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Political scientists tend to explain the presence of authoritarianism around the world by pointing to factors like low levels of economic development, culture, or the presence of oil or other easily exploitable resources. They do not agree on the causes of authoritarianism, but it’s unlikely that any of them believe that malaria and typhus are responsible for the Mugabes and Putins of the world. 

But that is the argument proposed by several biologists in a recent study, “Pathogens and Politics: Further Evidence That Parasite Prevalence Predicts Authoritarianism.” The authors explain the logic of the theory:

“Because many disease-causing parasites are invisible, and their actions mysterious, disease control has historically depended substantially on adherence to ritualized behavioral practices that reduced infection risk. Individuals who openly dissented from, or simply failed to conform to, these behavioral traditions therefore posed a health threat to self and others.”

The benefits of attitudes associated with authoritarianism – social conformity, opposing dissent, and a conservative aversion to change and new ideas – in terms of preventing disease should be high in places where these parasites are a real risk.

The researchers found correlations to back up this idea. A first analysis looked at levels of authoritarian governance, individually held authoritarian attitudes, and the prevalence of disease-causing parasites. (It also introduced variables such as GDP and education levels that could play an explanatory role.) The regression supported their hypothesis, as did a second analysis that looked at authoritarianism in small societies that are isolated from a larger state.

One explanation a political scientist could give for the correlation between parasites and lack of democracy is that it is an indirect result of European colonialism. In areas with high levels of infectious disease, colonists focused only on extracting value from colonies, whereas in places that were more hospitable and disease-free, colonists actively settled and created inclusive political institutions that were passed on after independence.

According to the authors, however, the presence of individually held authoritarian attitudes, as well as the correlation in isolated societies unaffected by the history of colonialism, suggests that this explanation is inadequate. (Although one wonders how they could feel so confident that individuals’ authoritarian attitudes were not a causal result of their authoritarian governments.)

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, some members of the Taliban and conservative religious leaders have opposed Western-led polio vaccination programs. Maybe they have a good (if malevolent) reason to do so.

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.