Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads through Society

Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads through Society

Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads through Society

Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads through Society

Synopsis

Fans of Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Bennet, and Richard Dawkins (as well as science buffs and readers of Wired Magazine) will revel in Aaron Lynch's groundbreaking examination of memetics- the new study of how ideas and beliefs spread. What characterizes a meme is its capacity for displacing rival ideas and beliefs in an evolutionary drama that determines and changes the way people think. Exactly how do ideas spread, and what are the factors that make them genuine thought contagions? Why, for instance, do some beliefs spread throughout society, while others dwindle to extinction? What drives those intensely held beliefs that spawn ideological and political debates such as views on abortion and opinions about sex and sexuality?By drawing on examples from everyday life, Lynch develops a conceptual basis for understanding memetics. Memes evolve by natural selection in a process similar to that of Genes in evolutionary biology. What makes an idea a potent meme is how effectively it out-propagates other ideas. In memetic evolution, the "fittest ideas" are not always the truest or the most helpful, but the ones best at self replication. Thus, crash diets spread not because of lasting benefit, but by alternating episodes of dramatic weight loss and slow regain. Each sudden thinning provokes onlookers to ask, "How did you do it?" thereby manipulating them to experiment with the diet and in turn, spread it again. The faster the pounds return, the more often these people enter that disseminating phase, all of which favors outbreaks of the most pathogenic diets. Like a software virus traveling on the Internet or a flu strain passing through a city, thought contagions proliferate by programming for their own propagation. Lynch argues that certain beliefs spread like viruses and evolve like microbes, as mutant strains vie for more adherents and more hosts. In its most revolutionary aspect, memetics asks not how people accumulate ideas, but how ideas accumulate people. Readers of this intriguing theory will be amazed to discover that many popular beliefs about family, sex, politics, religion, health, and war have succeeded by their "fitness" as thought contagions.

Excerpt

This book introduces a new branch of science dealing with the evolution of ideas that program for their own retransmission. These self-spreading ideas have been called memes ever since zoologist Richard Dawkins coined the term in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. After ten chapters on genetic evolution, he devoted the closing chapter to the nongenetic evolution of memes. Two years later, I independently reinvented this theory of self-propagating ideas, and realized that it would someday warrant a whole book. I had coined a different neologism back then, but later adopted the term meme after a friend told me about Dawkins's meme chapter.

In its first two decades memetics (as the subject is now called) lacked any concentrated collection of good examples, making it easy for many to see meme theory as just all interesting handful of oddities rather than a broadly unifying paradigm. I wrote this book largely to provide that collection of examples, thus putting memetics on more serious footing in the sciences. Still, generating convincing examples proved much harder than paraphrasing existing research with the new term "meme."

To produce a body of distinctly memetic insights, the field first needed to list those mechanisms of idea transmission that called out for memetic analysis. Once that was done, examples of each mechanism became more visible. Mirroring that developmental prerequisite, Thought Contagion starts out by introducing . . .

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