Must-read PNAS article about COVID-19

Humans and viruses have been coevolving for millennia. Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19) has been particularly successful in evading our evolved defenses. The outcome has been tragic—across the globe, millions have been sickened and hundreds of thousands have died. Moreover, the quarantine has radically changed the structure of our lives, with devastating social and economic consequences that are likely to unfold for years. An evolutionary perspective can help us understand the progression and consequences of the pandemic. Here, a diverse group of scientists, with expertise from evolutionary medicine to cultural evolution, provide insights about the pandemic and its aftermath. At the most granular level, we consider how viruses might affect social behavior, and how quarantine, ironically, could make us susceptible to other maladies, due to a lack of microbial exposure. At the psychological level, we describe the ways in which the pandemic can affect mating behavior, cooperation (or the lack thereof), and gender norms, and how we can use disgust to better activate native “behavioral immunity” to combat disease spread. At the cultural level, we describe shifting cultural norms and how we might harness them to better combat disease and the negative social consequences of the pandemic. These insights can be used to craft solutions to problems produced by the pandemic and to lay the groundwork for a scientific agenda to capture and understand what has become, in effect, a worldwide social experiment. See further

Homeostasis (Damasio)

Both basic homeostasis (which is non-consciously guided) and sociocultural homeostasis (which is created and guided by reflective conscious minds) operate as curators of biological value. Basic and sociocultural varieties of homeostasis are separated by billions of years of evolution, and yet they promote the same goal – the survival of living organisms – albeit in different ecological niches. That goal is broadened, in the case of sociocultural homeostasis, to encompass the deliberate seeking of well-being. It goes without saying that the way in which human brains manage life requires both varieties of homeostasis in continuous interaction. But while the basic variety of homeostasis is an established inheritance, provided by everyone’s genome, the sociocultural variety is a somewhat fragile work in progress, responsible for much of human drama, folly, and hope. The interaction between the two kinds of homeostasis is not confined to each individual. There is growing evidence that, over multiple generations, cultural developments lead to changes in the genome. ~ Antonio Damasio, in Self Comes to Mind, p. 27, New York 2010. [Cambridge Dictionary: Homeostasis is the ability or tendency of a living organism, cell, or group to keep the conditions inside it the same despite any changes in the conditions around it, or this state of internal balance.]

An Interesting Week (Stephen Schettini)

It’s been an interesting week. Several of my former companions in Tibetan Buddhism have written scathingly of me, As I type, they huddle together against my onslaught. The funny thing is that I had no idea it was an onslaught until they started screaming.
In hopes of starting a thoughtful discussion, I’d suggested that for all we know the Buddha may never have existed. As with Jesus of Nazareth, there’s not much evidence one way or the other, and either religious founder might be a successful invention.
I was just saying.
This upset one of them so much he actually claimed to not remember me. He contradicted my every memory and photographic proof. I don’t think he forgot me; I think he was trying to unremember me. He was sounding desperate.
Another was furious because I invited him to a webinar about ‘breaking dependency on spiritual teachers and beliefs.’ He took it as a personal insult, and has been posting rambling, sarcastic posts ever since, some of them here on my timeline.
Cronies jumped right on board and accepted his lopsided version like a pack of chortling schoolboys. These are grown men in their 50s and 60s who used to call me friend. They claim the Dalai Lama as their role-model. From their point of view my apostasy destines me for aeons of torture in the vajra hells, but they don’t seem to care. I’m a jerk and a spoilsport.
Unfortunately for them, I am but one of a growing tide. We call ourselves ex-Buddhists, former-Buddhists or recovering Buddhists, but for short perhaps we could be the Buddhist Jerks. Our vision of what the Buddha meant couldn’t be more different from the fearful religion of my attackers.
The sort of Buddhism in which modern educated people adopt a medieval Asian culture is a dead end. Forty-odd years ago we were young and idealistic and thought it was the future, but we were wrong. While these zealots practice sophisticated rituals that would blow the Buddha’s mind, others among us have been working to interpret him as a human being whose message speaks loud and clear.
What he taught needs to make sense for the life we’re living here and now. Otherwise what’s the point? Somehow it must take root it in this insanely pluralistic, digitally accelerated, self-destructive monster of consumer capitalism that we call home.
When the Dalai Lama and his monks build their sand mandalas and blow their long horns, it all seems quite natural. It’s their inherited culture. They’re doing what Tibetans do.
When non-Tibetans try to share in that medieval simplicity, simplicity is the first casualty. They don’t fit in. They stick out like sore thumbs. They are weird.
When I felt weird in my crimson robes and shaven head, I had to suppress it in order to pursue my career as a monk. Eventually I and others like me reached a breaking point.
These few did not. Just like you and me, they’re products of a modern, sceptical, scientific education. Even if we only did secondary school we’re irreversibly non-medieval. Perhaps these boys have forgotten that what tossed them into Buddhism in the first place was a rejection of their own inherited religion (or atheism). With them, the Buddha’s quest to transcend ideologies has become just another ideology to hang on to and defend.
We the jerks do not study the Buddha for his certainties and guarantees but for precisely the opposite—we are learning to thrive in the clear understanding that no belief system will ever be ultimately true, and that there is nothing to defend. ~ Stephen Schettini, on Facebook.

Social Influences on Neuroplasticity (Davidson and McEwen)

Experiential factors shape the neural circuits underlying social and emotional behavior from the prenatal period to the end of life. These factors include both incidental influences such as early adversity as well as intentional influences that can be produced in humans through specific interventions designed to promote prosocial behavior and well-being. Key extant evidence in animal models and humans is reviewed. While the precise mechanisms of plasticity are still not fully understood, moderate to severe stress appears to increase growth of several sectors of the amygdala while effects in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex tend to be opposite. Structural and functional changes in the brain have been observed with cognitive therapy and certain forms of meditation and lead to the suggestion that well-being and other prosocial characteristics might be enhanced through training. (Richard J. Davidson and Bruce S. McEwen, in Social influences on neuroplasticity: Stress and interventions to promote well-being,