HBES 2012 Roundup 4: Father’s Day & the Parasite-Driven Wedge

So I blew Father’s Day. Totally didn’t realize I’d booked myself to go to HBES on Father’s Day. And much as I love my dad, it wasn’t because I wasn’t going to be with him. It was because my wife & kids are extra nice to me on Father’s Day, do the breakfast in bed thing, the photos of me with no shirt on, still in my underwear with a sheet pulled over me, hair sticking up, resplendid with eye gunk, now mobilely uploaded to Facebook by my wife before I can say, “Wha? Wha’s going on? I was having such a wonderful drea–” All day they try to avoid getting me agitated & let me anti-socially putz around the yard or let me torture them by making them somewhere hot to march around all day looking at chimps or nature or something. Then we usually go out to eat. Not this year. I totally screwed myself. I did get a nice “I miss you, Dad” call from them to start the day & a Father’s Day redo the following weekend, so perhaps it was a cake & eat it type of thing. Because the session I was most looking forward to at the conference was the very last one, all about parasites & religion…

But first…developmental psychologist Karen Wynn, who runs the Infant Cognition Center at Yale & I believe is keynote speaker Paul Bloom’s wife, gave a plenary on the social judgments of young infants. (I will admit, however, that I was totally fried by this point & my notes suck, but you’ll have that…) So it turns out that young infants already key in to in-group features. If I gathered Wynn’s chagrin correctly, infants orient toward what could be derogatorily construed as tendencies that will lend themselves to xenophobia or at very least ethnocentricity when older. And what I didn’t get then but am saying now is, perhaps this is a by-product of what is essentially an adaptive preference for what is likely to be one’s immediate caregivers or family (or perhaps related to research in developmental neuropolitics suggesting that conservatism/liberalism is set by 3!). So, for instance, & this is quite general & benign, 3-mo-old babies preferentially  orient toward prosocial agents. In a set of experiments in which stuffed animals were used that displayed selfish or generous behaviors before infants were asked from which of the stuffies they’d like to take a treat to give the treat to another stuffy, 21-mo-olds preferred to give to helpful agents & to take from selfish agents. Furthermore, & here’s where it got interesting, babies prefer “richer” & more competent agents or incompetent ones. Tweeted by Igor Miklousic (@IgorMiklousic): “Wynn ‘When a baby looks at you that way, it’s not gas, it’s judgment.’ Word.” And then I zoned out. Sorry! But it is fascinating research.

Diana Fleischman (@DrDianimal) sums it up with this tweet: “Met this roadrunner on my way to #HBES2012.”

Albuquerque roadrunner (photo by Diana Fleischman)

Oh, sorry, I meant this tweet: “I feel bad for Sunday presenters talking to small audiences with diminished mental capacity.”

Barry Kuhle (@BarryXKuhle) tweets that we need some data on the pros & cons of the conference organization. He misses abstracts in the program & a big room for the poster session (they were strewn throughout halls over 3 floors & set up so SOME of us were tucked away in little corners where visitors had to shove their way through. I had about 5 visitors to mine. I did spend about a half hour chatting with Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess, ingratiating myself to get some press for my “groundbreaking” research, so maybe I missed a few. I tweeted back @Barry that we needed group excursions (no trips by primate enthusiasts to the zoo? c’mon!), workshops for students, & full names & affiliations listed in the program (but name tags printed with first names big & last names small–who were these people?). HBES is a huge conference–time to trick it out. Later Barry declared that we should demonstrate some personal insight as presenters, tweeting: “If you suck at giving talks then you must request a poster presentations. Thanks.” Apparently, someone sucked. I hate giving poster presentations. I should have given a talk instead. I don’t suck. Would I know it if I did? I’m pretty sure I don’t suck.

So the first actual Sunday talk I went to was by E.J. Miner, who I think works with Michael Gurven among the Tsimane. She was analyzing who travels & how far they travel & why & found that younger men go visiting more than older (or remember it better because it’s more recent) & they travel more than women. Thinking about this whole behavioral immune system thing & how attractiveness is at a premium when pathogen load is higher (as a sign of robust immune system & good genes to pass on), I wondered if healthier, more attractive males travel more & further in the tropics than less healthy, less attractive males. I have to figure out how to work this in to my Religious Ecology Study.

DMG Lewis gave a talk on “Men’s mate value, sexual jealousy, & the reactive heritability of neuroticism” about a test of Nettle’s “neuroticism defense hypothesis.” This hypothesis suggests that neuroticism is adaptive when one has been socially ostracized, & it’s heritable because attractiveness is heritable (made sense at the time, but not following this now). Sexual jealousy is a specialized subclass of neuroticism. What pricked my ears is the use of the Li Mate Value Inventory to test social desirability, which is something I could have used a few years ago when we did our initial self-deception study (the study I did the poster presentation of).

So I was looking forward to Corey Fincher & Randy Thornhill’s talks on the parasite-driven wedge hypothesis the whole conference because of my interest in testing their model as part of my Religious Ecology Study. Sadly, I missed a talk on Friday afternoon on the same topic in a whole disease/disgust session that I’m bummed I missed. Alas. So evolutionary biologist Randy Thornhill gave the first talk, “The parasite-driven wedge model of the genesis of cultures & species,” summarizing the model. What they have found based on analyses of meta-data is that more languages, religions, traditional societies, & animal diversity can be found at lower latitudes.

Note the highest diversity of the languages of the world is at lower latitudes (Randy Thornhill)

At these lower latitudes, relatively higher parasite loads are associated with collectivism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, philopatry, & conservatism. What is being termed the “behavioral immune system” comprises values that defend agains infectious disease. In this context, parasites are an important engine in the creation of new cultures. There’s a strong correlation between language diversity & pathogen diversity throughout the world, & colonialism is not a confound. The correlation between religious diversity & disease diversity is also robust. The influence of high pathogen diversity is in motivating people to stick with their own kind so as to avoid exposure to novel disease. As Thornhill states, “the dogma of behavioral ecology saying outbreeding is generally optimal is simplistic.” Looking at specific cultural practices that map directly onto this model, Thornhill says that cultural linkage disequilibrium may explain the development of caste systems globally, which essentially represent multiple distinct sympatric cultures. Caste-specific infectious disease & MHC compatibility has been reported in India.

Thornhill’s recent student, Corey Fincher, now at the University of Aberdeen, follows up with “International trade patterns support the parasite-driven wedge model of cultural genesis.” The evolved psychology of parasite defense has an influence on international commodity exchange. In this study, Fincher used the Trade Openness Scale & the Murray & Schaller (2010) Infectious Disease Stress Scale (Schaller’s group seem to have developed a number of useful scales for working in this paradigm). He found that when disease is higher, there are less cultural commodity imports (I was unclear as to which country this pertained to–if it was a general phenomenon when one of the countries has high disease rates, or if other countries are loathe to export to countries with high disease rates…the latter I think). Schaller & Murray (2008) found cultural openness is high when disease rates are low & cultural closedness when disease rates are high. Take home lesson: the global economic trade needs to focus on ameliorating disease to open up markets.

During the Q&A, Thornhill caught my attention by comparing medical care in Alabama to that in Maine, saying there is a very different attitude & practice toward sharing information based on disease load variation in the two states.  Apparently, Alabama has a fairly high relative disease load. I went & schmoozed Thornhill & Fincher afterward about my ideas to integrate the parasite-driven wedge model into the Religious Ecology Study. It turns out Thornhill is an Alabamian. Did some initial undergrad work at Bama then moved on to Auburn for bachelor’s & master’s, I think. Fincher didn’t talk much, but Thornhill was very receptive to the outline of my idea for testing their model in situ in Costa Rica. It turns out, Duncan & Murray (or Schaller) have a really useful scale re perception of disgust that they turned me on to. They also tried to do a study in the U.S. a few years ago by comparing Alabama to New Mexico & volunteered to send me their unfunded NSF proposal (which they did). It’s very helpful & has now inspired me to expand the Religious Ecology Study. It can theoretically be relatively simple using the workbook approach I outlined in a previous post, adding at least a conservatism scale (somewhat problematic with cross-cultural validity) & the perception of disgust scale. I have already reached out to a few people about this possible multi-site team project, including Rich Sosis & Joseph Bulbulia. I will be blogging more about this expanded vision & looking for more collaborators when I return from Costa Rica in a month & start working up a grant proposal. So, if you’re interested in getting involved or learning more, contact me.

In the meantime, I am cramming all this into an overstuffed suitcase & am off to NY then Puerta Limon to interview the brethren about their assortative sociality & traveling & conservatism & collectivism & perceptions of disgust & & &…stuff. Lots of stuff. The HBES conference is always at a tough time for me to get to but well worth it!

Also read HBES Roundups 1, 2, & 3

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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4 Responses to HBES 2012 Roundup 4: Father’s Day & the Parasite-Driven Wedge

  1. Pingback: Parasites & Religion in Costa Rica | Welcome to the EvoS Consortium!

  2. Pingback: HBES 2012 Roundup 2: Brian Hare’s Chimp/Bonobo Cognition Plenary, Mommy Brain Fogs, & Baba Brinkman Evolution Raps | Welcome to the EvoS Consortium!

  3. Pingback: HBES 2012 Roundup 3: Kissing Petri Dishes & Staring at Gross Things to Get all Hot & Bothered | Welcome to the EvoS Consortium!

  4. Dan Glass Dan Glass says:

    I DID make it to the Albuquerque Zoo, and saw some great primates. Maybe you’re familiar with this behavior, but I wasn’t: one young chimp came up to the glass, spat copiously on it, and quickly licked it clean–repeatedly. Unless they had trained it to wash windows, I think it was a form of play.

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