Editor’s Note: Marcelo Gleiser is the 2019 Templeton Prize Laureate, and the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy at Dartmouth College. His books include “The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
I turned 61 last week, and am now, along with millions of others across the globe, within the higher risk group for Covid-19. Before this turn of events, ours had been the generation that had, along with billions of others younger and slightly older than me, avoided a major global crisis.
Unlike our parents and grandparents, we didn’t face the tragedy of living through two World Wars; we avoided nuclear warfare during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and the Cold War. Now, our luck has run out.
With the Covid-19 pandemic striking full force across the globe, it’s easy to stare in disbelief at the growing number of deaths. But the pandemic is here, and it will get worse before it gets better. How much worse depends on all of us. That’s where the good news comes in.
The year 2020 will be remembered as a turnaround point in human history. Not just because many will die, but because the Covid-19 pandemic is offering us a chance to reinvent ourselves.
Wars force citizens of a nation to respond as one. When a country’s citizens are under attack, they mobilize to face the common enemy. After the US joined World War II, towns ripped apart iron fences and collected scrap metal for tanks and armored cars; intent on beating the enemy, communities competed with each other in fierce collection drives. Fear galvanized action.
We now face a global enemy, one that doesn’t identify its targets by religious, racial, gender or political choice; a virus doesn’t care about maps and boundaries. What matters is that we are all potential hosts, irrespective of who we are or where we live. Under the cold lens of natural selection, the drama of life unfolds without moral judgment: it all boils down to living and reproducing.
The perversity of a virulent pandemic is that the affected hosts propagate the disease, accelerating the demise of members of their own species. Once infected, we can kill all who unwittingly cross our paths including family and friends.
Covid-19 will change us as a species. We must respond not just as nations fighting an enemy, but as a species fighting for survival. The virus will not wipe us out. But it is causing untold pain and loss, destabilizing global markets, and turning our daily lives into a surreal dreamscape. Our vulnerability and co-dependence are openly exposed.
Nature doesn’t care about our arrogance. A tiny organism is forcing us to revisit our values, our divisions, our choices as we barricade within our homes with our closest family members and consider what will come next. We can taste the anxiety in our mouths, imagining what will happen if we lose internet connectivity, or run out of food and resources or worse, contract the virus.
We would be foolish not to embrace the central message of our predicament: that we must come together to survive, that we are fragile despite our capacity to create and destroy, that the tribal divisions that have defined our moral choices over the past millennia must be tossed aside for our own good.
We are entering the age of tribal override, the time when our species will begin to operate as one, as a human hive, working across the planet as a member of a living community of species and not as a destructive parasite. One tribe that embraces diversity and the common good.
We can already see the signs of an awakening. In Italy, a country devastated by loss, people sing together from their balconies, celebrating life and community. The internet helps, even as we distance from each other socially. Our children will miss school, their friends and teachers. We will miss our workplace, night life, distant family members, hanging out with friends.
Our global co-dependence is essential for our survival and for the stability of society, emotionally and practically. Where would we be without our health-care providers, and those who supply our homes with energy and heat, who keep the supermarket shelves full and the streets safe?
We must think collectively as a human hive, each of us playing an essential role. The first steps are simple: to be humble in the face of what we don’t know, to be respectful of nature and its powers, and to work together to preserve not just our lives and those of our loved ones, but the lives of all of us in the hive, young and old, celebrating the gift of being alive.