COVID-19, Science, and the Rediscovery of the Divine

It is increasingly the case in our young millennium that ideas initially dismissed as nutty conspiracy theories have proven true with the passage of time. Dark theories about the origins of the novel coronavirus that caused the illness called COVID-19 in China and around the globe moved one step closer to vindication this week.

While at first it was thought that the virus emerged in a meat market at which a variety of exotic animals were traded, some early observers were suggesting that the virus may have come from a laboratory.

Many leaped to suggest that this theory was highly implausible, but actually, there was little justification for that skepticism: lax protocols in handling viruses has caused SARS outbreaks in China on at least two occasions. Upon closer inspection, many signs suggest this is once again the case. There is only one institution in China that handles viruses of this sort. It happens to be in Wuhan, the epicenter of the crisis.

Further, one lab that conducts this kind of microbiological research happens to be only about 1,000 feet from the meat market in question in Wuhan. When one takes into consideration that the earliest documented cases of COVID-19 had no contact with the meat market, the idea that the virus came from a lab doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

As the New York Post reported last weekend, official statements from Chinese authorities seemed tacitly to acknowledge that the virus was accidentally released, with Xi Jinping calling lab safety a “national security” issue. This statement coincided with the release of a government document entitled “Instructions on Strengthening Biosecurity Management in Microbiology Labs that Handle Advanced Viruses like the Novel Coronavirus.”

But even if the virus did escape from a lab, the actual origins of the virus remain unclear. There is some evidence that might suggest that the virus was designed by scientists, hypothetically for the purpose of exploring how it could be fought or cured should a virus of this type emerge in a natural context. Another possibility is that the virus is, in fact, naturally occurring—that Chinese scientists discovered it and isolated it for the purpose of laboratory research.

Either way, the outbreak seems to be the product of human scientific activity. In the event that it was actually designed by scientists, we find that in the quest for knowledge that might improve the human condition, we created a bug that has worsened it. In the event that the virus developed in a true state of nature, it was human research which caused an exposure that likely wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

These are grand themes. What is the relation between nature and humanity? Who is subservient to whom? What is the role of science? To enhance human control of the natural world? To “liberate” us from the limitations that nature imposes? To protect the natural world (from us)?

The truth is that scientific research performs all of those roles. GMOs are a case in which science allowed us a greater control over nature. The development of birth control was said to be a scientific achievement that “liberated” us from nature. And of course, as science works to master nature or overcome it, scientists also endorse ideas like the Green New Deal which would limit and restrict human activity in the interest of protecting the natural world.

The contradictions of the human scientific enterprise are easy to contemplate from half a world away, but for the people in China, these things are not abstractions. An event like this outbreak forces one to confront a whole host of existential questions. China has changed rapidly over the last few decades, largely because of China’s recent success in the global marketplace. As increasingly complex technical knowledge was required for some of the manufacturing that was outsourced to China, the country developed an enhanced level of scientific expertise. The coupling of scientific innovation with a competitive market economy led to a reduction in poverty in China’s industrial centers. There was a good reason for Chinese optimism.

But the viral outbreak calls into question the human costs of this type of break-neck advancement. And as is becoming apparent, the cost is at least partly spiritual. As China emerged a global economic powerhouse, many people were justified in accepting the western assumption that human happiness is a function of material abundance. COVID-19 exposed the error of that thinking in short order. Interestingly, the crisis moved some Chinese back to spirituality.

Over at The American Conservative, Rod Dreher has been documenting his exchanges with various people close to the crisis, showing that there has been an upswing in religious speech in China. As Dreher notes, this willingness to speak on spiritual matters is a sign of how desperate many people have become—the Communist Party of China strictly represses public expressions of faith. In desperate situations, people naturally gravitate towards spiritual concerns.

That the Chinese government would undermine this kind of reflection underscores that the state is not merely depriving citizens of free speech, but also of the full range of human experience. But there are new signs that even the Chinese government might be looking to the heavens for salvation: the emergency health facilities built since the outbreak have been given explicitly religious names.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have now alerted Americans that the spread of COVID-19 in our nation is “inevitable.” Although we are fortunate to have a government that guarantees the right to the practice of one’s faith, mainstream public life in America is uniformly secular. Our elites in the media, culture, and academia often seem to view religion (especially Christianity) as a threat to the liberal values of toleration and expressive individualism.

As in China, the secularism of American culture, to a large degree, is enforced by a tight connection between scientific rationality and the logic of the marketplace. The former grooms the public for a secular life through its insistence that anything that is “real” is something that can be empirically observed (God, we are told, doesn’t fit the bill). Further, scientific innovation satiates the public’s appetite for the new—new technologies, new drugs, new agricultural practices, etc. Meanwhile, the marketplace ensures personal access to the new commodities produced by science and endlessly advertises the idea material consumption is the expression of human happiness. Science ensures that the material is all we see; the market ensures that it is all we want.

As I arrived on my university campus last Wednesday morning, I noticed that campus was newly plastered in posters from the CDC encouraging enthusiastic hand-washing. This clarified that it may not be long before Americans collectively are considering the mortal questions I described above.

We must pray for the infected, the people working to treat the sick, those working to contain the virus, and those threatened by it. We can hope the spread of the virus in the United States can be contained. But in the event that it is not, it will be an illuminating portrait of the American soul in 2020 to see how many of us would speak again in language metaphysical, giving voice to the nagging suspicion that maybe even science can’t save us from ourselves.

About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

Photo: Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

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