Sociological approaches to understanding the COVID crisis are anchored to the relationship between social structures and epidemiological patterns, or Social Epidemiology. Although we sociologists have a tendency to distance ourselves from evolutionary explanations (Takacs, 2018), evolutionary approaches in social epidemiology would likely explore the social structural conditions within which microbiological “accidents,” like a novel coronavirus, become epidemiological phenomena, and why they occur in varying ways depending on social structures.
Adding the lens of human-animal studies helps distill the specific social structures that affect the survival and success of microbiological “accidents.” Most relevant to COVID, and what I will focus on here, are structures that guide how humans treat nonhumans as food, and the institutionalization of animal welfare in response to animal advocacy movements (Evans, 2016; Finsen & Finsen, 1994; Garner, 2008). Welfare regulations, both domestically and internationally, and patterns in the evolution of new viral strains betray underlying forms of what Paul Farmer (2005) calls “structural violence”: social arrangements that put specific groups in harm’s way.
Socio-economic structures that organize meat and dairy production encourage the emergence and spread of more dangerous infectious diseases. Specifically, social structures based on logics of speciesism and mass production both cause crowding of human and nonhuman animals in various institutional contexts. Crowding and mingling of multiple species facilitate the emergence of new and more dangerous strains. In the case of COVID-19, structures that reward mass production also lead to health disparities in the contraction of the novel coronavirus, where Black and Brown people are disproportionately more likely to die of COVID (Laurencin & McClinton, 2020).
Incremental policy reforms of meatpacking regulations, including those related to animal welfare, began in response to movements during the Progressive Era, including labor movements, consumer protection movements, and animal advocacy. However, the logic of these reforms did not challenge the economic structures that facilitate increased animal abuse and worker abuse, and that guide patterns in the evolutionary success of novel viruses.
The original first chapter of Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, was first published on February 4th, 1905 in a Socialist periodical called Appeal to Reason. The novel was based on Sinclair’s research of Chicago Stockyards and his original intention was to expose abusive conditions for immigrant workers inside the meatpacking industry. A drawing by C.W. Fryer accompanied the first chapter. Crowds of desperate immigrants at the entrance of the stockyards begging for jobs and the caption reads, “1905—The Victims of Capitalism. This Is No Dream.” (Degruson, 1988).
Sinclair intended for his novel to influence change on behalf of the working class, but it instead influenced more changes to public health regulations of meat production. During this era of social movement mobilizing, known as the Progressive Era, activists and political leaders debated about whether to address these problems by seeking to turn over control of the means of production to workers (a la Socialism) or by relying on government regulation reforms and continuing the status quo of capitalist mass production. Due to overlapping historical events, the reformist path was taken and multiple systems evolved–social and viral systems, if you will.
As a result of the Progressive Era changes, meatpacking and the process of killing animals for consumer markets is now a federally regulated system in two ways. Federal laws regulate food safety and, in response to an emerging animal rights movement, they also regulate the welfare of animals. These laws and policies related to animal suffering reflect the “institutionalization” of animal welfare, where activists’ demands are incorporated into the political system (Meyer, 2006). Animal welfare was defined and protected not outside the prevailing political system, but within two logics: that of capitalist mass production and of speciesism.
Farmers breed, raise, and kill as many animals as possible to stay in business, and most do it as cheaply as possible. Crowding animals within small spaces is key, as is killing them quickly using heavy manufacturing equipment. These two goals also cause animal suffering in myriad ways that federal regulations of meat and dairy production do not address. Instead of protecting animals’ welfare during life, animal welfare regulations in food production are designed only to alleviate panic, terror, and the physical pain of death. This institutional logic coupled with competitive market forces incentivized industry to use new technologies to mass-produce meat and dairy, leading to the development of “concentrated animal feed operations” (CAFOs), or simply, “factory farms.”
Mass industrial production increases the density of human and nonhuman animal populations to a degree that is threatening global public health. Industrialization pulls workers towards a center of manufacturing, creating crowded cities, increased poverty, and related public health crises. In crowded conditions, one individual’s health problem is often a public health crisis–most explicitly with infectious diseases. When one person gets sick, they will make at least two other people sick, they will make two more sick, and so on. That’s also true for nonhuman animals in factory farms and overcrowded conditions in multiple human industries, which is why half of the antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used for livestock (Pachirat, 2011).
Another institutional logic that is left unchallenged by regulatory oversight is that of speciesism and consumption of nonhuman animals. Pathogenic organisms, including viruses that cause pandemics, evolve quicker and into even more dangerous mutations when there are three or more species interacting consistently in crowded conditions. The novel coronavirus was a mutation that occurred within the live animal markets of China, and as a microbiological evolutionary success, it thrived and spread easily across the globe. It thrived especially well in factory farms in the U.S.
Sadly, although the institutionalization of animal welfare changed the process of meat production in the U.S., logics of speciesism and mass production are the same in both the U.S. and China’s cultural contexts, and still differ little from what Sinclair described in The Jungle. The current pandemic is only the most obvious manifestation of the price society has to pay for these logics.
Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:
- Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
- Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
- Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Will Kalkhoff, Richard T. Serpe, and Josh Pollock
- Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
- Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn
- Speculations About Why Sociological Social Psychology Largely Elides Evolutionary Logic by Steven Hitlin
- The Coronavirus Pandemic, Evolutionary Sociology, and Long-Term Economic Growth in the United States by Michael Hammond
- Institutionalization of Animal Welfare and the Evolution of Coronavirus(es) by Erin M. Evans
- The Coronavirus in Evolutionary Perspective by Alexandra Maryanski
- Gene-Culture and Potential Culture-Gene Coevolution: The Future of COVID-19 by Marion Blute
- For God’s Sake! What’s All This Fuss About a Virus? by Andrew Atkinson
Degruson, G. (1988). The Lost First Edition of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Memphis, TN: St. Lukes Press: Peachtree Publishers.
Evans, E. (2016). Stumbling Blocks or Stepping Stones? The problems and promises of policy reform goals for the animal advocacy movement. Sociological Perspectives, 59(4), 41-59.
Farmer, P. (2005). Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Finsen, L., & Finsen, S. (1994). The Animal Rights Movement in America: From Compassion to Respect. New York, NY: Twayne Publishers.
Garner, R. (2008). The Politics of Animal Rights. British Politics, 3, 110-119.
Laurencin, C. T., & McClinton, A. (2020). The COVID-19 Pandemic: a Call to Action to Identify and Address Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities. Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, 7, 398-402.
Meyer, D. S. (2006). Politics of Protest. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Pachirat, T. (2011). Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Takacs, K. (2018). Discounting of Evolutionary Explanations in Sociology Textbooks and Curricula. Frontiers in Sociology, 3(24).