Invasive Memes


Smallpox virus

Do people eventually grow ideologically resistant to dangerous local memes, but remain susceptible to foreign memes, allowing them to spread like invasive species?

And if so, can we find some way to memetically vaccinate ourselves against deadly ideas?


Memetics is the study of how ideas (“memes”) spread and evolve, using evolutionary theory and epidemiology as models. A “viral meme” is one that spreads swiftly through society, “infecting” minds as it goes.

Of course, most memes are fairly innocent (e.g. fashion trends) or even beneficial (“wash your hands before eating to prevent disease transmission”), but some ideas, like communism, kill people.

Ideologies consist of a big set of related ideas rather than a single one, so let’s call them memeplexes.

Almost all ideological memeplexes (and religions) sound great on paper–they have to, because that’s how they spread–but they are much more variable in actual practice.

Any idea that causes its believers to suffer is unlikely to persist–at the very least, because its believers die off.

Over time, in places where people have been exposed to ideological memeplexes, their worst aspects become known and people may learn to avoid them; the memeplexes themselves can evolve to be less harmful.

Over in epidemiology, diseases humans have been exposed to for a long time become less virulent as humans become adapted to them. Chickenpox, for example, is a fairly mild disease that kills few people because the virus has been infecting people for as long as people have been around (the ancestral Varicella-Zoster virus evolved approximately 65 million years ago and has been infecting animals ever since). Rather than kill you, chickenpox prefers to enter your nerves and go dormant for decades, reemerging later as shingles, ready to infect new people.

By contrast, smallpox (Variola major and Variola minor) probably evolved from a rodent-infecting virus about 16,000 to 68,000 years ago. That’s a big range, but either way, it’s much more recent than chickenpox. Smallpox made its first major impact on the historical record around the third century BC, Egypt, and thereafter became a recurring plague in Africa and Eurasia. Note that unlike chickenpox, which is old enough to have spread throughout the world with humanity, smallpox emerged long after major population splits occurred–like part of the Asian clade splitting off and heading into the Americas.

By 1400, Europeans had developed some immunity to smallpox (due to those who didn’t have any immunity dying), but when Columbus landed in the New World, folks here had had never seen the disease before–and thus had no immunity. Diseases like smallpox and measles ripped through native communities, killing approximately 90% of the New World population.

If we extend this metaphor back to ideas–if people have been exposed to an ideology for a long time, they are more likely to have developed immunity to it or the ideology to have adapted to be relatively less harmful than it initially was. For example, the Protestant Reformation and subsequent Catholic counter-reformation triggered a series of European wars that killed 10 million people, but today Catholics and Protestants manage to live in the same countries without killing each other. New religions are much more likely to lead all of their followers in a mass suicide than old, established religions; countries that have just undergone a political revolution are much more likely to kill off large numbers of their citizens than ones that haven’t.

This is not to say that old ideas are perfect and never harmful–chickenpox still kills people and is not a fun disease–but that any bad aspects are likely to become more mild over time as people wise up to bad ideas, (certain caveats applying).

But this process only works for ideas that have been around for a long time. What about new ideas?

You can’t stop new ideas. Technology is always changing. The world is changing, and it requires new ideas to operate. When these new ideas arrive, even terrible ones can spread like wildfire because people have no memetic antibodies to resist them. New memes, in short, are like invasive memetic species.

In the late 1960s, 15 million people still caught smallpox every year. In 1980, it was declared officially eradicated–not one case had been seen since 1977, due to a massive, world-wide vaccination campaign.

Humans can acquire immunity to disease in two main ways. The slow way is everyone who isn’t immune dying; everyone left alive happens to have adaptations that let them not die, which they can pass on to their children. As with chickenpox, over generations, the disease becomes less severe because humans become successively more adapted to it.

The fast way is to catch a disease, produce antibodies that recognize and can fight it off, and thereafter enjoy immunity. This, of course, assumes that you survive the disease.

Vaccination works by teaching body’s immune system to recognize a disease without infecting it with a full-strength germ, using a weakened or harmless version of the germ, instead. Early on, weakened germs from actual smallpox scabs or lesions to inoculate people, a risky method since the germs often weren’t that weak. Later, people discovered that cowpox was similar enough to smallpox that its antibodies could also fight smallpox, but cowpox itself was too adapted to cattle hosts to seriously harm humans. (Today I believe the vaccine uses a different weakened virus, but the principle is the same.)

The good part about memes is that you do not actually have to inject a physical substance into your body in order to learn about them.

Ideologies are very difficult to evaluate in the abstract, because, as mentioned, they are all optimized to sound good on paper. It’s their actual effects we are interested in.

So if we want to learn whether an idea is good or not, it’s probably best not to learn about it by merely reading books written by its advocates. Talk to people in places where the ideas have already been tried and learn from their experiences. If those people tell you this ideology causes mass suffering and they hate it, drop it like a hot potato. If those people are practicing an “impure” version of the ideology, it’s probably an improvement over the original.

For example, “communism” as practiced in China today is quite different from “communism” as practiced there 50 years ago–so much so that the modern system really isn’t communism at all. There was never, to my knowledge, an official changeover from one system to another, just a gradual accretion of improvements. This speaks strongly against communism as an ideology, since no country has managed to be successful by moving toward ideological communist purity, only by moving away from it–though they may still find it useful to retain some of communism’s original ideas.

I think there is a similar dynamic occurring in many Islamic countries. Islam is a relatively old religion that has had time to adapt to local conditions in many different parts of the world. For example, in Morocco, where the climate is more favorable to raising pigs than in other parts of the Islamic world, the taboo against pigs isn’t as strongly observed. The burka is not an Islamic universal, but characteristic of central Asia (the similar niqab is from Yemen). Islamic head coverings vary by culture–such as this kurhars, traditionally worn by unmarried women in Ingushetia, north of the Caucuses, or this cap, popular in Xianjiang. Turkey has laws officially restricting burkas in some areas, and Syria discourages even hijabs. Women in Iran did not go heavily veiled prior to the Iranian Revolution. So the insistence on extensive veiling in many Islamic communities (like the territory conquered by ISIS) is not a continuation of old traditions, but the imposition of a new, idealized, version of Islam.

Purity is counter to practicality.

Of course, this approach is hampered by the fact that what works in one place, time, and community may not work in a different one. Tilling your fields one way works in Europe, and tilling them a different way works in Papua New Guinea. But extrapolating from what works is at least a good start.



8 thoughts on “Invasive Memes

  1. One aside, viruses also have an incentive to evolve to be less lethal. If you don’t kill the host, at least not too fast, then the ability to spread is higher. So, more benign viruses will evolve independent of adaptions in host immune systems. Killing the golden goose isn’t the best strategy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, but unfortunately,t hat can take a while, and is dependent on the speed at which viruses can transmit from person to person. If transmission speed is low, viruses have to be mellow. If high, viruses can just make you explode in public and expect to infect everyone around. Our new memetic environment is essentially allowing the latter.


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