Oankali and the Pathogen Stress Response

A friend recently showed me an article titled, “The Germ Theory of Democracy, Dictatorship, and All Your Most Cherished Beliefs” which she had read for her Parasitology class. It’s yet another scientific article that calls into question whether the choices we make are actually our own, though in this case the choices of communities rather than individuals are examined: directly under the article’s title is the line, “Is culture just a side effect of the struggle to avoid disease?” While reading it, I immediately thought of the Oankali and wanted to add it into our class conversation.

The article details scientist Randy Thornhill’s attempts to ascribe different patterns of civilization development to strategies of disease avoidance which have developed out of varying environmental conditions. Thornhill lists, “warmer, wetter climates” as being at a high risk for the spread of disease and under a high amount of, “pathogen stress.” Thornhill then argues that disease avoidance behavior can be used to understand human behavior on a cultural scale. This argument has broad applications. Thronhill claims:

“severe pathogen stress leads to high levels of civil and ethnic warfare, increased rates of homicide and child maltreatment, patriarchal family structures, and social restrictions regarding women’s sexual behavior. Moreover, these pathogen-avoidant collectivist tendencies, […] coalesce over time into repressive and autocratic governmental systems. Want to understand the rise of fascism, dictatorship, and ethnocentric campaigns that dehumanize outsiders? Look to the prevalence of pathogen threats.”

He also says that high levels of stress leads to the development of collectivist values, while another researcher, Corey Fincher, explains that collectivist societies are more likely to be xenophobic—which perhaps can be explained by the biological safety in avoiding contact with strangers. However, Thornhill also says that, “Collectivist values, despite their potential effectiveness at fencing out disease, come at a steep cost […] keeping strangers at arm’s length can limit trade and stymie a culture’s acquisition of useful new technologies, materials, and knowledge.”

While at points I felt as though Thornhill’s argument was unfairly reductionist, I did think that examining this concept of “pathogen stress” and collectivist values was interesting. I found myself trying to apply pathogen stress to the Oankali who are a collectivist society (compared to humanity’s more individualistic society) but also welcome, and in fact need, the genetic diversity of strangers. It is interesting that we continually compare this need for genetic diversity to the human need to breathe, while humans actually have similar evolutionary drives that we are just not as aware of—in this case, the desire to avoid disease. Perhaps this allows us a better way to frame the Oankali right to live.

While the Oankai, at first glance, seem to have found a way around this pathogen stress response—they are able to have a collectivist society which is not insular—I realized that the Oankali are also able to cure disease, so they aren’t constrained by the same drives. Does this mean that the humans who joined with the Oankali should have been able to display less xenophobic behavior simply because their immune systems were strengthened? I also wonder if there is some argument here about hierarchy being a symptom of the pathogen stress response. Thornhill lists authoritarian governments—which are extremely hierarchical—as being correlated to areas with higher disease rates. Thornhill extends his argument to governmental systems by saying that humans under less threat of disease are able to trade with strangers and gain new ideas and wealth from this contact. This leads to the development of an educated population. Thornhill then explains, “Democracies, premised upon the rights and freedoms of individuals, were the natural outcome.” Thornhill backs up this kind of speculation with statistics correlating periods where governments became more democratic with periods of greater resistance to disease. If the Oankali are different from the humans in that they are not limited by the stressors of disease, perhaps this is also why they are not embroiled in an obsession with hierarchy.

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