April 15, 2008


Sharon Begley writes in Newsweek:

The West epitomizes individualistic, do-your-own thing cultures, ones where the rights of the individual equal and often trump those of the group and where differences are valued. East Asian societies exalt the larger society: behavior is constrained by social roles, conformity is prized, outsiders shunned. "The individualist-collectivist split is one of the most powerful differences among cultures," says {Richard] Nisbett [author of The Geography of Thought]. But the reason a society falls where it does on the individualism-collectivism spectrum has been pretty much a mystery. Now a team of researchers has come up with a surprising explanation: disease-causing microbes. Societies that evolved in places with an abundance of pathogens, they argue, had to adopt behaviors that add up to collectivism, for reasons of sheer preservation. Societies that arose in places with fewer pathogens had the luxury of individualism, which is less effective at limiting the spread of disease but brings with it other social benefits, such as innovation.

The scientists started with the fact that certain behaviors make you less likely to contract an infectious disease. A reluctance to interact with strangers can protect against pathogens because strangers are more likely to carry strange microbes that the group lacks immunity to, says Mark Schaller of the University of British Columbia; xenophobia keeps away strangers and their strange bugs. Respect for traditions also works: ways of preparing food (using hot pepper, say, which kills microbes), rules about hygiene and laws about marriage (wed only in-group members, whose microbes you're probably immune to) likely arose to keep pathogens at bay. "Conformity helps maintain these buffers against disease," says Corey Fincher of the University of New Mexico; mavericks are dangerous. In places with a high prevalence of pathogens, such cultural traits—which happen to be the hallmarks of societies that value the group over the individual—would be adaptive. Put another way, societies that arose in pathogen-rife regions and did not have such traits would be wiped out by disease. Societies that did have them would survive.

When the scientists examined how closely collectivism tracked the prevalence of pathogens, they found a strong correlation, they will report in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. In general, tropical regions have more pathogens, and societies there tend to be more group-oriented than those at higher latitudes. Ecuador, Panama, Pakistan, India, China and Japan are the world's most group-first societies—and historically have had the highest prevalence of natural pathogens due to their climate and topography. The most individualistic are in Northern Europe and the United States, where there have historically been fewer native pathogens. For years scientists have scratched their heads over why collectivism declines with distance from the equator, and why living in colder regions should promote individualism (you'd think polar people would want to huddle together more). The answer seems to be that equatorial regions breed more pathogens.

How might pathogen-fighting customs and attitudes arise, or fail to? Maybe people make conscious efforts to act in ways that inhibit the spread of pathogens, such as by shunning strangers and demanding conformity. Or maybe there are genes for behaviors that, at the level of a whole society, manifest themselves as collectivism or individualism, and genes for individualism get wiped out in disease-plagued regions. But when East Asians move to the West or Westerners go East, says Nisbett, they begin to see, think and behave like people in their adopted society. That would be hard to do if they were in the grip of collectivist or individualistic genes.

The presence of pathogens also predicts cross-cultural differences in personality traits, not just shared cultural values. "In places that have historically had a lot of diseases, people generally score lower on measures of extraversion and 'openness,' which is jargon for curiosity and related traits," Schaller says. "Our history of living with infectious diseases may have shaped, in ways we're not even aware of, human cognition, behavior and culture." To trace all that back to the environment may seem a step too far. But the physical world has shaped skin color and other superficial features. The next frontier is fathoming how it might have shaped our very thoughts and values.

Here's the PDF of Schaller's paper.

I dunno.

I think pathogens are extremely important -- for example, John Reader argues that that may be why there were so few urban centers in sub-Saharan Africa until recently: too many epidemics, so people had to spread out fairly evenly across the land in little villages -- but I'm not sure at all about whether this individualism - collectivism axis fits the data.

I'm dubious of pronouncements like: "Ecuador, Panama, Pakistan, India, China and Japan are the world's most group-first societies..." Exactly how does Japan resemble Panama? (Here's a picture of a prominent Panamanian.)

Perhaps Panamanians and Japanese answer psychological quizzes similarly, but they don't seem to behave similarly. Has anybody made up a testable list of how much people in different countries behave in the collective good? For example, do they not litter? Do they return dropped wallets? Do they expect provide good service without tips? The Japanese would typically score well on many such measures, as would the Swedes. Scandinavia is a low-pathogen place. Japan, judging from its temperate latitude would be a moderate pathogen place, except that the Japanese are so clean that they've managed to crowd a lot of people together.

Let's consider within-region differences, which are easier to wrap our heads around than global comparisons of the Who's more individualistic: Who's more individualistic and less collectivist: the residents of Stockholm or the residents of Naples? And who has been in more danger from pathogens? Naples, right? Indeed, the residents of Naples are so uncollectivist that over the past year, they haven't been able to get their collective act together long enough to routinely collect the garbage, so they are in increasing danger from pathogen-borne epidemics.

What about just within China? Which region is more economically entrepreneurial: north or south? The south, which of course has a larger pathogen burden -- indeed, that's where so many forms of flu originate.

In summary, I think pathogens are very important, but I don't see much of a link to individualism-collectivism, which may be too large and hazy a generalization to work with.


RKU said...

Yes, I agree completely with this harsh critique, and even thought of some of the same obvious counter-examples (e.g. Sweden/Italy, different regions of China) while I was reading the first couple of paragraphs of the article.

This Sharon Begley seems like a complete nitwit not to have asked the same "duh?" questions. Or maybe she's so ignorant that she got Sweden confused with Lebanon or something.

Now that the cultural walls against ev-bio explanations of human behavior are crumbling, I fear that we'll see an increasing avalanche of this sort of "vulgar biologism" in the media.

rightsaidfred said...

I'm with your skepticism. The Americas were initially populated by collectivists of Asian extraction, but their sharing and communal living seemed to magnify the effects of new pathogens.

"xenophobia keeps away strangers and their strange bugs" but it would also seem to keep away your chance to build up resistance to a novel pathogen before a cataclysm laid it on you.

Anonymous said...

This ultra-individuality that is presently common in the west doesn't seem to be something that has been around in times past. Up until the 60's, the west was as xenophobic and tradition oriented as any other culture, but with less of a hive mentality than asians have.

Anonymous said...

Well, you notice people take these ideas more seriously as long as they don't hit the moral violation-taboo triggers. Sharon Begley allows herself to actually think about genetic group differences, as it's only obliquely related to the elephant in the room. You can be confident most moron readers -- and Newsweek has a sufficiently wide readership to qualify their readership as "mostly morons" (don't hate the player, hate the game) -- these readers won't make any cognitive leaps whatsoever, unless they've been conditioned by universities to systematically classify interesting HBD speculation as moral outrage.

Agree with Steve this is strained, though. I remember credible scientists saying "humsn group selection speculation is inherently specious," although I wouldn't be surprised if that was just his (whoever he was) prissy moral subconscious manifesting, re: "racism." Imagining genes proliferating in isolated human groups and spreading because they work seems totally reasonably to my rigorous and uncredentialed scientific mind.

"rights of the individual equal and often trump those of the group and where differences are valued," yeah, Sharon, we worked pretty hard for that. Even our screwed-up press works nonstop demonstrating, one way or another, these people in charge are idiots. If you think powerful people don't want to flay their critics alive, or burn them in boiling hot oil, as human communities have traditionally done with naysayers and, usually, innovators, well, there must be some media for you elsewhere.

Cultural evolution works in setting these moral switches Pinker describes below. I don't like talking Occam's Razor, but we did go from cave scribblings to the Sistine Chapel and the Internet with modest to no historical genetic variation:


JCR said...

In the case of Panama, maybe they are referring to the indigenous Kuna. The male Kuna for decades worked on the US military installations. The Kuna had their own barracks while the other Panamanian (non indigenous)laborers lived off base. It is an interesting history. There was a Kuna uprising against the Panamanian govt. in 1925. The US intervened on behalf of the Kuna and engineered a peace treaty that gave the Kuna their own autonomous region. This book might be helpful "A People Who Would Not Kneel : Panama, The United States, And The San Blas Kuna" by James Howe 1998.


testing99 said...

Junk Science Steve. It's a plague. Which reminds me ... Black Death? Europe had been hammered by plagues, starting way back in Athens in the 400's, and continuing on with various plagues that afflicted Imperial Rome, Constantinople, Papal Rome, Paris, London, Berlin, Prague, Madrid, etc.

For most of it's history, Urban Europe was a ghastly place. Filled with disease, nasty pathogens such as dysentery, syphilis, and so on. Infant mortality rates were appalling. As was personal hygiene.

The biggest difference is likely cultural. Europeans lived in as you point out, a large-trust network where kin was less important than in other places, and Big Men did not dominate as in say Uganda or Japan during the Edo Period.

I can say that when I lived in Hong Kong, I found it cleaner by far than Beijing, where it was common to find people squatting on the streets to poop or pee, particularly toddlers who had slits in their pants for that purpose. Public toilets were ghastly affairs. By contrast Hong Kong was cleaner, though Singaporeans I met found it disgustingly dirty. At least in Hong Kong I did not wake up to the sound of a million Chinese throats clearing and spitting.

Interestingly, Lee Kwan Yew spent a lotta effort on social engineering. I met with a few people who had known him early in his career. They said to a man that he felt the biggest problem Chinese people had was abysmal hygiene. Thus draconian laws for flushing the toilet and spitting, etc. Seeing Beijing I can understand his point.

Amir said...

If individualism is a hereditary trait, then self selected migration seems to be a better explanation then parasite induced evolution. The United States is full of people, or their descendants, who were individualistic enough to say so long to their communities in the old worlds behind. Maybe similar processes occured in Northern Europe.

Martin said...

Yeah, the pakistanis and the japanese. Two peoples with so much in common.

In what sense do the people of Pakistan act collectively? Although I've no experience of the place, from what I've read, it seems to be seething cauldron of sectarian strife.

As to the japanese - they are certainly xenophobic (never did em' much harm, either), but I think they got much more protection from pathogens by virtue of being, you know,....an island.

michael farris said...

First, individualism and collectivism need to be defined for the purposes of discussion.

Personally I (generally) like the overall model of Geert Hofstede. In his model the words are related to family size (as in people who are both classified as family and who you have dealings with on daily or very frequent basis).

In this model, collectivism refers to the human norm, which is to be born into an extended family that offers its members protection in exchance for loyalty.

It's far less usual for people to be born into small nuclear (or post -nuclear) family structures (individualism).

In this model (which mostly conflates country and culture which is problematic but ...) the most collecivist societies are:
Guatemala, Ecuador, Panama, Venzuela, Colombia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Costa Rica, Peru, Taiwan and SKorea.

Both "West Africa" and "East Africa" are strongly collectivist (West a little more so) and "Arab countries" a little more individualistic but still solidly collectivist.

The most individualistic countries include:
USA, Australia, UK, Canada, Netherlands, NZ, Italy, Belgium Denmark, Sweden, France, Ireland, Norway.

Japan is, in this model, in the middle (due to the practice of only the eldest son inheriting family land)

It should be noted that for the really hardcore collectivist cultures, society as such simply doesn't exist. People's interests begin and pretty much end with family matters. Social trust is low and if you have to deal with an outsider on a regular basis you find a way to establish family like ties (such as compadrazgo in Latin America).

Interestingly, this also helps explain the attitude of Obama's Indonesian step-father that seem to puzzle you: He may or may not have had paternal feelings toward the child but those weren't really necessary. He clearly accepted the young Obama as an in-group member at which point his parentage is no longer relevant.
The distinction 'mine' or 'some other guy's' is more of an individualistic obsession. Collectivists more think in terms of 'ours'.

Robert said...

The best just so story I have encountered is: Rainfall vs Irrigation

The ability to cut off the water flow or control a narrow river bank makes it easy to centralize. In a rain fall system everyone everyone is spread out, and its easy to break off into smaller independent units.

In todays economy oil is playing a similar role.

Marvin Harris wrote about this in Cannibals and Kings

Steve Sailer said...

Adequate rainfall may have been a prerequisite for coming up with a durable legal system of property rights in England.

When America conquered California in 1846, the English common law became the law of the land, which soon had a near-disastrous effect in Southern California. The old Spanish water law included a complicated system for making sure everybody got their traditional fair share of the limited supply of river water. The new English-derived water law simply said that upstream landowners could pump out as much as they liked. So, farmers in the San Fernando Valley quickly sucked the Los Angeles River dry (which isn't hard to do), leaving the downstream pueblo of Los Angeles high and dry. The government had to revive the old Spanish water law.

But you can see how adequate rainfall, as in England, is more conducive to a libertarian approach where you can mostly do whatever you feel like on your own property because there is plenty of water for everybody.

Anonymous said...

I am kind of with Steve in thinking the "individualistic/collectivistic" cubbieholes falter in real life.

If inner city American blacks are reluctant to study and would prefer spending their time hanging out in in-culture groups, is that collectivistic? If one young urban black student studies hard to make it in corporate America, is that individualistic (rejecting their own neighborhood background for personal profit)? Or is it collectivistic (embracing a larger cultural/national identity)?

Is individualism defined by personal versus community property? (resource distribution)

Or is it defined by young people wearing or not wearing provocative t-shirts? (cultural "identity")

Or is it defined by entrepreneurship versus corporate or union or government labor? (organization of labor)

Are Americans who live in relatively isolated family units but watch the same television programs and hold the same opinions as not only their neighbors but people of their class countrywide more or less individualistic than people who go off to live in a polygamist compound? (belief systems)

Is a modern welfare state where personal/household income is taxed and redistributed by the state more or less individualistic than a society with few public resources where profits are distributed within extended family networks?

Etc. I vote for resource distribution as an objective and measurable way of looking at the subject. And I am not sure that northern Europeans or Eskimos would score high on the "individualism" scale by that measure.

In a more general sense, few humans ever behave in a truly individualistic fashion. We are not cougars or spiders. Even the most rebellious rock star lives wants crowds to share their rebellion. Even the most isolated hermits have sought wisdom to benefit their fellow man. Are they the most selfish, or the least selfish?

Even the concept of a "self" is a social concept. It is dependent on being recognized in relation to other people. A truly lone organism would have no ego or concept of "self."

Anonymous said...

"It should be noted that for the really hardcore collectivist cultures, society as such simply doesn't exist. People's interests begin and pretty much end with family matters. Social trust is low and if you have to deal with an outsider on a regular basis you find a way to establish family like ties".

I agree, Michael Farris.

This in part explains why it is perhaps hard for Iraqis to overcome their traditionally collectivist/sectarian allegiances and adapt to the concept of Iraqi "society" as a whole. Allegiance to the greater collective of state, as opposed to tribe, doesn't come naturally. It takes a leap of faith to reach the "idea" of a state in which your interests (not to mention safety) will be respected.

Some of the Ancient Greek myths (eg Europa and the Bull, the Golden Fleece) have been read by anthropologists as symbolic recognition of the benefits of moving beyond the narrowly tribal - the benefits of a) exogamy and b) venturing beyond the safety of the group to increase wealth through trade.

It's possible that individualism is strongest in populations where there has been a large degree of cross cultural exchange and breeding. The European, for instance. Thinking of England, native Britons mingled with successive waves of Germanic and Norse tribes, not to mention Roman and Franco-Norman. The Celts, by contrast, resisted and remained more clannish. Whether they are less individualistic than the English is hard to say and their history of resistance is in itself individualistic and interesting (as is Ireland's achievement in the Dark Ages). Switzerland, on the other hand, which is often mocked for being the least "imaginative" nation of Europe, remained, for centuries, isolated by virtue of its relative inaccessibility. In-breeding was a serious problem in some of the remoter valleys until the 19th Century. One is reminded of Orson Welles' line in "The Third Man" about the cuckoo clock and the Italian Renaissance.

It could all stem from something as simple as the extent to which people from different places were able to exchange ideas and thus come up with new ones - ie creativity. And people struggling to survive seasonal change were obliged to be resourceful, to develop certain kinds of inventiveness.

Creativity and inventiveness seem to lie at the very heart of individualistic societies ...

Nor is it a coincidence that the least "collective" societies are also the wealthiest. We can afford to be individualistic. Then again, wealth creation is probably the result of individualism.

Many factors of nature and nurture must play a part in the creation of "individualistic" as opposed to "collective" cultures and it's all too easy to generalize. According to the above reasoning, for instance, Mesopotamia, with its ancient history of trade and cultural exchange - the cradle of civilization - should be a veritable hub of individualism! (Although I would argue that the way in which Islamic thought developed fostered restriction and stasis (cf what happened to Umayyad Andalusia).

Sorry I went off the "pathogen" line of argument.

Anonymous said...

testing99 says:

Interestingly, Lee Kwan Yew spent a lotta effort on social engineering. I met with a few people who had known him early in his career. They said to a man that he felt the biggest problem Chinese people had was abysmal hygiene. Thus draconian laws for flushing the toilet and spitting, etc. Seeing Beijing I can understand his point.

And yet it is interesting that the Chinese (in HK) had to teach the British about cleanliness!

Anonymous said...

Their research was funded in part by the "Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council"...I smell a liberal camp. As all know, university and gov't research has a definite liberal tilt so it's not surprising these types thought it was worth wasting their funds on. The CDC/NIH (where I work) is constantly looking for the next big scare to justify our budgets. It doesn't even matter if we get it completely wrong...just ask Peter Duesburg.

Josh said...

I always wondered about how in Star Trek when Spock or Kirk would talk about all the horrible Earthian dictators who preceeded the beloved "Federation",they'd start off with real ones(Hitler et al)and segue into the made-up ones that came along in the viewers' future. The worst of these imaginary tyrants was named "Lee Kuan". Did the S.T. guy have something against the real lee kwon?? Why would he care?? As for the topic at hand,Steve wrote some good stuff about how the Asians engaged so fanatically in the cruel practice of polygamy,with these emperoros and local asswipes having many many wives and kids. In the West we didnt do a lot of that---at least once the Romans were finished off;but even they weerent as crazy as the Asians. Recall Genghis Khan and his many descendants. Do we see sex and marriage in such a way that we're more individulaistic? Sex roles are at the root of why so many black males are like Obama sr.

Anonymous said...

"And yet it is interesting that the Chinese (in HK) had to teach the British about cleanliness!"

Umm ...

Hibernia Girl said...

Who's more individualistic and less collectivist: the residents of Stockholm or the residents of Naples? And who has been in more danger from pathogens? Naples, right?

I think it's a mistake to think of the Scandinavian countries as collectivist in nature. The enormous cradle-to-grave Nanny State systems they have don't mean that Scandinavians are collectivist. What they are, actually, are a collection of individualistic people battling for an equal share of the Nanny State pie. That is why (in part) the system works as well as it does and is so all-encompassing -- no one wants their neighbour to get more than they do.

What the Scandinavians are, though, is very conformist -- as are the Japanese.

The Neapolitans are collectivists, just collectivists toward their extended families (kinda like the Irish). You know -- because of too much inbreeding -- relative to the Scandinavians, that is.

It's not the whole story, of course -- but I think that the level of genetic relatedness within different communities goes a long way to explaining "selfish" vs. "collectivist" tendencies.

Anonymous said...

"And yet it is interesting that the Chinese (in HK) had to teach the British about cleanliness!"

A citation for that please. Kowloon habrbor is supposed to have been pretty vile for a long time, yet there have never been that many Brits in HK to foul up the water. The Chinese had to have helped.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Anon. I think the real factor at play is Smart Fraction.

The line in Idiocracy sums it up: "You think Einstein walked around thinkin' everyone was a bunch of dumb shits? Now you know why he built that bomb."

When people are functioning at a high enough level in any given field, they can no longer listen to their peers (who are just repeating other smart guys' ideas). They have to look to the natural world instead of human opinion, and then possibly make something useful.

The more super smart people you have in a society, the more new useful innovations you will have. The Jews of Europe are one example of a group with a very high smart fraction. The British are another such group. Not surprising, both of these groups were known for "druids" and "wizards" in earlier periods.

Not surprising, these cultures with high Smart Fractions have a lot of non-conformists. The popular stereotypes of the eccentric English lord, etc. Super smart people have no choice but to defy convention at some point. Because convention is just an encrusted and degenerated form of previous smart guys' useful ideas.

Reno said...

Of course, the authors of this study are individualistic modern westerners, and therefore start with the premise that individualism is the natural or default condition and that collectivism requires some sort of explanation. A person from a collectivist culture would have the opposite attitude.