Metaphors are useful. Whenever I learn something new I try to relate it to something I already know as a way of bootstrapping understanding. Of course, it’s rarely a perfect way of learning, but it is a good start, and is often enough to make decisions that, while not optimal, are better than average. The biggest mystery of all that everyone needs to wrestle with at some point in their lives is, why do people do what they do? Parents ask this question when they see their child behaving in ridiculous, self-destructive ways. Companies ask this question when they’re trying to sell more products. Governments ask this question when they’re trying to stimulate the economy, or drum up support for war. I have my own way of answering these types of questions.
I usually assume that individuals, whether they’re individual people, companies, countries, or whatever, that they are colony organisms. The same way you can think of a beehive as a single unit composed of individuals with their own motivations and decision making processes, you can think of a human being that way. In some ways that isn’t a metaphor, we literally (the old definition) are composed of cells that do not share our DNA. Most of those cells are in our digestive track, but there is evidence to suggest that changes in our gut flora not only affect our physical health, but our mental health as well. Beyond the physical, my own mind is composed of many different parts, sometimes with contradictory motivations. Whenever I do someone calls me out on doing something hypocritical, my usual response is, “I contain multitudes.” That isn’t a lie.
Thinking of people as colonies explains a great deal of their weird behavior. Self-destructive tendencies become just one part of a whole, a part everyone has to greater or lesser extent, and that part can either be strengthened or weakened depending on the situation and history one has. There’s another side to this. You can think of a group of people as a single individual. That’s an equally useful metaphor.
The reason I bring this up isn’t to just give another way of looking at human behavior. It’s to remind us that when one part of a group isn’t functioning properly, other parts can and do compensate. As Trump drums up support for building more nuclear weapons and destroying the world economy, other parts are going to push back. In the form of better energy technology and policy, and better diplomacy. Depending on the health of the organism, which in this example is all of humanity, we may be able to fight off this infection and end up healthier than we were before. I think humanity is pretty healthy. I think we will be stronger for fighting off this current virus we’re fighting.