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On this page, observations of various kinds will appear that are related to big history teaching as well as to big history in general.
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September 29, 2020

How can the general model proposed in this book shed light on the current pandemic? The answer seems so obvious that it did not even occur to me to write a blog about it. Already on May 16 and June 6, 2020, I had explained those views in Spanish through Zoom meetings organized by colleagues from Bogotá, Colombia. The second meeting was attended by a Hispanic audience that stretched all the way from Spain via Mexico to Chile.
Furthermore, my esteemed colleague Dra. Olga García Moreno, geologist and big historian at the University of Oviedo, Asturias, Spain, had also explained that along similar lines in her article La pandemia y la “Gran historia” that was published on May 15, which she also put on her Twitter page.
So what could I add to that? It all appeared so obvious for those who were already familiar with my work.
It was only in the morning of September 29, 2020, that I woke up with the idea that it might actually be helpful to explain all of that to those who have not yet read my book, also in an effort to show that my general model for big history can also shed light on the current coronavirus pandemic. The current situation was, of course, unforseen in all its details, yet its general pattern is not new at all. Let me explain.
In doing so, let us start with the work of the outstanding US world historian, William H. McNeill (1917-2016), to whom I owe so much. In 1976, his path-breaking book Plagues and Peoples was published. This book deals with the relations between infectious diseases and humans through all of history. Even 45 years after its first publication this book is, in my opinion, still by far the best analysis available, and many other historians, including me, have deeply been influenced by it.
In the short summary that follows I cannot possibly do justice to the richness of McNeill’s descriptions and analysis, or even to the general model that he proposed. But my summary may be sufficient to understand his line of reasoning, while it may evoke an interest in reading his book, still widely available.
By using established epidemiological principles McNeill explained how time and again infectious microorganisms have jumped from animal reservoirs to human beings in seeking to harvest energy and matter from their hosts and reproduce themselves, in the beginning usually by killing their hosts.
However, a dead host is not the most effective medium for the survival and further diffusion of such disease-causing microorganisms. This situation tends to stimulate the greater survival of spontaneous mutations among those microorganisms that are less virulent, because they allow the hosts to survive while reproducing sufficiently to keep going around and find other hosts. In other words, over time these sicknesses turn into children’s diseases.
Humans have responded to such diseases in various ways, including by sometimes establishing taboos on getting into contact with wild animals that were associated with them; by learning to keep distance from each other in various ways, which broke the transmission chain, etc.
Yet it was only in the 19th century that scientists discovered that microorganisms were causing those infectious diseases, which, in their turn, might be transported by vectors such as fleas and insects. All of that, including the discovery of vaccinations and antibiotics, led to far more efficient ways of shifting the disease balance to the favor of humans. So far my summary of McNeill’s book Plagues and Peoples. Even though the book was published 45 years ago, all of this is clearly visible also in the current pandemic.
Because the biochemistry of microorganisms that consist of cells is often a little different from that of their host’s cells, chemicals can often be found that selectively undermine the biochemistry of those microorganisms while leaving the host cells intact. That is how antibiotics function.
Yet applying antibiotics in large quantities brings about a process of natural selection, because it favors the survival of those microorganisms that are resistant to those antibiotics through spontaneous mutations. That is why the world is now getting close to running out of such medicines.
Viruses are harder to combat chemically in such ways, because they are far less complex. Unlike disease-causing microorganisms that consist of cells, viruses only consist of genetic material covered by a layer of proteins. They do not consist of cells that carry out a great many elaborate biochemical reactions. Instead they exploit the complex biochemistry in their host’s cells for multiplying their numbers.
Because viruses do not have such an elaborate biochemistry, it is hard, if not impossible, to find antibiotics that attack them effectively. Yet some chemical substances may negatively influence their reproduction processes. A search for such medicines is currently going on in relation to the coronavirus pandemic, with varying claims of effectiveness.
A more effective way of dealing with such viruses is trying to develop vaccines. Those are chemical substances that help the host’s body to defend themselves better against viral attacks by impeding them to enter its cells. If that works well enough, the infectious transmission chain is broken and the viruses will die out as a result of natural decay.
For me, all of the above is very helpful for understanding the current pandemic. So what could my general model for big history add to that?
Building on the work of especially the US astrophysicist Eric Chaisson, my general model is explained in its most simple form on this web page (which is part of the same website you are currently on). I will therefore not try to summarize it here. Instead I will seek to apply it to the current situation.
So here we go. Much like all forms of complexity, both the viruses and their hosts require energy and matter to survive and reproduce. In fact, because they lack an elaborate biochemistry to keep themselves going, viruses do not need any energy just to survive, as long as they do not decay due to the circumstances they find themselves in.
But because those circumstances are rarely good enough for viruses to survive for longer periods of time, most, if not all of them will decay naturally after a certain period of time. To survive in the longer run, viruses therefore need to reproduce in numbers that are at least equal to, or larger than, their decay rates.
As the reader may have noticed, the general idea of sufficiently favorable circumstances, called Goldilocks circumstances in my book, has entered the conversation. So what are good circumstances for viruses such as the Covid-19 virus? The answer is simple: they need many humans close together who interact closely. Such a situation offers the Covid-19 viruses the chance to jump from host to host; to affect those who are susceptible to them; and to reproduce in sufficiently large numbers.
And because there are now close to eight billion people on this planet, many of whom are living well-connected and closely together, this situation is providing the viruses sufficiently good circumstances to harvest the energy and matter they need to maintain and increase their numbers, in this case: from a relatively small amount of viruses in or near Wuhan, China, to the uncounted billions and billions of them that have now spread around the world to virtually all places where humans live. And all of that happened in less than a year. Quite a feat, seen from the perspective of the survival of the ‘fit enough’!
So what would be good circumstances for humans to reverse that process and reduce those current numbers? Obviously, as being advised all around the world: we need to try and break the transmission chains, so that those viruses can no longer reproduce, and thus will decay over time through natural processes. And we may also want to improve the circumstances that are favorable to their decay by ‘cleaning’ all the surfaces where they may hang out.
Trying to break the transmission chains is done, as we all know, by creating physical barriers to them, such as by wearing face masks and facial protectors; by keeping enough human physical distance (usually erroneously called ‘social distance’); and by removing them from places such as most notably our hands by cleansing them regularly before those viruses can reach the eyes and noses of the people involved, and subsequently enter their bodies.
But are these bad circumstances for viruses still good enough for humans to harvest their energy and matter required to keep their complexity going?  It all depends. Those lucky enough to be able to shift to working at home behind a computer that is linked to other humans over the Internet, the answer is ‘yes,’ simply because those viruses cannot travel along the lines of electronic communication (computer viruses can; but that is another story, even though the general model is equally applicable to such situations as well).
And as long as money is regularly deposited in the bank accounts of those lucky people; food and other needs are delivered to their doorstep; while the trash (their material entropy) is taken care of, they are able to protect themselves sufficiently against viral infections well as long as they do not require other forms of assistance, for instance because they fall ill. Thanks to my mandatory age retirement from university two years ago I am currently one of those very lucky people.
But what about those fellow humans who cannot do that, which is still the case for most people in this world, including those who keep food production and distribution going, take out the trash, and care for the sick and elderly, while a great many other people need to keep their daily activities going to earn a living through agriculture, industrial production, commerce, as well as a great many other activities that generate income, yet often require physical closeness to other humans?
In other words, are the circumstances that are bad for the viruses perhaps sometimes almost equally bad for the survival and prosperity of those humans whose daily work requires physical proximity to other humans? And are the physical distancing measures recommended worldwide sufficiently effective to create effective virus transmission barriers in such situations, including various degrees of adherence to them for various reasons?
This is how, I think, the general model proposed in this book is applicable to the current pandemic, and how it may shed light on the dilemmas we currently find ourselves in, until we find vaccines that are sufficiently effective to block the virus from entering our cells, and in doing so help to create a novel form of physical distancing which would make it unnecessary over time to practice the current forms of physical distancing.
Of course the analysis presented here is only a first rough outline. Much more could be said about it by going into further detail. For the time being I will leave that to the reader’s imagination.
In the meantime, under pressure of the Darwinian process of natural selection the Covid-19 virus appears to be mutating along the lines indicated by William McNeill and others, namely into a virus that appears to be less lethal yet more effective in spreading among the human population.
Let us hope that our academic colleagues will soon be successful in creating sufficiently good vaccines that will do the intended job of creating sufficiently bad circumstances for the virus without creating similarly bad situations for humans.
International Big History Association
Un. of Amsterdam big history
Cosmic Evolution
Big History Project
Book: Teaching Big History
Bill Bryson: Short History of Nearly Everything
Other useful stuff on the web
Other big history
How to use the book
Course models
Learning goals and objectives
Teaching tools
Assignments (little big histories)
Answers to FAQs by students
Questions by students and teachers that go beyond the book
Examination models
Teaching big history