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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 ---------------------------------------------------------------------------- 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.