What monkeys teach us about the difficulties of distancing

A monkey at Prang Sam Yod temple in Thailand, where coronavirus has had an impact on tourism.

Robert Sapolsky is a professor of biology, neurology and neurosurgery at Stanford University. He is the author of "Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)As the pandemic rages, there is at least heroism to inspire us. Health care workers battling this virus. Truck drivers and grocers maintaining the supply lines of essentials. Volunteers delivering food to the elderly. The list goes on and on.

Naturally, there are also villains. Price gougers. Hate-mongers. And then there are the folks endangering lives by refusing to socially distance. How should we view this brand of villain?
Robert Sapolsky
I'm not referring to people massing in protest against quarantines, arguing that a shuttered economy is worse than the virus. While concern for the poor and newly unemployed is laudable, their humanitarianism is curdled by their various political agendas.
    The rebels I refer to disobey the rules because, well, they wanna. Perhaps they don't know there's a virus going around. Maybe they do care about others, but their circle of caring doesn't include anyone they'd consider at risk. Perhaps it's tricky, understanding that massing in groups with uncovered faces might now be as dangerous as brandishing a weapon. Or maybe they're just selfish.
      Comprehending their actions seems challenging, given their varied motivations. Here's what some of the prime public health flouters were saying as the virus took hold in March.
        There were the religious leaders who appeared to believe no virus dared harm.
        Megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne in Florida, proclaimed, "This Bible school is open because we're raising young revivalists, not pansies." (Howard-Browne later moved his Easter services online because, according to his lawyer, he had received death threats for holding his earlier services. During his Easter morning broadcast, he said he was waiting for God to tell him when to reopen.)
          The sexton of a synagogue in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, Zalman Lipsker, who said that the synagogue, "will be open until Moshiach [the Messiah]." (Synagogue officials later announced it would be closed "for a period of time.)
          Bishop Gerald Glenn, a Virginia evangelist, who held services because, "God is larger than this dreaded virus." Glenn has now died from Covid-19, Brooklyn's Hasidic families suffer excruciating losses and the virus rages in rural America.
          There are those whose flouting, rather than God- or Constitution-given, is youth-given -- a belief in their immortality and of those who matter to them. These were the spring-break revelers and the nitwits who held furtive parties stocked with post-ironic Corona beer while the virus proves more virulent among the young than predicted.
          And then there are the "Don't Tread On Me" survivalists, convinced the government is confiscating constitutional rights through pandemic hoaxes, channeling Benjamin Franklin with statements of "If you would trade liberty for security, you deserve neither," and, in a move that would pass for hilarious absurdity in happier times, comparing themselves favorably to civil rights activist Rosa Parks.
          Some of these partyers and religious leaders may now be taking social distancing more seriously than when they first disavowed it. But it's important to understand that religious fundamentalists weren't defying government rules because they want to become sacrificial lambs.
          Instead, it's about wanting to congregate in congregations. Idaho revolutionaries aren't revolting because the government conspires against their constitutional right to a speedy trial. It's the right to assemble. And the invincible youth weren't defying rules against toilet-papering statues. It's defying a ban against hanging with friends and hooking up and puking their guts out after beer pong marathons.
          Strip away the details and it's all the same. Congregating. Assembling. Partying. It's primate sociality.
          We primates are the most social species in the animal kingdom. Hunter-gatherers spend their evenings gossiping around the fire; other primates show the equivalent. Record the vocalizations of the members of a group of baboons, splice things to make it sound like two individuals are fighting and play it from a speaker in the bushes, and everyone stops what they're doing to listen.
          Our sociality comforts us. We turn to loved ones after trauma, and doing so lessens the hormonal stress response. After baboons have a close call with a lion, everyone sits, grooming -- and doing so lessens that same stress response. Put us primates in solitary confinement and we unravel.
          Sociality pays off. Chimps learn to make tools through social observation, monkeys have trouble learning transitivity with physical objects ("If A is bigger B and B is bigger than C, then A is bigger than C"), but master social transitivity ("If A defeats B and B defeats C, then A defeats C").
          While a solitary altruist will be outcompeted by a solitary backstabber, a group of the former triumphs over a group of the latter, a means for the evolution of cooperation. And humans, with our lousy speed, strength and sensory acuity, avoided extinction by working in groups.
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          Our primate brains are sculpted by sociality. One brain region specializes in recognizing faces. Another categorizes people by sex, age, race and status cues, deciding, "Is this an Us or a Them?" in a fraction of a second. If a monkey lives in a bigger social group, his frontal cortex grows bigger.
            We have evolved to bicker, eavesdrop, joust, tryst, compete, aid and backstab, and we have the brains to prove it. No wonder then that the pixilated face of a friend on Zoom, or talking through a face mask with someone across the street, isn't the next logical step in social evolution. We are being asked to go against our primate essence.
            This is not to excuse those who won't keep their distance, but to scientifically explain the sin while trying not to boil in fury at the sinner. And maybe even to understand how to change their primate minds.