Will one epidemic overturn 200,000 years of social evolution?

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Mark Carden ponders: does the Covid-19 pandemic mean that the world has changed forever and nothing will be the same again? 

We say we'll cherish our slightly greener planet, be nicer to nurses and shopkeepers, engage with relatives and colleagues online to avoid unnecessary travel, and massively accelerate scholarly communication. 

But I'm not buying it. I accept that technological and social development will continue to gradually change our lives, but I don't think the pandemic is a tipping-point; it's just a momentary dislocation, and we will soon slip back into old patterns of enduring familiarity and gradual change.

This might seem like a cynical message of disillusion, but it is also a positive message of reassurance. Humanity won't be magically transformed by the pandemic, but nor will it be catastrophically damaged. And these are not the words of some grizzled reactionary; as someone who opened a Zoom account in 2017, I can claim to embrace technical progress, even if I doubt social revolution. 

We have been tribal primates for about 20 million years, manufacturers for about two million years, collaborative tribespeople for about 200,000 years, farmers for about 20,000 years and big-city-dwellers for about 2,000 years. Our behaviours and preferences have developed over that time, but they are still firmly rooted in social interaction, collaborative innovation, and hierarchical structures. 

Yes, we talk on telephones and screens now, but we still like to tell stories around campfires. Yes, a Korean inventor can email a mask design to a 3D printer in Wales, but we still cluster round a whiteboard and try to snatch the only working marker-pen. And, yes, we have democracy and progressive taxation across much of the world, but power and wealth remain very unevenly distributed.  

And, yes, in our own scholarly communications world, we currently appreciate the rapid global scientific response to this pandemic, with new coronavirus article preprints appearing every few hours. But we still value credibility, expertise and reputation, that has been slowly developed through a complex trust network.

Our natural traits are not going to be overturned with one wave of a viral epidemic, even if it kills one per cent of us, or stalls economic growth for a year. 

We are learning seemingly contradictory things from this experience. Many people are discovering that they (and their subordinates) really can work from home, and that business meetings can be conducted over video-conferencing. But we are also learning how clumsy video-conferencing is, and how much we crave the serendipitous chats, and stolen snacks, in the communal office kitchen. We are learning the relaxations of staying at home, and for those lucky enough to live in the countryside, how quiet things can be. But many of us are also going a bit crazy, and craving noisy pubs and high-speed motorway driving. 

We are learning that scientists can communicate rapidly and globally in times of crisis, without the friction of traditional processes and organisations. But we will also look back at those un-reviewed articles by unknown authors, breathlessly reporting on tiny samples and theoretical predictions, that are spun up into a media frenzy, and realise that the painful slowness of peer-review, the obstructive cautiousness of editors, and the commercially-motivated reputation management of publishers,  are all actually crucial parts of the scholarly landscape, however imperfect and frustrating. 

So my prediction is that, as soon as we are able, we will mostly return to our former lifestyles and practices.  This may take a while, as we still have much work to do to contain the pandemic, develop vaccines, and recover from economic hardships and personal tragedies, but it will gradually return to normal. 

We will rush out to shops, restaurants, hotels and offices, to feel the joy of real human community. Certainly we will work from home sometimes, when our bosses allow it, and we might socialise via video-conference a little more, but we want to be with others, sitting round the campfire, too.

In our research world, we will continue to wrestle with the conflicts between speed and quality, perhaps accelerating communications a little, at the expense of some trust. Pre-print platforms will start to gain some of the useful features of journals, and journals will start to gain some of the speed of pre-print platforms. 

But researchers will write and readers will read. Post-docs will try to figure out the path to becoming professors. Academics will still gather at their conferences to discuss their research; and intermediaries will still gather at their meta-conferences to discuss why academics dislike change so much. 

I reassured you that Brexit-16 would not be a complete catastrophe for UK research (Analysis and Opinion, 18 July 2016); now I'm predicting that the world will be largely business as usual after Covid-19 – we shall see. 

Mark Carden is a managing consultant at the executive recruitment firm Mosaic Search & Selection. He is also chairman of the Researcher to Reader Conference, which takes place in London each February, come what may.