Re: Lynch's Memetic Theories about Masturbation (Long)

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Thu, 19 Jun 1997 19:57:21 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 19 Jun 1997 19:57:21 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: Lynch's Memetic Theories about Masturbation (Long)

We thank Aaron Lynch for responding to our critique, but also think many
issues are not settled. So, despite Bruce Edmonds' comment about people
not reading long postings, we once again must go into substantive detail.

We began and ended our critique by saying that the issue centered on
whether memetics can and/or should deal with the specific details of a
phenomenon of interest. Our claim is that it must -- and to that end we
looked very carefully at Lynch's discussion of the memetics of masturbation
in his "Thought Contagion." In a real sense, we are subject matter experts
-- Martha is currently editing a book about masturbation, and we are
together writing a book on the evolution of human sexuality.

We are not engaged in a debate about words -- "I did not say X1, I said X2,
which is different!" -- but about ideas and concepts. We are looking at
substantive content ABOUT a topic. As a result, the discussion is not
about masturbation, but about how one specific example of memetics *deals*
with masturbation.

Throughout our comments, we often asked for references or citations to the
literature -- in brief, EVIDENCE -- concerning the memetic hypotheses Lynch
developed, briefly to be sure, in his book. Note, however, that is not we
who need to provide such evidence, except when *we* claim something is
likely to be true (and we did include a number of references). Instead, we
are discussing Aaron Lynch's ideas, and we asked HIM to provide the
evidence he used to develop them. And note that we are not asking him to
provide references to memetics in general, but to a *specific example* that
he analyzed memetically.

Are such demands reasonable? We believe so, because if memetics is not
based on evidence, then it has no epistemological footing. It is instead a
patchwork of guesses, hunches, and intuitions, all compiled from unknown
sources of unknown reliability and unknown trustworthiness. To be sure,
one might claim that such off-the-top-of-the-head impressionism is the
nature of memetic analysis -- and, if so, then that assumption needs to be
stated clearly.

But because we *are* scholars, we do not believe that impressions form a
good basis for science. Instead, one eventually needs the full apparatus of
scholarship in evidence, references, citations, and a balanced and complete
appraisal of the available data. So the basic question is whether memetics
is a form of personalized expression of social/political/cultural opinions
or is a genuine form of scholarship.

We are not criticizing "Thought Contagion" for not being a "scholarly" book
with all the usual footnotes and so on. It is a high-end trade book, which
is a respectable and important genre. Instead, we are asking the author
how, in the lght of already existing data, he obtained his ideas and how he
came to believe them. Now we are asking the *scholarly* questions that may
be asked of anyone who writes on any topic, whether for a trade book market
or for scholars alone.

Another reason we believe that the demand for evidence and knowledge of the
literature is reasonable is that memetics has drawn the attention of
academics and other scholars. It has a scholarly lineage, so to speak,
although it also may have its popularizers. But because popular writing is
available to so many people, we feel that it must get its facts right: the
alternative is mere politicking -- popularization with an agenda. We are
not saying that Lynch's book is such a popularization, but are again
pointing to an issue that confronts memetics and memeticists: what are the
standards of truth, relevance, and evidence?

We believe that issue genuinely and truly confronts memetics as a whole.
It might seem unfair to deal with Aaron Lynch's discussion of the memetics
of masturbation (as opposed, we mean, to something else), but scholarship
must begin somewhere, and it is a field we know something about. We
imagine that similar sorts of questions -- what is your evidence? what
have others said? where are your references? -- could be asked in other
areas of memetics, but this section of Lynch's book is as good a place to
start as any.

With those ideas in mind, let us turn to Lynch's lengthy discussion of our
critique of his memetic hypotheses about masturbation.

Issue I: Evidence and lack thereof.

With only one exception -- mention of Rodney Starkis' "The Rise of
Christianity" -- Lynch did not provide references or citations to the
literature about masturbation. For example:

1.) "Thought Contagion" says "For singles, the [masturbation] taboo
heightens the incentive to mate" (page 90). We asked "Why not oral sex or
some other type of erotic activity, e.g., sex with prostitutes -- which has
very low reproductive potential for a given male?" Lynch didn't answer
that question. Yet it seems central to Lynch's vision of the memetics of
anti-masturbation ideologies. Where are the data?

2.) We asked about evidence supporting the supposed reciprocal
relationship between masturbation and procreative sex -- which, in Lynch's
answer, he phrased as "I only assume that it [masturbation] does not reduce
procreational sex in married couples." But Lynch's answer didn't reply to
the question. So where is the evidence such that we may all see it and
examine it? However, he did tell us to look in the index under birth
control. Well, OK -- pages 91-92 -- and no mention of evidence that
masturbation reduces procreation. However, it *does* say that "By raising
extra babies, followers of these [anti-birth control] memes can outpopulate
nonhosts across various times and places" (page 91).

So Lynch still needs to tell us what evidence he has for this idea and for
its equivalent for masturbation.

3.) We cited Baker and Bellis' data to respond to Lynch's comments that
the masturbation taboo raises sperm counts and presumably fertility. He
did not reply. So where are the data supporting Lynch's claim?

4.) We asked what he meant by "proselytism" of the anti-masturbation
taboo, citing work on medieval Roman Catholic penitentials, the publication
of "Onania" and the writing of Simon Tissot, as well as 19th and 20th
century medical discourse warning against the dangers of masturbation. We
also cited Vern and Bonnie Bullough and John Money. Lynch provided no
discussion of these issues.

5.) Concerning the role of the media, "Thought Control" says "Indeed, the
very status as taboo makes masturbation and other sex topics prime material
for commercial use: mention over the airwaves can make people pay
attention long enough to hear a commercial and then improve recall by
'downloading' it to an aroused audience." In his comments to our critique,
he wrote "By 'commercial use,' I refer not to the messages of a show's
sponsors, but to the content of shows such as the frequently sexual 'Jenny
Jones' here in the US."

Well, which is it? Commercials or content of the shows?

Where is the evidence -- aside from a casual mention of one TV show -- to
support this role for the media?

6.) We mentioned a specific episode of the "Seinfeld" television show that
dealt with masturbation -- but without every mentioning it. What other
shows or commercials use masturbation as "prime material for commercial
use," to quote again from "Thought Contagion"? Are Lynch's comments about
television and radio his personal opinion, or do data actually exist about
masturbation on these shows or their commercials? (There is no question,
we think, that many television shows and advertisements use sex -- but
Lynch is making claims about masturbation, and that's what we want to know

We can comment more generally about these items. We have no objection to
Lynch having his opinions or writing books about them. We do, however,
insist that if memetics is to be a branch of scholarship, issues of
evidence above MUST be addressed. One can assume that the role of the mass
media in memetics is very significant -- or it certainly *could* be -- and
so we need much more than a casual reference to a single television show.
If memetics alleges that the mass media spread memes for or against
masturbation -- or anything else, for that matter -- then memeticists must
do the work and *prove* their hypotheses. It is not enough to adopt the
attitude of "Hey, I watch TV and see what they got on those shows!" WE

Likewise with history, religion, politics, medicine. Lynch did not give
any substantive replies to our questions. Well, then, what basis do his
claims have in evidence?

We have no objections to Lynch speculating in a book he wrote, but believe
it must be labelled as such -- especially in a trade book.

Issue II. Statistics, Unwelcome

As a separate issue, we want to address the Laumann et al. age-specific
masturbation rate data and their relation to age-specific impregnation
rates (the Wood data we cited).

Here, Lynch accuses us of misusing statistics. Well, no.

There are two sets of data. One shows that men's masturbation rates
increase to a broad maximum between 25-25 years of age, and the other shows
that men's actual impregnation rates likewise rise in the same age range.
In fact the correlation between the two seems quite good.

This relationship, it strikes us, is the OPPOSITE of what Lynch's
hypothesis predicts. He suggests that *we* are trying to use the Laummann
et al. and Wood data to prove that masturbation "causes" fertility, or some
such, but we are not trying to prove any such thing. We suggested how the
data seem different from what Lynch expects, and asked how HE explains
those data.

In scholarship, the answer is not to accuse people of "fallacious
reasoning" as he says of our discussion in his reply to Bill Benzon's
posting of 6/19/97. Observations that seem to falsify one's ideas are
opportunities for *refining* them.

But returning to Lynch's comments, he points out that researchers need
better data -- which, he believes, would show the expected negative
correlation between masturbation frequency and fertility. Well, yes, one
does need such data. But Lynch's claim in "Thought Contagion" is that this
relationship is *already* somehow real enough to be used to explain the
spread of certain anti-masturbatory memes. Well, is it? Furthermore, it
strikes us that Lynch's discussion of the Laumann-Wood data is ad hoc --
meaning that he is hypothesizing either various biological developmental
processes or various issues of subpopulations to get around a correlation
that is not what his theory predicts.

Now come two crucial issues. The first is that despite Lynch's hypotheses,
the Laumann-Wood data exist. They are part of the broad phenomenology of
masturbation. Can those data be dismissed as "fallacious reasoning"? We
think not, because Lynch's specific predictions are not the only issues
that one can raise about masturbation and memetics.

Lynch can, if he wishes, focus on specific kinds of question, but he may
not dismiss a body of data as large as these two datasets.

The second issue concerns the observed correlation itself, where low
age-specific masturbation rates correlate with low age-specific
impregnation rates. Does this correlation arise because younger and older
men cannot masturbate and ejaculate, or because they are more susceptible
to anti-masturbation taboos? One could speculate that younger males have
not yet thrown over their upbringing about masturbation, and one could
speculate that the older men grew up in an era when anti-masturbatory
ideologies were really drilled into their heads.

In one sense, the answer is to say "Hmmm, that is an interesting
hypothesis." But it IS a hypothesis. We do not know what produces these

On the other hand, perhaps purely biological factors produce the
correlation: younger men are still sexually immature, and older men are
becoming sexually less responsive. Perhaps memes have nothing to do with
it at all.

For that too the answer is "Hmmm, that also is an interesting hypothesis."
But again it IS a hypothesis.

The method of "hypothesis testing" is a cornerstone of scientific research.
But it requires something beyond what Lynch has done either in these pages
of "Thought Contagion" or in his answer to our critique. It requires that
one say "I do not know."

In a genuine way, that is our deepest concern with the questions raised by
Lynch's material on the memetics of masturbation and by his comments on our
critique. Much of his writing about this topic seem to *assert* the truth
of hypotheses that are far -- very far! -- from being proven, and that deal
*very* selectively with the overall phenomenon. The age-specific rate data
for masturbation and fatherhood certainly are an example, but so are the
topics in items 1-6 above. By ignoring what one doesn't like, and perhaps
doesn't even know, one can also delude oneself that criticisms of one's
hunches are of course "fallacious reasoning" by people who are trying to
waste your time.

That sort of thing is get-rich-quick science, if it is science at all. And
so we return to our opening question. Is memetics a scholarly discipline,
with standards for truth, evidence, and theory, or is it guesswork and
opinion based on personal experience in which there is no expectation of
using -- or discussing -- the scholarly literature?

Lynch ended his comments with a ringing evocation of Charles Darwin. Well,
yes, but Darwin collected immense amounts of data before publishing (as
documented, for example, in Desmond and Moore's recent biography of
Darwin). And likewise with memetics: we believe that memetics must with
the specific details of social phenomena as they are recorded in the
literature of other scholars, and must not rely on ad hoc methods of
personal speculation. Lynch's work is valuable because it speculates about
new ideas, but we cannot remain there nor should we blur speculation with
substantiated knowledge. In brief, memetics must develop hypotheses and
test them carefully and judiciously, with all due attention to the methods
of scholarly research.

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