I recently came across an interesting grouping of scientific books and research papers that define Parasite Stress Theory, which posits that political and cultural divisions between people into liberal and conservative values is caused by their exposure to infectious diseases, or inability of their immune systems to fight off parasites.
In this theory conservatives come from groups that need to protect themselves more from the outside world, especially foreign pathogens that would be harmful to their bodies. Conservative values are marked by collectivism, which focuses on one’s own group over and above others. This is natural because they will have a reduced risk of encountering a new parasite that could cause serious illness. Collectivists tend to be ethnocentric and xenophobic. They also tend to be less open and want more order in their daily lives and in society.
Liberal attitudes tend to lean toward individualism. They focus on looking out for oneself and tend to be more open to new ideas and new people. They have had positive reactions/ resistance to foreign parasites and so are not as afraid of what other people who are different will bring to them. They tend to be more open, and more prone to xenophilia. They are not afraid to go against the current social norms.
Randy Thornhill, one of the prominent researchers in this field, says that one of the main reasons our country, and western culture in particular has become more liberal over the last 70 years, is precisely because of scientific inventions such as antibiotics, vaccines, and potable drinking water. This has led to the ability for generations after these inventions to be more open to other people, ideas, and cultures (including food!) that may have been prohibitive previously. In one way of looking at it, their bodies had to use much less energy to support their immune systems in combatting illness and therefore they could focus on other aspects of life.
Interestingly we note that in chapter seven of the Gospel according to Mark:
“the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him [Jesus], 2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. 3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; 4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) 5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’”
This is classic example of a conservative (collectivist) attitude against anything that would promote “uncleanliness” or impurity within the group. We see this also in how people with skin diseases and other infirmities (such as the woman who was hemorrhaging for 12 years) would be excluded from the community because of their sicknesses, and why there was such an emphasis on cleanliness and following particular rules and regulations (including dietary ones) from the conservative groups within Judaism of that day.
This is not to say that this collectivist mindset is necessarily a bad thing all the time. Indeed, for survival of people over millennia this has actually been a critical aspect of human evolution. The Jewish people and culture has survived for thousands of years against many difficult odds, perhaps in part due to their strict traditions.
Yet at the same time there have been many benefits to growing liberalism in our society including the exchange of ideas and technology. The coming together of people from diverse backgrounds, the changing of laws to include more people to vote and have rights and dignity in our country and around the world have been a good thing.
It seems that a balance between conservative and liberal ideals is most effective, and indeed what Jesus prescribed for us. He maintained many of the central values of Torah including the 10 Commandments but he also pushed back against some of the interpretations of these values that became legalistic and limiting to people in his own day. He went to his own people but he also began to expand and reach out to the Gentiles. We see this in the story of the Syrophoenician woman who Jesus eventually helped and healed her daughter and how he also helped a Roman Centurion.
It seems that in our own time we can do with this kind of balance between conservative and liberal. Between collectivist and individualist. Perhaps in this way we can come together more, and truly love our neighbor as ourselves.
In God’s love and grace,
Pastor Nate Allen