Ebola and Applied Cultural Evolution—You Can Help

By David Sloan Wilson August 2, 2014 4 Comments

A colleague of mine named Beate Ebert started a Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) called Commit and Act in Sierra Leone. They run a psychosocial center in Bo, a city in the south of Sierra Leone, led by a local counselor, Hannah Bockarie. Bo is a high risk area of the Ebola epidemic, where some of the first cases showed up. One reason that the disease is so deadly is that it creates a perfect storm of cultural confusion. Here is how Beate described it to me in a recent email message.

Ebola mostly spreads because of local habits like washing and kissing dead bodies. People don’t get the information needed. They avoid hospitals as most people with Ebola die there. Doctors and nurses look like monsters in their prevention suits when they come to villages. The inhabitants are scared and think the health workers bring the disease. People circulate text messages that stimulate fear and also lead to avoiding treatment, like not contacting strangers.

The public health practices that can limit the spread of the Ebola virus are known, but getting people to adopt new practices—even when it is a matter of life and death—is not easy. Can evolutionary science help? Beate thinks that it can and her local team is bravely working to use a method of cultural change being developed at the Evolution Institute to help stem the Ebola epidemic where previous efforts have failed.

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The method is called PROSOCIAL and is designed to improve the efficacy of any group whose members must work together to achieve common goals. It helps to create a strong sense of group identity and clarifies both core values and obstacles that prevent a group from moving in its valued direction. It also helps to create a social environment that is maximally favorable for cooperation and guards against behaviors that undermine the goals of the group.

PROSOCIAL is a new method, still under development, and the Commit and Act team in Sierra Leone is starting to use it in their regular work, which is to bring psychotherapeutic support to traumatized people in areas of conflict. This means that they have a network of facilitators working in communities already in place that can be used to address the Ebola epidemic. Here is a progress report from Commit and Act’s facebook page:

We can hardly post as quickly as Hannah is training people how to prevent Ebola. She went through the PROSOCIAL process … again today, with another 300 people in Bo, close to our center. Our wonderful, courageous Commit and Act women’s group and the families of the desert flower project we are supporting to prevent female gender circumcision of the girls were present too. Due to Hannah´s successful efforts, Commit and Act has been identified as the leading agency in the district by the District Health Management Team to give psychosocial support to the families affected by Ebola and to support medical teams etc. As there is hardly any additional funding available for this, please donate every amount possible to Commit and Act and mark it with the purpose “Ebola”, then we will use it for that. Thank you so much!

I have donated and urge everyone who reads this post to contribute what they can. Here is the link to Commit and Act’s donation page. It would be hard to imagine a more noble and worthy cause to support, especially by those who are trying to develop a science of intentional change.

Published On: August 2, 2014

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson is SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University. He applies evolutionary theory to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, both in his own research and as director of EvoS, a unique campus-wide evolutionary studies program that recently received NSF funding to expand into a nationwide consortium. His books include Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society, Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives, and The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time and Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. .


  • Marvin says:

    Out of curiosity and related to the topic of what is war good for, have you considered the possibility that the best thing one can do for African societies is to leave them alone? That is, let those whose “social practices” make them incapable of survival and mortal danger to their society die out?
    Westerners have been shielding Africans from disease and economic responsibility for their own societies for a long time now with the results only getting worse. Maybe it’s time for a different approach?
    I know it sounds horrible, heartless and callous but what if this is the only thing that will prevent worse things long term?

  • David Sloan Wilson says:

    I believe that a systemic approach to social problems leads in a different direction. By analogy, consider the inability of developed nations to curb their energy use. Is this something that should also be left alone?

    Much evidence indicates that inclusive societies work better than extractive societies. Blaming the victims of extractive societies for the problems of those societies is an example of a failure to think systemically.

  • O.Voron says:

    Ebola distracts from worsening Cameroon cholera outbreak

    DAKAR/YAOUNDE (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A cholera epidemic in northern Cameroon has killed at least 65 people and probably infected about 1,300 people in two months, as international attention has been diverted to fighting Ebola in West Africa, health experts said on Saturday.
    ….Julian Schlubach, from the European Union’s aid agency, ECHO, said the situation was alarming because the rainy season – the worst time for cholera – still lay ahead.
    ….Some 24,683 cholera cases have been reported in Nigeria since the beginning of the year, according to the Assessment Capacities Project, a consortium of international NGOs which check humanitarian needs in emergencies and crises.

    In Cameroon, a country of 22 million people, outbreaks of the disease cause alarm because of poor sanitary conditions, particularly in rural areas.

    According to a 2011 government survey, 54 percent of rural households have only cesspools or open holes, whilst 50 percent use drinking water from unprotected wells or surface water.

    The mortality rate for those infected ranges between one and 50 percent, depending on access to treatment. A similar outbreak in Cameroon killed more than 4000 people in 2011/12.

    The current outbreak is the first major epidemic since then.

  • Reblogged this on Comportamento & Sociedade and commented:
    Ebola e Evolução Cultural Aplicada.

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