I read an article by Randy Thornhill, via The Foundation for Economic Education, fee.org, that introduced the Parasite Stress Theory of Values. According to the PSTV, anti-pathogenic behaviors, a huge group of infectious disease avoidance or risk mitigation strategies, can lead to the development of “ancestrally adaptive feelings, attitudes, and values about and behaviors toward out-group” members, or those who potentially carry novel diseases. What does that mean? You might be reading some recent punditry that claims that the Wuhan “novel coronavirus” has caused nations and individuals to adopt behavior which stigmatizes the Chinese people and other cultures who eat wriggly, slimy, infection-prone creatures. Some of these particularly emotional, even sub rational, commentators have claimed that the prejudice is worse than the disease! Ahem, I guess that means “your attempts to avoid a lethal, infectious virus offend me, and my hurt feelings are worse than your death.” That’s the 2020 version of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Unless your words or actions can be interpreted as racist! Then you’re the worst person in the world, you racist!
Psychological adaptations to disease have played a significant role in the natural selection of cultural values in human evolutionary history. People living in regions with high levels of pathogenic stress have avoided social and economic interaction with out-group members to minimize exposure to contagious diseases. But that’s not the part of this article from FEE.ORG that really got me interested. This is the interesting part: “Public health concerns and the development of prejudices toward certain groups are not, however, the only potential negative consequences of the spread of infectious diseases. The PSTV suggests that the prejudices developed in response to high pathogenic stress have, in turn, lead to the emergence of more collectivistic cultural values across time. Meanwhile, people living in regions that historically faced lower levels of pathogenic stress have been more open to economic and social interactions with outsiders, leading to the emergence of individualistic cultural values such as tolerance, trust, and openness.“
Indeed, there appears to be a very strong negative cross-country correlation between historical disease prevalence and contemporary individualism, as depicted in Figure 1 (above). Okay, but I intend to challenge the cause-effect paradigm they subscribe to. Here’s what the author writes: “While the development of collectivist (or individualist) cultural values is not an inherently bad thing a priori, a growing body of research utilizes the PSTV to link infectious disease prevalence to negative economic outcomes via the channel of cultural values development. One study, for instance, found that countries with higher historical disease prevalence are today less economically developed. Others suggest that countries with higher historical disease prevalence are less democratic and have less economic freedom. High disease prevalence has also been linked to higher levels of economic inequality and greater deforestation.“
Thornhill and Boris Nikolaev found that countries with historically high levels of disease prevalence are today less innovative. Their theory and their interpretation of empirical evidence suggest that “countries with historically low levels of disease pathogens are more innovative today (in part) because they developed—as an evolutionary response to minimize pathogenic contagions—individualistic cultural values that better incentivized innovation than collectivistic cultural values.“
Cause-Effect violations are one of the most common errors when interpreting modern trends via historical “empirical evidence”. Summarizing their argument, they seem to be postulating that pathogenic diseases, and the response to them, was a major, or the major, independent variable that determined the cultural values, and that the cultural values then influenced or determined the economic condition. In terms of cause-effect, the prevalence of pathogens was the cause, culture the effect. My challenge is this: Geography and climate are the true independent variables determining the prevalence of pathogens—the cause, so to speak—and the prevalence of pathogens is the effect of those independent variables. In addition, culture is downstream of religion, religion is somewhat influenced by living conditions (geography and climate), religion indirectly, and culture directly, determines response to pathogens.
The two major world religions by number of adherents—Christianity and Islam—both started in relatively warm regions. Christianity and Islam spread all over the world from tropical arid lands. Even though they were geographically, and therefore pathogenically, closely related, the nature of the God each worships, and the cultural manifestations of their teachings, could not be more different. All the nations with a Christian foundation are characterized by a relatively high: degree of personal freedom, respect for private property, individualism, political participation (voting), technological sophistication, standard of living, rule of law and quality of medicine, compared to the nations with an Islamic foundation. Most of those are characterized by a high degree of authoritarianism (top down rule), and a relatively low degree of everything on the previous list compared to Christianity-foundation nations.
I assert that response to pathogens is the effect of culture, not the cause. Authoritarian and collectivist cultures, derived from authoritarian religions (including Communism, which is a religion), are more concerned with maintaining control of the population and the power of the governing elites than they are with public health. Individualist and democratic cultures are more concerned with public health and wellbeing than maintaining power, therefore they have more freedom to take effective anti-pathogenic measures. Read about how communist China has handled the Coronavirus debacle, compared to the United States, the proxy for “freedom countries”.