More thoughts on memes and evolutionary psychology

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sun 02 Feb 2003 - 05:41:24 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: "minimum separabile" and the memetic code"

    Most people know that Jim Henson (no relation I know about) died at age 53 from a serious, but treatable disease, Group A Streptococcus pneumonia. Jim had been sick for days but had postponed going to the hospital until it was six to eight hours too late. Part of the reason was his Christian Science upbringing. While he didn't practice the faith, his wife stated in a
    *People Interview* "it affects his general thinking," "Not that he mistrusted doctors, but he would rather just see it through by himself."

    Christian Science is an older cult than Scientology, but there *are* parallels.

          "In 1879, four years after the first publication of Science and Health, Mary Baker Eddy and some of her students organized the church of Christ (Scientist) in Boston Massachusetts. Of course, like all cults, it claimed to be the restoration of the original New Testament Church.
          "In 1881 she opened a metaphysical college and charged $300 for 12 healing lessons.
          "The Church was reorganized in 1892, and the Church Manual was first issued in 1895 which provided the structure for church government and missions.
          "She died in 1910, a millionaire.

    The Mormons are a still older cult:

    ". . . . the church divided into two groups: One led by his [Smith's] widow which went back to Independence Missouri. They are known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They claim to be the true Church and lay claim to the legal succession of the church presidency which was bestowed upon Joseph's son by Joseph Smith himself. The other group was led by Brigham Young and they went to Utah where, in 1847, they ended up in Salt Lake and founded Salt Lake City. Brigham had 25 wives and accumulated much wealth."

    My interest has shifted from the particular to the general in the last few years. Scientology is the reason that I got into this area of study, but it is far from the only such mind parasite infesting humans and not even the worst of them (though it does rank high). I have become increasingly concerned about the bigger picture of cults and particularly the aspects of human nature that cults exploit.

    I don't think anyone would disagree that we need to understand and if possible to control such exploitation. Modern technology provides many things besides large aircraft and chemicals that can be abused by those in the control of a cult that subverts civilized behaviour. (Scientology subverts the institutions of government.)

    A general solution to cults, in analogy to the approach Pasteur and Koch took toward disease-causing microorganisms, is needed. We still have serious problems with microscopic parasites (like those that killed Jim Henson) but at least the origin of our problems is well understood and, relative to the times prior to Pasteur, we know how to deal with most of them. (Provided *mental* parasites don't interfere with the application of medicine they did for Jim Henson and Lisa McPherson.)

    We now have the mental modeling tools to understand how human are parasitized. Evolutionary psychology provides a basis for understanding the susceptibility of humans to cults, related social movements, and even addictive drugs. The view it provides is not at first particularly encouraging because it indicates that the very nature of humans may have to change to eliminate the problems. (Though, for better or for worse, changing human nature lies not far beyond the current state of technology.)

    Before we get to changing humans we may be able to take active steps to immunize the population against cults. It is also possible that public mental-health services may be able to test and identify the people most susceptible to cults. Perhaps those most vulnerable could be recruited into "designer cults" that satisfied the need for the attention that cults provide and starve dangerous totalist cults such as Scientology for new members. Or perhaps such people should be classed as handicapped. and penalties akin to tripping blind people applied to those who defraud them. (Financial fraud of the "Nigerian advance fee" kind seems to be closely related to cults, with cult members being particularly sensitive.)

    Existing cults/religions need a "Consumer's Guide" rating on how well they provide social/attention rewards and at what cost. For example, if you just *have* to join a UFO cult a little web searching indicates the Raelians might be a better deal than the Scientologists.

    Are we living in a time of rapid progress in understanding like that of Pasteur's, or is it more like the time 40 years earlier of Semmelweis, who was ridiculed to his dying day for his method (hand washing) that reduced death from childbed fever?

    It may not matter.

    Even if we are living in a time more like that of Semmelweis, knowledge advances faster these days. We should progress to a widespread understanding of the human factors behind vulnerability to cults in a decade or less.

    Scientology, Christian Science and the LDS Church are at different places along their evolution with rather different prospects.

    Both Scientology and Christian Science have stuck slavishly to their original sets of ideas. Both are stagnant or declining in membership, they do a lot of damage, and they are badly out of sync with the evolving world. The Mormons have tossed some of the more outlandish parts of their meme set and membership wise are doing well. If it were not for the impending technologically driven sea change that I expect to change the world beyond imagination, I would give them a fair chance at long-term survival.

    Neither Christian Science nor Scientology has good long term prospects..

    Keith Henson

    =============================================================== This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see:

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Sun 02 Feb 2003 - 06:00:10 GMT