Are bullying, haranguing, collectivists just expressing adaptive evolutionary behavior? A new paper in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B suggests that when societies are hostile to individualism, sexual selection may be to blame.
Jumping off a growing body of research linking cultural traits to disease risk, the study’s lead author, University of New Mexico biologist Corey L. Fincher, hypothesizes that collectivist behaviors evolved to protect populations from illness. Both ethnocentricism, which discourages contact with disease-carrying outsiders, and conformity, which encourages the transmission of risk-averse behaviors, can serve as buffers against disease. Individualism may be adaptive in that it encourages innovation, but safe, wary behavior could prove more important where pathogens are prevalent.
Fincher and his three co-authors compared data on individualist vs. collectivist values across the globe with data on historical and contemporary measures of disease transmission. Controlling for other factors that may cause cultures to become more individualistic, such as income and urbanization, the researchers found that “worldwide variation in pathogen prevalence substantially predicted societal tendencies toward individualism/collectivism.” In other words, societies living in regions where infectious diseases historically have posed the biggest threats were most likely to discourage individualism. Societies most open to contact with outsiders live in regions where such contact poses the least threat of infection.
The correlation doesn’t explain how these behaviors are passed along through generations. Transmission may be cultural, as with methods of food preparation that guard against infection, or heritable, as a selection process weeds out anti-collectivist tendencies. Either way, the effect is likely to weaken as medicine reduces the risk of infection—good news for individualists, or anyone who dares stray from the tribe.