From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Fri 11 Apr 2003 - 12:00:46 GMT

  • Next message: Grant Callaghan: "Re: SARS!"

            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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