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In a message dated 1/6/2002 8:58:46 PM Central Standard Time, Keith Henson
Good to see you working on these very current issues. I agree that biological
advantages of social attention-getting behavior play a major role in making
humans susceptible to such ideas as plane crashing. And mating drives are
crucial in that regard. My specialization remains with the contagion of the
ideas that contribute to behaviors such as this, (as well as more benign and
Without intention of getting into an extensive listserver discussion, I will
offer some material I have already written. In the October 14 edition of my
newsletter Thought Contagion News
(http://www.thoughtcontagion.com/TCN2001b.htm) , I give a short discussion of
some of the ideological and sexual angles of the September 11 attacks:
" ... In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many people
around the world are wondering how the violent ideologies of Al Qaeda and the
Taliban could have propagated in Afghanistan and various other countries.
Many also wonder how the extreme danger presented by those movements could
have been underestimated by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
The events of September 11 clearly show the problems with the earlier
prevailing wisdom that a suicidal terrorist would only be someone desperately
poor, uneducated, without family, and lacking opportunity. Missing in the
earlier prevailing wisdom was recognition of the power of extreme ideologies
formed through evolutionary contagion. Many planners prepared for such things
as biological hazards, deadly chemicals, and so forth, but not enough
attention went to the underlying ideological hazard.
While thought contagion theory usually does not foretell future events in
detail, it often does help to show what kinds of dangers lurk in the world
and what evolutionary forces create those dangers. The following is an
excerpt from a talk titled "Human Destiny and the Evolutionary Epidemiology
of Ideas" I presented at the Foundation for the Future Workshop on Cultural
Evolution, May 18-19, 2000, Bellevue, WA. It illustrates that some of the
evolutionary forces leading to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in
the United States could be understood more than a year in advance: "... The
evolutionary maintenance and growth of religious fervor now contribute to the
risk of nuclear war in India and Pakistan. Belief in special afterlife
treatment for martyrs [in Islam] heightens the risk. If such a war happens,
it could have devastating consequences not just in the region, but also for
financial markets and the world economy as nations react by trying to create
terrorist-proof boarders and curtailing civil liberties. The World Trade
Center bombing illustrates very clearly that there are groups who would use a
nuclear weapon on a large city if given a chance. ..." ("World Trade Center
bombing" referred to the 1993 attack.) Sections of the book Thought Contagion
also discuss evolutionary causes of jihad, religious martyrdom ideas, and
religiously inspired acts of war and violence in more general terms.
Evolutionary thought contagion theory may thus help us to answer the
otherwise baffling question of why so many people who have money, education,
families, and residency in a modern Western country are willing to kill
themselves in order to kill people they regard as infidels. In thought
contagion theory, the idea of violent "martyrdom" can be regarded as a fatal
thought contagion: lethal to both the hosts of the thought contagion and to
many more non-hosts. The spread of this idea in the modern world creates a
new kind of ideological hazard. Those who hold ideas of violent "martyrdom"
need to be educated that there is no real martyrdom, only senseless death
from an extremely virulent thought contagion.
Because the Taliban and Al Qaeda ideologies threaten death to people who
spread alternative belief systems such as Christianity or moderate Islam,
they also propagate the way Nazism did in pre-war Germany. In this mode of
transmission, adherents of an extremely intolerant and violent ideology
intimidate non-adherents into silence. When adherents of the ideology express
their intolerant, angry, and violent ideas, any non-adherents present are
faced with two choices. They can either express their disagreement and risk
being injured or killed, or they can remain silent and thereby surrender the
conversational “air time” to those expressing the hateful ideology. With all
the “air time” surrendered to adherents and people pretending to be
adherents, any non-adherents who might be persuadable end up hearing only one
side of the issue. [note 1]
Making matters worse, the non-adherent of the ideology may be intimidated
into pretending to be an adherent to further reduce his or her personal risk...
So adherents of the ideology may not even know when they are talking to
people who disagree with them. During this process, the false beliefs that
arouse the most intense rage may be the ones least likely to be corrected by
people who have more accurate information. Most people reckon that it is
better to knowingly lose an argument than to risk losing their lives. Few
people want to risk contradicting an armed person who is enraged about the
things he believes. The most enraging and erroneous beliefs can thus
out-propagate more accurate and benign ideas in many settings.
The extreme and violent repression of women also contributes to a hostile,
jingoistic culture. Perhaps removing one of the main possibilities for gentle
relationships leaves people spending more of their time thinking and acting
in terms of violence and force. In any case, connection between sexual
repression and violence has been explored by social scientists at least since
the work of Margaret Mead. The ideas behind the sexual repression have their
own modes of thought contagion: people impart repressive ideas to their
daughters in order to prevent even the remote possibility of an unmarried
birth. This propagation motive is described in the Sexually Transmitted
Belief chapter of Thought Contagion.
Various interventions can limit the spread of hateful, intolerant ideologies
and misbeliefs. One straightforward way to help the more educated adherents
is to discuss with them how hateful ideologies can cause their own
propagation. Recognizing such an ideology as an infectious, pathological
condition may help as a first step toward a careful re-examination of the
ideology’s tenets. Ultimately, we must address the ideologies of violence if
we are to make the world a safer place. ..."
> I agree with Aaron, this is a clear case of contagion, and his post is
> explanation what happened and how the idea was transmitted.
> My focus of interest in the realm of memetics has moved on to the"why&
> quot; question. Why do humans have the psychologicaltendencies to do
> something so clearly counter survival?
> From<A HREF="http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/primer.html">
> <x-tab> </x-tab>"Thegoal
> of research in evolutionary psychology is to discover and understandthe
> design of the human mind. Evolutionary psychology is anapproach to
> psychology, in which knowledge and principles fromevolutionary biology are
> put to use in research on the structure of thehuman mind. It is not an area
> of study, like vision, reasoning, or socialbehavior. It is a way of thinking
> about psychology that can beapplied to any topic within it.
> <x-tab> </x-tab>"Inthis
> view, the mind is a set of information-processing machines that
> by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by ourhunter-gatherer
> ancestors. This way of thinking about the brain, mind,and behavior is
> changing how scientists approach old topics, and openingup new ones. This
> chapter is a primer on the concepts and arguments thatanimate it."
> "designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced byour
> hunter-gatherer ancestors" is the key statement.
> A clear example of psychological traits natural selection left us with
> Stockholm Syndrome, exemplified by the Patty Hearst kidnapping andspouse
> abuse. This capture-bonding or social reorientation whencaptured from
> one waring tribe to another was an essential survival toolfor a million
> or more. Those who reoriented often became ourancestors. Those
> who did not became breakfast.
> This is easy to understand, but what could people have done in the
> tribaldays that translates today into strapping on explosives as they do
> inIsrael or crashing airplanes into buildings? You have to grokWilliam
> Hamilton's concepts about inclusive fitness for this to makesense. Bees
> kill themselves defending a hive because shared genesto do so become more
> common in their relatives when they do so ..
> The same is true of humans. Hamilton once figured out that genesfor
> saving more than two brothers or more than 8 cousins at the cost ofdeath
> should spread in an environment where such choices happened. We presume
> such was the situation for a million years or more.
> Of course, leading a charge into a group men armed with sticks and
> not the sure thing of crashing into a building, but you can see wherethe
> willingness to die would come from. And it may well be that thegenes of
> the suicide hijackers and similar cases are doing wellthrough enhanced
> reproductive opportunities for their relatives.
> The other factor is that some degree of social status was (and still is)an
> essential condition for reproductive success. In male YanamanoIndians
> social status comes with being a killer. Killers in thatculture have
> several times as many children as non killers.
> Social status clear back to the chimpanzees is measured by the level
> ofattention an individual gets. There is no doubt that Ben Ladin hashad
> one hell of a lot of attention put on him in recent months. Sorting out
> positive attention from negative is something that a lot ofpeople (many on
> the net) never get right.
> A 15 year old in a tribe 100k years ago would have led an attack on aparty
> from another tribe and (if he didn't get killed) chances are hewould have
> gotten lots of attention and maybe laid that night as areward. Crashing
> a light plane into a building just gets him dead,but you can see where the
> behavior comes from in response to exposure tothese memes showing how to
> I have an article in draft that goes into this in more depth. It
> isabout ten pages if that is not too long for this list.
> Keith Henson
> (practical memetics at)
> <A HREF="http://www.operatingthetan.com/">www.operatingthetan.com</A>
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