Further to theories of culture, you may never have heard of the germ theory of culture. Don’t blame your teachers. They did you no wrong. Here it is, “The Germ Theory of Democracy, Dictatorship, and All Your Most Cherished Beliefs” by Ethan Watters:
If they are right, Thornhill and his colleagues may be on their way to unlocking some of the most stubborn mysteries of human behavior. Their theory may help explain why authoritarian governments tend to persist in certain latitudes while democracies rise in others; why some cultures are xenophobic and others are relatively open to strangers; why certain peoples value equality and individuality while others prize hierarchical structures and strict adherence to tradition. What’s more, their work may offer a clear insight into how societies change. According to Thornhill’s findings, striking at the root of infectious disease threats is by far the most effective form of social engineering available to any would-be reformer.
If you were looking for a paradigm-shifting theory about human behavior, step right up. “Once we started looking for evidence that pathogens shape culture,” Thornhill told me, “we began to find it in damn near every place we looked.”
Indeed. That’s the best reason for doubting their theory. A theory worth considering only attempts to explain a specific set of circumstances, not human history. There probably is no single explanation why Canada, Japan, and Jamaica are democracies in some meaningful sense that Belarus, North Korea, and Eritrea are not. If there were, it wouldn’t likely be germs.
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