Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves, of what opinion or religion soever."

In 1672, Locke invested in the British slave trade by buying stock in the Royal African Company, which Charles II had just established as a chartered corporation with a monopoly over all British trade with Africa, which included buying enslaved Africans on the west coast of Africa for shipment to the New World (Pettigrew 2013).

In 1690, Locke's Two Treatises of Government was published.  It was an attack on the royal absolutism claimed by the Stuart monarchs and defended by Robert Filmer as an absurd attempt to persuade all men that they are born slaves.  Locke's scorn for slavery began with the first sentence of the book: "Slavery is so vile and miserable and Estate of Man, and so directly opposite to the generous Temper and Courage of our Nation; that 'tis hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for't" (FT, sec. 1).  

Oddly, however, Locke also seemed to defend slavery in the Second Treatise when he identified "the perfect condition of Slavery" as one where the slave has "by his fault, forfeited his own Life, by some Act that deserves Death; he, to whom he has forfeited it, may (when he has him in his Power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own Service, and he does him no injury by it" (ST, sec. 23).  In particular, we can properly identify slaves as those "who being Captives taken in a just War, are by the Right of Nature subjected to the Absolute Dominion and Arbitrary Power of their Masters" (ST, 85).  Scholars like Peter Laslett have inferred from this that Locke regarded "negro slaves as justifiably enslaved because they were captives taken in a just war, who had forfeited their lives 'by some Act that deserves Death,'" and that Locke was satisfied "that the forays of the Royal Africa Company were just wars of this sort, and that the negroes captured had committed such acts" (Laslett 1988, 284-85).


Challenging  this apparent evidence of Locke's proslavery position, historian Holly Brewer--writing in the American Historical Review (2017)--has argued that Locke and the liberalism he initiated emerged in opposition to slavery and absolutism as based on the same principle of inherited status.  Explaining the idea of hereditary obligation that Locke denied, Brewer wrote: "Kings inherit the right to rule; subjects inherit the obligation to obey; and so did slaves inherit the obligation to obey masters" (2017, 1045).  Locke and Lockean liberalism rejected all of this.  (Brewer's short summary of her argument is available online.)

Brewer denies that the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina--in affirming the master's "absolute power and authority over his negro slaves"--testifies to Locke's support of slavery.  Locke was only acting as a secretary for the eight Lord Proprietors, Brewer insists, so "he wrote Carolina's constitution as a lawyer writes a will" (2017, 1052).  He was not endorsing anything said in the Fundamental Constitutions.

But in saying this, Brewer understates Locke's involvement in Carolina and its Constitutions.  In 1671, he was made a landgrave (a nobleman) of Carolina. Peter Colleton, one of the Lord Proprietors, wrote to Locke in 1673 remarking "that excellent form of government in the composure of which you had so great a hand."  Locke purchased a hundred copies of the Constitutions and distributed them to his friends.  He clearly was proud of what he had done in the Constitutions, and he was involved in revising them in 1782 (Armitage 2004).

Brewer also denies that Locke's stock in the Royal African Company shows his endorsement of the African slave trade.  When Locke received his stock in the RAC in 1672, Brewer explains, he was the secretary to the Council of Trade and Foreign Plantations, which was Charles II's committee with oversight over colonial affairs.  Shaftesbury was the chair of that committee.  Since the crown was short of money at that time, Charles II had both Locke and Shaftesbury paid in RAC stock.

In June of 1675, Locke sold his RAC stock; and Shaftesbury began selling his.  1675 was the year in which Locke and Shaftesbury broke with the Stuart monarchy because of its increasing absolutism, which they saw as the enslavement of all the king's subjects.  They became leaders of the new Whig Party in opposition to the Tories.  Shaftesbury was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower.  Locke fled to France.  In 1683, Locke and Shaftesbury fled to Holland.  Charles II attempted to have Locke extradited on charges of treason.

After 1675, the RAC shifted more towards the slave trade rather than trade in African goods.  Charles II and James II promoted the slave trade because of the huge revenue it brought to the crown.  After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, with William and Mary on the throne, the number of slave trading voyages of the RAC dropped dramatically, as shown in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, although independent traders who competed with the RAC increased their voyages (Pettigrew 2013, 11-13).

In 1696, William created a new Board of Trade and Plantations, and he appointed Locke as one of the members.  Locke used his position on the Board, Brewer argues, to reform the laws in British colonies to favor liberty over inherited status.

The Board began to investigate the laws and practices in Virginia, the first and largest of the colonies in America.  They found many problems.  One of them was that while originally the King had provided that anyone settling in Virginia would be granted 50 acres of land, this rule had been changed so that people were granted 50 acres for each indentured servant or slave that they purchased.  Consequently, large landowners owning many servants and slaves could hold 20 to 30 thousand acres of land, much of it uncultivated.  The Board condemned this headright system as a perversion of the original rule.  They instructed the new Governor of Virginia--Francis Nicholson--to change this.  As chief justice of Virginia's General Court, the Governor in 1699 ruled that the headright of 50 acres of land should go only to individual settlers not to those who might be their masters.  Locke received a written report about this decision saying: "He has made an order against taking up land for the importation of negroes."  In the margin, Locke wrote: "Well Done."  For Brewer, this is a clear indication of Locke's efforts to reduce the slave trade (Brewer 2017, 1065-1070).  Unfortunately, she observes, these efforts were overturned after the death of King William, when Queen Anne renewed the promotion of the slave trade favored by the Stuart monarchs.

Still, however, we might wonder whether Brewer's argument for Locke being anti-slavery is refuted by Locke's just-war theory of slavery--that those who have been taken captive in a just war may by natural right be enslaved as the proper punishment for their crime of unjust aggression.  As Brewer indicates, Locke here seems to be following the traditional justification of slavery, as expressed by Bracton: "Free men are made bond by capture."  But Locke puts severe restrictions on this traditional teaching, so that it cannot justify the actual practice of African-American chattel slavery.

The just conqueror who repels an unjust invasion cannot take the invader's property, which belongs to his family (ST, sec. 180).  Nor can the conqueror enslave those who did not participate in the unjust invasion, because they have not earned the punishment of enslavement (sec. 179).  Nor can the conqueror enslave the children of the unjust invaders, because the children share no responsibility for the unjust war.  Consequently, slavery cannot be an inherited status.

Moreover, contrary to what Laslett says, Locke never says that the slave traders were taking captives in a just war.  In fact, the slave traders were themselves unjust aggressors who took their captives by force, and so their captives would be justified, on Lockean grounds, in rebelling against their captors.

Once one sees that Locke's standards for his just-war theory of slavery cannot possibly be satisfied by African-American slavery, one must suspect that Locke was aware of this, and that he might be intimating to his careful readers the injustice of such slavery.


James Farr has written some of the best articles on Locke's view of slavery (Farr 1986, 2008).  And although he does not directly say so, I see Farr's writing as suggesting that Locke engaged in secret writing in his account of slavery--so that his careful readers could see that he was condemning slavery without explicitly saying so.

Farr notes that Locke's complicity in the slave trade and in colonial policy allowing slavery contradicts his teaching about human equality in natural rights, and that he "never addressed, much less resolved, this contradiction," because he remained silent about this (1986, 263).

Farr goes on to argue that Locke's just-war theory of slavery is consistent with his natural rights teaching.  But Farr also wants "to show that this theory is woefully inadequate as an account of Afro-American slavery and, further, that Locke knew this.  Indeed, Locke's theory positively condemns 17th century slave practices and any ongoing institution of slavery whatsoever" (264).  So Locke knew that his theory condemned slavery!

Farr also says that "he wrote not a word" to justify New World slavery (2008, 510).  In explaining his just-war theory of slavery, Locke never says that the African-American slaves had been captured in a just war.  Indeed, Locke does not even give one example of people being enslaved in a just war.

 Moreover, Farr says, "no one thought Locke succeeded in justifying slavery in America" (515).  Farr also observes that the antebellum Southern apologists for slavery "rejected Locke's just war theory" and his argument for natural rights in the Second Treatise, which was condemned by people like George Fitzhugh (513).

Farr also notes that Locke ridiculed as childish the notion that "A Negro is Not a Man" because white color is a defining trait of the human species (Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 4.7.16; Farr 1986, 279).

So while Locke was silent about how his liberal political theory condemned slavery, he surely understood this.  Moreover, we know that some of Locke's careful readers saw this.  For example, Farr quotes from James Otis' Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved (1764), who quoted Locke's teaching about the natural equality of rights among human beings in support of the claim that "the Colonists are by the law of nature free born, as indeed all men are, white or black." So Otis understood Locke's principles as condemning slavery in all forms, including the American enslavement of African-Americans (Otis 1764, 6, 29; Farr 2008, 511).

Farr says that "Locke is not unlike Aristotle in his mismatch of theory and practice despite their substantive differences about natural slavery" (2008, 520, n. 57).  Aristotle seemed to justify slavery as natural.  But his standards for what counted as a natural slave could not be satisfied by the actual practice of slavery, which was by convention or law (nomos) not by nature (physis).  For that reason, Bartolome de Las Casas could use Aristotle's standards to condemn the enslavement of American Indians as contrary to nature.

All of this looks to me like a secret teaching that slavery is contrary to Lockean natural rights, although Locke does not openly say this.

I grant that this still leaves unresolved the question of Locke's apparent hypocrisy in supporting the Royal African Company and colonial slavery.


Armitage, David. 2004. "John Locke, Carolina, and the Two Treatises of Government." Political Theory 32: 602-627.

Brewer, Holly. 2017. "Slavery, Sovereignty, and 'Inheritable Blood':  Reconsidering John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery." American Historical Review 122: 1038-1078.

Brewer, Holly. 2018. "Does Locke's Entanglement with Slavery Undermine His Philosophy?." Aeon, September.

Farr, James. 1986. "'So Vile and Miserable an Estate': The Problem of Slavery in Locke's Political Thought." Political Theory 14: 263-89.

Farr, James. 2008. "Locke, Natural Law, and New World Slavery." Political Theory 36: 495-522.

Otis, James. 1764. Rights of the British Colonies Asserted and Proved. Boston: Edes and Gill.

Pettigrew, William A. 2013. Freedom's Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Nicholas Christakis' Biological Sociology of the Good Society

My review of Nicholas Christakis' book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society has just been published by Law & Liberty.  

Although Christakis does not say so himself, I draw a Hayekian conclusion from his book--that we can judge the free society to be the best society, because it most fully satisfies the social suite of our evolved human nature, and because individual freedom is required for having and recognizing the individual identity that is foundational for the social suite.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

COVID-19 in the Evolutionary History of Infectious Diseases (2): The Accidental Animal Origins of SARS-CoV-2

At about 7 p.m. on the evening of December 30, 2019, some samples from hospital patients in Wuhan, China, arrived at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.  The Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention wanted Shi Zhengli's laboratory to decide whether there was a novel coronavirus in two hospital patients with an unusual form of pneumonia.  Shi Zhengli was at a conference in Shanghai.  The director of the Institute called her by telephone to tell her that she should return to Wuhan immediately (Qui 2020).

Shi was worried because this new coronavirus seemed to belong to the same family of viruses as the one that caused severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which had infected over 8,000 people and killed almost 800 in 2002 and 2003.  In 2005, Shi had shown that the SARS coronavirus had probably originated in horseshoe bats in the southern, subtropical Chinese provinces of Guangdong, Guangxi, and Yunnan, and the viruses had jumped from bats to humans, perhaps passing through an intermediate animal such as civets (a mongoose-like animal) (Li et al. 2005).  In 2017, Shi and her colleagues reported that after five years of surveillance of one horseshoe bat cave (Shiton Cave) in Yunnan province, they had found three new SARS-like coronaviruses that were capable of infecting human cells.  She warned that this showed the need for the world to be prepared for the future emergence of new SARS-like diseases (Hu et al. 2017).  Horseshoe bats are found mostly in tropical or subtropical areas, such as the southern provinces of China--Guangdong, Guangxi, and Yunnan.  Consequently, Shi had never expected to find a new SARS-like coronavirus in central China, such as the Hubei province of Wuhan.  So, as she was travelling back to her lab in Wuhan, she thought to herself, "Could they have come from our lab?"  In fact, some people--including Donald Trump--have said that the new coronavirus that has caused COVID-19 escaped accidentally from her lab.  But Shi has denied this.

                                                    Provinces of China.  Wuhan is in Hubei Province.

        A Horseshoe Bat Found in the Southern Provinces of China (Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong)

Most of the newly emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic (originating in animals).  And of these over 70% have their origin in wildlife.  For that reason, some scientists have warned that we are not doing enough to support wildlife disease surveillance like that done by Shi and her colleagues (Morens et al. 2020; Watsa 2020).

The three influenza pandemics of the 20th century--the Spanish flu of 1918, the Asian flu of 1957, and the Hong Kong flu of 1968--were all caused by viruses that originated in wild waterfowl.  The Spanish flu virus--H1N1--killed as many as 50 million people, which made it the deadliest pandemic in human history as measured by number of deaths.  (I have written previously about the Spanish flu pandemic.)  The Asian flu virus--H2N2--killed as many as 1 million people.  The Hong Kong flu virus--H3N2--killed at least 1 million.  All three viruses are strains of the genus influenza virus A.

If these pandemics were to occur today with a global population of 7.8 billion, the equivalent number of deaths would be 218 million for the Spanish flu, 3 million for the Asian flu, and over 2 million for the Hong Kong flu.  By comparison, the COVID-19 pandemic has killed 741,000 people globally (167,000 in the U.S.) as of today (August 12), which indicates that it is likely to be less deadly than these flu pandemics, certainly much less deadly than the Spanish flu.

The SARS outbreak in 2002 was the first emergence of a deadly coronavirus with pandemic potential.  Previously, coronaviruses were known mostly for causing common colds.  At first, scientists thought that the SARS coronavirus had jumped from Asian palm civets to humans.  But later Shi and her colleagues showed that the civet was actually an intermediary animal: the virus had passed from bats to civets and then to humans (Li et al. 2005).

                                                                     An Asian Palm Civet

Shi and others have identified and isolated SARS-like viruses in bats that closely resemble in their genetic sequencing the SARS viruses that have infected human beings.  But none of these coronaviruses in bats perfectly matches the human strains.  What this probably means is that the SARS-like viruses in bats and those infecting humans are evolutionary descendants of some ancestral viruses that split off from the bat virus some years ago.  Bats are good reservoirs for this evolution because they carry many different strains of the virus, and through recombination gene segments can be transferred and mixed between viruses, which provides a mechanism for rapidly generating variants that might happen to have the traits that allow them to infect human hosts.  This is likely what happened in the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that has caused the COVID-19 pandemic (Letko et al. 2020).  I have written previously about the evolution of SARS-CoV-2.

In less than two weeks after the patient samples had arrived at her lab in Wuhan, Shi and her colleagues had sequenced the genome of what would later be named SARS-CoV-2.  She published the sequencing through the World Health Organization on January 12, 2020.  

By January 22, the coronavirus had spread to major cities and provinces in China, with 521 confirmed cases and 17 deaths reported.  Confirmed cases were also reported in other countries, including Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and the United States.  

On January 23, the Chinese government ordered the lockdown of Wuhan--a sprawling city of 11 million people--and other cities in Hubei province in an attempt to quarantine the center of the coronavirus outbreak.  The lockdown was officially ended on April 8.  Although quarantining has a long history, this was the first time in history that a government had ordered the shutdown of such a large region and such a large population.  This Chinese lockdown set a pattern followed later by other governments around the world.  By March 28, 2.6 billion people--about one third of the world's population--were under some form of lockdown.  This caused a worldwide economic depression.

The human costs of the COVID-19 pandemic--the deaths from the virus, the social costs of the global depression, and the loss of liberty for people under lockdowns--have provoked people into a search for someone to blame.  And attention has focused on Shi Zhengli's lab in Wuhan.  First, it was charged that the Chinese had used Shi's lab to genetically engineer the SARS-CoV-2 virus as a bioweapon.  But studies of the DNA genome of the virus could not find any of the signs of the standard tools of genetic engineering.  Then some people speculated that Shi--now called the "bat woman"--had found the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a bat, brought it back to her lab, and there someone accidentally became infected with it and carried it out of the lab.

President Donald Trump has said that he has secret intelligence proving that the virus leaked out of Shi's lab.  In a recent interview with Science, Shi has denied this and demanded an apology from Trump (Cohen 2020).  For months after the beginning of the outbreak, Shi was "missing" in China.  But in recent weeks, she has been giving interviews to reporters.  A few days ago, reporters for NBC News were permitted to tour the Wuhan Institute of Virology and interview scientists.  The U.S. State Department has issued a statement saying that NBC News is being used by the Chinese government to propagate China's propaganda to cover up the role of the Wuhan lab in the coronavirus outbreak.

                                                                              Shi Zenghli

Originally, it was thought that since many of the people in Wuhan who first became infected with the virus had been to the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, this must have been the place where the spillover from bats to humans (through some intermediary animal) first occurred.  In China, there is a cultural tradition favoring the eating of exotic wild animals.  At the seafood market, live wild animals were sold for consumption.  So this could have been the point of viral transmission. 

One of the wild animals sold in such markets is the pangolin.  Pangolins look like scaly anteaters.  They are considered a delicacy in China, and pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine.  A coronavirus found in pangolins is very similar in its genome to SARS-CoV-2, which suggests the possibility that it could be the intermediary animal between bats and humans.

                                                                       The Pangolin

The Huanan Seafood Market was closed on January 1.  On February 24, the Chinese government banned all wildlife consumption and "wet markets."  Nevertheless, such bans will not stop the illegal trade in wild animals as long as there is a popular demand for them.

Shi has said, however, that many of the early infected patients had no association with the seafood market.  Moreover, her lab's study of the market could not find any SARS-CoV-2 nucleic acids in frozen animal samples.  She has concluded that the spillover did not occur in Wuhan or in Hubei Province.  It must have occurred in one of the southern provinces, and then some infected people brought it to Wuhan.

According to Shi, in her interview for Science (Cohen 2020), no one in her lab had ever seen SARS-CoV-2 until they received the clinical samples on December 30, 2019.  After they had completed the genetic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, they saw that it had 80% sequence identity to the three bat coronaviruses that they had isolated over the last 15 years.  They did not isolate the SARS-CoV-2 virus until January of 2020.  An isolated virus is a live virus that can grow in cultured cells in the laboratory.

On February 3, they published a paper reporting that SARS-CoV-2 was 96.2% identical at the whole-genome level to a bat coronavirus named RaTG13, which they had found in a bat fecal sample collected in Yunnan province (Zhou et al. 2020)  But they had never isolated this bat coronavirus.  They had reported in publications (in 2013, 2016, and 2017) the three isolated strains of live SARS-related bat coronavirus.  If they had isolated SARS-CoV-2 before 2020, Shi suggests, they surely would have published this result, and so the lack of such publication should be evidence that they had not isolated it before 2020; and therefore it was not possible for anyone in the lab to be infected by it in 2019.

Shi explains that her lab had not paid much attention to the RaTG13 bat coronavirus prior to 2020 because it showed a low similarity to SARS-CoV, and they had not yet seen SARS-CoV-2.

Shi's study of the viruses carried by wild animals has been carried out in collaboration with Peter Daszak of the EcoHealth Alliance in New York.  They argue that such wildlife virus surveillance is the only way to work towards understanding, preventing, and controlling outbreaks of infectious viral diseases that originate in wild animals.  In April, however, the Trump Administration ordered the termination of their research funding from the National Institutes of Health.  Shi and Daszak have complained that this makes no sense, because their collaborative research is the only way to learn how to prevent future outbreaks.  They estimate that there are more than 5,000 coronavirus strains in bats waiting to be discovered.  "Bat-borne coronaviruses will cause more outbreaks," Shi says.  "We must find them before they find us."

But is it realistic to expect that we will ever be able to find these deadly viruses before they find us?  If the evolution of new viral pathogens from bats and other animals is as accidental, as random, as it appears to be, does that make it unlikely that scientists like Shi and Daszak will ever discover the next SARS-CoV-2 before it can spread among human beings?

After 15 years of research, studying hundreds of viruses found in bat caves, Shi and her colleagues still cannot trace the exact evolutionary history of the SARS-CoV virus that caused the SARS pandemic in 2002.  So, can't we expect they will have the same trouble in tracing the history of the SARS-CoV-2 virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic?

Or could their research at least teach us how to lower the likelihood of viral spillovers from animals to humans--perhaps, for example, by shutting down the markets for live wildlife?


Cohen, Jon. 2020. "Wuhan Coronavirus Hunter Shi Zhengli Speaks Out." Science 369: 487-488.

Hu, Ben, et al. 2017. "Discovery of a Rich Gene Pool of Bat SARS-Related Coronaviruses Provides New Insights into the Origin of SARS Coronavirus." PLoS Pathogens 13 (11): E1006698.

Letko, Michael, et al. 2020. "Bat-Borne Virus Diversity, Spillover, and Emergence." Nature Reviews Microbiology 18 (August): 461-471.

Li, Wendong, et al. 2005. "Bats Are Natural Reservoirs of SARS-Like Coronaviruses." Science 310 (October 28): 676-679.

Morens, David M., et al. 2020. "Escaping Pandora's Box--Another Novel Coronavirus." The New England Journal of Medicine 382:1253-1254.

Qui, Jane. 2020. "How China's 'Bat Woman' Hunted Down Viruses from SARS to the New Coronavirus." Scientific American (June).

Watsa, Mrinalini. 2020. "Rigorous Wildlife Disease Susrvellance." Science 369 (July 10): 145-47.

Zhou, Peng. 2020. "A Pneumonia Outbreak Associated with a New Coronavirus of Probable Bat Origin." Nature 579 (March 12): 270-273.

Friday, August 07, 2020

COVID-19 in the Evolutionary History of Infectious Disease: Will It Kill Liberal Globalism?

Will the COVID-19 pandemic kill liberal globalism?  

According to Curtis Yarvin, writing for the Claremont Institute's blog American Mind, it should.  Shortly after the report of the first case of a coronavirus infection in the U.S. in late January--a Washington state man who had travelled to Wuhan, China--Yarwin wrote an essay entitled "RIP Globalism, Dead of Coronavirus," in which he claimed that the only sensible response to the danger of a pandemic reaching the U.S. was to stop all air travel across the Pacific and across the Atlantic.  He recommended "suspending 1492," so that the two great hemispheres of the planet would be disconnected, just as they were before Columbus's voyage to the New World.  No only that, but every country should be totally isolated for ever, with no one permitted to travel into or out of any country.  All international trade should be stopped.  Every nation would be economically and culturally self-contained.  

He did not expect this to happen, because he saw that the internationalist belief in the goodness of our interconnected, globalized world is too strong to allow for the wisdom of an isolationist vision.  But he foresaw that the internationalist failure to close all national borders to the spread of the coronavirus would bring the death of millions of people around the world, which could lead more people to recognize the virtues of an isolationist world.  This could be something like Japan's policy of sakoku under the Tokugawa shogunate, in which both trade and travel across Japan's borders were generally prohibited.

Yarvin--who wrote under the name "Mencius Moldbug" for his blog Unqualified Reservations--is one of the most influential of the younger alt-right theorists who argue that liberal democracy has failed, and that what we need is the authoritarian rule of a monarch or a corporate CEO, following a policy of isolationist nationalism that scorns internationalist globalism (Tait 2019).  Yarvin was the person who recommended to Michael Anton that he read Bronze Age Pervert, another young alt-right thinker; and so this seems to have been a turning point in the move of the Claremont Institute towards the alt-right.  (I have written a series of posts on Anton and Bronze Age Pervert here and here.)

Yarvin is obviously right about how air travel in a globalized world has promoted the rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus around the world.  But I do not see how this proves that liberal globalism has failed, and that it needs to be replaced by a world of isolationist authoritarian regimes.  

We need to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic fits into the whole evolutionary history of infectious diseases from the Paleolithic to the present.  Ron Barrett and George Armelagos have written that history in their book An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections (2013).  In the first sentence of their book, they declare: "Microbes are the ultimate critics of modernity" (1, 115).  This introduces their Rousseauian epidemiological critique of modernity: the history of how human civilization moved away from the hunter-gatherer state of nature through the Agricultural Revolution and then the Industrial Revolution appears to be progressive improvement; but in fact, Barrett and Armelagos say, modern human beings suffer more from microbial infectious diseases than did their hunter-gatherer ancestors, which shows that the microbes--the bacteria, the viruses, and other microparasites--have evolved through mutation and reproduction to be the true masters of the earth.  This is an unnatural history because it moves away from the original natural condition of human beings as foragers in the Paleolithic.

That our modern globalized world is now suffering a catastrophic pandemic caused by a newly emerging coronavirus that has evolved to exploit the global interconnectedness of our world to infect us and kill us seems to show that.  This might seem to confirm Yarvin's argument that the COVID-19 pandemic exposes the vulnerability of globalist modernity. 

But I will argue that this evolutionary history of microbial diseases should teach us that while infectious disease has plagued humanity throughout all of history, and while newly emerging infectious diseases continue to threaten us today, a modern liberal globalized world can reduce, although never fully eliminate, that threat, so that life in our modern globalized world can be generally safer and healthier for more people than ever before in history.  This will be true, however, only as long as we preserve the freedom of a liberal social order that allows for the innovation necessary to meet the challenges that come from infectious diseases.

We can see that history as passing through four eras--the prehistoric foraging era, the agrarian era, the era of the industrial revolution, and the contemporary globalist era.  To fully explain this history, we need to understand both the microscopic and the macroscopic determinants of human infections.  

At the microscopic level, we try to understand how bacteria, viruses, and other microparasites have evolved to succeed (or fail) as human pathogens who must parasitize human beings for the survival and reproduction of the pathogen.  We should keep in mind, however, as I have indicated in a previous post, that virologist Marilyn Roossinck (2011, 2015, 2016) is probably right in suggesting that most bacteria and viruses are not harmful human parasites, because most of them have evolved to have either commensal (not harmful to the human host) or mutualistic (mutually beneficial) relationships.  For example, most of the bacteria and viruses in the human gut are necessary for human health.

It is only in the last century or two that modern science has given us some understanding of this microscopic world.  Some ancient natural philosophers--like Lucretius--have understood, however, that infectious disease can be caused by invisible pathogenic "seeds"--an intimation of the germ theory of disease.  I have written about this here and here.

At the macroscopic level, we can understand infectious diseases as social diseases, in the sense that they depend upon three social factors of human life--subsistence, settlement, and social organization.  The modes of human subsistence (such as foraging or farming), human settlement (such as nomadic bands or permanent urban living), and human social organization (such as egalitarian leveling or hierarchical classes) will influence our vulnerability to infectious diseases.


For most of human evolutionary history, our ancestors lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers, in what the evolutionary psychologists call the "environment of evolutionary adaptation" (EEA).  Their mode of subsistence was predominantly gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals.  Their mode of settlement was for small bands of individuals to set up temporary campsites for no more than a few days or months at a time, so that they could move their camp many times a year to find the best locations for hunting and gathering. Their mode of social organization was to live in small groups where the adults were roughly equal, in that some individuals exercised informal leadership, but their power was checked by others who resisted any attempts at dominance.

The early modern political philosophers called this the "state of nature," and they disagreed about whether it was a state of peace and plenty or a state of war and poverty.  Thomas Hobbes declared that it was war and poverty, which made it a condition of desperate unhappiness.  Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared that it was peace and plenty, which made it the happiest condition for humanity.  Many social scientists today continue to take one side or the other in this debate.  So, for example, Marshall Sahlins said that Rousseau was right because our nomadic forager ancestors lived in the "original affluent society."  But others--like Steve Pinker--have said that Hobbes was right because our ancestors lived lives ruined by violence and scarcity.

Barrett and Armelagos say that the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes.  But while they sometimes reject Sahlins' conception of the "original affluent society," they often endorse it and adopt a Rousseauian position (Barrett and Armelagos 2013, 1, 17, 22, 27-28, 111, 115).  They say nothing about John Locke's understanding of the state of nature, and so they do not consider my argument that Locke's account of the state of nature was mostly true, as confirmed by the anthropological evidence that we have today, and free from the mistakes of both Hobbes and Rousseau.  I have argued that hereherehere, and here.

The Rousseauianism of Barrett and Armelagos has a biblical dimension.  As the epigram for their chapter on the Agricultural Revolution (29), they quote from Genesis 3:17-19: "I have placed a curse on the ground.  All your life you will struggle to scratch a living from it.  It will grow thorns and thistles for you, though you will eat of its grains.  All your life you will sweat to produce food, until your dying day."  Of course, this is God's curse on Adam and Eve after their sin and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden.  The implication is that the prehistoric foraging life was the Garden of Eden for humanity--the Paradise that has been lost.

Barrett and Armelagos are certainly Rousseauian in their claim that foragers were generally healthier and less susceptible to infectious diseases than the later human beings living in agricultural and urban industrial societies.  They give three reasons for this.  First, hunting and gathering produced a wide diversity of foods, and this nutritious diet built up their immune systems that protected them from pathogens.  Second, because they lived in widely dispersed small groups that never settled in one spot for long, acute infections that require large and dense host populations were not sustainable.  Third, since foragers shared their food and other resources equally, there was no lower class of impoverished malnourished people who would be susceptible to infectious diseases.

I will not contest the last two points.  But I am skeptical about the first point.  They stress the importance of this point about nutrition among foragers: "Closely tied to human immunity, nutrition has always been our chief line of defense against infectious diseases.  Conversely, malnutrition is the chief determinant of immunosuppression worldwide" (20).

As one kind of evidence that foragers had a dietary diversity that supported their nutritional health, Barrett and Armelagos cite Kim Hill and A. Magdalena Hurtado's Ache Life History (1996) on the Ache foraging people of Paraguay.  During their forest living life, before they had contact with outsiders, the Ache hunted 56 animal species and gathered 44 plant species, which Barrett and Armelagos see as showing a remarkable diversity in their diet.  Barrett and Armelagos are silent, however, about Hill and Hurtado's observations about food shortages and infectious diseases among the Ache.  They observe that the Ache and other foraging groups often complain about their hunger.  They also suffer from poor health: illness and disease accounts for about a fourth of all deaths.  They suffer from a variety of viral infections.  They show the symptoms of diseases such as malaria, degue, amebic dysentery, and staphylococcal infections.  Hill and Hurtado conclude from this that Sahlins' "original affluent society" is a "farcical myth in modern anthropology" (320).

Barrett and Armelagos are enthusiastic proponents of the "Paleolithic Diet" argument of Stanley Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner (Eaton and Konner 1985; Eaton et al. 1988).  The argument is that modern human beings are biologically adapted for the diet of their paleolithic ancestors, and that the mismatch between the modern diet and the paleolithic diet is responsible for the modern lifestyle diseases.  This has led a lot of people to try to revive their inner cave man by eating a "paleo diet" of plants and meats that might have been consumed by ancient foragers.

Barrett and Armelagos are silent, however, about the many devastating criticisms of this argument (Jabr 2013; Thompson et al. 2013; Turner and Thompson 2013; Zuk 2014).  First, modern humans have evolved over the past 7,000 years, so that their dietary adaptations are different from their foraging ancestors.  As one example of this, the cultural history of dairying societies created an environment in which  many people evolved a genetic mutation that allowed them to digest lactose--the sugar in milk--in adulthood.  In people without this mutation, the gene encoding lactase--the enzyme that breaks down lactose sugars in milk--shuts down after infancy when children are weaned from mother's milk.  Consuming milk as an adult is a Neolithic adaptation shaped by human niche construction.

A second criticism of the "paleo diet" is that today we don't have access to the foods that ancient foragers ate, because the plants and animals that we consume today are radically different from their ancient ancestral species--by artificial selection the domesticated plants and animals of today did not exist in the Paleolithic.  For example, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and kale are all different cultivars of a single species--Brassica oleracea--that has been altered by human selection.

A third criticism is that anthropological studies of foraging societies over the past two centuries show a great diversity and flexibility in their diets that depends upon their socioecological circumstances.  So, for example, the diet of Inuit (Eskimo) foragers who live on fish and sea mammals will differ from the diet of foragers in the tropical rain forests of South America.

A fourth criticism is that there is some paleoarchaeological evidence that ancient foragers suffered from some of the diseases that are often assumed to be products of our distinctively modern diet and lifestyle.  For example, there is some evidence for atherosclerosis--arteries clogged with cholersterol and fats--in some ancient mummies buried by hunter-gatherers (Thompson et al. 2013; Wann et al. 2019).

Barrett and Armelagos do not mention, much less answer, these criticisms.


About 7,000 years ago, some people in the Tigris-Euphrates valley began to settle into permanent settlements and to draw their food not just from foraging (hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants) but also from farming with domesticated plants and herding domesticated animals.  About 5,000 years ago, they began to form the first city-states (such as Uruk) that had formal governments with hierarchies of state authorities.  

This has generally been celebrated by historians and anthropologists as the Agricultural Revolution or the Neolithic Revolution--as the most progressive turn in human history because it allowed for urban civilization.  But Rousseauian anthropologists have lamented this as the biggest mistake in human history because human beings lost the freedom, equality, and healthy lifestyle of the foraging life, and it brought the tyrannical rule of kings, priests, and bureaucrats, constant warfare, oppressive taxation, slavery, and the emergence of acute infectious diseases.  I have written about James Scott's version of this argument.  I have also written about Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus as developing a similar Rousseauian argument.

Barrett and Armelagos reinforce that argument by claiming that the Agricultural Revolution brought a "domestication of pathogens" that caused an unprecedented increase in acute infectious diseases to the point that they became the primary cause of human death.  They identify this as the First Epidemiological Transition.

The domestication of pathogens means that human villages and cities based on farming created selective conditions for the evolution and spread of infectious diseases.  The human patterns of subsistence, settlement, and social organization created the circumstances favoring microorganisms that could leap from nonhuman animals to human hosts, and then sustain human-to-human transition in human communities that were large, dense, and susceptible to infection.  The evidence for this can be found in the skeletons of Neolithic people showing the signs of malnutrition and infectious disease--particularly, among low-status people.  Because they lived in permanent and crowded farming communities in which people were in close proximity to their domesticated animals, this created opportunities for microscopic parasites to jump from animals to human beings and then spread widely through the communities.

Prior to 1492, however, infectious disease pandemics could not become fully global, because there was little communication between the Americas (the New World) and the rest of the Earth.  But then Columbus' voyage brought a globalization of human disease ecology--for the first time in history, infectious diseases could move around the entire world.  When the Europeans introduced new infectious pathogens into the New World, tens of millions of indigenous American people died because they had no immunity to the new parasites.  It worked in the other direction as well--for example, syphilis from the New World spread quickly throughout Eurasia.

This globalization of infectious disease was the most harmful expression of the First Epidemiological Transition.  This is what made the global COVID-19 pandemic possible.  And that's why Yarvin recommends "suspending 1492."


Up to the end of the 19th century, infectious diseases were the primary cause of death, and most of these deaths were in childhood.  Between 1800 and 1840, 64 per cent of children in London died before reaching age 25.  The common experience of parents burying their children forced people to ask deep questions about the meaning of love and death in a world where most children did not live to adulthood.  In a previous post, I have written about Charles Darwin's struggle to understand the death of his daughter Annie at the age of 10.  She died of tuberculosis, which was then called "consumption," and there was no cure for it; nor was there any understanding of how it was caused by bacteria.

But then by the early part of the 20th century, childhood mortality had dropped dramatically, and the average human life expectancy rose.  As a result, the world human population grew from about 800 million to 1.6 billion in 1910--and finally to almost 8 billion today.  During this time, chronic degenerative diseases (like heart disease and cancer) replaced infectious diseases as the primary causes of death.  

This is what Barrett and Armelagos identify as the Second Epidemiological Transition.  There is a debate over its causes.  But they think the primary causes were better nutrition and the "sanitary reform movement" that cleaned up the water supply and the food.

Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, a long line of antibiotics--such as penicillin and the sulfa drugs--began to save hundreds of millions of lives.  But then the overuse of antibiotics created a selective environment for the evolution of pathogens with antibiotic resistance, which is one of the causes of the Third Epidemiological Transition.


Within three years after the first use of penicillin as the "wonder drug" against bacterial infections, resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus appeared in British and North American hospitals.  This began an evolutionary arms race in which the pathogens seem to be winning, because they evolve antibiotic resistance faster than we can develop new antibiotics.

Another contributor to this new epidemiological transition is that the unhealthy diets and lifestyles of people in the modern world make them prone to obesity, diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, and when this is combined with an aging population, ever more people are vulnerable to infectious disease.

The circumstances of the contemporary globalist era also create opportunities for the evolutionary emergence of new infectious pathogens.  These new pathogens usually originate in nonhuman animals--they are "zoonotic."  Some people have to hunt wild animals for food and money, and so they are prone to come into contact with infected animals; and on rare occasions, the pathogen can jump to the human host. These newly infected people live in densely populated cities where the pathogen can spread by human-to-human transmission.  Some of the infected human beings be international travelers who can carry the pathogen all over the world within a few days.  Finally, there is a large population of elderly people with pre-existing chronic diseases who are more likely to contract and spread the disease and also more likely to die from it.

All of these circumstances apply to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To be continued . . .


Barrett, Ron, and George Armelagos. 2013. An Unnatural History of Emerging Infections. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Eaton, S. B., and M. Konner. 1985. "Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications." New England Journal of Medicine 312:283-89.

Eaton, S. B., M. Shostak, and M. Konner. 1988. The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living. New York: Harper & Row.

Hill, Kim, and A. Magdalena Hurtado. 1996.  Ache Life History: The Ecology and Demography of a Foraging People. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Jabr, Ferris. 2013. "How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet is Half-Baked." Scientific American, June 3.

Roossinck, Marilyn. 2011. "The Good Viruses: Viral Mutualistic Symbioses." Nature Reviews Microbiology 9 (February): 99-108.

__________.  2015. "Move Over, Bacteria! Viruses Make Their Mark as Mutualistic Microbial Symbionts." Journal of Virology 89 (13): 6532-6535.

____________.  2016.  Virus: An Illustrated Guide to 101 Incredible Microbes.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thompson, Randall, et al. 2013.  "Atherosclerosis across 4000 Years of Human History: The Horus Study of Four Ancient Populations." The Lancet 381 (issue 9873): 1211-1222.

Turner, Bethany L., and Amanda Thompson. 2013. "Beyond the Paleolithic Prescription: Incorporating Diversity and Flexibility in the Study of Human Diet Evolution." Nutrition Reviews 71 (8): 501-510.

Yarvin, Curtis. 2020. "RIP Globalism, Dead of Coronavirus." The American Mind. February 1.

Wann, L. Samuel, et al. 2019. "Atherosclerosis in 16th-Century Greenlandic Inuit Mummies." JAMA Netw Open 2(12):e1918270.

Zuk, Marlene. 2013. Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live. New York: Norton.