More pathogens means more collectivism?

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Email this to someoneTweet about this on Twitter

Pathogen prevalence predicts human cross-cultural variability in individualism/collectivism (Open Access):

…We suggest that specific behavioural manifestations of collectivism (e.g. ethnocentrism, conformity) can inhibit the transmission of pathogens; and so we hypothesize that collectivism (compared with individualism) will more often characterize cultures in regions that have historically had higher prevalence of pathogens. Drawing on epidemiological data and the findings of worldwide cross-national surveys of individualism/collectivism, our results support this hypothesis: the regional prevalence of pathogens has a strong positive correlation with cultural indicators of collectivism and a strong negative correlation with individualism. The correlations remain significant even when controlling for potential confounding variables. These results help to explain the origin of a paradigmatic cross-cultural difference, and reveal previously undocumented consequences of pathogenic diseases on the variable nature of human societies.

The, r = -0.69 at p-value 0.001 and n = 68. You can find the raw data here. It would be cool to see trends within nations/societies. For example, variation in altitude.

Related: Toxoplasma gondii & human culture.

Labels: , ,


  1. Could it just be a consequence of the greater risk of early death? My impression is that, when people think their futures are uncertain, they tend to put more effort into being certain of various forms of “immortality”, like religion, developing a tribal identity, and controlling their children’s lives.

  2. Were the Pre-Columbian Americans notably less collectivist/xenophobic? I suppose they did initially welcome the Conquistadors. 
    Isn’t Cochran et al working on an “collectivism” gene? Maybe someone could match it up with HLA diversity.

  3. This strikes me as reductionism in the bad sense. It’s a version of the old temperate vs. tropical contrast, which mushes together a lot of different distinctions. “Collectivism” is a pretty mushy term too: it seemingly describes communist, feudal, and most tribal societies — everything except modern Western European capitalist societies, which are all located in temperate zones, and possibly some of the most individualistic premodern societies.  
    It takes a lot of tweaking to describe Sweden, Japan and China as individualist — though in fact, Swedish socialism does allow a high degree of certain kinds of individualism. The paradigm also seems to require describing pre-Columbian America as individualistic.

  4. John, in my post below on emotional vulnerability as a sexually selected trait, I cite / link two meta-analyses of sex differences in personality. They both find that more Individualist countries show greater sex differences, while they’re more muted in Collectivist countries. 
    So it suggests that these labels are really getting at something — in more conformist cultures, men and women are more similar, while they’re more free to be who they are in less conformist cultures. 
    Also, the text quoted in this post says they controlled for many confounding variables and the correlation remained significant. I haven’t read it, but I’m sure that includes latitude and other things you would be worried about. 
    As another example, one study looked at emphasis on “good looks” in a mate and pathogen prevalence (Buss & Gangestad 1993, Ethology and Sociobiology). They found a correlation, and when they controlled for latitude, the correlation actually went up! So it really was pathogen load, and not some mediating factor, that was at work. 
    This accounted for variation within a fairly temperate area like Europe — Polish and Bulgarians are more interested in good looks, and they have bad pathogen loads, even after accounting for latitude. That’s probably what’s going on with collectivism — the prediction is that Polish and Bulgarians would be more collectivist than other Europeans at similar latitudes, like northern and southern French.

  5. I’d really want to know what was meant by “collectivism”. Except as a description of specifically communist economies, I’m not sure how meaningful the term is. The abstract was not helpful.  
    The collectivism of the Poles, if you mean communism, was imposed by military force in 1945. If you mean serfdom and the dominance of local custom and religious belief, it was characteristic of most of Europe until about 1500 or 1600. Poland did not go through the transformation that Western Europe did. 
    I know nothing about the Polish pathogen load, but I’ve never heard that it’s especially high.

  6. This may be far afield by now, but around 1700-1800 the Polish aristocracy was probably the most independent and individualistic in Europe. The aristocrats were individually heroic, but Poland’s disunity made it militarily very weak, and Poland was basically at the mercy of the absolutist states of Sweden, Russia, Prussia, and Austria for the next two centuries or so.  
    Nietzsche admired the Polish aristocracy and despised people like Bismarck, but he was aware that individualists of that type were doomed.

  7. Collectivism vs. individualism is far more than just a form-of-government phenomenon. It is tied up with a culture’s basic philosophy. Pressure of conformity vs. allowance for non-conformist exrpession. View of people as individually responsible and autonomous vs. primarily as part of a family/group/tribe (does a heroic or heinous action bring honor/shame to the person of the family). Sense of duty to the society as a whole vs. freedom to take care of one’s self. Sense of duty of society to the people vs. duty to care for one’s self. And, as noted, acceptance vs. xenophobia. I’m not sure how this study measured such things, but they can be measured, and they are far more enduring in a culture than the form-of-government-du-jour (although of course they can drift over time, or be altered by widespread traumatic events such as wars, epidemics, or natural disasters). 

  8. Collectivism vs. individualism looks ideological and mushy to me. The original abstract mushed together a couple of things plus “etc.”, and you’ve mushed in a bunch more factors more explicitly than “etc.”, but it looks to me as if “collectivism” is everything but the freemarket utopia.  
    It’s weird for me to see evolutionary scientists who are normally extremely picky about the biological part of their science to use an ill-defined concept like that. 
    I don’t think that this study adds anything to the idea that the free-market societies are mostly from NW Europe or descended directly from NW European societies.

  9. Ethically and philosophically, the division between individualiam and collectivism is as clear as a philosophical issue can be. Is a person defined on his own individual merits, or mainly in reference to a group? Is society arranged primarily to serve the individual, or is the individual expected to serve the society? 
    There are many aspects of this, and of course all societies are mixed with some balance of each. And as with any social or economic phenomenon, it is complex and not 100% quantifiable. But each aspect can be related back to those two questions, and an overall estimation of a society’s balance point can be arrived at. Not precisely, but reasonably and comparatively, with enough substance for an intelligent conversation to be possible. 
    It is clear that the Western societies have developed a more individualistic balance than in most other places; these people are exploring some possibilities as to *why*, and are looking to see if disease patterns may have contributed to that outcome. If a correlation can be established, then this does add to our data set on the subject. 

  10. GGS by Diamond indicates that pathogen is related to dense human population, agriculture, complex society. Complicated societies promote fanatic loyalty to king, a trait of collectivsm. Britain’s For King and Country. Spain’s Por Dios y Espana. Such sentiments are unthinkable in tribal societies. 
    It should be other way around. Pathogen and collectivsm are product of complicated societies.

  11. PhilB, I don’t buy it at all. First, individualism vs. collectivism only is clear ideologically and ethically in some polemical context. They aren’t sharp analytical tools for understanding history, since “collectivism” lumps together tribal societies, communist societies, and feudal societies, and lumps together societies at various stages of history and with different historical paths.  
    Second, the correlation between pathogen load and collectivism doesn’t seem to be there, except very weakly.  
    There are also multiple, conflicting factors affecting pathogen load positively: backwardness, tropicalness, Africanness, and urbanization (before modern hygiene). 
    I still rank this at zero. With a little more specifics it might get up into the D+/ C- range, but it looks very bad to me.

  12. It makes more sense to me that the high pathogen load is a result of collectivism rather than the cause.

  13. I was not, above, defending this particular study, nor saying anything about it’s validity or any causation in any relationship that may exist between collectivism and pathogen load. The correlation they claim to have found may or may not be valid. 
    I was just commenting on the comments of some on the fuzziness of the concept of collectivism. Yes, John, collectivism covers a wide variety of societies, with many other characteristics. That does not at all mean that the concept is useless. With regard to this study, the concept may be useful for identifying common behaviors (e.g. ethnocentrism, comformity) of various societies, that arise from their various approaches to collectivism (or individualism) and how those common behaviors may relate to environmental factors. 
    Outside of this study, the concept is more useful for identifying societies (or aspects of a society) that respect individual rights and are thus positive for human liberty. If I am considering living in (or visiting, for that matter) a society, I care if it respects individual rights. If it doesn’t, it matters little whether it fails to do so from a tribal, communist, feudal, or fascist viewpoint; the relevant parameter is collectivism vs. individualism. 
    So all I’m saying here is that “collectivism vs. individualism” is a valid concept that can be compared between societies, and that investigation of the causes and effects of where societies position themselves on that continuum is reasonable. 

  14. I was specifically commenting on the attempt to use collectivism as an analytical concept for scientific purposes. Unless explicitly defined (which it wasn’t in the abstract, nor by anyone in the comments), I think that it’s worthless, and I’m doubtful that there’s an explicit definition that would improve the case. 
    Even in your own normative case, choosing where to live, I don’t think that an objective distinction as coarse as “collectivism v. individualsim” will be helpful. Many societies are collectivist in some situations and individualist in others, or collectivist for some people and “individualist” for others. Almost every society allows a lot more individualism for elite males than for anyone else, for example, and an American who is slotted into an elite position in one of those societies might find that he has freedoms he never would have had in the U.S. Likewise, England in the XIXc was highly individualist, formally, but millworkers or miners didn’t necessarily experience the individualism. For a last example, in stateless societies as once found in mountainous and steppe areas (old Iceland, Atlas Mountains in N Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia) there were few formal constraints on behavior, but one thing that this meant was that murders were not always punishable, so that you could be free to do lots of things except that you could be killed with impunity. The result tended to be rule by coalitions of the strongest, led by individualistic men with mostly short life spans, and in general everyone else deferred to the gang leaders who controlled the most swords. 
    I think that “collectivism vs. individualism” is most usable as a normative-descriptive dichotomy embodying the ideals of market liberalism and legal and economic individualism. I don’t think that it’s useful as a typology applicable to every society in world history; all it will tell you i that there were market liberal societies and everyone else. Quantifying it on a continuum would lead to confusing vastly different societies with one another with the help of a pseudo concept. 
    And what you get from the study is that market-liberal NW European societies and their direct descendants have a low pathogen load, for a variety of reasons.