Book Review: Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live

Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live by Nicholas A. Christakis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three stars for dry writing. It was an interesting enough read. Christakis gives the impression of being called in as an expert witness to uphold the Quiz Broadcast – REMAIN INDOORS – narrative, and he does, enthusiastically, before contradicting it repeatedly.

“Once again, everything that we’re doing is exactly what we should be doing. This is the only way we’re going to beat it. It is your moral duty to listen to government. Here are the many and varied ways the government in general, and Trump in particular, has done everything wrong since this started. I will now list the data as to why none of these methods work. BUT, I cannot stress enough that these methods work.”

“It is imperative that we remain indoors and avoid everyone else, in order to flatten the curve. But it shouldn’t be social distance. The last thing we want right now is to socially isolate, as that suppresses immune system and leads to mental health outcomes that can be as bad or worse than the virus in terms of casualties.”

“The vaccine will dramatically reduce the number of deaths and save us all. Rescue is on its way! Unrelatedly, vaccines take 10 years to make, at which point they’re often unsafe, and historically, most pandemic diseases have been dealt with by herd immunity, with medical interventions occurring well after the pandemic is in remission and the infection line has flattened or begun to drop.”

He says masks kind of sort of work, but only as a means of blocking you from spraying your grotesque fluids onto the people around you. They do nothing to protect you unless it’s one of those N95 respirators. Wearing a mask is a show of good faith, demonstrating that you acknowledge we are in a pandemic situation and, yes, it effects you, too. It’s solidarity and altruism both, and that’s the kind of thing that got us through all the past pandemics.

Oh yeah, that’s a big point. These unprecedented times? Don’t buy the hype. They’re not all that unprecedented. Christakis rattles off a laundry list of other crippling pandemics, drawing the most comparisons between COVID and the Spanish Flu of 1918. He’s of the belief it was easier to get people to behave like responsible adults because Americans were in the midst of WWI, and “flattening the curve” or whatever euphemism they had for that around the turn of the century was seen as doing your part to support the troops.

He also rolls through some survey data, presumably to make good on his promise to discuss the impact of Coronavirus you can’t get from a glance at the grocery store. People are lonely and isolated. Women report greater anxiety and loneliness than men. Mental illness self-report for everybody is way, way up. Small businesses are collapsing, and the world looks like it’s on fire.

At the same time, there are these huge, sweeping grassroots efforts from individuals and nonprofits trying to fight the virus and help their neighbors. Overwhelmingly, people report being totally down with observing quarantine and distancing procedures. Charitable donations are higher and more frequent. People are pitching in their time to provide essential services to those who don’t have them, and everybody seems to be trying to protect health care workers; Christakis was especially fascinated by a sort of volunteer nanny service organized by furloughed workers to watch the children of health care workers for free while they’re out there working triples, tending the afflicted, burning out, and dying at much higher rates than the rest of the population. And that last part held true even before the pandemic.

The take home is wash your hands and wear your li’l mask, but manage your expectations. The vaccine probably isn’t going to return us to Eden. Vaccines take a decade to get out of trial stages, and even those kill people in droves. The vaccine we’re working on attacks the portion of the viral RNA that binds to our proteins and communicates the blueprint of how to do the same to our immune system. It’s a new frontier. We’ve never tried to make a vaccine like this before, we’ve never attacked it from this angle before, we’ve never tried to push it through on this timetable before, and it’s never been so obfuscated and politicized before.

Historically, medical interventions have done very little to control these major disease outbreaks, since they tend not to hit the scene until long after the damage is done and the population is already recovering. It’s usually some combination of widely dispersed antibodies (the same way as they used to do chicken pox, unfortunately), herd immunity, and the virus itself mutating into something less severe. This last part is naturally selected for being beneficial to the virus, too. It wants to propagate, and if its host dies, so does the virus’s efforts at propagation.

Rescue is not coming. Not in a timely fashion, anyway. But that’s okay. We don’t really need rescue. We just need to be accountable for ourselves, empathetic to our neighbors, and exhibit a modicum of hygiene.

If you really want to fight Coronavirus, stop drinking soda and eating Pop-Tarts. Take a walk in the sun. Adopt a dog and take care of it. Hang out with the friends you can safely hang out with. Exercise, eat well, sleep enough, meditate, and have emotionally gratifying sex (probably not with strangers). If the American people were healthier in general, COVID wouldn’t be able to capitalize on the pre-existing epidemic of chronic diseases of civilization.

And stop smoking, you stupid bastards.

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Book Review: The Depths

The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression EpidemicThe Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic by Jonathan Rottenberg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hands down the best book I’ve ever read about depression.

Rottenberg introduces the concept of depression as an evolutionary valuable response by distilling it down to low mood and lack of responsivity, then examining where it would be adaptive. Depression can spontaneously occur in an otherwise psychologically healthy individual in response to grief, and that makes adaptive sense.

In the Paleolithic, if someone you knew died, there was a reason, and that reason endangered you too. The most likely culprits were poison or predation; this was before metabolic syndrome and car crashes slaughtered us by the million. Your odds of getting got by predators massively decreased if you never left the cave. There’s the depressive malaise, the inability to even get out of bed. It’s safe in bed. Why risk it?

As for poison, we weren’t big on cause-and-effect back then, so instinct had to phone it in. Something we ate, something accessible, killed one of our own. The most adaptive move is waiting for this particular storm to pass; the grieving individual is already less likely to be moving around, so their metabolic requirements have dropped to just above basal, and the loss of appetite both corresponds to the reduced energetic expenditure and the increased danger potential of available food.

Fast forward a couple million years, and we are now sophisticated thinking machines running on antiquated unga-bunga hardware. When we lose someone close to us, we still get acute depression. It would be unnatural not to undergo a loss pf appetite and joie de vivre following the death of a loved one.

The implication in The Depths is different people have grief thresholds, calibrated neuroanatomically over our lifespans, nature and nurture both playing their role. Hereditarily, this is in keeping with the research on the hedonic treadmill that keeps us screeching back to our happiness (or misery) baseline.

The nurture aspect complicates things. While a high happiness baseline can improve an individual’s natural resilience, a traumatic childhood can mess with that resilience manifesting in the first place. Extending our reductionist beep-boop analogy from earlier, it can lead to the grief switch getting stuck in the “On” position, because the brain never got the opportunity to learn how to turn it off.

I like this perspective on depression more than the disease model for the empowerment and autonomy it provides those afflicted.

Depression not as a spiritual cancer, a personal failing, or a lack of grit or whatever, but as a naturally occuring evolutionary response that once saved our ancestor’s lives. It isn’t a signal of weakness, it’s a signal that something is wrong. That the individual is mourning some sort of loss.

At this point, we get into the weeds, and it’s better handed off to an individual psychotherapist on an individual basis. You can grieve anything, from a loved one to getting fired to an abstract “loss of innocence” that was never addressed at the appropriate time. You’d be amazed at the wackadoo physical symptomology the body will manufacture in response to these psychologically seismic experiences you didn’t realize (or didn’t let yourself realize) were significant at the time.

It makes more sense to view depression as a signal, the same way we view pain. Something is wrong. From there, it’s just a matter of finding out what.

And considering inert placebos are 82% as effective as antidepressants (as per Irving Kirsch’s 2010 research), it’s probably not “a lack of medication” that’s wrong.

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