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Opinion: Humans must have empathy to survive the coronaviruses and the climate crisis.
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Opinion: Humans must have empathy to survive the coronaviruses and the climate crisis.


NewbyHe is a retired research biologist from The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla. He was the director of The Bronowski Art & Science Forum from 1999 to 2012. He lives in Del Mar.

Humanity now faces a new variant of coronavirus, B.1.1.529, also known as Omicron. All coronaviruses share a common ancestor that was shared with bat and avian species for 55 million years. The coronavirus leapt from bats to humans sometime in the past. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic was the first of five pandemics worldwide. The December 2019 COVID19 outbreak was followed by other less-reported variants, including the Delta variant. There are many variants of interest.

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Data suggest that Omicron is spreading quicker and may be more contagious then Delta. It is too soon to determine the severity and impact of Omicron infection, as it is not possible to compare it to earlier COVID versions. Omicron may have originated in an immunocompromised person, possibly somewhere in Southern Africa. These coronaviruses were facilitated by a lack in global vaccination efforts and the disdainful attitude of politicians and their supporters towards vaccinations and masks. There are also many conspirators who have alternative, nonscientific theories and solutions.

The climate crisis is a threat that humanity faces with far more serious consequences than the virus pandemics. The warming planet has been extensively covered. Nearly daily, new reports on climate research are published. One of the most recent is the Atlantification of the Arctic Ocean.

The Atlantic Ocean is larger and more salty than the Arctic Ocean. This sea has sea ice on the top, cool freshwater in its middle, and warm, salty water at its bottom. The Atlantic invasion is disrupting these layers and transforming Arctic waters to something closer to the Atlantic. The Arctic is heating faster than any other ocean. This is yet another sign that we are in the sixth mass extermination, the Anthropocene. The doubters are those who oppose taking action to slow down our warming planet. They ridicule climate change advocates and belittle science. Both the global pandemic as well as global warming have become politicized.

How can humanity deal with these threats? If our past behavior is any indication, it is clear that the future is grim for humanity. Why is humanity such a confused species that cannot rationally respond to these threats with compassion for all mankind?

Understanding our disorganized approach towards these impending disasters can be done by considering that humans are and were a tribal species. Our species lineage is a 6-million-year-old evolutionary history. You may be familiar with some of our ancestors, including Homo hablis (H. naledi), H. egaster and H. erectus. H. antecessor; H. heidelbergensis; H. neanderthalensis; H. denisova. Only Homo sapiens, the only hominin species that survived, has survived from all of these hominin types. What happened to the many other hominins? Because of our brains that were well-developed, we were able to deal with predators, the environment and other hominin species. We became the sole survivor. We created cohesive tribes that had compassion for each other and eliminated all resource competitors with ruthless precision. Our place in evolutionary history was ensured by our tribal skills and knowledge.

These survival-oriented genetic traits of our ancestors are still very much alive in modern humans. Some of these traits — while beneficial for our early ancestors — may hinder modern relations. H. sapiens survived because of selfishness, and compassion.

Vasopressin is the genetic component of selfishness. Vasopressin is a hormone that promotes altruism. The vasopressin pathway is controlled by the gene AVPR1A. There are two versions to this gene: a long and a short version. We can either inherit one from our parents or both. The long version of AVPR1A is more generous. Those who have the shorter version of AVPR1A are more likely to be selfish or greedy.

Humanitarians are compassionate. Oxytocin acts as both a hormone, and a neurotransmitter.

Normal levels of oxytocin can be associated with romantic love and parent-child bonding. They also promote empathy and generosity. These are traits one might expect from a humanitarian. The amount of oxytocin produced can be affected by small genetic differences. Low levels of oxytocin can lead to depression, stress, and lower compassion and empathy. Variable levels of oxytocin play a role in empathy and compassion.

Our experiences, education, and inherited behavioral genes influence the decisions we make. To reduce both pandemics as well as global warming, humanity must be more compassionate and empathic for all people.

Most all our genetic behavioral traits — anger, aggression, hate, greed and selfishness and compassion — can be modulated. Moral guidance, laws and the threat of punishment, as well as peer pressure, can affect one’s behavior.

It is selfish to avoid getting vaccinated or wearing masks at gatherings. Global warming efforts are hindered by the selfish act of not acknowledging and adopting green values. Unfortunately, our current approach to global warming and the viral pandemic is not unified at this point in human history. Polarizing political rhetoric, with some leaders only interested in their own self-interest and lacking compassion or empathy, has accelerated humanity to the sixth mass extinction known as the Anthropocene.

Cataclysmic events will only be possible if you ignore common sense and science. Our only solution is a worldview that embraces compassion for all humanity.


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