Bat's Interesting: Are Infectious Diseases to Blame for Prejudice?

By Sophie Bushwick | July 13, 2012 12:49 pm

bat with white-nose syndrome
The healthy little brown bats roosting close to the bat
with white-nose syndrome risk infection with the fungus

The deadly fungus that causes white-nose syndrome is sweeping through North American bat populations, and little brown bats are adapting their behavior to avoid it. Although these bats typically clump together in large groups, they are now spreading out to roost separately, a change in behavior that may be helping the bat populations rebound. So what does a bat-killing fungus have to do with human prejudice? The bats’ trick of splitting up to survive contagion may also have led humans to divide into tribes and respond hostilely to members of different, potentially diseased groups.

In a post on Scientific American’s Guest Blog, biologist Rob Dunn writes about the link between infectious diseases and human prejudice.

Disease-causing pathogens—viruses, bacteria and protists—have geographies, both in terms of where they can be found and how common they are within those regions. The consequent map of malaise and death affects many aspects of the human story, including…human behavior, culture, and politics. The most radical of these ideas suggest that where deadly, contagious, diseases are prevalent, humans tend to be xenophobic and cultures tend to be, well, tribal. This tribalism, along with the deaths imposed by the diseases themselves, then influences politics and nearly everything else. High disease prevalence and xenophobia has even been argued to have led to the diversification of cultures (if you don’t talk to your neighbor, it is easier to become different from them) and/or the rise and fall of empires.

Dunn points out that the correlation between pathogens and xenophobia could be due to other factors. But the little brown bats seem to support the idea that tribal divisions defend against contagious disease. By studying the bats, researchers may be able to further test this theory. As Dunn muses in his post, “Sometimes we see more about ourselves by looking out to the wild species around us than we ever could by looking at ourselves.”

Image courtesy of USFWS Headquarters / flickr

  • TrembleTheDevil

    This article traces out how this xenophobia could’ve evolved along racial lines – as agriculture created crowded communities that interacted with animals, infections disease would’ve become a much bigger threat.

    Blue eyes didn’t appear until the agricultural revolution, and occurred along with much lighter skin, which causes a much higher rate of vitamin D synthesis since dark skinned Africans make 99% less vitamin D from the same amount of sunlight compared to a light-skinned European.

    And fertile women have demonstrated a much stronger implicit racial bias against men of other races:

  • Jay Fox

    I’m left wondering what advantage the bats are giving up by changing their ancestral behavior. They must have clumped together for a reason. Apparently, spreading out prevents deadly disease, but does it also leave them more vulnerable to predation?

  • John Lerch

    This seems to be mixing up cause and effect. People uniformly waaaaaaaay over-estimate the rate of disease among identifiable minorities so that they can steal their labor and the products of their labor with minimal need for other justification. E.G. the alleged rampant disease among “niggers’, “chinks”, “charlies”, “japs”, “cunts” “kikes”, etc in our past history. (Apologies to all minorities whose disparaging names I couldn’t think of.) I’m appalled that SciAm and 80beats has indulged in this kind of racism.

  • Geack

    RE: comments about race: You guys understand that one large group splitting into two smaller groups because of disease means that they’re all the same “race” (at least to start out with), right? Historically speaking, tribalism and xenophobia have had little to do with racism due to the simple fact that the overwhelming majority of humans have spent their lives with little exposure to other races.


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