Mitochondrial Memes (Part 3: Viruses want you to spread them)

Memetics is the study of how ideas (“memes”) propagate, using the evolution and transmission of viruses as its model. Ideas, like viruses, infect their hosts (human brains), then are transmitted to new hosts (other people.) A “successful” idea is one that spreads to lots of people, just as a successful virus is one that infects lots of people.

A new environment or technology can change the way memes propagate or the types of memes that are successful.

Note that this has nothing to do with the factual content of the idea, nor does it require humans to purposefully intend to make ideas more or less successful. More successful ideas will simply spread, whether anyone wants them to or not.

For example, as Moldbug writes on the evolution of modern Progressivism from mainline Protestantism:

The combination of electoral democracy and “separation of church and state” is an almost perfect recipe for crypto-Christianity. . . .

If you have a rule that says the state cannot be taken over by a church, a constant danger in any democracy for obvious reasons, the obvious mutation to circumvent this defense is for the church to find some plausible way of denying that it’s a church. Dropping theology is a no-brainer.

and Foseti elaborates:

The series begins by treating progressivism as a sort of infection of the mind. Assume progressivism is a virus that is solely concerned with spreading itself into as many minds as possible. We see the idea’s evolution, in which it starts as a fundamentalist religious belief and ends up discarding theism so as to better propagate itself in an officially secular system of government. Shed of overt theism, Progressivism “can be propagated by American official institutions, which are constitutionally prohibited from endorsing its ancestor or competitor [ie theistic Christianity].” The devil’s greatest trick . . . and so on.

In other words, the new environment (an explicitly non-theistic political arena) favors moral ideas that are not explicitly theistic.

Viruses are interesting things. They have a lot of the characteristics of living things–like DNA–but not all of them, and so are considered non-living or semi-living things. Critically, a virus cannot reproduce on its own–it must take over a living organism and hijack its reproductive mechanisms to begin producing copies of the virus.


Viruses (and other infections,) of course, do not “want” anything, because they are not sentient. But anthropomorphization is a convenient shorthand. Viruses which are spread far and wide “succeed;” viruses which infect one person and never infect anyone else “fail.” Therefore, chances are good that any virus you catch wants to be spread.

The common cold, for example, makes you sneeze, spreading the virus from your nose and mouth to all of your friends and family.

The parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which can only reproduce in the digestive tracts of felines but lives comfortably in just about any warm-blooded host, affects the brains of infected rats and mice to make them less fearful of cats, making them more likely to get eaten by cats, thereby transferring the parasite to its preferred home.

Horsehair worms infect crickets and then compel the crickets to drown themselves so the worms can reach water; liver flukes hitch a ride inside ants, directing them to the tops of blades of glass, where they are devoured by cows–the liver fluke’s destination. (source, with some interesting examples of pathogens that affect plant behavior.)

Immediately after infection, the flu virus makes people more sociable–and thus more likely to spread the virus to other people–before it floors you for the rest of the week. The awkwardly named IIV-6/CrIV virus is an STD that infects crickets, then makes them super-horny, spreading the STD to other crickets. Interestingly, the virus also shuts down the crickets’ immune systems, preventing them from having the “normal” cricket-responses to infection. Thus the crickets did not act or feel sick while going on their sex binge–until, you know, it turned their guts blue and killed them.

Alas, googling “Does AIDS make people horny” has returned zero hits I am actually willing to click on. But it stands to reason that STDs would increase their chances of successful transmission by making their hosts have more sex.

Memes also want you to spread them.

Any meme that can convince you to spread it–say, a meme that claims that it is immoral not to spread it–is a meme that is more likely to be successful than one that encourages you to keep your opinions to yourself.

“If you send this letter to 7 of your friends, you will have good luck! But if you break the chain, you’ll have nothing but bad luck for 7 years!”

“98% of people won’t repost this picture! Are you one of the 2% that’s brave enough to do it?”

One of the interesting things about the past 500 years or so of human history is that we have gotten better and better at spreading information. Not just chain letters and funny cat pictures, but also objectively valuable information like medical advice, scientific studies, cookbooks, and YouTube videos on how to get a small object out of your shower drain. (Get a vacuum cleaner, put a nylon stocking over the tube part, and suck it up.) Even thirty years ago, this blog would have been impossible–I would have had to content myself with slowly reading an encyclopedia, writing out my thoughts by hand, snail-mailing them to a few friends, and then waiting for a response.

If Voltaire were alive today, he’d write a blog instead of all those letters.


To be continued.


3 thoughts on “Mitochondrial Memes (Part 3: Viruses want you to spread them)

  1. While Moldbug has plenty of interesting things to say, he gets the relationship between church and state exactly backwards. The “separation of Church and State” was to keep the church from being politicized, the Church of England being a prime example of politics polluting religion. The universalist moral ethic is not so much “spawned” from Christianity as much as it is ripped off wholesale with no thought given to how a universalist ethic is to be grounded. Progressives are the Amy Schumer of philosophy.

    We see much the same pattern with regards to natural law and cosmology as we do regarding morality emerging during the so-called Enlightenment: A law taken at face value, emerging from the void with any question to how this law came about, how it’s grounded, how we come to know it, etc shouted down.


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