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nettime: Thought Contagion - Aaron Lynch




                              THOUGHT CONTAGION

                     How Belief Spreads Through Society

                          The New Science of Memes

                           Basic Books, Publishers

                                  New York

                         Release: September 27, 1996

                       Copyright  1996 by Aaron Lynch

   Permission is granted to print and distribute this book segment, (title
       page, Table of Contents and Chapter 1) intact as a free sample.

    A Book Synopsis is also available at the THOUGHT CONTAGION home site.
             ( http://www.mcs.net/~aaron/thoughtcontagion.html )

----------------------------------------------------------------------------
                              TABLE OF CONTENTS

               Chapter 1: Self-Sent Messages and Mass Belief 1

  The Self-Propagating * Idea Modes of Thought Contagion * The Quantity of
  Parenthood * The Efficiency of Parenthood Proselytizing Pays * Preserving
  Belief * Sabotaging the Competition * Cognitive Advantage * Motivational
   Advantage * The Epidemiology of Ideas * Forming New Ideas * Recombining
              Ideas * Memetic Evolution * A World of Barriers

       Chapter 2: A Missing Link: Memetics and the Social Sciences 17

   Memetics and Economics * Memetics and Sociology * Memetics and Cultural
Anthropology * Memetics and Sociobiology Evolutionary Psychology * Memes and
  Politics * Cooperation Game Theory * Memetics and Communication Science *
Folklore as Thought Contagion * Memes in Cognitive Science and Philosophy of
            Mind * Memetic History * Memetics and Psychohistory

          Chapter 3: Family Plans: Ideas that Win with Children 41

The Family Option * Non-Nuclear Family Structures * Monogamy and the Nuclear
Family * Marriage * Polygamous Marriage Nuclear Family Wealth * Family Homes
* Single Parenthood * Gender Roles * Baby Dolls for Girls and Hero Dolls for
   Boys * Women Employed * Chores * Responsibility and Helplessness * Male
     Dominance and Female Subservience * Patrilineal Names * Patrilineal
       Inheritance * Revising the Roles * Symbiotic Memes * Optimism

Chapter 4: Sexually Transmitted Belief: The Clash of Freedom and Restriction
                                     73

    Extramarital Sex * Chastity Promiscuity * Homosexuality * Gay Gender
 Differences * Breast Fetishes * Fat and Thin * Mating by Class * Sex, Age,
and Class Rebellion * Masturbation * Birth Control * How to Do It * Sex Talk
                               * Consummation

    Chapter 5: Successful Cults: Western Religion by Natural Selection 97

                Ancestor Worship * Multiple Gods, Single Gods
                                  Judaism:
                 Populating the Chosen * Moral Commandments
 Sacred Marriage * Other Morals * Dietary Laws * Faith, Devotion, Collective
                         Punishment, and Scripture
                               Christianity:
    Apocalypse and Rapture * Crucifixion * Resurrection * Evil Apostasy *
    Inter-faith Marriage Taboos * Roman Catholic Europe * Reformation and
    Revival * Scriptural Proselytism * Instant Rewards * Easy Versus Hard
 Salvation * Symbolic Expressions * Growth Wins Attention * Denomination and
                       Class * Religion and the Sexes
                                   Islam:
                   Jihad * Polygyny and Ample Brotherhood
                                      *
    Mormonism * Hutterites * Jehovah's Witnesses * Shakers * Religion and
                              Science Revisited

     Chapter 6: Prescription Beliefs: Thought Contagions and Health 135

 Circumcision * Bottle Feeding * Diets * Freudian Psychoanalysis * Astrology
  * Memes and AIDS * Contagious Cures * Exercise and Sport * Street Gangs *
     Drug Abuse * Smart Pills * Memetic Clones * A Germ Theory of Ideas

         Chapter 7: Controversy: Thought Contagions in Conflict 157

   Controversial Radio * Firearms * Abortion Abortion, Contraception, and
          Language Barriers * Jingoism and Pacifism  * Conclusion

           Epilogue: Thought Contagions of "Thought Contagion" 175

                              Bibliography 179

                                  Index 183

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Chapter One

Self-Sent Messages and Mass Belief

Man is what he believes. -- Anton Chekhov

A religious taboo against modern farm machines is growing more widespread
among American farmers, and for an unusual reason. The taboo, held by Old
Order Amish farmers, keeps increasing because it creates a need for manual
labor. Amish farmers meet this need by raising many children, who start farm
work very young. Consequently, these farmers pass their taboo down to a
large number of children: many children, ergo many young taboo-holders. As
documented in John Hostetler's Amish Society, their population doubles in
just twenty-three years--much faster than the American or even world
population doubles. With each generation, the Amish ideas rule a larger
percentage of American farmers' lives.

The Self-Propagating Idea

The Amish farming taboo is a self-propagating idea, or thought contagion.
Though that taboo has not yet become a widespread norm, many
self-propagating ideas achieved that level of success decades, generations,
even centuries ago. Overlooked by established social sciences, thought
contagion warrants more attention as a force shaping society.

Like a software virus in a computer network or a physical virus in a city,
thought contagions proliferate by effectively "programming" for their own
retransmission. Beliefs affect retransmission in so many ways that they set
off a colorful, unplanned growth race among diverse "epidemics" of ideas.
Actively contagious ideas are now called memes by students of the newly
emerging science of memetics.

Though the analogy between cultural and biological contagion was recognized
since at least the 1950s, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins
expressed it at full strength in the last chapter of his 1976 book, The
Selfish Gene. This short chapter, in which Dawkins coins the word meme,
launched a slowly smoldering first twenty years of memetics. Those decades
also saw comparable contributions by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett,
among others.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------

[Image][Image]
                                 AMISH BELIEF PROPAGATION

FIGURE 1: Old ways boom in modern times: Graph shows the explosive growth of
the Old Order Amish during the past century, rising forty-fold due to very
high birth rates. Source: John Hostetler, Amish Society. Baltimore: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 4th ed., pp. 97-98.
----------------------------------------------------------------------------
The present book aims to expand memetics far beyond an academic curiosity by
examining its vast relevance to how society thinks and lives. A treatment of
this new field can presently offer just an outline, a thumbnail sketch of a
far-reaching science. Yet seeing the new paradigm linked with so many
important aspects of life imparts a revised world view, one that renders
apparently arbitrary currents of culture freshly comprehensible.

Modes of Thought Contagion

The ways that memes retransmit fit into seven general patterns called modes:
quantity parental, efficiency parental, proselytic, preservational,
adversative, cognitive, and motivational modes. Each one involves a thought
contagion's "carrier," or host, serving to increase the idea's "infected"
group, or host population.

The Quantity of Parenthood

Any idea influencing its hosts to have more children than they would
otherwise have exhibits quantity parental transmission. Because of
children's special receptivity to parental ideas, increasing the number of
children increases the projected number of host offspring. So the Amish
farming taboo has a quantity parental advantage.

Far more prevalent in North America is the taboo against masturbation. Its
vast influence shows up clearly in the recent "Sex in America Survey," and
vividly in events that brought down a recent surgeon general.

The Census Bureau does not track fertility rates for this taboo's hosts, so
its quantity parental effect is less demonstrable than that of the Amish
faith. Yet educated guesswork suggests that the masturbation taboo raises
its adherents' reproduction rate above average levels. Taboo hosts generally
have fewer acceptable options for reacting to sex drives. They must either
mate more often, abstain more often, or both. The resulting behavioral mix
should bring more children to the taboo's host population. Even hosts whose
masturbation remains unabated would still experience guilt as a motive to
seek entirely partnered sex. This group's greater effort toward mating would
presumably yield more children to inculcate with the taboo.

The number of extra children per generation need not be great to explain the
masturbation taboo's widespread propagation. The secret lies in the taboo's
very great age. Even a 5 percent per generation increase amounts to a
132-fold increase when compounded over 100 generations. A reproductive
effect imperceptible to any one generation can gently elevate the idea from
fringe group status to mainstream proportions. Such modern influences as
publicized sex research have reversed some of the taboo's gains, though the
subject of masturbation still troubles many.

The Efficiency of Parenthood

Simply having children cannot guarantee that any will embrace the parents'
beliefs. Yet some beliefs actually stack their odds of acceptance by guiding
the methods of parenthood. Any idea increasing the fraction of its hosts'
children who eventually adopt their parents' meme exhibits efficiency
parental transmission.

To illustrate, Amish carry a belief that Amish must stay highly separated
from non-Amish. This separatism saturates Amish children with Amish ideas
(including separatism) while "protecting" them from non-Amish memes. So
Amish separatists impart their faith to offspring more successfully than do
non-separatist Amish. This keeps the majority of Amish abidingly separatist.
By staying segregated, the Amish get 78 percent of their children to stick
with the faith in a predominantly non-Amish country. The same transmission
efficiency gained by Amish separatism may also intensify other separatist
movements around the world.

The evolutionary biologists Eva Jablonka and Eytan Avital in Israel recently
coined the name phenotypic cloning to describe such parentally replicated
memes in humans and other animals. Their work focuses mainly on basic
skills, but the concept applies equally to everything from ingrained
personalities to conscious beliefs.

Proselytizing Pays

Thought contagions spread fastest via proselytic transmission. A proselytic
idea's hosts generally pass the idea to people other than just their own
children. Such propagation is not slowed by the years needed to raise
children. Host populations seldom double parentally every ten years, but a
proselytically spreading idea, under suitable conditions, can double its
host population in a year or less.

The conviction that "My country is dangerously low on weapons" illustrates
proselytic advantage. The idea strikes fear in its hosts for both their own
and their compatriots' lives. That fear drives them to persuade others about
military weakness to build pressure for doing something about it. So the
belief, through the side effect of fear, triggers proselytizing. Meanwhile,
alternative opinions such as "My country has enough weaponry" promote a
sense of security and less urgency about changing others' minds. Thus,
belief in a weapons shortage can self-propagate to majority
proportions--even in a country of unmatched strength. In the United States,
the meme spread widely during the late 1970s and early 1980s despite a great
superiority in military hardware. Though the impressive buildup that
followed may have helped end the cold war, the prerequisite opinion shift
came from thought contagions spreading in people who expected a permanent
cold war.

Proselytic thought contagion becomes self-limiting as host population growth
diminishes the supply of nonhosts. Few nonhosts remain by the time the host
population is a great majority since most have already converted by then.
Without enough nonhosts, especially persuadable ones, the proselytizing
cannot win many new adherents. This creates cycles in which successful
proselytic movements lose momentum, setting the stage for renewed outbreaks
of old movements and initial outbreaks of new movements.

Preserving Belief

In the preservational mode, ideas influence their hosts to remain hosts for
a long time. The idea may influence its adherents to live longer, or make
them avoid dropping out.

A belief that "One should never argue religion or politics" illustrates the
dropout-prevention form. The belief substantially immunizes its hosts
against religious or political proselytism. This reduces their chances of
conversion to any persuasion that emphasizes proselytism--a persuasion that
one should argue religion or politics. Thus, the argument-avoiding belief
preserves its own existence among adherents.

The belief may achieve majority status in people who remain unconverted by
proselytic religion and politics, leaving proselytic movements to solicit an
increasingly "resistant strain" of nonhosts.

Sabotaging the Competition

If every proselytic movement spawns a stubborn resistance, the memetic
contests would all grind down to stalemates. Yet often they don't. When
proselytic zealots become stymied, the only memetic variants that continue
to spread are those that carry the movement to a more aggressive phase.

In the adversative mode, ideas influence their hosts to attack or sabotage
competing movements. That is, the host can either harm nonhost individuals
or destroy their memes' ability to spread.

Both mechanisms occur with the Muslim belief--supported by the Koran--that
God rewards those who fight and kill for Islam. First, this idea programs
some hosts to selectively kill those who refuse to convert to Islam.
Provided that this meme does not lose too many of its own people in the
process, the killing increases the relative size of its Islamic host
population. Second, adherents frighten many surviving non-Muslims into
silence, largely destroying their idea's proselytic contagiousness. This,
too, reduces the projected number of nonhosts, increasing the relative
prevalence of Islam.

Adversative replication advantage occurs only when aggressive action results
from the memes themselves, since only then can it favor one movement over
another. Other antagonisms, such as those over resources, can happen just as
well between like-minded believers--and do not generally work as memetic
advantages.

Cognitive Advantage

If an idea seems well founded to most people exposed to it, then nonhosts
tend to adopt it, and hosts tend to retain it. That perceived cogency to the
total population provides an idea with its cognitive advantage.

Of course, what is perceived as cogent frequently errs from the truth. When
Benjamin Franklin introduced the lightning rod, his idea seemed blasphemous
to many clerics thundering from pulpits and presses--all because the
populace still saw lightning as punishment from God. Whether an idea seems
cogent to specific people depends upon matters ranging from what other ideas
they already have to the neurobiology of humans in general.

One cognitively propagated idea is the belief that "the earth revolves
around the sun." Its seeming consistency with many astronomer's observations
of the sun at various times of the year made it popular among astronomers.