From: Vincent Campbell (VCampbell@dmu.ac.uk)
Date: Fri 11 Apr 2003 - 12:00:46 GMT
Playing catch-up again, so sorry if this adds little or nothing...
<If it really is possible to track memes in the same
> way as one can track real viruses, it ought to be
> possible to produce at least as good a curve for the
> putative 'travel avoiding' meme as for the real virus.>
Indeed, and what is complicating this is the very different approaches of the various countries thus far affected. There's been lots of coverage in places like Canada and the UK, but in China where the outbreak appears to have started and where the most people have been infected/died, the state-controlled media have hardly covered it at all. So travel in China has hardly been affected at all, whilst Hong Kong, or parts of it, have undergone periods of quarantine.
Linking to Keith Henson's piece about psychohistory, I think SARS
offers a good example of how different social trends are when compared to
viruses, at least at our current level of understanding. And indeed
cultural trends can impact on the "success" or "failure" of actual viruses.
Global air-travel has played a role in several of the major outbreaks in
recent years, including SARS, but there are also things like changing social
practices that meant, according to one version of the story, HIV went from a
localised virus in Africa to a global epidemic, partly because of
significant social movement in Africa (big population movements due to wars
etc.) that gave the virus a much wider geographical reach, and then in part
because of atypical sexual practices (e.g. the so-called patient zero of the
1980s Frisco outbreak that finally saw the virus identified, an air-worker
who claimed 2,500 sexual partners). Gladwell talks about this in his book
'The Tipping Point'. Didn't something similar also happen with syphilis in Europe in the decades after the discovery of America?
Anyway, as Derek says, part of the problem is that unlike a virus,
with memes we've yet to identify something that can be physically traced
that is the meme. Although I think we can do the next best thing and trace
the diffusion of indicators of memes (e.g. I dunno the ownership of bibles,
perhaps, I've got one in fact I think we've got two in our house as my wife
has one), this isn't quite the same thing.
Incidentally I don't know if anyone else in the UK caught any of the
BBC's recent series on Buddhism (why don't they ever run seasons on atheism
I wonder?). I saw a very good introductory programme about the life of old
gautama, and was struck yet again by the curious failure of buddhists to see
at least one of the central flaws of the philosophy (that's is a rich
person's abjugation of responsibility for dealing with social problems by
ignoring them and pretending they don't exist- which is why I guess it
appeals so much to guilt-ridden Westerners).
Anyway, one of the things that I didn't know at all about the
buddha's story that the programme outlined was how he tried all sorts of
different religious rites and practices before deciding on his way to
enlightenment. Typically as I write, their name completely escapes me, but
he apparently spent some time with a sect who believed in total respect for
all living things, even the smallest creatures, and I was delighted (from
an anthropological view) to see that this lot have survived, and the nuns
wear masks now to "protect" bacteria and so on. What interests me, and I
hope has some tenuous connection to the original SARS piece, is that this
religion has clearly existed since before the 5th century BC, yet doesn't
appear to have moved out of its particular little enclave in northern India,
or at least not very extensively. But, surely the big difference between a
religion, or indeed any social trends, and a virus is the need for social
conditions to be just right for a religion to tip into a major global
phenomenon, and that is a much more opaque thing than that of viruses.
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