Recently, the Union Jacks hoisted in London for King’s Charles’s coronation were clumsily taken down by reluctant workers, who replaced them with Rainbow Flags, the symbol of the GloboHomo Empire. The height of the British Empire was in the late nineteenth century and the reversal in attitudes since then is mind-blowing. Why were the Victorians (1837-1901) so conservative—much more so than the Georgians (1714–1837)? What happened to ensure that cleavage was covered-up, Shakespeare and Chaucer were censored and any public discussion of sex became taboo? The Victorians would have been horrified and disgusted by Pride Month; the Georgians distinctly less so. In my new book, Breeding the Human Herd: Eugenics, Dysgenics and the Future of the Species, I argue the answer is that the social turmoil resulting from the Industrial Revolution led to a number of terrifying diseases becoming endemic. Conservatism was the natural, and rational, response.
When Queen Victoria’s reign began in 1837, sodomy was illegal, although tolerated in practice. Lord Byron, one of the Romantic Poets, penned bestselling poetry about his homosexual exploits [Byron’s Boyfriends, Pagan Press Books]. But by the time Victoria died, in 1901, homosexuality was totally socially unacceptable and very much riskier legally. In 1885—in response to the inability to convict two flagrant homosexual men because it could not be proven that anal sex had occurred or been attempted—a new law was passed criminalizing “Gross Indecency,” meaning any form of male homosexual behavior. It was under this stringent law that the playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was successfully prosecuted in 1895 (see Homophobia: A History, by Byrne Fone, 2000).
As I have argued before, humans, being pack animals, have two sets of “moral foundations”—individually oriented foundations of equality and harm avoidance; and group-oriented foundations of sanctity-disgust, in-group loyalty, and obedience to authority. Sanctity-disgust “sanctifies” that which is good for the group but repels that which is bad for it, including outsiders, who may well carry new diseases.
Conservatism, which strongly correlates with traditional religiosity, is associated with group-oriented moral foundations. Accordingly, conservatives score much higher in disgust, especially with contamination disgust, or concern with disease. “In two large samples … we found a positive relationship between disgust sensitivity and political conservatism,” the authors of a 2011 study wrote.
They added this:
Disgust sensitivity was also associated with more conservative voting in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. … [W]e replicated the disgust sensitivity–conservatism relationship in an international sample of respondents from 121 different countries. Across both samples, contamination disgust, which reflects a heightened concern with interpersonally transmitted disease and pathogens, was most strongly associated with conservatism.
[Disgust Sensitivity, Political Conservatism, and Voting, by Yoel Inbar et al., Social Psychological and Personality Science, December 6, 2011]
So the chance of catching a dread disease makes people more conservative. They become not only more group-oriented and fearful of outsiders but also more sexually conservative, a way to avoid venereal diseases.
Consider what researchers found about parasite avoidance:
Pathogens, and antipathogen behavioral strategies, affect myriad aspects of human behavior. Recent findings suggest that antipathogen strategies relate to political attitudes, with more ideologically conservative individuals reporting more disgust toward pathogen cues, and with higher parasite stress nations being, on average, more conservative.
[Parasite stress and pathogen avoidance relate to distinct dimensions of political ideology across 30 nations, by Joshua Tybur et al., PNAS, 2016]
High mortality salience—awareness of one’s eventual death—makes people more religious and, so, in general, more conservative [The origin and evolution of religious pro-sociality, by A. Norenzayan and A. Shariff, Science, October 3, 2008]. Religious people are more prone to high levels of disgust [The Effect of Trait and State Disgust on Fear of God and Sin, by Patrick Stewart et al., Frontiers in Psychology, January 29, 2020].
Mindful of this, we can surmise how the Industrial Revolution would have affected everyday Victorian life. The Industrial Revolution led to large movements of people, and thus to uncertainty and feelings of exclusion in new environments, something that Norenzayan and Shariff, cited above, associated with increased religiosity. Greater contact between unrelated people in cramped and unhealthy housing also meant more disease. While inoculation dealt with various illnesses, causing decreasing child mortality and a rising population overall, there was also an increased incidence of previously rare conditions that killed people extremely quickly, including, most obviously, cholera, which causes severe vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and can kill within hours. Typhoid and tuberculosis infections also dramatically increased [A History of Population Health, by Johan P. Mackenbach, Brill | Rodopi, May 23, 2020].
Venereal diseases, especially syphilis, also became a serious public-health problem toward the end of 18th century and into the 19th. Doctors began to understand that syphilis and other venereal diseases caused infertility, and its prevalence among sailors and soldiers portended national defeat in wars [Syphilis: Its Early History and Treatment until Penicillin and the Debate on its Origins, by J. Frith, JMVH, 2021]. Incurable until the mid-20th century, with the invention of penicillin and other antibiotics, venereal disease was a problem that could only be addressed by controlling sexual behavior and creating taboos [Introduction, by L. Merians, in L. Merians (ed.), The Secret Malady: Venereal Disease in Eighteenth-century Britain and France, 1996].
Victorians knew diseases were spread by contact or food or water, but they didn’t begin to understand microbial transmission until the end of the 19th century [Epidemics and Infections in Nineteenth-Century Britain, by Flurin Condrau and Michael Worboys, Social History of Medicine, April 22, 2009].
We would expect this increased “infection disgust” to substantially heighten conservatism. Conversely, as society was increasingly able to deal with epidemics, we would expect society to become less conservative, just as it has: the fear of disease has evaporated.
Research has found that a component of racial animus is, partly, the activation of a disgust response, an adaptation to signal avoiding strangers who might carry novel diseases. That elevated disgust explains increased racial intolerance and segregation, as occurred latterly in British India and Singapore; fear of and dehumanization of the working class; and, of course, the imposition of controls on sexual behavior because promiscuity leads to more venereal disease. [See Neural basis of disgust perception in racial prejudice, by Yunzhe Lui et al., Human Brain Mapping, September 29, 2015; [Distrust As a Disease Avoidance Strategy: Individual Differences in Disgust Sensitivity Regulate Generalized Social Trust, by Lene Aarøe et al., Frontiers in Psychology, July 28, 2016; Language of Gender and Class: Transformation in the Victorian Novel, by Patricia Ingham, April 4, 2002]
Gone were the days of the White Rajahs, such as Lieutenant-Colonel James Achilles Kirkpatrick (1764-1805) of the East India Company, who married the daughter of the prime minister of Hyderabad and became a Muslim who worked as a double agent for the Hyderbadis. Race-mixing became increasingly taboo.
This hypothesis as to why Victorians, and people in the nineteenth century more broadly, were so conservative in so many ways needs to be researched more. But it would seem to make sense of the puritanical backlash which characterized the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth. It would have been set off by a combination of a genuine moral backlash against the Georgian Era and its extravagant excesses; and dramatic change leading to feelings of exclusion, rising infection disgust and rising sexual disgust.
This would then have created a kind of runaway conservatism, or runaway group-orientation, in which people would have played for status by competitively signaling their conservatism, in much the way they competitively signal their Wokeness today. The more intelligent, being better at norm-mapping and forcing themselves to adopt the current set of values for their own gain, would have led the way in shifting the entire culture. This would have continued, even as medical breakthroughs were made and the pace of change slowed.
In 1837, Victoria’s uncle and predecessor King William IV was survived by eight of the ten illegitimate children he had fathered by an actress and many people didn’t care. But as I note in Breeding the Human Herd, by the 1930s, illegitimate children would find themselves refused service in shops as many people saw them as being from “such a morally weak bloodline that they could corrupt others just by being in their presence” [A promiscuous mother and the childhood taunts that turned Cyril Smith into a twisted predator, Daily Mail, April 16, 2014].
Of course, this raises the question of whether such an enormous cultural shift could occur again. As I have discussed before, my research indicates that it most certainly could and very likely will—partly because conservatives seem to be outbreeding Leftists; and partly because, after AIDS, Monkeypox, and COVID, we can no longer be so confident that disease is under control.
Edward Dutton (email him | Tweet him) is Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at Asbiro University, Łódź, Poland. You can see him on his Jolly Heretic video channels on YouTube and Bitchute. His books are available on his home page here.