The countries of the world vary in their position along the autocracy–democracy continuum of values. Traditionally, scholars explain this variation as based on resource distribution and disparity among nations. We provide a different framework for understanding the autocracy–democracy dimension and related value dimensions, one that is complementary (not alternative) to the research tradition, but more encompassing, involving both evolutionary (ultimate) and proximate causation of the values. We hypothesize that the variation in values pertaining to autocracy–democracy arises fundamentally out of human (Homo sapiens) species-typical psychological adaptation that manifests contingently, producing values and associated behaviours that functioned adaptively in human evolutionary history to cope with local levels of infectious diseases. We test this parasite hypothesis of democratization using publicly available data measuring democratization, collectivism–individualism, gender egalitarianism, property rights, sexual restrictiveness, and parasite prevalence across many countries of the world. Parasite prevalence across countries is based on a validated index of the severity of 22 important human diseases. We show that, as the hypothesis predicts, collectivism (hence, conservatism), autocracy, women’s subordination relative to men’s status, and women’s sexual restrictiveness are values that positively covary, and that correspond with high prevalence of infectious disease. Apparently, the psychology of xenophobia and ethnocentrism links these values to avoidance and management of parasites. Also as predicted, we show that the antipoles of each of the above values—individualism (hence, liberalism), democracy, and women’s rights, freedom and increased participation in casual sex—are a positively covarying set of values in countries with relatively low parasite stress.
Beyond the cross-national support for the parasite hypothesis of democratization, it is consistent with the geographic location at high latitudes (and hence reduced parasite stress) of the early democratic transitions in Britain, France and the U.S.A. It, too, is consistent with the marked increase in the liberalization of social values in the West in the 1950s and 1960s (in part, the sexual revolution), regions that, a generation or two earlier, experienced dramatically reduced infectious diseases as a result of antibiotics, vaccinations, food- and water-safety practices, and increased sanitation.
Moreover, we hypothesize that the generation and diffusion of innovations (in thought, action and technology) within and among regions, which is associated positively with democratization, is causally related to parasite stress. Finally, we hypothesize that past selection in the context of morbidity and mortality resulting from parasitic disease crafted many of the aspects of social psychology unique to humans.