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.



Anthropologyish Friday: Oriental Prisons pt. 3 Burma, China, and Japan

Smallpox victim, 1886

Welcome back to Anthropology-ish Friday: The History and Romance of Crime: Oriental Prisons, by Arthur Griffiths, a British prison administrator and inspector of the late 1800s. I am not sure when the book was published, but I believe it was sometime in the early 1900s, for Griffiths mentions events that occurred up to 1899 and died in 1908.

An account from the Prisons of Burmah (aka Myanmar):

“The acquisition and annexation of Burmah by Great Britain, first the lower province with three-fourths of the seaboard, and then the entire kingdom, were accomplished between 1824 and 1886, in a little more than half a century, that is to say. Until this took place the country was generally in a state of anarchy, the king was a bloodthirsty despot, and the state council was at his bidding no better than a band of Dacoits who plundered the people and murdered them wholesale. The ruling powers were always anxious to pick a quarrel …

“The outbreak of hostilities led to cruel retaliation by the king of Burmah upon all Europeans who resided in the country, whether as missionaries or merchants engaged in trade. One of them, an Englishman, Mr. Henry Gouger, was arrested as a spy and arraigned before a court of justice with very little hope of escaping with his life. He was fortunately spared after suffering untold indignities and many positive tortures. Eventually he published his experiences, which remain to this day as a graphic record of the Burmese prisons as they then existed. He was first committed to the safe keeping of the king’s body guard, and confined with his feet in the stocks; then he was transferred to the “death prison,” having been barbarously robbed and deprived of his clothing. He was not entirely stripped, but was led away with his arms tied behind his back, bare-headed and bare-footed to the Let-ma-yoon, the “antechamber of the tomb.” ”

The following quotes are from Gouger’s account:

“While we were passing this week in the inner prison, a frightful event took place, which threatened the immediate destruction of the whole community; indeed, it is wonderful that the instinct of self-preservation did not deter our parent of the prison from executing his order. A woman was brought in covered with the pustules of the small-pox. … Even the Burmese prisoners themselves expressed their astonishment, but remonstrance was useless. The gaolers, however, showed a little common sense by placing the unfortunate creature in a clear spot by herself to avoid contact with the other inmates of the prison, with delicate threats of punishment if she moved from it.

“We never heard what induced this barbarity, but she was most likely suffering for the misconduct of some relative in the war, and the authority who sent her there could not have been aware of the disease, for she had not been among us more than twenty-four hours when she was again taken away.

Tobacco leaf and flowers from the Deli Plantation, Sumatra, 1905

“But by what means was infection averted? Inoculation or vaccination was unknown. Here were about fifty persons living in the same confined room without ventilation, and yet not one of them took the disease. The fact seems almost miraculous, and I should have doubted the nature of the malady had it not been acknowledged and dreaded by everyone, the natives as well as ourselves. I can only account for our immunity by the free use of tobacco.”

EvX: I’ve noted before that tobacco appears to have certain anti-parasitic and possibly anti-microbial properties. It’s ironic that something that damages your lungs might simultaneously protect you from infection, but it’s not a completely insane idea.

Back to the account:

““In the Indies,” says one old authority, “when one man accuses another of a crime punishable by death, it is customary to ask the accused if he is willing to go through trial by fire, and if he answers in the affirmative, they heat a piece of iron till it is red hot; then he is told to put his hand on the hot iron, and his hand is afterward wrapped up in a bay leaf, and if at the end of three days he has suffered no hurt he is declared innocent and delivered from the punishment which threatened him. Sometimes they boil water in a cauldron till it is so hot no one may approach it; then an iron ring is thrown into it and the person accused is ordered to thrust in his hand and bring up the ring, and if he does so without injury he is declared innocent. …”

“Another ordeal was to take the accused to the tomb of a Mohammedan saint and walk past, having first loaded him with heavy fetters. If the fetters fall off, he is declared to be clear. “I have heard it said,” is the comment of one authority who had little confidence in the good faith of the tribunal, “that by some artful contrivance the fetters are so applied as to fall off at a particular juncture.” …

“To follow this man on his reception and through his treatment will give a good idea of prison life in Burmah. His clothing was first issued to him; a loin cloth of coarse brown stuff and a strip of sacking to serve as his bed. His hair was close cut and his head was as smooth as the palm of his hand, save for one small tuft left on the crown; his name was registered in the great book, and he was led to the blacksmith’s shop, where his leg irons were riveted on him, anklets in the form of a heavy ring to which a connecting ring with two straight iron bars was attached. At the same time a neck ring of iron as thick as a lead pencil was welded on, with a plate attached, nine inches by five, on which a paper recording the personal description of the individual was pasted. …

““If there is a type of revolting human ugliness, it is the Burmese gaol-bird,” says the same authority, “with his shaven head and the unmistakable stamp of criminal on his vicious face. All convicts seem to acquire that look of low, half-defiant cunning from their associates, and a physiognomist would not hesitate to describe nine-tenths of the men before us as bad characters if he saw them in any society. Many of this gang are Dacoits, and their breasts, arms and necks are picture galleries of tattooed devices, fondly cherished by the owners as charms against death or capture. Some have rows of unsightly warts, like large peas, upon the breast and arms which mark the spots where the charms have been inserted,—scraps of metal and other substances inscribed with spells known only to the wise men who deal in such things. One or two natives of India are amongst the gang, and these are conspicuous by the absence of the tattooing universally found on the Burman’s thighs. A powerfully built convict at the end of the rank, in addition to the usual irons, has his ankle rings connected by a single straight bar, so that he can only stand with his feet twelve inches apart.

“‘Look at that fellow,’ says the superintendent; ‘he is in for five years, and his time would have been up in three months. A week ago he was down at the creek with his gang working timber, and must needs try to escape. He was up to his waist in water and dived under a raft, coming to the surface a good fifty yards down the stream. The guard never missed him until a shout from another man drew their attention, when they saw him swimming as hard as he could go, irons and all, towards a patch of jungle on the opposite side.’ Amongst a repulsive horde this man would take first place without competition. ‘Reckless scoundrel,’ is written on every line of his scowling face, and such he undoubtedly is. After the severe flogging his attempted escape earned for him, he assaulted and bit his guards and fellow prisoners, and the bar between his anklets was the immediate result.”

Chinese Prisons:

“According to Chinese law, theoretically, no prisoner is punished until he confesses his crime. He is therefore proved guilty and then by torture made to acknowledge the accuracy of the verdict. The cruelty shown to witnesses as well as culprits is a distinct blot on the administration of justice in China. The penal code is ferocious, the punishments inflicted are fiendishly cruel, and the prisons’ pig-stys in which torture is hardly more deadly than the diseases engendered by the most abominable neglect….

“Few Europeans have experienced imprisonment in China. One Englishman, Lord Loch, has given an account of the sufferings he endured when treacherously captured during the war of 1860. “The discipline of the prison was not in itself very strict and had it not been for the starvation, the pain arising from the cramped position in which the chains and ropes retained the arms and legs, with the heavy drag of the iron collar on the bones of the spine, and the creeping vermin that infested every place, together with the occasional beatings and tortures which the prisoners were from time to time taken away for a few hours to endure, returning with bleeding legs and bodies and so weak as to be scarcely able to crawl, there was no very great hardship to be endured…

“There was a small maggot which appears to infest all Chinese prisons: the earth at a depth of a few inches swarms with them; they are the scourge most dreaded by every poor prisoner. Few enter a Chinese prison who have not on their bodies or limbs some wounds, either inflicted by blows to which they have been subjected, or caused by the manner in which they have been bound; the instinct of the insect to which I allude appears to lead them direct to these wounds. Bound and helpless, the poor wretch cannot save himself from their approach, although he knows full well that if they once succeed in reaching his lacerated skin, there is the certainty of a fearful lingering and agonising death before him.”


“Japan as an enlightened and progressive country has made strenuous efforts to establish “as perfect a prison system as possible; one which is in harmony with the advancement of science and the results of experience.” These reforms were commenced in 1871 and were continued in various new prisons at Tokio, Kobold, Kiogo and upon the island of Yezo, all admirably organised and maintained. This movement was hurried on by the great overcrowding of the small provincial prisons on account of the accumulation of long-term prisoners. No proper discipline could be applied and there was absolutely no room for short-term offenders. Most of those sentenced to hard labour and deportation are now sent to the penal settlement on the island of Yezo, where they are employed both within the prisons and at agriculture in the open air. Every advantage is taken of the natural aptitudes of the Japanese, and the inmates of gaols prove the most expert and artistic workmen.”

EvX: Abashiri Prison is still there. According to Wikipedia,

Abashiri Prison … The northernmost prison in Japan, it is located near the Abashiri River and east of Mount Tento. It holds inmates with sentences of less-than ten-years.[1]

In April 1890, the Meiji government sent over 1,000 political prisoners to the isolated Abashiri village and forced them to build roads linking it to the more populous south.[2] Abashiri Prison later became known for being a self-sufficient farming prison, and cited as a model for others throughout Japan.[2][3]

…The prison is also known for its wooden nipopo (ニポポ) dolls carved by its inmates.[4]

It’s in Hokkaido, one of the snowiest places in the world.

Some Japanese Prison History:

“Even in the middle of the nineteenth century the same brutal methods of torture prevailed as in China (from where their bloody codes were mostly borrowed), and there are preserved collections of instruments of torture as diabolical as any known to history. Crime, too, was not lacking in those “isles of the blest,” and every species of moral filth and corruption abounded, which was shown in its true colours when the liberty of the press was granted, in 1872-1874. The number of executions and deaths in the native prisons at that time was said to average three thousand per annum.

“The chief prison of the empire, in Tokio, as described by Mr. William M. Griffis, who visited it in 1875, was very different in its sanitary appointments and general condition from the prisons of Tokio to-day. …

“Tokio has now two prisons; the first and chief is situated upon the island of Oshikawa at the south of the city, and the second, the convict and female prison of Ichigawa, is in the centre of the city. … Otherwise the two prisons resemble each other closely and a description of one will answer for both, says Mr. Norman, who described them in 1892, and gives the following account:

“The entrance is through a massive wooden gateway, into a guard-room adjoining which are the offices of the director and officials. The prison itself consists of a score or more of detached one-story buildings, all of wood and some of them merely substantial sheds, under which the rougher labour, like stone-breaking, is performed. The dormitories are enormous wooden cages, the front and part of the back formed of bars as thick as one’s arm, before which again is a narrow covered passage, where the warder on guard walks at night.

“There is not a particle of furniture or a single article of any kind upon the floor, which is polished till it reflects your body like a mirror. No boot, of course, ever touches it. The thick quilts, or futon, which constitute everywhere the Japanese bed, are all rolled up and stacked on a broad shelf running round the room overhead. Each dormitory holds ninety-six prisoners, and there is a long row of them. The sanitary arrangements are situated in a little addition at the back, and I was assured that these had not been made pleasant for my inspection. If not, I can only say that in this most important respect a Japanese prison could not well be improved. In fact, the whole dormitory, with its perfect ventilation, its construction of solid, highly-polished wood, in which there is no chance for vermin to harbour, and its combined simplicity and security, is an almost ideal prison structure. Of course the fact that every Japanese, from the emperor to the coolie, sleeps upon quilts spread out on the floor, greatly simplifies the task of the prison architect in Japan.

“On leaving the dormitories we passed a small, isolated square erection, peaked and gabled like a little temple. The door was solemnly unlocked and flung back, and I was motioned to enter. It was the punishment cell, another spotless wooden box, well ventilated, but perfectly dark, and with walls so thick as to render it practically silent. ‘How many prisoners have been in it during the last month?’ I asked. The director summoned the chief warder, and repeated my question to him. ‘None whatever,’ was the reply. ‘What other punishments have you?’ ‘None whatever.’ ‘No flogging?’ When this question was translated the director and the little group of officials all laughed together at the bare idea. I could not help wondering whether there was another prison in the world with no method of punishment for two thousand criminals except one dark cell, and that not used for a month. And the recollection of the filthy and suffocating sty used as a punishment cell in the city prison of San Francisco came upon me like a nausea.”

EvX: I find it interesting that a little over a hundred years later, a rank ordering of Burmese prisons as worst, Chinese prisons as moderately bad, and Japanese prisons as quite good (as far as prisons anywhere are concerned) probably still holds.

That’s all for today. Egyptian prisons next Friday. Take care and have a lovely, crime-free weekend.