What if the way we relate to each other is a function of how close we live to the equator? In an intriguing story in Newsweek a couple of weeks ago, science writer Sharon Begley notes that societies in warm climates (think East Asia, Latin America) are much more collectivist by nature than those of us in cooler climes (No. America, Europe). She says
The West epitomizes individualistic, do-your-own-thing cultures, ones where the rights of the individual equal and often trump those of the group, and where differences are valued. East Asian societies exalt the larger society: behavior is constrained by social roles, conformity is prized, outsiders shunned.
So why is this?
A team of researchers are suggesting that it’s related to disease –causing microbes. Pathogens.
Societies that evolved in warm moist places, where pathogens thrive, had to adopt collectivist behaviors in order to survive. Strong family ties, conformity, and mistrust of strangers all provide buffers against germs from outside.
We in the cooler west have fewer pathogens, “allowing us the luxury of individualism and with it other social benefits such as innovation.”
Having just spent a couple of warm moist weeks in Vietnam, and observing the tight multi-generational family structures there, this theory really struck me.
In the cities we visited people live clustered tightly in narrow three-story homes right on the street. Out front on ground level is the family enterprise, and Grandma lives behind the store. On the second and third floor Mom and Pop live with their kids. Grandma is an essential family helper but relies on Mom and Pop for food and shelter.
Things are shifting though as the Vietnam becomes stronger economically. The younger folks are wanting to move into the new high-rise apartments and condos cropping up like mushrooms in the suburbs.
What will happen to these ancient cultural patterns then? And what will happen to Grandma?