A ubiquitous human parasite that shapes human culture?

In the provocative-hypothesis-of-the-week department:

Kevin Lafferty, a parasitologist, has put forth the idea that a fairly ubiquitous parasite (infecting O(10%) of Americans, and up to 2/3 of people in places like Brazil) is responsible for some of the diversity of human culures (1). The parasite uses common housecats to increase its transmission to the next host in the life cycle, and has a subtle effect on human personality, with some studies claiming that it even causes neuroticism, and even schizophrenia. (One clinical report (2) claims that “subjects with latent toxoplasmosis had higher intelligence [and] lower guilt proneness.” Hmm!)

Anyway, Lafferty noted that toxoplasmosis varies in prevalence from world region to world region, and then tries to draw correlates between these prevalences and local cultures:

“Drivers of the geographical variation in the prevalence of this parasite include the effects of climate on the persistence of infectious stages in soil, the cultural practices of food preparation and cats as pets. Some variation in culture, therefore, may ultimately be related to how climate affects the distribution of T. gondii, though the results only explain a fraction of the variation in two of the four cultural dimensions, suggesting that if T. gondii does influence human culture, it is only one among many factors.”

I wonder how one could test this hypothesis? Look for recent immigrants from one culture to another, who have lower Toxoplasmosis incidence? (Preferably finding populations that go in opposite directions, as a control.) Track culture change vs. migration vs. climate change?

Unlikely, perhaps. But nice that people are still thinking big 🙂

Ed

(1) Lafferty, K
Can the common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, influence human culture?
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
doi:10.1098/rspb.2006.3641

Picked up by the popular press here

(2) Flegr J, Havlicek J.
Changes in the personality profile of young women with latent toxoplasmosis.
Folia Parasitol (Praha). 1999;46(1):22-8.

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One thought on “A ubiquitous human parasite that shapes human culture?

  1. Based upon the patients I’ve seen here in Bakersfield, the “ubiquitous human parasite” that has taken over teen minds is a Bakersfield-based band known as Korn. I’ve portrayed the potentially psychologically-damaging effects of their music here:

    Korn-bred
    words and music by Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, aka Dr. BLT (c)2006
    [audio src="http://www.drblt.net/music/KB.mp3" /]

    Bruce
    aka
    Dr. BLT
    The World’s First Blog n Roll Artist
    http://www.drblt.net

    Like

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