Re: Nazi Thought Contagion

Aaron Lynch (
Thu, 09 Oct 1997 20:20:44 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 09 Oct 1997 20:20:44 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Nazi Thought Contagion
In-Reply-To: <>

Aaron Lynch responding to Nick Rose:

>Aaron Lynch wrote:
>>Hi Nick.
>>>Some thoughts, comments and general devil's advocacy about your
>>>piece on Nazism:
>>At least it's not Fuhrer's advocacy! ;-)

>Re: Nazi Thought Contagion
>Although this is made in response to Aaron's new print article -
>it's directed much more widely than Aaron's piece on Nazism. You
>shouldn't feel I'm accusing you personally, Aaron ; )
>One of my abiding concerns about memetic 'explanations' of
>history and cultural change is that they have a tendancy to over
>simplify the issues. Certainly some simplification is necessary
>- even desirable - but it makes it very difficult to convince
>non-memeticists that our kind of work is serious and not just an
>exercise in rhetoric. Unfortunately memetic evolution is as
>complicated as history - so is there anything we *can* do about
>Perhaps one of the most important benefits of using selectionist
>explanations (in biology) is that we can postulate fewer
>functions than biological features. If you like - we don't have
>to come up with a new theory for every feature in biology - we do
>not have to invent a new mechanism for each example found in
>nature. This is where selectionist accounts of biological change
>win out (IMO) over the sort of 'spandrel' kinds of explanation
>often used by Gould (and others).
>In memetics, however, my concern is that there is a tendancy to
>form a new theory for each element of culture we examine. As
>such many memetic explanations of cultural phenomena risk falling
>into the 'just so story' category of explanation. It's not just
>important that a memetic explanation can defend itself against
>rival hypotheses for one element of culture - but that the *same*
>memetic explanations can be used to understand multiple elements
>of culture. Only then will we have less theories than elements
>of culture, and be able to claim that memetics is the equal to
>selectionist explanations in biology - and better than
>sociological reasoning (in an Occam's razor kind of way).

To see if "the same" principle can explain multiple phenomena, you might
want to try counting out how many different kinds of phenomena I have
explained with each of the seven selection modes outlined in THOUGHT
CONTAGION. Really, I've been accused of discussing TOO MANY, not too few

Occam's razor does not permit you to slice off anything considered valid
observation, such as the abundance of documented reports of Nazi's
intimidating and killing their opponents from early on. Do you honestly
propose a way of NOT attributing any relative prevalence changes to these

Is the theory any simpler than the millions of biographies it might
otherwise take to explain the Nazi movement? Is it any more accurate than
treating millions of people as if they were just a single mind that
simultaneously "chooses" Nazism?

>Many mechanisms that have been suggested for memetic propogation,
>like being intimidating for instance, could quite easily cut both
>ways (i.e. attract lots of new hosts - or simply put people off).
>What we badly need is clear mechanisms which I) hold for any
>number of circumstances, and II) hold for more than one
>element of culture (and preferably many). Otherwise the rest of
>science will think we are just enthusiastic (but misguided)
>supporters of an interesting (but ultimately unworkable) idea.

Nazis can be OBSERVED to intimidate non-Nazis into silence in the 1990's.
Other hateful, pro-violence movements can be observed to do the same. More
about this in a lengthier upcoming article.

--Aaron Lynch

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)