Friday, March 14, 2008

Anthropology in Everything, Pathogen Edition

Tyler Cowen, of Marginal Revolution (such a clever name! the blog's, not his) has an occasional series entitled Markets in Everything. It's a feature I love because it's so true, and it really makes me stop to think about incentives, disincentives, and rationality of behaviors, and all that other stuff from microeconomics that still makes me cringe.

The same can be said for anthropology. Anthropology is the study of human beings, and more specifically, our cultures. So not surprisingly, anthropology has insights into everything, or at least everything we care about. However, just like economics, most people don't bother to think about it. So I'm starting my own series: Anthropology in Everything (no, I will not bother being more original).

Starting off this glorious initiative: The germs made us do it! (form societies, that is).

A new study in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B finds that:

Pathogenic diseases impose selection pressures on the social behaviour of host populations. In humans (Homo sapiens), many psychological phenomena appear to serve an antipathogen defence function. One broad implication is the existence of cross-cultural differences in human cognition and behaviour contingent upon the relative presence of pathogens in the local ecology. We focus specifically on one fundamental cultural variable: differences in individualistic versus collectivist values. 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.
Basically, the more prevalent pathogens are, the more likely a society is to practice collectivism, in order to 'provide defence against the dangers posed by pathogens.'

Ronald Bailey at Reason has more of the story.

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