This blog first appeared on my Sentientist blog a few years back.
Since then, Geoffrey Miller, developed these ideas more and gave a talk on how sexually transmitted pathogens could influence behavior at the Ancestral Health Symposium in 2016, check it out here.
Could sexually transmitted infections be trying to make you… sexier?
We have not yet begun to scratch the surface of how pathogens and other bugs can manipulate behavior. This is a major cost of infection that people rarely consider; our personalities are no doubt shaped in part by our current and past infections and our microbiome.
In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins speculates that sexually transmitted infections, in order to spread as far and wide as possible, could increase the libidos of their hosts.
I do not know of any direct evidence that sexually transmitted diseases increase the libido of sufferers, but I conjecture that it would be worth looking into. Certainly at least one alleged aphrodisiac, Spanish Fly, is said to work by inducing an itch . . . and making people itch is just the kind of thing viruses are good at.
(Dawkins 2006 pg. 247)
Recently I came across an amazing example of syphilis doing just that in Oliver Sacks’ “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” where a 90 year old woman who had a primary but suppressed syphilis infection tests positive for neurosyphilis in her spinal fluid: A bright woman of ninety, Natasha K., recently came to our clinic. Soon after her eighty-eighth birthday, she said, she noticed ‘a change’. What sort of change? we queried.
I wrote this essay a few years ago for a futurist publication after I gave a talk about the future of in vitro meat – now smartly rebranded as clean meat.
Lately clean meat has been in the news because it’s making huge strides in development and market uptake. For example, chicken clean meat is now sold in Singapore. Chicken, an Israeli test kitchen, is feeding free clean meat to diners in exchange for feedback.
I strongly endorse clean meat- it seems the best way to reduce animal suffering available. But, I have always been concerned that our evolved disgust sensitivity to food, especially meat, might ipede its development and uptake. Some of the specifics of clean meat, like its production (e.g. fetal bovine serum) and price, are from 2015- but the core message about the costs of conventional meat production, the benefits of clean meat uptake, and the potential psychological obstacles are very relevant today. I also discuss clean meat in my recent animal ethics and evolutionary psychology chapter.
In John’s April 21st blog he talks about 8 possible moral revolutions that could come out of this pandemic: hyperutilitarianism, the end of work, a renegotiated social contract, the new death of privacy, the uncertain fate of universalism and cosmopolitanism, a return of disgust based morality, an increase in concern about animal ethics and an increased concern with existential risk. In our conversation, John specified that moral revolutions don’t necessarily mean societies are becoming more progressive, moral or civilized; Moral revolutions can cut both ways.
Sudden progressive changes in moral ideals are pretty rare. When they do happen it’s because the change in morality conferred some status, reputational or economic benefit, or at least prevented punishment from a high status moral minority. Civil rights for Black people in America was a moral revolution and the acceptance of gay marriage, gay relationships and trans identity was a much faster American moral revolution. But, in part because meat eating is so normal and animals (especially farm animals hidden from view) are not generally capable of conferring a moral revolution for animals has really never taken off, as I describe in a forthcoming chapter (and I’ll be writing a few blogs on this chapter).
So, is Covid19 going to have an effect on morality? Here are my thoughts about the intersection of Covid19 and a popular idea in evolutionary psychology, the parasite stress theory. I conclude by discussing the possibility that Covid19 will change our susceptibility to existential risk. There are two follow up blogs, one on how Covid19 might change attitudes towards animals and another on how Covid19 might change our attitudes to government and work.