Could 'toxic masculinity' be caused by a contagious brain-eating parasite?

Could 'toxic masculinity' be caused by a contagious brain-eating parasite?
Image via Flickr.

When you look around America these days, it’s hard to feel like there hasn’t been some kind of Invasion of the Body Snatchers event. So many people seem not just anxious, but genuinely militant in their desire to bend back the arc of history. So many seem to be willing to work against their own best interests only because it brings other people pain.

People have looked for explanations, from prolonged exposure to Fox News to frustration over the slow decline of rural America, to a whole swath of isms: racism, sexism, etc. Watching people frothing at a Donald Trump rally, or beating police on the steps of the Capitol, or carrying an assault rifle to the grocery store, or screaming at their local school board, it all seems so … irrational. And, has long been noted, no amount of facts or reasoning seems to work in getting someone back once they have boarded the Q-train or decided that vaccines are the work of interstellar lizard people.

But what if the problem behind these seemingly irrational actions isn’t just caused by listening to AM radio and feeling resentful about that girl who turn you down in high school? What if it’s a disease caused by a genuine brain-eating parasite?

In November,Communications Biology included a paper from researchers looking at the behavior of grey wolves in Yellowstone National Park. They identified a series of “risk-taking” behaviors in these wolves, including leaving their pack, fighting to achieve dominance in the pack, and approaching people or cars. These behaviors all came with the risk of increased death, either at the teeth of other wolves or from the vehicles and guns of humans in and around the park.

What they found was simply amazing.

While male wolves who were infected with a single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii were no more likely to approach humans than uninfected wolves, they were 3.5 times more likely to leave their pack than uninfected wolves, and an absolutely astounding 46 times more likely to become pack leaders than uninfected wolves. In general, these wolves were more dominant, more aggressive, and less predictable.

At the conclusion of the study the researchers noted that T. gondii infections are possible in almost all mammals, and: “Infection with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii has been linked to increased risk-taking in rodents, chimpanzees, hyenas, and now gray wolves.”

That leads directly to the question … what about people?

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, toxoplasmosis is common in the United States and is “considered to be a leading cause of death attributed to foodborne illness.” However, the relative number of those considered to show serious effects of T. gondii is quite low, generally less than 200 in any given year. According to the CDC, that’s because even though large numbers are infected with the parasite, “very few have symptoms because the immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness.”

But does it? Just because it doesn’t get reported as generating symptoms, that doesn’t mean the parasite isn’t having some effect. In fact, back in 2007, the National Institutes of Health published a paper compiling several studies looking into how toxoplasmosis affects human behavior.

Until recently, latent infections in humans were assumed to be asymptomatic. Results of animal studies and recent studies of personality profiles, behavior, and psychomotor performance, however, have led to a reconsideration of this assumption.

As in other mammals, the effects of infection by T. gondii are very different between males and females. But here’s what happens to men infected by this tiny, single-celled organism:

… the personality of infected men showed lower superego strength and higher vigilance. Thus, the men were more likely to disregard rules and were more expedient, suspicious, jealous, and dogmatic.

Suspicious. Jealous. Quicker to make an immediate judgment. Less willing to listen to others. Guys who were ready to break the rules if it helped them personally. Sound familiar? Other factors, such as self-control and even “clothes tidiness” were found to be decreased by infection. Here’s another one: Infected men scored significantly lower than uninfected men when it came to establishing relationships with women.

It is very hard not to draw a line between these results and guys like Nick Fuentes screaming about “replacement theory” and fretting over declining sperm counts while claiming that relationships between men and women “are gay.”

If you think this behavior only manifests at the polls, or in the desire to throw on a white hood, think again. One study showed that “Toxoplasma-infected subjects have a 2.65 times higher risk of traffic accidents than Toxoplasma-free subjects.” It would be extremely interesting to have results of these tests on people involved in mass shootings. While they’re at it, they could test corporate CEOs.

What did T. gondii infection do to women? Almost the opposite.

The personality of infected women, by contrast, showed higher warmth and higher superego strength, suggesting that they were more warm hearted, outgoing, conscientious, persistent, and moralistic.

The “gender gap” in recent elections has been fairly extreme, but in trying to test against the current voting season, it’s difficult to disentangle gender-related results from concern over immediate issues, such as access to abortion. However, here are a few few polls from Civiqs on more general topics. When asked about Black Lives Matter, 53% of men were opposed compared to 36% of women. When asked about how the United States should deal with immigrants living in the country without documentation, 47% of men wanted those immigrants deported, while only 33% of women agreed. When asked about whether the government should do more to protect the environment, 46% of men said no. Only 32% of women agreed.

Sadly, both men and women infected by T. gondii showed decreased levels of curiosity and “low levels of novelty seeking.” So the disease could make everyone effected just … duller than they might otherwise have been. And while it’s easy to read the effects listed for women and conclude they’re mostly positive, that doesn’t mean they have a welcome or beneficial effect on their lives.

Unlike many diseases, toxoplasmosis isn’t spread person to person. Instead, it comes from consuming food infected by the parasite—generally undercooked meat—or from contact with animal waste. In this case, animal waste translates almost entirely into “cat poop.” The threat of miscarriage represented by toxoplasmosis is why women are advised to not clean the litter box while pregnant. Cats get this disease by eating infected rodents and birds. If your cat is an outdoor cat, infection is almost certain (infection of the cat, not necessarily the people). A cat that stays indoors is much less likely to be infected. People can also be infected by other means, such working in a garden and failing to wash infected dirt from their hands before eating.

Toxoplasmosis can be treated, but except for those regarded as at high risk from the more visible effects of the disease—chiefly pregnant women, newborns, and those with damaged immune systems—prescribed treatment is rare.

Is “toxic masculinity” really “toxo masculinity?” Without more testing and treatment, it’s difficult to tell. Certainly all these traits seem to exist in uninfected men. It’s just the infection simply makes things worse.

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