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When evolution goes wild

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I am a fan of evolutionary psychology, the field of research that uncovers evolutionary processes and their impact on psychology and our behaviour. Obviously, evolution plays a big role in the formation of physical traits like muscle strength, bone placement, and shape, etc. But evolution also shapes our body chemistry and thus influences such crucial behavioural and cognitive abilities like intelligence, aggression, cooperation, or openness to new experiences.

But as always, these evolutionary processes were shaped over millennia in the wild. In our modern civilisation, they may sometimes go astray. For example, did you know that the historical prevalence of pathogens like viruses is a key driver of how individualistic and open a society is today?

If that sounds weird, think about it this way. If a group of hominids lives in an environment that has historically seen a lot of potentially deadly pathogens, then the hominids that have a higher chance of survival are the ones that live in tight-knit societies that are reluctant to welcome outsiders to their group. In fact, every outsider is a potential threat to the health of the group. Thus, the more “xenophobic” a group is, i.e. the more it differentiates between in-group and out-group individuals, the lower the likelihood of infections and the higher the likelihood of survival. Similarly, in collectivistic groups, individuals are expected to conform to group norms and deviations from the norm are often punished. This again makes sense if you live in an environment with lots of risks of infection because every group member who thinks they can just wander off and do what they like becomes a risk to the group as a whole if he (or she) comes back infected with some pathogen.

When a group of scientists set out to test if there is a negative correlation between individualism in a society and historic prevalence of pathogens that is exactly what they found. Today, the most collectivist societies on the planet can be found in East Asia (China, Japan, South East Asia). These are also the regions that have historically been hotbeds of infectious diseases – and these are the regions that have dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic the best. These countries not only had the experience of the 2003 SARS pandemic to fall back on when confronted with Covid, they literally had thousands of years of training in how to deal with pandemics. Meanwhile, more individualistic societies like those in Western Europe and the United States have done poorly

Societal individualism and historic pathogen prevalence

Chart, scatter chart

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Source: Fincher et al. (2008). Note: Historical pathogen prevalence is measured in z-scores with 0 being the global average. Individualism scores are measured from 0 (very low individualism) to 100 (highly individualistic culture).

But it can get even weirder. For example, did you know that rich men who are stronger tend to be more opposed to government redistribution than weaker rich men? Meanwhile, poorer men who are stronger tend to be more in favour of government redistribution than weaker poor men.

Once you think about it from an evolutionary perspective, it starts to make sense. One of the keys to our survival in the past was physical strength. Stronger men had a better chance to win a fight against rivals. Thus, stronger men had a better chance to keep what they already owned or take what they needed by force.

Imagine you were a male who, by some stroke of luck or other reason, happened to have a lot of resources (be it food, a safe dwelling, or a fertile mate). Now, some other male from your tribe came along proposing to take some of your assets away to redistribute it to the poorer members of your society in an effort to reduce the Gini coefficient of wealth inequality in your society. Since this other male was likely a pale, weakly bureaucrat who never left his cave and was generally pretty much incapable of hunting down his own deer or mammoth, I guess you can imagine how that discussion ended.

Or, imagine you were a strong male who unfortunately ran out of resources. Now, you encounter a weaker male who, thanks to his superior math skills managed to develop a new fishing technique that caught him more fish than he could eat, which he then traded for other food items and used to attract the prettiest girl in the tribe. Your impulse is to approach this weaker male and lecture him on the vagaries on inequity and how we need to show solidarity between the rich and the poor to keep our societal bonds strong and healthy. Or something like that…

In any case, the strong but poor male would likely be very convincing in his efforts to improve redistribution between the rich and poor.

In summary, stronger men act more selfishly because they can. And that still happens today. A study amongst men in Argentina, Denmark, and the United States measured physical strength by measuring the circumference of the biceps of men and then asked them about their attitudes towards government redistribution policies. And lo and behold, physically stronger men with higher socioeconomic status (SES) were more opposed to redistribution than weaker men with high SES, while stronger men with low SES were more in favour of redistribution than weaker men with low SES. 

Unfortunately, I am a very weak specimen of a high SES male, which probably explains why I have become a champagne socialist…

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