So every so often a random news article bites me on the world-building toe. Yesterday's came via Ars Technica in the shape of a very interesting research study on cultural attitudes to traditionalism and national parasite stress (Original source).
To quote the abstract of the paper in full:
People who are more avoidant of pathogens are more politically conservative, as are nations with greater parasite stress. In the current research, we test two prominent hypotheses that have been proposed as explanations for these relationships. The first, which is an intragroup account, holds that these relationships between pathogens and politics are based on motivations to adhere to local norms, which are sometimes shaped by cultural evolution to have pathogen-neutralizing properties. The second, which is an intergroup account, holds that these same relationships are based on motivations to avoid contact with outgroups, who might pose greater infectious disease threats than ingroup members. Results from a study surveying 11,501 participants across 30 nations are more consistent with the intragroup account than with the intergroup account. National parasite stress relates to traditionalism (an aspect of conservatism especially related to adherence to group norms) but not to social dominance orientation (SDO; an aspect of conservatism especially related to endorsements of intergroup barriers and negativity toward ethnic and racial outgroups). Further, individual differences in pathogen-avoidance motives (i.e., disgust sensitivity) relate more strongly to traditionalism than to SDO within the 30 nations.
This got me thinking: what are the implications for world-building in mid-to-far future SF and space opera?
Parasite load is an interesting topic. As another paper points out, there's a robust correlation worldwide between average IQ and parasite stress:
Infectious disease remains the most powerful predictor of average national IQ when temperature, distance from Africa, gross domestic product per capita and several measures of education are controlled for.
... And of course we're aware that malnutrition in infancy and childhood stunts growth.
Why parasite load might impair average intelligence isn't hard to see: resisting infections and parasites imposes a additional energetic cost on developing children that reduces their outcomes, on average. The political conservativism correlate is a different effect: food preparation rituals (such as avoiding undercooked pork in hot climates with endemic tapeworm infections), disgust (avoiding rotten or questionable foodstuffs and faecal contamination), and risk-aversion also feed in to reducing the risk of infection/parasitism at source, and the mind-set of authoritarian followers enforces obedience.
So, SF implications for world-building? Simple: how energetic is the biosphere in your setting? A high energy biosphere (lots of energy reaching ground level, lots of photosynthesis going on, food chain piled high, lots of activity) promotes the evolution of parasites. An austere, low-energy biosphere—think of the high Arctic, with months of total darkness every year and little insolation—can't support anything like as much life as a tropical biome. High energy means more active biomass, which in turn means more niches for parasites to colonize.
So if you have a society with limited or no medical technology in a warm, tropical, climax ecosystem with lots of mammals for humans to rub shoulders with, you probably have a society that has a parasite problem due to zoonoses; and if you have that, you probably also have pressure towards social conservativism due to parasite stress (and lower average intelligence if diseases are widespread, e.g. infant diarrhea, malaria, hookworm, and so on).
More controversially, the development of effective counter-infection strategies may in the long term militate against conservativism (and the conservatives will notice: this makes a neat, albeit questionable, explanation for such things as conservative opposition to HPV vaccination); consider for example all those religious-right perorations about how casual sex will inevitably result in divine retribution in the shape of the sexually transmitted disease bogey-man of the day? (It used to be syphilis, currently it's HIV, next decade it'll probably be multidrug-resistant gonorrhea.)
I'm now wondering about the extent to which the French revolution and the spread of revolutionary values correlated with changes in agricultural productivity in western Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the breakdown of the Ancien Regime with the uptake of the germ theory of disease and antisepsis in hospitals ...