Here, we demonstrate for the first time a robust association between cultural values of individualism– collectivism and allelic frequency of the serotonin transporter gene, controlling for associated economic and disease factors. Geographical regions characterized by cultural collectivism exhibit a greater prevalence of S allele carriers of the serotonin transporter gene, even when cultural regions rather than nations served as the unit of analysis. Additionally, we show that global variability in historical pathogen prevalence predicts global variability in individualism–collectivism owing to genetic selection of the S allele of the serotonin transporter gene in regions characterized by high collectivism.
Importantly, we also reveal a novel and surprising negative association between individualism–collectivism, frequency of S allele carriers of the serotonin transporter gene and global prevalence of anxiety and mood disorder. Across nations, both collectivism and allelic frequency of the S allele negatively predict global prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders. Critically, our results further indicate that greater population frequency of S allele carriers is associated with decreased prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders due to increased cultural collectivism. The current findings suggest a novel demonstration of culture–gene coevolution of human behaviour. Emphasizing social norms that increase social harmony and encourage giving social support to others, collectivism serves an ‘anti-psychopathology’ function by creating an ecological niche that lowers the prevalence of chronic life stress, protecting genetically susceptible individuals from environmental pathogens known to trigger negative emotion and psychopathology. These findings complement notions that cultural values of individualism and collectivism are adaptive and by-products of evolution, more broadly. For instance, recent evidence suggests that cultural values of collectivism also serve an ‘antipathogen defence’ whereby behavioural manifestations of collectivism, such as conformity and parochialism, function as buffers against the transmission and increased prevalence of disease-causing pathogens (e.g. malaria, typhus and tuberculosis) (Fincher et al. 2008). Our results provide novel evidence that geographical regions characterized by collectivistic cultural norms have a higher historical and contemporary prevalence of infectious diseases due, at least partially, to genetic selection of S allele carriers (Fincher et al. 2008). Taken together, these findings dovetail nicely as two examples of how cultural values serve adaptive functions by tuning societal behaviour so that social and environmental risk factors are reduced and physical and mental health of group members is maintained.
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