Circling the wagons or opening the circle

Circling the Wagons or Opening the Circle

For Dialog

By Marcia Pally, New York University, [email protected]

Abstract: “To approach eudaimonia or human flourishing,” Darcia Narvaez writes, “one must have a concept of human nature, a realization of what constitutes a normal baseline.” Beginning with the notion of “baseline” or ontology, this article asks: what is the human baseline so that we may develop public policy to suit it—policy that limits pandemic, climatic, and economic duress and advances human flourishing on the planet in which we live? It proposes that the human “baseline” is relational, where each person becomes her singular self through networks of relations with other persons and the planet. Relationality is explored through the notions of Trinity, covenant, and evolutionary biology and psychology, which find H. sapiens to be a “hypercooperative” species. The article concludes that solutions to public health, climate, and economic challenges will have to be grounded not in popular or populist “us-them” thinking but in our relationality with persons and planet as this is the way we are set up to live.


Duress makes us do strange things and the particular strange thing of “us-them” thinking. Who is the “them” to blame for “our” duress and whom “we” — the “emotionalised us”[1]—may thus target for attack, restriction, or removal? “We” does not mark any school, work, or church group but the binary of my group in struggle against those who are unfairly doing “us” harm.[2] In the face of fears and stresses, people need to feel effective in protecting themselves and their interests. Identifying “us” and “them” offers an understandable, ready-to-hand explanation of what’s gone wrong and how to right it.

“Us-them” thinking is not the usual state of things as is popularly proposed by “selfish-gene” theories and Ezra Klein’s new book, Why We’re Polarized.[3] We belong to many groups—from families to sports teams and faith communities—to which we go for support, identity, work, and fun with little energy directed toward attacking others. The many groups we belong to are the object of our attention, not “them.” But duress brings us-them worldviews to the fore. In their study of partisan politics, Amira, Wright, and Goya-Tocchetto find that “while the tendency to help the in-group appears to be primary,” “under situations of symbolic threat to partisan identity, respondents shift gears and opt for harming the out-group.”[4] “Large groups,” Vamik Volkan further explains, “like individuals, regress under shared duress … The more stressful the situation, the more neighbor groups become preoccupied with each other.”[5] Moreover, feelings of unfair harm are wounds that persist. Jeanne Knutson, founder of the International Society of Political Psychology, notes the duress- and trauma-prodded belief that, “only continued activity in defense of oneself (one’s group) adequately serves to reduce the threat of further aggression against oneself.” [6]

Until the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, these findings emerged from research on populism[7] and extremist groups formed in response to the duresses of economic shifts and what I call “way of life” change. Analyzing eight hundred elections in twenty advanced democracies from the 1870s to the present, Funke et al.[8] found that “financial crises put a strain on democracies … far-right parties see strong political gains.” Left-populism also gains, as Adam Tooze notes, “the financial and economic crisis of 2007–2012 morphed between 2013 and 2017 into a comprehensive political and geopolitical crisis … Europe witnessed a dramatic mobilization of both Left and Right.”[9]

Way-of-life duress refers to a sense of threat to the “way things should go,” to knowing what’s fair, what’s due you and others.[10] It may be prompted by shifts in demographics, technology, gender roles, etc. Economic duress includes current un- or under-employment but also fear of future hardship, the sense that familiar paths to self-betterment are disappearing. Both way-of-life and economic duress may be triggered by sudden loss or the accumulation of decreasing prospects over time. Both may be accompanied by a sense of loss of control and humiliation.

Since the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, economic duress is massive, way of life has undergone substantial change, and survival itself is threatened. Expectably, “us-them” thinking, Ruchir Sharma writes, has been “speeding up” with “populist leaders more emboldened to bash foreigners; nations less willing to expose themselves to world trade, global banks and international migration… Trends that might have taken five or 10 years to play out have unfolded in only five to 10 weeks, and all point in the same direction. To a world turning further inward.”[11]

The tragedy of inward-focused, us-them thinking is that it often does not relieve the duress that prompted it. The targeted “other” is rarely the source of the problem. People are thus left in a downward spiral of enduring hardship that continues to prod ineffective, us-them (non)solutions. For instance, economic duress and inequality continue to rise in the U.S.,[12] but it is not clear that us-them restrictions on immigrants, as promoted by right-wing populism, addresses the inequality increase. Before the pandemic, 12 percent of U.S. job loss resulted from global trade; the remaining 88 percent resulted not from immigration but from automation and productivity gains[13]–a trend likely to continue as technology advances and the tech-reliant habits of the shelter-in-place pandemic period spill into future work routines. Immigration, by contrast, spurs economic growth. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that “immigrants’ children – the second generation – are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors in the population.”[14] Moreover, they contribute substantially to the tax pool: $30 billion in the first generation and $223 billion for the next. Economist Giovanni Peri similarly notes, “Immigrants did not crowd out existing firms over the long run. Rather, they increased the size and number of firms providing investment opportunities.”[15] Increased size and numbers of firms is also a source of jobs.

If stanching immigration in an us-them approach to economic duress will not relieve it, what might better address this and the way of life stresses presently facing us? This article argues that addressing economic, way of life, and environmental challenges—indeed, enabling the flourishing of persons and the planet we depend on–begins with what neurobiologist Darcia Narvaez calls a “baseline.” “To approach eudaimonia or human flourishing,” she writes, “one must have a concept of human nature, a realization of what constitutes a normal baseline, and an understanding of where humans are.”[16] Aristotle thought similarly: “The nature of a thing,” he wrote in Book 1 of Politics, “is its end.” To understand the nature of a thing is to understand its end, its specific form of flourishing. To allow that flourishing, one must begin by knowing the nature of the species and what enables it to flourish.

The Christian and Judaic traditions propose that the nature of cosmos and person, the baseline, is relational, and it seems that evolutionary biology and psychology are catching up to the idea. In short, the reason us-them approaches fail is that they, in breaking our connection with others, violate the inter-connected structure of the world. And little good can come from that.

Below, I’ll briefly discuss relationality, drawing on the concepts of covenant and Trinity, and continue with a look at the biological research on human cooperativity in order to better understand our “baseline.” From there, we may begin to develop economic and environmental policies to suit.


Relationality as “Baseline”/Ontology

To begin investigating relationality, we may start with the notion that Being, the possibility of existence, results from the source of all that is. There could be nothing, but there’s something. The transcendent source of all “something” is what some people call God. Ian Barbour writes of God as a “structuring cause” or “designer of a self-organizing process.”[17] After the kabbalist Ein Sof and F.W.J. Schelling, this source is not so much what precedes effects (not cause-before- effect) as what is realized as it yields effects.

On one hand, each particular is radically different from structuring cause–differences in materiality/immateriality and finitude/infinitude. On the other, each particular partakes of the structuring cause to exist at all. We are grounded by the source of existence in order to be. Yet, as Aquinas famously set out, we do not partake of transcendent source directly or proportionally but rather analogically. As an analogy expresses its referent, we have radically different features from God but partake of an undergirding of-a-kindness. The b’tselem Elohim (imago) expresses this well: persons are radically different from incorporeal, imageless God; there are no features or divine physiognomy for humanity to partake of. Yet we partake analogically of the divine imageless “image.” Analogical re-occurrence is what’s meant by being made in the image of an imageless God.

Radical difference from the transcendent yet unavoidable partaking/relation is the way anything comes to be. The structure of existence is difference-amid-relation. Aquinas writes, “God himself is properly the cause of universal being which is innermost in all things [beings]…in all things God works intimately.”[18] All existing things share the property of radical distinction from the transcendent amid foundational partaking.

As difference or distinction-amid-relation is the structure of existing, not only are persons distinct from God yet in intimate relation, we are also distinct from each other yet in necessary relation. This is recognized in several of our wisdom traditions. “My very uniqueness,” Emmanuel Levinas wrote, “lies in the responsibility for the other man.”[19] John Zizioulas similarly found that, “The person cannot be conceived in itself as a static entity, but only as it relates to… [it is] in communion that this being is itself and thus is at all.”[20] Or in Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel’s words, “Life begins as life together.”[21] Kirk Wegter-McNelly, building on Wolfhart Pannenberg, summarizes, cosmos is “a place in which entangled independence-through-relationship is the fundamental characteristic of being.”[22]

Relationality as distinction-amid-relation is not a binary between distinction on one hand and relation on the other. It is rather reciprocal constitution: each person becomes the singular, unique individual she is through layers and networks of relations. This means neither homogeneity of persons nor of cultures but rather reciprocal relation among creatures who are different. And it is through these relations that we become the distinct, different persons we are.

As that is the baseline–or ontology–of person and planet, flourishing entails that we see to the relations that make us who we are, both those nearby and those that extend out in our paths of global connectedness. Our educational and economic opportunities, tensions, challenges, nutrition, health care etc. are formed by those who are not necessarily geographically proximate. Among the consequences of flouting this baseline are: (i) cognitive and emotional impairment among children who, because of abuse, war, etc., lack relationship[23]; (ii) increased risk of suicide, mortality,[24] morbidity, and “deaths of despair”[25] among isolated adults;[26] (iii) self-absorption expressed in greed and the abandonment of the needy, the common infrastructure, and common good; and (iv) the degradation of food, air, water, and planetary climate.


Relationality in Trinity

Trinity is a wonderful teacher of distinction-amid-relation. Each Trinitarian person is distinct with “its own particular distinguishing notes”[27] as Gregory of Nyssa wrote. Yet each is who he is through relation to other Trinitarian Persons. Edith Stein, the German Jewish philosopher who became a Discalced Carmelite sister, notes that for the persons of the Trinity, “I am” is identical with “I am one with you” and with “we are.”[28] The notion of perichoresis, as the Cappadocian Fathers developed it, imagines the three Trinitarian persons loosely “in a dance around,” where the identity of each emerges from relation to the others, and together, identity-amid-relation constitutes the Godhead.

The paradox of a triune unity is found also in the Judaic tradition, where God is One, a simple unity, yet also a triad expressed by the letters of God’s name YHWH. These spell out: the God of the past (ha’yah), present (hoveh, meaning both “now” and “here”), and future (yi’hiyeh). God’s here-ness is expressed also in the shkhinah, the spirit of God imagined as female and in the world–though, like the holy spirit in later Christian tradition, she is ever atemporal and immaterial.

As we analogically partake of the source of existence in order to exist, we may say that we analogically partake of the “image” of the triune community, of distinct-persons-in-relation.[29] As Aquinas held, the nature of the Trinitarian God illuminates the human condition.[30] The imago is triune. Juergen Moltmann develops the ideas to say that the entire human community, not individual persons, is in the image of the communal God. It is not each person who is in God’s image but rather persons together. As God is the unity of multiplicities, it is the union of multiple persons that is in his image.[31] Finally, as each Trinitarian person gives identity to the others, this donation is without loss; indeed, it is with repletion of identity. Thus, each human person, as she is in the image of this donative God, too is made more herself in the act of giving—an idea with not insignificant consequence for public policy.


Relationality, Covenant

My second illustration of our distinction-amid-relation baseline is the concept of covenant, a bond between distinct parties where each gives for the flourishing of the other. It is, Jean Lee writes, the “promise with one or more counterparty under common pursuit of shared values for long term cooperation and well-being of the community.” It is the promise, shared values, and telos of long-term communal well-being that are key and distinguish covenant from other human relations. Unlike contract, which protects interests, covenant protects relationship. In the Judaic tradition, the source of human covenantality is twofold. First, we partake of the relational structure of existence (we are in the image of a relational, covenant-making God; this is our nature or identity). Second, we are in covenantal relation with him (this is the kind of relating we do, our activity). Stephen Geller writes, the Hebrew Bible God is not so much a concept, an “ism,” as a relation.[32]

Covenants of reciprocal commitment among equals are easily imagined, as are covenants with asymmetric terms between unequal parties. The innovations of the Hebrew Bible are two: (i) covenant as mutual commitment between unequals, between the divine and human and among persons of different status, and (ii) covenant is forged not between lord and less powerful lord, a vassal, (as ancient suzerainty treaties were) but between God and each person directly. The substantial consequences include abstracting values and practices from the dictates of the monarch, who may change them to suit his purposes. Values are understood instead as grounded in the transcendent, whom one cannot tweak to suit reigning powers. The Hebraic covenant, Robert Bellah writes, is “a charter for a new kind of people, a people under God, not under a king, an idea parallel to Athenian democracy though longer lasting…a people ruled by divine law, not the arbitrary rule of the state, and of a people composed of responsible individuals.”[33]

Reciprocal covenant begins dyadically, God-Adam, God-Noah, yet does not remain so. Persons give to God also by giving to those in need, in Hebrew, hekdesh (made holy, made a gift to God). In this triangulation, one gives to God by giving to a third party, those in need. These triune relations-of-giving are mutually constitutive: covenantal commitment to other persons constitutes covenant with God, and covenant with God sustains us in covenantal commitments to others. “Covenant is,” Eric Mount explains, “a distinctively, though not exclusively, Hebraic metaphor and model that locates the relational self in a community of identity, promise, and obligation with God and neighbor.”[34]

The triangulated covenant (from God to person to other persons) appears in the Ten Commandments, the first three of which pertain to person and God, the rest, seamlessly, among persons. In Numbers 5:6, harm to persons, abrogating covenant with them, abrogates covenant with God.[35] Amos and Proverbs denounce the hypocrisy of performing rituals while abandoning the afflicted, as if one could maintain bond with God absent bond with the needy[36]–an oft-repeated biblical and rabbinic warning. In the Second Testament, the triangulation of covenantal commitment is seen in the famous passage in 1 John 4:20 “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” Absent love of other persons, there cannot be love of God. But John continues, love of God enables love of others: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Love by God enables and sustains our love of other persons.

Covenant—reciprocal commitment–thus extends from dyad to larger associations. Reciprocal gift becomes gift exchange network, as Marcel Mauss and others describe it,[37] where gift from God to person generates gift from person to person and on to the next person through the giving loop, thus sustaining it.[38] Who’s in the loop? Relations with whom must we attend to? Consistent with the idea that covenant/relationality is the structure of all existence, the biblical answer is: all the nations. As God covenants with Noah, it is with all future humanity. The covenant to the patriarchs, thrice repeated, is “for the blessing of all the nations” (Genesis 12:3, 26:4, 28:14). The rabbinic Mikhilta de-Shimon (bar Yochai), commenting on Exodus 19:2, notes that the Torah was given not in any country but in the open desert to ensure access to all persons because its principles pertain to all. Covenant for the nations is among the key principles undergirding the extensive biblical and rabbinic obligations to the enemy, stranger, as well as to the domestic poor. [39]

I’d like to close this section with a voice from contemporary philosophy. In his work on responsibility to the “face” of the other, Emmanuel Levinas echoes the triangulated covenant between God and person and among persons. “To follow the Most-High,” he writes, “is also to know that nothing is greater than to approach one’s neighbor.”[40] For Levinas, God “approaches precisely through this relay to the neighbor—binding men among one another with obligation, each one answering for the lives of all the others.” This “relay to the neighbor” is “the highest possible theological knowledge one can have.”[41]


Relationality, Evolutionary Biology, Developmental Psychology

Evolutionary psychology and biology contribute to the discussion of the human baseline in identifying H. sapiens as a “hypercooperative” species.[42] Cooperative behaviors “are associated with a disadvantage or cost for the actor and a benefit for the recipient.”[43] While evolutionary pressures yielded episodic aggression and opportunistic raiding where advantageous, cooperativity and egalitarianism (including communal property and childcare) along with robust fairness and sharing norms were the modus vivendi of “modern” hunter gatherers for 250,000 or so years.


Relationality and human cognitive/social development

To begin, relationality and cooperativity were key to the species’ cognitive and emotional development. The playful mimicking and exchange of gestures and facial expression between infants and their kin and non-kin caretakers, Gallagher notes, “brings the infant into a direct relation with another person and starts them on a course of social interaction.” [44] The back-and-forth yields “unified common intersubjective space”[45] with a wide variety of others that even infants know are distinct and different from themselves. It is not an uniform we-space but an I-You space.[46] Each stage of human cognitive and emotional growth emerges from this interaction to arrive at what Sarah Hrdy calls “emotional modernity”[47]: the capacities to grasp and coordinate with the attention, intention, and emotions of others in order to sustain relationship, feel safe, and learn about the world. Importantly, learning and relating generalize to strangers.

Michael Tomasello’s work on cognitive development adds that joint attention and intention create the basis for role reversal (if I touch your arm, you touch not your arm but my arm) and recursive thinking (I know that you want me to know that you know…) Together, these allow tasks to be separated from actor and distributed to various persons and so form the basis for complex, collaborative endeavors. “[T]he key novelties in human evolution were…” Tomasello writes, “adaptations for an especially cooperative, indeed hypercooperative, way of life.” [48]


Relationality, Cooperativity, and Aggression Intra-group

In addition to the psychological argument, biology too notes that H. sapiens evolved towards substantial hypercooperativity and “reciprocal altruism.”[49] “Overall,” Richard Wrangham notes, “physical aggression in humans happens at less than 1 percent of the frequency among either of our closest ape relatives… we really are a dramatically peaceful species.”[50] Benefits of cooperativity included improved food gathering, protection from animal predators, and other collaborative projects as well as more equitable resource distribution yielding greater longevity for more people and thus greater chance at reproduction. “Cooperative hunting” Bonaventura Majolo notes, “likely appeared 200,000–400,000 years BP and potentially much earlier, well before the first conclusive evidence of warfare in Homo.”[51] Peter Kappeler et al. add that cooperativity became advantageous in mating: “individuals characterised by above-average frequencies of affinity, affiliation and mutual support…enjoy greater reproductive success, higher infant survival and greater longevity.”[52]

“Natural selection,” Robert Seyfarth and Dorothy Cheney write, “therefore appears to have favored individuals who are motivated to form long-term bonds per se not just bonds with kin.”[53] Frans de Waal in turn observes, “We owe our sense of fairness to a long history of mutualistic cooperation” again not just with kin.[54] When Donald Pfaff writes that we are “wired for goodwill,”[55] he is not suggesting an absence of competition or aggression among hunter gatherer H. sapiens. Fossil and archeological evidence shows both episodic aggression intra-group and opportunistic raiding inter-group. Rather, Pfaff understands early human life as including episodic aggression amid evolutionarily-selected egalitarianism and cooperativity because cooperativity was in most contexts advantageous within groups and often between them. It’s to these inter-group relations that we now turn.


Inter-group aggression

Aggression between groups arguably might be more frequent than within them owing to reduced need for cooperation and thus a lower bar to violence. Yet in the absence of stored goods that might be useful to other groups and with only infrequent, passing contact, aggression among hunter gatherers was episodic in nature, occurring when (i) rewards were sufficient to justify risks, (ii) chances of success were high, and (iii) risk of harm to oneself was low.[56] While low-risk raiding opportunities episodically presented themselves, among surplus-less, mobile hunter gatherers, the risk-benefit analysis did not come out in favor of raiding consistently enough for raids to become a systemic (not episodic) practice.[57] As Douglas Fry notes, “Violence tends to grab the headline, but violence constitutes only a minute part of social life.”[58]

Indeed, among Pleistocene and Holocene hunter-gatherers, the regular scarcity of food may have led to cooperation when paths crossed. If, in a simple example, hunter gatherer bands battle each other to be the only ones to hunt a certain animal, the winner may end with more food. But many will be downed in the fight, the capacity to overpower the animal will be diminished, and chances increase of becoming the animal’s meal rather than making it one’s own. Cooperation may be the better survival strategy as more people live (and may later reproduce) and chances of succeeding in the hunt rise. Similarly, if one group raids the food cache of another (on the rare occasion of leftovers), chances of retaliation are not trivial–not only with the motive of hunger but with added anger at the initial attack. Cooperation or at least non-engagement may be the more productive route.

In sum, David Barash finds that (inter-group) war is not genetically hard-wired but rather “historically recent,” “erratic in worldwide distribution,” and “a capacity.” Capacities are “derivative traits that are unlikely to have been directly selected for but have developed through cultural processes… capacities are neither universal nor mandatory.”[59] Barash’s note on cultural processes is important in the caveat against extrapolating from aggression in animals to aggression in humans. Even closely related, ancestor-descendent species evince different types, severities, and frequencies of aggression owing to differences in ecological and other conditions.[60] The complication of human cognitive and cultural structures makes the cross-species extrapolation more imprudent. The cross-species aggression argument is also inconsistent with the important work by Augustín Fuentes, which found conspecific killing (intra-species) among primates to be unusual. A focus on it, he notes, risks both giving it an unwarranted role in evolution and underestimating far more frequent prosocial activities.[61]

  1. Brian Ferguson,[62] Douglas Fry, Gary Schober, and Kai Bjorkqvist,[63] Fry and Patrik Soderberg,[64] among others make a similar case that systemic raiding and war required specific conditions not found among hunter gatherers. Indeed, Lee Clare et al. find “no conclusive evidence for intergroup fighting in the early Pre-Pottery Neolithic” and warn of the “bellicosification’ of prehistory.”[65] Consistent with these findings, Matthew Zefferman and Sarah Mathew write that, “The archeological record does not provide much evidence of warfare in Pleistocene forager societies.”[66] While hunter gatherer fossil material shows evidence of trauma to the body, little can be identified as systemic inter-group aggression as distinguished from episodic aggression, accident, friendly fire in hunts, harsh initiation rites, etc. Marc Kissel and Nam Kim, in their rigorous review, note, “such signatures alone are insufficient to indicate violence, much less organized violence between groups.”[67] Kissel and Kim agree with Keeley[68] and Fry, Schober, and Bjorkqvist that periods of the Holocene show “virtually no signs of violent conflict” intergroup, much less intra-group.[69]


The emergence of severe, systemic aggression intra- and inter-group

With hypercooperativity as the hunter gatherer modus vivendi, what changes in conditions account for the shift to the systemic practice of severe aggression found in fossil and archeological evidence after 8000 B.C.E. in Mediterranean and certain central Asian and African regions? Severe, systemic aggression includes endemic raiding and warfare, the enslavement of captive populations, and the subjection of domestic populations to maiming, torture, capital punishment, imprisonment, impoverishment, enslavement, and conspecific killing.

Perhaps the most proximate explanation is the advent of sedentarism and agriculture. These allowed for regular (not episodic) surpluses ever-present for plunder, resource monopolizability, and the development of significant inequality and hierarchies (the last of which had diminished in the evolution to hunter gatherer egalitarianism[70]). With the new agrarian surpluses, the potential rewards of stealing with force, both intra- and inter-group, outweighed the risks far more often than they had under hunter gatherer surplus-less mobility. “Hunters and gatherers,” Kappeler explains, “forage cooperatively, share what they hunt/collect, and consume it on the spot. Agriculturalists don’t rely on cooperation; they produce surplus stock for themselves which can be taken by force.”[71] Fry’s large-scale study on present-day foragers, though limited in applicability to the Pleistocene, found that the majority of (egalitarian) mobile foragers do not engage in inter-group, warlike activity while non-egalitarian (hierarchical) societies do, leading him to posit that the accumulation of stored goods and the development of hierarchies and economic inequality meaningfully increase the likelihood of raiding and warfare.[72]

The desire to grab what others had and the need to constrain those wanting one’s own cache was a first prod both to endemic inter-group aggression and to systemic policing within groups. “A tiny ruling group that used coercive powers to augment its authority,” Robert Bellah writes, “was sustained by agricultural surpluses and labor systematically appropriated from a much larger number of agricultural producers.”[73] A second prod to aggression, Carel van Schaik and Kai Michel note, was the resentment that emerged among the have-nots as coercive, monopolizing hierarches violated evolution-bred, longstanding cooperativity.[74] Joel Hodge adds a third, noting that the pre-agriculture fear of animal predation tended hunter gatherers towards cooperation while the relative security of farmland decreased this worry and increased concern about thieving, aggressive neighbors.[75] Bellah describes a fourth prod to aggression in the lure of political/military power, where monopolizers want not only goods but the elite position in the newly-emerging hierarchy.[76]

In sum, while H. sapiens had had capacities for aggression for perhaps 300,000 years,[77] the occurrence of severe, systemic aggression appears to have emerged with changes in conditions associated with agrarianism. Surpluses, monopolizability of resources, hierarchy, and substantial inequality were among the significant contributors to the shift from hypercooperativity/episodic aggression to severe aggression systemically practiced.


Concluding Notes

If hypercooperativity with robust fairness and sharing norms was evolutionarily selected for 95 percent of human evolution and if—changing discourses—relationality as reciprocal relations among distinct persons is the human ontology or baseline, we will flourish to the extent that we see to this cooperativity and relationality in the way we structure our living with persons and planet. It is not so much as matter of party or ideology as ontology that the baseline of distinction-amid-relation, of reciprocal responsibility, be the ground for future policies and practices. Should we ignore it, we risk going against the grain of evolution and the relational structure of existence. This is unlikely to yield good results, especially confronting the duresses attendant on economic and way of life changes present before the Covid-19 pandemic and aggravated by it.

Economic challenges emerging from technology and productivity advances have been gravely exacerbated by Covid-19 closings, bankruptcies, and un- or under-employment. Climate change and the consequent shifts in local ecologies that contribute to genetic mutation may have had a role in the spread of the corona virus to humans. Future changes in planetary climate will too play a part in the emergence of new diseases as well as in the increase in frequency and severity of fires, hurricanes, flooding, and other conditions that make the local ecology unsustainable or uninhabitable for the local animal population, including H. sapiens.

Under such duress, we can opt for us-them responses. But this is unlikely to yield effective solutions. For those, we must return to our baseline of hypercooperativity and embeddedness in our ecological environments that developed through 95 percent of human evolution, pre-agriculture. Solutions to pandemic, climatic, economic, and way-of-life challenges will have to start there, with what makes interconnected planetary and human living thrive, as Narvaez and Aristotle have noted.

In one example, much notice was taken of the reduction in pollution that followed the Covid-19 shut-downs of March and April 2020. As we consider post-pandemic living, should we not adjust economic and energy production such that the environment is preserved—so that we do not suffer the next new disease that damages our economies and ways of life?

The question is circular. But that is the point. The relations among our ways of life and between them and the planet are a reciprocal loop. This is the place to begin public policy development.

My favorite tale in these pandemic days is the biblical story of Noah, where the flood waters were not punishment from on-high but rather: when the people’s (sexual) wrongdoings so violated the world’s natural order, the world itself responded with fluid eruptions of its own. Insofar as we address present challenges by iterations of us-them—by ignoring, excluding, or abandoning others and the planet we depend on–we will suffer the world’s response.




Professor Marcia Pally teaches at New York University and is an annual guest professor at the Theology Faculty of Humboldt University, Berlin. Her most recent books are Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality (2016), Mimesis and Sacrifice (2019) and America’s New Evangelicals: Expanding the vision of the common good (2011). Commonwealth and Covenant has been selected by the United Nations Committee on Education for Justice for worldwide distribution and it was nominated for a Grawemeyer Award in religion. In 2019-2020, she was a Fellow at the Center for Theological Inquiry (Princeton) and was twice a Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin (2007, 2010).


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[6] Cited in Volkan (1997), 160–161.

[7] Pally, M. (2020, March). Why is Populism Persuasive? Populism as Expression of Religio-Cultural History with the U.S. and U.S. Evangelicals as a Case Study. Political Theology. Online at (accessed May 13, 2020).

[8] Funke, M., Schularick, M. and Trebesch, C. (2016). Going to Extremes: Politics After Financial Crises, 1870–2014. European Economic Review, 88, 227–260.

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[12] The Editorial Board (2020, April 9). The America We Need. The New York Times. Retrieved from  (accessed May 3, 2020). Leonhardt, D. and Serkez, Y. (2020, April 10). America Will Struggle After Coronavirus. These Charts Show Why. The New York Times. Retrieved from (accessed May 13, 2020).

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[14] Blau, F. and Mackie, C. (Eds.) (2017). The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Online at (accessed May 16, 2020).

[15] Peri, G. (2013, Fall). The Economic Benefits of Immigration. Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies. Retrieved from (accessed May 13, 2020).

[16] Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the Development of Human Morality: Evolution, Culture, and Wisdom (p. 438). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

[17] Barbour, I. (2000). When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? (p. 164). San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

[18] Aquinas, T. (1948). Summa Theologica 1-5 (Ia q. 105, art. 5) (Fathers of the Dominican English Province, Trans.). Westminster: Christian Classics.

[19] Levinas, E. (1994). Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures (p. 142) (G. D. Mole, Trans.). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

[20] Zizioulas, J. (1975). Human Capacity and Incapacity: A Theological Exploration of Personhood. Scottish Journal of Theology, 28, 401–448, quote at 409.

[21] Moltmann-Wendel, E. (1995). I Am My Body: A Theology of Embodiment (p. 43). New York: Continuum.

[22] Wegter-McNelly, K. (2011). The Entangled God: Divine Relationality and Quantum Physics (p. 136). New York: Routledge.

[23] van Ijzendoorn, M. H., Palacios, J., Sonuga-Barke, E. J. S., Gunnar, M. R., Vorria, P., McCall, R. B., LeMare, L.,

Bakermans-Kranenburg, M. J., Dobrova-Krol, N. A. and Juffer, F. (2011). Children in Institutional Care: Delayed Development and Resilience. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 76(4), 8-30. Nelson, C., Fox, N. A. and Zeanah, C. H. (2014). Romania’s Abandoned Children: Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[24] Pantell, M., Rehkopf, D. H., Jutte, D., Syme, S. L., Balmes, J. and Adler, N. (2013). Social isolation: a predictor of mortality comparable to traditional clinical risk factors. American Journal of Public Health, 103(11), 2056-2062.

[25] Case, A. and Deaton, A. (2020). Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[26] Cacioppo, J. and Cacioppo, S. (2014). Social Relationships and Health: The Toxic Effects of Perceived Social Isolation. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 8(2), 58-72. Laugesen, K., Munksgård Baggesen, L., Jóhannesdóttir Schmidt, S. A., Glymour, M. M., Lasgaard, M., Milstein, A., Sørensen, H. T., Adler, N. E. and Ehrenstein, V. (2018). Social isolation and all-cause mortality: a population-based cohort study in Denmark. Scientific Reports, 8(4731). Leigh-Hunt, N., Bagguley, D., Bash, K., Turner, V., Turnbull, S., Valtorta, N. and Caan, W. (2017). An overview of systematic reviews on the public health consequences of social isolation and loneliness. Public Health, 152, 157-171.

[27] Gergory of Nyssa. (1961) Ad petrium. In Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Basil: The Letters II (Ep. 197-227; 207-209) (R. J. Deferrari, Trans.). London: Loeb Classical Library Heinemann.

[28] Stein, E. (1950). Endliches und Ewiges Sein (p. 324). Leuven: Nauwelaerts; Freiburg, Germany: Herder.

[29] Grenz, S. (2001). The Social God and the Relational Self (p. 57). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

[30] See, for instance, Aquinas (1948), Ia. 40.2.

[31] Moltmann, J. (2012). Ethics of Hope (p. 220) (M. Kohl, Trans.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.

[32] Geller, S. (2000). The God of the Covenant (pp.295-296). In B. N. Porter (Ed.), One God or Many? Concepts of Divinity in the Ancient World (pp. 273-319). Maine: Casco Bay Assyriological Institute.

[33] Bellah, R. (2011). Religion in Human Evolution (Kindle Locations 4700-7701; 4864). Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard University Press.

[34] Mount Jr., E. (1999). Covenant, Community and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (p. 1). Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press.

[35] “Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty.”

[36] Amos 5:21–24: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me… But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream”; Proverbs 21:3: “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than [ritual] sacrifice.”

[37] Mauss, M. (1990). The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Society (W. D.

Halls, Trans.). London: Routledge.

[38] See also, Godbout, J. and Caille, A. (1998). The World of the Gift (D. Winkler, Trans.). Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.


[39] Pally, M. (2019). Sacrifice amid Covenant (pp. 108-109). In M. Pally (Ed.), Mimesis and Sacrifice: Applying Girard’s Mimetic Theory Across the Disciplines (pp. 103-117). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

[40] Levinas (1994), 142.

[41] Levinas, E. (1994). In the Time of Nations (p. 171) (M. B. Smith, Trans.). London: Athlone Press.

[42] de Waal, F. B. M. (2000). Primates–A natural heritage of conflict resolution. Nature, 289, 586-590, quote at 589.

[43] Kappeler, P. (2019). A Comparative Evolutionary Perspective on Sacrifice and Cooperation (p. 39). In M. Pally (Ed.), Mimesis and Sacrifice: Applying Girard’s Mimetic Theory Across the Disciplines (pp. 37-50). London: Bloomsbury Academic.

[44] Gallagher, S. (2005). How the Body Shapes the Mind (p. 128; see also pp. 224-225; 244-245). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

[45] Gallese, V. (2005). ‘Being like me’: Self-other identity, mirror neurons, and empathy (pp. 105; 111). In S. Hurley and N. Chater (Eds.), Perspectives on Imitation (pp. 101-118). Cambridge: MIT Press.

[46] Reddy, V. (2008). How Infants Know Minds (pp. 19-21). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Hobson, R. P. and Hobson, J. A. (2012). Joint attention or joint engagement? (pp. 120-121). In A. Seemann (Ed.), Joint Attention (pp. 115-135). Cambridge: MIT Press.

[47] Hrdy, S. (2009). Mothers and Others: Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding (pp. 204-206; 282). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[48] Tomasello, M. (2019). Becoming Human: A Theory of Ontogeny (Kindle Locations 5521-5522). Cambridge/London: Belknap/Harvard University Press.

[49] Trivers, R. L. (1971). The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46(1), 35-37.

[50] Wrangham, R. (2019). The Goodness Paradox (p. 19). New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

[51] Majolo, B. (2019). Warfare in an evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary Anthropology, 28, 321-331, quote at 326.

[52] Kappeler, P. Fichtel, C. and van Schaik, P. (2019). There Ought to Be Roots: Evolutionary Precursors of Social Norms and Conventions in Non-Human Primates. In N. Roughley and K. Bayertz (Eds.), The Normative Animal?: On the Anthropological Significance of Social, Moral, and Linguistic Norms (pp. 65-82). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[53] Seyfarth, R. and Cheney, D. (2012). The Evolutionary Origins of Friendship. Annual Review of Psychology, 63, 153-177, quote at 170.

[54] de Waal, F. B. M. (2014). One for All. Scientific American, 311, 68-71, quote 71. See also, Bowles, S. and Gintis, H. (2013). A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Silk, J. B. and House, B. R. (2011). Evolutionary Foundations of Human Prosocial Sentiments. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(S2), 1091017.

[55] Pfaff, Donald W. (2014). The Altruistic Brain: How We Are Naturally Good (p. 5). New York: Oxford University Press.

[56] Wrangham (2019), 262. See also, Majolo, B. (2019). Warfare in an evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary Anthropology, 28, 321-331, quote at 327.

[57] Ferguson, R. B. (2013). Pinker’s List. In D. P. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 112-131). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[58] Fry, Douglas P. (2006). The human potential for peace: An anthropological challenge to assumptions about war and violence (p. 1). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[59] Barash, D. (2013, September 19). Is There a War Instinct? Aeon. Retrieved from (accessed May 18, 2019). Regarding the role of culture, see also, Majolo (2019), 323.

[60] Thierry, B., Iwaniuk, A. N. and Pellis, S. M. (2000). The influence of phylogeny on the social behaviour of macaques (Primates: Cercopithecidae, genus Macaca). Ethology, 106, 713-728.

[61] Fuentes, A. (2012). Race, monogamy, and other lies they told you (p. 124). Berkeley: University of California Press.

[62] Ferguson, R. B. (2013). The Prehistory of War and Peace in Europe and the Near East. In D. P. Fry (Ed.), War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views (pp. 191-240). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[63] Fry, Douglas, Schober, G. and Bjorkqvist, K. (2010). Nonkilling as an evolutionary adaptation. In J. E. Pim (Ed.), Nonkilling Societies (pp. 101-128). Honolulu: Center for Global Nonkilling.

[64] Fry, D. and Soderberg, P. (2013). Lethal aggression in mobile forager bands and implications for the origins of war. Science, 341, 270-273.

[65] Clare, L., Dietrich, O., Gresky, J., Notroff, J., Peters, J. and Pöllath, N. (2019). Ritual practices and conflict mitigation at Early Neolithic Körtik Tepe and Göbekli Tepe, Upper Mesopotamia: a mimetic theoretical approach (p. 101). In I. Hodder (Ed.), Violence and the Sacred in the Ancient Near East: Girardian Conversations at Çatalhöyük (pp. 96-128). London: Cambridge University Press.

[66] Zefferman, M. and Mathew, S. (2015). An Evolutionary Theory of Large-Scale Human Warfare: Group-Structured Cultural Selection. Evolutionary Anthropology, 24, 50-61, quote at 59.

[67] Kissel, M. and Kim, N. C. (2019). The Emergence of Human Warfare: Current Perspectives. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 168(S67), 141-163, quote at 151.

[68] Keeley, L. (2014). War Before Civilization – 15 Years On (p. 30). In T. Shackelford and R. Hansen (Eds.), The Evolution of Violence (pp. 23-31). New York: Springer.

[69] Kissel and Kim (2019), 155.

[70] Boehm, C. (1999). Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[71] Kappeler, P. (2019). Personal communication.

[72] Fry (2006).

[73] Bellah (2011), Kindle Locations 3279–3281.

[74] van Schaik, C. and Michel, K. (2016). The Good Book of Human Nature: An evolutionary reading of the Bible. New York: Basic Books.

[75] Hodge, J. (2019, Feb. 19). Personal communication.

[76] Bellah (2011), Kindle Locations 3974–3976.

[77] Kissel and Kim (2019), 157.