What Our Response to a Pandemic Reveals about Our Beliefs

On a global level, our response to this pandemic reveals deep truths about how human beings value each other. Biologist Xandra Carroll examines this in light of naturalism, survival of the fittest, and psychology.

“You are precious in my eyes, and I love you.” –Isaiah 43:4

A wise woman once told me, “You never know what’s in your teacup until the table gets bumped.” The introduction of a new coronavirus into our global population is jarring, and many of us are seeing our inner thoughts, desires, fears, and dreams come splashing out onto the table. Sometimes we are surprised by what we see. On a global level, our response to this pandemic reveals deep truths about how human beings value each other.

In his 1992 lecture at Cambridge University, Stephen Hawking stated that he had but one fear for humanity: that natural selection was truly the means by which we had arrived on this planet. Hawking was no fool to the logical consequences of his own philosophy. He reasoned that, if natural selection were the means by which species progress, our persistence on this planet would denote a deep level of natural aggression within the human race. Hawking often alluded to this when he spoke of our need to move to other planets in order to keep from destroying each other. He is far from alone in this view of human origins. Many people across the globe claim this philosophy, a viewpoint called “naturalism.”[1]

On a global level, our response to this pandemic reveals deep truths about how human beings value each other.

Naturalism is the theory that everything we see in reality is based on natural causes, and not on supernatural ones.[2] If we look through the lens of naturalism we see that human beings are highly-evolved animals; and metaphysical concepts like “love” and “justice” are, at bottom, our own inventions. This philosophy was a byproduct, in part, of the scientific concept known as “survival of the fittest.” “Survival of the fittest” refers to the survival of organisms that are best adapted to their environment. This phrase is often used to summarize the theory of natural selection.[3] Natural selection is commonly understood to be the process by which the best adapted, or “strong,” are naturally preserved in a population, while the “weak” die off.[4][5] This natural process serves to keep populations robust because the “strong” produce offspring for the next generation.[6]

As someone who has spent years conducting biological research and was also classically trained in philosophy, I understand the ins and outs of population dynamics, but I have a philosophical hang-up: If naturalism is true, why are we fighting tooth and claw against it? Naturalism tells us to let the weak be killed and let the strong survive. Yet, in this time of pandemic, cultures around the world are working hard to protect the vulnerable. Certainly there are some outliers who display a blatant disregard for human life. Thousands of “spring-breakers” flocked to Florida, making it a hotspot for the virus.[7] Some shoppers are buying up all the groceries, leaving none left for those with meager incomes. Others have been caught price-gouging hand sanitizer and face masks.[8][9] Yet the overall mantra of the world at large seems to be “protect the vulnerable.” COVID-19 provides a unique opportunity for any population progressing under natural selection because the virus targets elderly and immune-compromised individuals, leaving others largely unaffected.[10] Yet basically every country is moving directly against this so-called “natural process,” and thus it is clear that we as a society do not believe the claims naturalism offers us.

If naturalism is true, why are we fighting tooth and claw against it? Why do so many believe in naturalism theoretically, but abandon it in practical life?

Why do so many believe in naturalism theoretically, but abandon it in practical life? Perhaps we reject it because our memories still bear the scars of history—when societies at large employed survival of the fittest on their own people. The black and white photographs of the Nazi eugenics program and the rows of skulls following Idi Amin’s reign of terror still play upon our minds. If we don’t believe naturalism, then what do we believe? A big part of the answer comes back to philosophy.

In philosophy, there are two main ways to value something. Instrumental value is assigned to something for what it does. Inherent value denotes that something is valuable in and of itself. To illustrate, I once had a car that I really loved. I loved it because it brought me quickly and safely from A to B. I loved that car for years, all the way until the timing belt snapped. After the car was no longer useful to me, I sold it for parts, saved up my pennies and bought a new car. There was no remorse at being departed from my de-parted vehicle. Once the object had no use, it was rendered valueless. This is an example of instrumental value. Conversely, consider a man with ALS who I cared for two years ago. As his caregiver, I journeyed with him and his wife as the disease slowly took over his body. When he had to quit work and could no longer provide income, his wife continued to love him. Even after his wife could no longer sleep in the same bed, or when he became incontinent, or when he could no longer speak, she continued loving him all the same. This is an example of inherent value. The term inherent sounds a bit like inherit, and they are from the same Latin root inheriditare, a term that denotes receiving something unearned from an external source.[11] While instrumental value is conditional, inherent value can never be changed or negated because its value is contingent on something outside of itself. The question remains: If we as a human race value each other inherently, from whom have we inherited that value?

The Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Naturalism cannot sit at a table discussing equality; it has uninvited itself. In a world where humanity progresses by rejecting the weak and selecting the strong, the equality stemming from inherent value does not exist.

Arguably, we as a global society currently operate as if human beings have been endowed with inherent value on some level. We want that philosophy to be true. But what is so appealing about inherent value, especially if it means the healthy have to stay indoors to protect the vulnerable? As I write these words, I cannot help but reflect on the person of Jesus who became weak so that we might become strong. 2 Corinthians 8:9 says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich.” Hebrews 5 describes a savior who did not exalt himself, but humbled himself before God, “and, being made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.”[12] He did this on our behalf; it was our own weakness that weighed him down, and our own wounds that scarred Him.[13] Now he helps us in our own weakness, bearing with us and never giving up on us. The prophet Isaiah wrote of him: “A bruised reed He will not break, and a faintly burning wick He will not quench.”[14] Even at our weakest moment, when we feel the very life in us is about to go out, Jesus is gently blowing on the wick inside our hearts, bringing that fluttering flame back to life.

When we care for each other, we come alive because we are emulating Jesus, and he enters this world to show us what a human being was meant to look like. As Peter explains, Jesus left us an example, so that we might follow in his footsteps.[15] Thus, when we show humility and compassion as He did, we are becoming more what we are meant to be–more human. It is no wonder atrocities are often labeled “inhumane.”

When we care for each other, we come alive because we are emulating Jesus, and he enters this world to show us what a human being was meant to look like.

It is illogical to say we can apply survival of the fittest to all animal populations, equate humans with animals, and then refrain from applying survival of the fittest to human populations. Certainly, taxonomically, humans reside in the kingdom Animalia, but our origins surpass flesh and bone, and in our hearts we know this to be true. In naturalism, the weak perish and the strong get stronger. In Christianity, the strongest became the weakest to save the perishing. Naturalism is the philosophy that convinces a bird to clip its own wings. Christianity teaches us the sort of love that lifts us up on the wings of an eagle, to follow the humble savior who, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant.”[16]


[1] The National Center for Science Education found that in a 2011 poll of 24 countries, 41% identified as ‘evolutionists’. To learn more visit: ncse.ngo
[2] Oxford Dictionary
[3] Barnhart, H., & Barnhart, H. (1986). Dictionary of Science / Hammond Barnhart. New Jersey: Hammond. Page 643
[4] Ibid 427
[5] Darwin explained this in his work Origin of Species when he wrote, “This preservation of favorable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection.”
[6] Genovart, Meritxell, Negre, Nieves, Tavecchia, Giacomo, Bistuer, Ana, Parpal, Luís, & Oro, Daniel. (March 19, 2010). The Young, the Weak and the Sick: Evidence of Natural Selection by Predation. Public Library of Science.
[7] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/u...
[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/technology/matt-colvin-hand-sanitizer-donation.html
[9] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/e...
[10] Wang, D., Hu, B., Hu, C., Zhu, F., Liu, X., Zhang, J., Wang, B., ... Peng, Z. (March 17, 2020). Clinical Characteristics of 138 Hospitalized Patients With 2019 Novel Coronavirus–Infected Pneumonia in Wuhan, China. Jama, 323, 11, 1061.
[11] From which we also get our word ‘heredity’
[12] Verse 9
[13] Isaiah 53v4
[14] Isaiah 42v3
[15] 1 Peter 2v21
[16] Philippians 2v6&7

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