How Pathogens Affect Cultural Values and Religious Edicts

Exploring COVID-19 via the evolutionary lens

Posted Mar 23, 2020

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SARS-CoV-2
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As an evolutionary behavioral scientist, I recognize the explanatory power of evolutionary theory across innumerable phenomena of human import.  The evolutionary lens affords scientists with an opportunity to create consilience (the organized unification of knowledge) both within their fields and across disciplines. In other words, evolutionary thinking creates epistemological order in fields that might otherwise consist of disjointed findings.  

With that in mind, I thought that I would explore several ways by which evolutionary theory might be applied to issues relevant to the current coronavirus pandemic.  I’ll try do so in a series of articles beginning with an examination of how the threats of pathogens have shaped cultures and religions.

Just as the Big Five personality construct (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) is used to explain the heterogeneity of personality types at the individual level, a similar approach has been used to explain the heterogeneity of traits at the cultural level.  Perhaps the best-known cross-cultural psychologist to have done so is Geert Hofstede who scored countries along six key traits: individualism-collectivism (I-C), power distance index, femininity-masculinity, uncertainty avoidance, short- versus long-term orientation, and indulgence versus restraint. 

Of relevance to the current discussion, I-C has been shown to be operative in countless psychology and business settings.  In a 2015 paper that I co-authored with two former graduate students, we examined how I-C affects group creativity.  

Specifically, we showed that individuals from an individualist society generated a much larger number of ideas in a brainstorming task than did their collectivist counterparts.  Our paper and most other works that have studied the effects of the I-C dimension have operated at the proximate level, namely they have answered how and what questions (e.g., how does I-C affect group creativity?).  

Of equal importance, though, is an investigation of the ultimate question, namely why (in a Darwinian sense) would cultural traits evolve to be different around the globe.  In other words, rather than pitting culture against biology, behavioral ecologists and other evolutionary-minded scholars recognize that many cultural differences are adaptive responses to local environments. Cultural expressions do not exist as a counterpoint to biology; rather, they are adaptive solutions to biological challenges.

What might explain why cultures A, B, and C become individualist societies while cultures X, Y, and Z become collectivist? Corey Fincher et al. (2008) offered an intriguing answer to this question.  They examined the global distribution of I-C scores and correlated these to the pathogenic prevalence within the local niches.  

Specifically, cultures stemming from environments with greater pathogenic load were more collectivist while those with lesser pathogenic prevalence were individualist.  Fincher et al. (p. 1283) conclude: “These findings are consistent with the conjecture that, while individualism may confer certain kinds of benefits upon individuals and the societies they create, the behaviours that define individualism may also enhance the likelihood of pathogen transmission, and thus may be functionally maladaptive under conditions in which pathogens are highly prevalent. By contrast, the behaviours that define collectivism may function in the service of antipathogen defence, and thus be especially adaptive under conditions of high pathogen prevalence.”  

(Of note, I have an ongoing project wherein I examine how pathogenic density affects a broad range of consumer-related phenomena.)

Applying the latter logic to the current COVID-19 crisis, strategies to combat the spread of the virus might be easier to implement in collectivist societies given the greater penchant of individuals within such cultures to follow rules, edicts, and norms.  That China was able to contain the spread of the disease within its borders speaks not only to its collectivist nature but also to its authoritarian government, which has greater degrees of freedom in squashing the individual choices of its populace.  

However, if one examines the South Korean response, it might have been successful in part because it too is a collectivist society.  On the other hand, the piecemeal mitigation measures that have been implemented across the West might be a reflection of the ethos of individualism, which in this case might result in catastrophic downstream effects. 

My good friend and evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has long argued that religion is an adaptation at the cultural (group) level (see his 2002 book Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society).  Specifically, to the extent that religious groups promote greater cohesion, communality, and cooperation within its in-group members, it engenders a survival advantage.  

That said, evolution can be applied to the study of religion at a more granular level.  Specifically, religious edicts might yield a survival advantage to individuals who adhere to the edicts in question.  

In my 2011 book, The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal about Human Nature (pp. 47-48), I offer a biological-based explanation of a Kosher prohibition against eating shellfish. In his 2013 book The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health, John Durant posits that 15 to 20% of the 613 Mitzot (commandments) address prescriptions for personal hygiene and public health.  The ancient Jews might not have explicitly known about germ theory but they certainly seemed to have a good handle on how to behaviorally inoculate themselves from dangerous pathogens.  

Many of these religious edicts are perfectly applicable to the current COVID-19 scourge, albeit some contemporary individuals are violating the instruction for social distancing via their desire to engage in collective prayer. 

In my next article in this series, I will examine how individual-level phenomena (such as OCD) might offer some added protection against the current COVID-19 pandemic.