Thought provoking: behavioural immune response and "pathogen stress theory of values"

  • JKMakowka
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Thought provoking: behavioural immune response and "pathogen stress theory of values"

I came across this very thought provoking article on behavioural immune response and "pathogen stress theory of values":

psmag.com/social-justice/bugs-like-made-...ocracy-beliefs-73958

Which is about how sanitation (etc.) might be one of the driving factors for culture and society. It takes a bit to wrap your head around the idea, but if true it might be a very interesting insight to help develop new behaviour change interventions!

To summarize with a few quotes:

But these individual actions are just the tip of the iceberg, according to Thornhill and a growing camp of evolutionary theorists. Our moment-to-moment psychological reactions to the threat of illness, they suggest, have a huge cumulative effect on culture. Not only that—and here’s where Thornhill’s theory really starts to fire the imagination—these deep interactions between local pathogens and human social evolution may explain many of the basic differences we observe between cultures. How does your culture behave toward strangers? What kind of government do you live under? Who are your sexual partners? What values do you share? All of these questions may mask a more fundamental one: What germs are you warding off?
The threat of disease is not uniform around the world. In general, higher, colder, and drier regions have fewer infectious diseases than warmer, wetter climates. To survive, people in this latter sort of terrain must withstand a higher degree of “pathogen stress.” Thornhill and his colleagues theorize that, over time, the pathogen stress endemic to a place tends to steer a culture in distinct ways. Research has long shown that people in tropical climates with high pathogen loads, for example, are more likely to develop a taste for spicy food, because certain compounds in these foods have antimicrobial properties. They are also prone to value physical attractiveness—a signal of health and “immunocompetence,” according to evolutionary theorists—more highly in mates than people living in cooler latitudes do. But the implications don’t stop there. According to the “pathogen stress theory of values,” the evolutionary case that Thornhill and his colleagues have put forward, our behavioral immune systems—our group responses to local disease threats—play a decisive role in shaping our various political systems, religions, and shared moral views.

and

By the time the two published a major paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2012, they had marshaled evidence that severe pathogen stress leads to high levels of civil and ethnic warfare, increased rates of homicide and child maltreatment, patriarchal family structures, and social restrictions regarding women’s sexual behavior. Moreover, these pathogen-avoidant collectivist tendencies, they wrote, coalesce over time into repressive and autocratic governmental systems.

and

But in Thornhill and Fincher’s view, it’s not just the threat of infection that shapes culture. The absence of disease threats, they argue, creates a different set of cultural conditions that, taken together, are the necessary precursors to modernity. Collectivist values, despite their potential effectiveness at fencing out disease, come at a steep cost to the cultures that harbor them. As Thornhill explained to me, keeping strangers at arm’s length can limit trade and stymie a culture’s acquisition of useful new technologies, materials, and knowledge.

So, as humans moved into drier and colder and less disease-ridden climates, Thornhill says, they likely discarded their costly xenophobic disease-avoidant ways and became less beholden to tradition, more willing to trade with others, and more accepting of technological innovations. Instead of censuring the individual maverick thinker in the group, societies eventually came around to rewarding those who challenged convention. With those changes came the rise of wealth and the spread of education to a larger and larger segment of the population. The more educated the population, the more people demanded participation in their governments. Democracies, premised upon the rights and freedoms of individuals, were the natural outcome.

Moreover, the democratizing effect of lowering disease threats, they argue, can happen quite quickly—even within a generation. Freedom House, an organization that tracks governments, civil liberties, voter participation, and equality around the globe, considers 46 percent of all countries to be “free” today, as opposed to just 29 percent in 1972. Thornhill points out that this rise coincided with an era in which major health interventions, including vaccine programs, the chlorination of drinking water, and efforts to reduce food-borne disease, became commonplace in many parts of the world. Thornhill is not shy about the implications. If promoting democracy and other liberal values is on your agenda, he says, health care and disease abatement should be your main concern.

but

The pathogen stress theory is also hard to swallow in a way that evolutionary psychology arguments often are—especially for those who fancy the idea that we are in control of our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. The next time someone tells you about their religious beliefs, try convincing them their firmly held convictions spring from an unconscious disease-avoidance mechanism. Or, alternatively, try telling a liberal acquaintance that their beliefs about openness and inclusion are only as deep as the good luck that has allowed them to live in a relatively disease-free zone.

And (a bit of a scary thought at the end)

he is certain that the most effective way to change political values from conservative to liberal is through health-care interventions and advances in providing clean water and sanitation. “That is clearly the conclusion that the bulk of evidence supports,” Thornhill says. “If you lower disease threats in countries they become more liberal, and that is true for states in this country. The implication is that if you effectively target infectious diseases then you will liberalize the population.”
At the same time, well beyond the borders of the United States, the coming decades may supply a wholly different test of the pathogen stress theory. Higher temperatures, elevated sea levels, and increased precipitation in some areas—all predicted to accompany climate change—are expected to bring tropical diseases to higher latitudes and elevations in the coming decades. Pathogens that once perished in cold climates and dry soils may find new congenial zones of heat and moisture, and new host populations. Incidents of dengue fever in the U.S., for example, are expected to spread beyond Hawaii and the Mexican borderlands as climate change creates expanding habitats for the mosquito that carries the virus. Unless effective health interventions ward off these new threats, humans in ever higher latitudes may again have to resort to their embedded psychological and cultural defenses. Collectivist group behaviors may yet stage a comeback.


But go read the full well written article :)

Looking forward to your comments and how this might be turned into an effective advocacy for improved sanitation.

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  • AlexanderWinkscha
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Re: Thought provoking: behavioural immune response and "pathogen stress theory of values"

Kris, thanks for sharing the article! Thought provoking indeed :) both in good and bad ways.

The passage I took issue with most was probably this one:

Research has long shown that people in tropical climates with high pathogen loads, for example, are more likely to develop a taste for spicy food, because certain compounds in these foods have antimicrobial properties. They are also prone to value physical attractiveness—a signal of health and “immunocompetence,” according to evolutionary theorists—more highly in mates than people living in cooler latitudes do.


I mean, whoa, there is a lot to unpack here. First of all, what about which foods actually grow where? And then how do you account for Cambodian cuisine being much less spicy than Lao or Thai cuisine? How to account for Korean cuisine being quite spicy while e.g. on the Japanese island of Okinawa further south and more sub-tropical they don´t eat spicy. What I am saying is: I´d like to see the research answering those questions.
Because otherwise it just sounds a broad generalization - much like the sentence that follows and which is arguably the most cringeworthy in the whole article. People in warmer and wetter climate tend to value physical attractiveness more than people from other regions? I will try to remember that the next time I watch "Scandinavia´s Next Top Model".

Similarly, this was quite a lot to take in:

Their theory may help explain why authoritarian governments tend to persist in certain latitudes while democracies rise in others; why some cultures are xenophobic and others are relatively open to strangers; why certain peoples value equality and individuality while others prize hierarchical structures and strict adherence to tradition.


I guess my main problem with the theory put forward - and I certainly think it is an interesting theory with a lot going for it - is the way the article presents it as ultima ratio and disregards other factors (historical trajectories, natural disasters, family ties, language barriers, just to name a few from the top of my head) that influence for example a political system. Sure, these things are interconnected, but making a claim as to why countries in certain regions are more prone to authoritarianism, while disregarding how many countries have switched from kingdom to republic, to military junta, back to democratic republic etc and how other countries have played a major role in that (CIA and Iran comes to my mind first) just makes the whole argument here reek of an imperialist mindset that tries to justify why some cultures are better than others (guess which is which) and claim it´s all SCIENCE!
Again, I do think that the theory has a point, but the conclusions that are drawn (at least in the article) don´t take the complexity of the matter into account, in my opioion.

To the credit of the article, it also states:

it’s hard not see the pathogen stress theory’s distinction between collectivist and individualist societies as a kind of politically charged, world-historical morality play


And I agree with that assessment. I take issue with the casual categorization of collectivist and individualist societies, since in the field of social sciences this categorization is contested in itself, and especially when it comes to grouping societies into one of either category.

Having said all that (and having prepared a whole paragraph on Nazi Germany before reading the article paragraph on it :) ), I appreciate the nuance the article is trying to bring to the subject - and it makes me interested in reading Thornhill´s actual papers on it.
So, again, thanks a lot for sharing!
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  • JKMakowka
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Re: Thought provoking: behavioural immune response and "pathogen stress theory of values"

Yeah, this entire "democracy" thing is maybe a bit too much and some aspects are overly generalized (but hey, so are more or less all articles for the general public), but I think you can see the article becoming a bit more sophisticated towards the end. I guess the journalist intentionally wrote some controversial stuff at the beginning to keep readers engaged all the way to the end ;)

My take-over is that things are much more interconnected than they seem at first, and if "modern values" and improved health infrastructure are more than just correlated, it might give us some pretty interesting advocacy tools to work towards both.

In some ways that is already done, as WASH interventions are often implicitly linked to the empowerment of women (although unintended negative effects can also happen in that regard). Going one step further, and seeing it as an essential step in modern nation-building, might convince a few forward thinking politicians and otherwise influential persons to join the cause.

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