One of the most poignant moments of this year’s Pop!Tech for me — which, BTW had many — was Gary Slutkin’s talk on the idea of violence being a virus. You may have heard about his work in stopping violence in Chicago in a NY Times Magazine cover article earlier this year. The premise is simple: if you throw out what you think you know about violence and just look at the etiology of how it manifests in the world, you find incredible similarities to the etiology of microbial viruses. This includes not only how it spreads from person to person, but also the larger epidemiological patterns, and importantly, how it can be stopped via interventions which logically follow from the hypothesis that violence is a virus. Not that violence is caused by those invisible critters we call viruses, but rather that violence itself is a virus.
The big takeaway from the talk in my view was the term that he used to convey the idea that many of the most important breakthroughs in science and society can be attributed to making a previously unseen dynamic or concept visible. The term was “invisible etiology” and it is what I was trying to get at on my posts about reification here and here.
For those who doubt that violence is a virus despite the evidence presented, Dr. Slutkin points out that the notion of a biological virus was at one point an invisible etiology itself. It would have been just as fantastical to a doctor in the Middle Ages to believe that the Black Plague was caused by an invisible microbial organism transmitted by fleas on the backs of rodents as it is for us today to consider violence as a virus. And in fact, even after it was discovered that the epidemiology of the Plague was consistent with an invisible but real, biological agent of transmission, it took another 400 years for us to actually see the first virus under a microscope. While technology eventually caught up with our quest to understand, the important shift from the perspective of understanding and preventing the disease happened much earlier. And it was that shift in thinking that first of all allowed for concepts like quarantine and sanitation to be used in the solution to the problem, and then later to suggest to us what we were looking for with our microscopes. Until that shift occurred, no understanding would be gleaned and no solution would be found.
In thinking about the history of scientific advances, we can tick off many such shifts where the invisible etiology is made visible: heliocentrism, evolution, relativity, and so on. What is striking is not so much the brilliant insight it takes for these shifts to occur, but rather how banal and obvious it all seems after the fact. Of course the Earth revolves around the Sun, how else would the data be explained? Yet it behooves us remember — as we are quick to dismiss seemingly quaint concepts — that all breakthroughs like the ones mentioned were not only not obvious to most people, but heretical and in violation of prevailing sacrosanct ideals. How can the speed of light be constant if we experience time and space as being observer-independent? The answer of course is that our experience and beliefs were inaccurate and incomplete. Our intuitions are sometimes not to be trusted. The truth is only visible once we trust the data more than our graven images.
It is worthwhile to explore some of the reasons why invisible etiologies are invisible to us for so long before they are suddenly not. I think it has to do with deeply ingrained cognitive defense mechanisms which equate what we believe to who we are. These defense mechanisms tell us that changing our beliefs is tantamount to losing our identity and purpose. The more we stand to lose, the harder it is to be objective and let the evidence lead us to the truth. Evolution is threatening to many people because it makes them question their deepest held beliefs (namely about God), which means questioning their basic identity. Changing one’s mind, accepting a new theory, often requires us to change a lot more than we bargain for.
Here’s a personal challenge to you to illustrate the point. After hearing Dr. Slutkin’s argument and evidence for violence being a virus — not just being like a virus, but actually being the same thing in a different form — do you believe him? If not, what would be required for you to change your belief, meaning, what other beliefs about the world and who you are would also have to change?
Ultimately Slutkin is asking you to reify a new concept, that is virus not as a biological entity but rather as an abstract pattern and a dynamic independent of any particular manifestation, physical or otherwise. The microbial agent we are familiar with is just one form of virus, and violence is another, no more or less “real” than any other. As long as something follows the pattern and has the same dynamic, it is also a virus.
In the grand scheme of things, violence-as-virus is not a hard sell in our current times; computer viruses, viral marketing, and memes in general have been concepts we have had a while to get used to and whose merits we appreciate. Other invisible etiologies are tougher nuts to crack. As hard-won as evolution by natural selection has been to the scientific community, it is ironic and intellectually disingenuous for those who consider themselves scientists and free thinkers to deny that there are other forms of Darwinian evolution besides the biological.
The point is not to single out individuals or grandstand about particular theories, but rather to implore us all to stop for a moment and consider what invisible etiologies exist in the world, waiting to be uncovered and brought to the light of day. I contend that many of our biggest problems and most vexing paradoxes would dissolve seemingly overnight if we would all be as open-minded as we believe ourselves to be.