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Public Defecation, Religion, and IQ In India


(World map by average IQ, from here).

In the new atheism debates, you sometimes see two people -- most prominently, Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair -- sparring on the subject of whether religion does more harm than good. I'm not going to weigh in on this question, except to note that a recent study of sanitation in India delivers ammunition for the does-harm side: scientific proof that religion (in this case, Hinduism) literally makes people stupid.

The mechanism is public defecation. Anyone who has been to India has seen this happening routinely, and it's impossible to get used to. Large urban areas in India are literally covered in a thin film of human waste, which is dangerous. It gets on crops at their origins, and flies deposit it on food all over the country, which is why Delhi belly is an all-too-horrifying reality for any visitor. (The irony is that all the Green/lefty friends of mine who accompanied me on my India trip ate everything so as to respect the cultural heritage blah blah blah, and stayed healthy. I politely refused to drink the water, ate practically nothing but crackers, and got a mild case of DB anyway.)

But I digress. It turns out the consequences are much farther-reaching than a few inconvenienced tourists:

As a result [of public defecation], children are exposed to a bacterial brew that often sickens them, leaving them unable to attain a healthy body weight no matter how much food they eat.

“These children’s bodies divert energy and nutrients away from growth and brain development to prioritize infection-fighting survival,” said Jean Humphrey, a professor of human nutrition at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “When this happens during the first two years of life, children become stunted. What’s particularly disturbing is that the lost height and intelligence are permanent.”

...This research has quietly swept through many of the world’s nutrition and donor organizations in part because it resolves a great mystery: Why are Indian children so much more malnourished than their poorer counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa?

A child raised in India is far more likely to be malnourished than one from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe or Somalia, the planet’s poorest countries. Stunting affects 65 million Indian children under the age of 5, including a third of children from the country’s richest families.This disconnect between wealth and malnutrition is so striking that economists have concluded that economic growth does almost nothing to reduce malnutrition.

And why is public defecation so prevalent? The Economist explains:

Hindu tradition, seen for example in the “Laws of Manu”, a Hindu text some 2,000 years old, encourages defecation in the open, far from home, to avoid ritual impurity. Caste division is another factor, as by tradition it was only the lowliest in society, “untouchables” (now Dalits), who cleared human waste. Many people, notably in the Hindu-dominated Gangetic plains, today still show a preference for going in the open—even if they have latrines at home.

So there you have it: a religiously-based custom causes profound developmental problems in children, leading to stunting and irreversible losses in intelligence. Christopher Hitchens, call your office! Oh wait...