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

Aaron Lynch (
Fri, 20 Jun 1997 02:32:14 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 20 Jun 1997 02:32:14 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Lynch's Memetic Theories about Masturbation (Long)
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Aaron Lynch responding to Timothy Perper and Martha Cornog:


>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.

Darwin did not first look at vast reems of survival and reproduction data,
and then conclude that evolution by natural selection was the best theory
to explain it. Many topics in THOUGHT CONTAGION are at the same level of
unsubstanitation as were Darwin's claims. For all the qualitative
descriptions of fossils and existing species, Darwin did not have the hard
data on survival and reproduction that would have substantiated his claims
about natural selection. But his theory explained a very broad range of
phenomena in a unifying way. My memetic discussion of masturbation is
likewise unifying, in that it proposes mechanisms that also explain a broad
range of other old sex taboos.

>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.

It is not the "nature" of memetics, but rather the "state of the art" for a
science in its infancy, a science that just last year saw its first serious
book-length treatment.

>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.

The hypothesis regarding masturbation is original and thus without a source
citation. One of the restrictions for a high-end trade book, however,
concerns the use of "weak prose." Editors do not like authors to say "...
the taboo MIGHT cause more children," or "... they MAY have fewer erotic
alternatives." They tell us to delete the qualifiers, or worse, they don't
even consider works that are full of them. Qualifiers available to Darwin
are thus effectively unavailable to modern new authors.

>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?

The standards will have to rise as the field progresses, much as has
happened in biology.

>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.

I have actually heard "where are your references?" demanded of the basic
propagation mechanisms themselves, from people who do not realize that
THOUGHT CONTAGION is the original source that proposes those mechanisms.
New theoretical paradigms (and I am not using this as a trendy buzz word)
are not always built upon references to earlier theoretical paradigms or
even the data that was gathered for testing the earlier paradigms.

>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?

I suspect that you would have been more comfortable if I said "... taboo
MAY heighten the incentive to mate." I would like to see suitable data
collected on this one, too. But it certainly will not be unless researchers
are convinced that this is an interesting question to investigate for
theoretical reasons. Oral sex and prostitution also have taboos, consistent
with my general theoretical framework for the evolution by natural
selection of sex taboos.

>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?

Your own comment on this matter was "The biology of this process is
extremely complex, and does not seem to offer a simple functionalist
explanation for the masturbation taboo." Baker and Bellis' data do suggest,
within the limits of a "non-significant trend," that masturbating between
copulations can increase reproduction, but only if the masturbations do not
substitute for copulations. I doubt that the sperm fitness issue he raises
could ever favor replacing copulation every other day with masturbation
every fourth day and copulation every fourth day. That is, masturbation
makes good reproductive sense in his model only if no willing partner is
available. Doing it only when no willing partner is available and then
feeling guilty about it, may (pending data) be more reproductive still.

>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.

"Proselytism" is used in a generalized sense, in the context of my
"proselytic mode" of meme replication. It does not mean that one
CONSCIOUSLY ATTEMPTS to convert others, but rather that the host is
influenced by the meme to do more re-transmitting. In this case, it is the
desire to declare oneself "normal" (even to oneself) that causes people to
re-voice the taboo to peers. (Personal observation, hard data once again
lacking until formal studies are done.)

>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."

Are you renaming my book now? Is this what you mean by "scholarship?"

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

Content of commercial shows, as I clarified earlier.

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

"Evidence" would consist of appropriate surveys, not mere lists of shows,
dates, and times.

>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

Those comments currently have the status of a hypothesis proposed, not of
"proven fact." I have not generated a frequency per year per station plot
of masturbation themes, nor have I gathered the public opinion data versus
year that might be correlated with these shows.

>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.

Memetics is a branch of science first and foremost. This means that not all
of its theory, hypothesis, and fresh data will be culled by reference to
prior sources. To say first that it is a "branch of scholarship" may, in a
round about way, demand that it be built upon vast bodies prior scholarly
writings, such as those of hermeneutics.

> 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

Data will be gathered once such projects are funded.

>Likewise with history, religion, politics, medicine. Lynch did not give
>any substantive replies to our questions.

This is not specific.

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.

I believe a preface would have helped clarify the first proposal and
unproven status of the books examples and theoretical framework. That
preface should also have noted the important role played by books that
propose yet unproven theories.

>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.

I never questioned this correlation.

>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.

Those data, and the correlation you noted in them, are FULLY CONSISTANT
with my hypothesis that R1(a) > R2(a) for (e.g.) all a > 18 years where
R1(a) is the age-specific reproduction rate for taboo hosts and R2(a) the
age-specific reproduction rate for taboo non-hosts. Why do you think I
wrote my equations with the variable "a" included in all the propagation
parameters in the first place?

>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.

It would have been most unscholarly of me not to point out the statistical
fallacy upon finding it.

>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.

I anticipated age correlations in my propagation parameters long before
this discussion. Read the equations yourself. All you have done is seized
upon a correlation that is already embedded in the long-published
quantitative expression of my theory.

>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.

I never dismissed the DATA as "fallacious reasoning," and I find it
unscholarly of you to suggest that I did. I never challenged the DATA at
all. The conclusion you drew from them, however, was drawn by fallacious

>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.

Show me good data on reproduction versus age in taboo and non-taboo
populations, and I will not dismiss it. Show me data that cannot be used in
the parameters of memetic analysis, and I have no choice but to set it aside.

>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.

Noting that this or many other hypotheses might explain the above age
correlation does not in any way diminish the fact that age-specific
reproduction data for taboo and non-taboo populations are the required kind
of data, not the inter-age comparison of samples undistinguished by taboo

>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."

Well, then: I DO NOT KNOW the age-specific reproduction rates of the
populations with and without masturbation taboos, or with or without more
specific anti-masturbation memes. I would like to see these data gathered.
And now I have published a general theory and a specific hypothesis that
explain why it it useful to gather such data, and that indeed call out for
such data. Believe me, your commentary DOES NOT enlighten me as to the
figures that I already knew I did not know. On page 173, I state that "A
vast body of research now awaits the new field of memetics..." But
establishing what it is that I, or any other scientist, or indeed what
science itself does not know must not be offered as "fatal criticism," or
else you will kill the advancement of knowledge.

>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.

This is not how I identified your fallacy, and telling me that I "ignored
what I didn't like" does not correct your fallacy! But complaining that I
seem to "assert" what is in fact untested theory and hypothesis is again to
demand the "weak prose" of numerous "ifs" and "maybe's" that could not have
been published by a first-time unknown author in today's publishing world.
You are, in effect, demanding that you had never seen the book in the first

>That sort of thing is get-rich-quick science, if it is science at all.

Couldn't you have inquired as to the economic gain or loss I have sustained
before making such a pronouncement? I would have been far better off
financially to stay with physics.

> 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.

Darwin did not gather the differential survival, reproduction, and
population data needed to prove natural selection theory. Such data would
only gradually be gathered as a result of his publishing a theory
unsubstantiated by hard data on the theory's fitness variables. A theory as
broad as the evolution by natural selection of mental information needs
likewise to start somewhere, and only later emerge from its humble beginnings.


--Aaron Lynch

THOUGHT CONTAGION: How Belief Spreads Through Society The New Science of Memes Basic Books. Info and free sample:

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