‘Disease avoidance: from animals to culture’

A new themed volume on ‘Disease avoidance: from animals to culture‘ in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences provides some food for through when read against Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger. Douglas insists that we not read food taboos and other cleanliness rituals as medical-materialistic (ie, Jews don’t eat pork because of the pig’s ambiguous place in the animal kingdom at the time Leviticus was written, not because of intuitive notions of Trichinosis). This edited volume does just that. It looks at a broad range of disease-avoidance and treatment behaviors such as avoidance, grooming, quarantine, medicine, stigmatization, the emotion of disgust and care of the sick in terms of medical materialism. Yet it also also theorizes cultural change through disease avoidance, disgust, and stigmatization:

“Disease burden may be a powerful and relatively unrecognized force in human cultural evolution. Historically, emotions such as disgust and fear have been co-opted for broader goals—such as promoting bodily hygiene and the use of soap in the early twentieth century [2], for campaigns against smoking, and more recently against fatty and sweet foods. Unfortunately, this process of moralization, which involves yoking the emotion of disgust to particular behaviours or groups of individuals (e.g. smokers), has also been used for malicious political ends by labelling particular ethnic groups as lice or vermin, for example.” (From the Introduction)

I invite readers interested in the social and cultural aspects of “dirt,” disgust, and stigmatization to read this volume. Lately, I have been trying to reconcile Mary Douglas’ work with more overtly physiological-material definitions and understandings of dirt, pollution and the taboo. Medicine, pollution engineering, toxicology, and evolutionary biology all propose different notions of material-human relationships than Douglas’ “matter out of place,” to the effect that some nuance her work, some can be explained by it, and others negate it. I look forward to any comments or guest posts that do the same.

Table of Contents for ‘Disease avoidance: from animals to culture

“Proactive strategies to avoid infectious disease
Richard J. Stevenson, Trevor I. Case, and Megan J. Oaten

“Infection before pregnancy affects immunity and response to social challenge in the next generation”
Olivia Curno, Tom Reader, Alan G. McElligott, Jerzy M. Behnke, and Chris J. Barnard

“Mate preferences and infectious disease: theoretical considerations and evidence in humans”
Joshua M. Tybur and Steven W. Gangestad

“Brain–immune interactions and the neural basis of disease-avoidant ingestive behaviour”
Gustavo Pacheco-López and Federico Bermúdez-Rattoni

“Behavioural defences in animals against pathogens and parasites: parallels with the pillars of medicine in humans”
Benjamin L. Hart

“The behavioural immune system and the psychology of human sociality”
Mark Schaller

“Contamination sensitivity and the development of disease-avoidant behaviour”
Michael Siegal, Roberta Fadda, and Paul G. Overton

“Disease avoidance as a functional basis for stigmatization”
Megan Oaten, Richard J. Stevenson, and Trevor I. Case

“Disgust: the disease-avoidance emotion and its dysfunctions”
Graham C. L. Davey

“Parasite stress promotes homicide and child maltreatment”
Randy Thornhill and Corey L. Fincher

“Why disgust matters”
Valerie Curtis


One thought on “‘Disease avoidance: from animals to culture’

  1. I just read parts of Curtis’ “Why disgust matters”, and it strikes me that she is starting a much-needed conversation between the biophysical/medical/material and social construction perspectives on disgust. But, I feel like she could go further. These two perspectives are still portrayed as being on opposite sides of some impassable rift. Curtis speaks of science as though it can tell us objectively what a “healthy” body is, and draw lines between the pathological and the ‘normal’ (in her discussion of OCD and PTSD, for example). In her article I miss understandings provided by Foucault; questioning the very bringing-into-being of concepts of disease, and the underlying power structures that produce knowledge, science and practices of “good” health maintenance in particular historical contexts.

    The core problem she is trying to tackle – of how to reconcile the “real” material effects of disease and “contamination”, with the (powerful) social production and harnessing of the emotion – is a vital one, but I can’t help but think that it rests on a faulty underlying distinction: that between the biophysical objectively understandable ‘material’ on the one hand, and social construction on the other. Maybe I just want to have my cake and eat it too – but why can’t it always already be both? Can we conceive of there being “real” material impacts in terms of disease transmission, illness and death, but that our understandings, values, impressions and experiences of these will always be diverse and partial? Hence, we can never tease apart what is ‘material’ or what is ‘social’.

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