The Evolution of Human Stubbornness

Why do anti-vaxxers stick with their refusal to save themselves and the lives of others?





A lot has been written about the various reasons people are refusing to get the Covid19 vaccine. Unaware of the twenty years that mRNA techniques have been in the works, some feel the vaccines have been developed “too soon.” Others think the shots are part of a “human experiment,” and they are not swayed by the expansive clinical trials nor by the fact that 3.6 billion doses have been administered around the world so far with minimal or no side effects and almost nonexistent mortality. Dying from the virus is much more likely. There is also a group that worries about what might happen to their bodies down the road after a vaccine, seemingly confused about how these vaccines, and all vaccines, work, and forgetting that their bodies have been happily dealing with many vaccines since infancy. And some are following the directive of Republican leaders, many of whom are vaccinated yet warn their constituents against it.


But the main feature that unites the anti-vaxxers and the vaccine-hesitant is a mindset that clings to their convictions in the face of the exponential and rising rates of infection and death in the unvaccinated. And they surprisingly hold on to the fear of vaccination even after contracting Covid and nearly dying. These are stubborn people, and stubbornness seems to be part of human nature.


The evidence of human stubbornness is all around us — fidelity to a political party no matter how idiotic the party bosses act, defending and making excuses for people who start behaving badly, staying with partners and jobs that are physically or emotionally dangerous in hopes that things will change, being dogmatic about some issue and never letting go, even in the face of reliable information to the contrary. It also gets in the way of adapting to new technology, learning new ideas, meeting new people, and experiencing other cultures.


In general, people also hate change of any kind, anything outside their perceived envelope, because it upends that feeling of stability that comes with knowing who you are and where you belong. Disconnected from your regular home, work, friends, family, or country makes a person feel alone and crazy. Moving across town can throw someone into the depths of despair, and changing jobs is considered one of the most stressful events ever because physical change forces mental change, and we really hate that. When change happens, people stubbornly mourn for their “old life” and grieve for the unifying customs and beliefs of the people they used to know.

Also, stubbornness shows up early, out of nowhere, as any parent of a two-year-old will tell you. It’s amazing to watch a lovely child become a monster who refuses to wear some outfit (or any clothes at all) and makes a fuss until they get their way. The early appearance of heel digging supports the notion that being stubborn and unwilling to change is part of human nature. Of course, some people aren’t stubborn, but we call them “easy-going,” “flexible,” or “pushovers” and think of them as weird outliers in the human playbook.


Surely, this universal trait of stubbornness in opinions and beliefs is so widespread and so deeply felt, that it must have evolutionary roots. Natural Selection seems to have favored those who never change their minds, which means there must have been some reproductive advantage in our evolutionary history for being a butthead.

Our ancestors were hunters and gatherers for 99% of human history and that type of substance meant living in small bands that traversed the landscape looking for food. Based on both contemporary hunters and gatherers and the paleontological and archaeological records, anthropologists have suggested these bands were made up of women who cooperatively cared for infants and gathered plant foods while males went off hunting. Anthropologists also speculate that band members were closely related making them a natural evolutionary pod. These bands were certainly faced with many levels of change including the availability of food resources and fluctuations in the environment (droughts, downpours, sandstorms, etc.). Those ecological and resource changes must have been challenging and often life-threatening. But there was safety in numbers — humans have the social skills to form tight relationships and alliances, and they know how to behave cooperatively to benefit the whole. That band was the be-all and end-all of survival, and so humans were selected to invent all sorts of ways that promoted social cohesion. For example, they embraced a sense of cultural identity and developed rituals and traditions to reinforce a communal belief system that joined people together.


The social network of the band was presumably the stable foil against all external changes. Members of these bands needed to think alike and hold on to their collective beliefs no matter what. Cling to each other, dig in, and be united in outlook and action because we are facing these threats together. Today we might call this allegiance or loyalty, but it was just basic survival in the past.


I suggest that humans are often cemented by their own brain cells, feeling right and righteous, because that refusal to change, that fear of the new, feels safe. Sticking to your convictions is the mental equivalent of going into the house and locking the door so no one can get you.


In other words, it’s in our genes to be buttheads.


But that sort of stubborn mindset today, especially during a pandemic, has no selective advantage. There are now almost 8 billion people on the planet and we are spread far and wide; our social and physical environment has changed dramatically from the hunter and gatherer days. Our new environment is no longer the scenario of a small group of related humans confronting a hungry lion or a drought that dries up all the tubers. Instead, we have a deadly species-wide pandemic, an invisible microbe designed by evolution to bring everyone down. And online is certainly the worse place to look for a new band of brothers and sisters who agree with you because the internet is not a cooperative band helping each other out. It’s an amorphous and gigantic group of unrelated and unknown stubborn people. They think they know best and can therefore refuse to listen or to change. The stubborn “loyalty” afforded political parties during this time is also ridiculous if it means you might die. That’s not how band affiliations are supposed to work; stubborn loyalty evolved to keep members alive, not kill them.


Rejecting a life-savings vaccine, thinking you are holding on to traditional, normative ideas and beliefs, or deciding to put your life at risk as a sign of loyalty to some politico is not the safer option, it’s the dangerous one.


Human stubbornness at this juncture in our history is maladaptive and a harbinger of death.

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