Re: Significance of memetics

Lloyd Robertson (
Fri, 27 Nov 1998 14:48:25 -0600

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 27 Nov 1998 14:48:25 -0600
From: Lloyd Robertson <>
Subject: Re: Significance of memetics
In-Reply-To: <>

At 09:07 AM 27/11/98 -0500, BMSDGATH wrote:
>> I have trouble accepting that Jones, one man, could have bullied nearly a
>> thousand to murder and/or take their own lives. He must have had allies

>There was one particular lieutenant, a female, who was heavily involved
>in administering the poison.

Jones with just one ally would not have been enough to cause 912 deaths in
this way. He must have had a substantial number of people who either
believed in him or believed in their joint cause. James Reston, a New York
Times Columnist in 1979 obtained some Jonestown tapes and based a
documentary on them. In them one parent threatened to "liberate" his son
from the camp. After Jones re-established his control of the situation he
asked the son "What do you think should be done with your relative?"

"Mr. Tupper (the father) should die," the youth responded. "I should take a
knife and cut Mr. Tupper all up real good and put poison in him and invite
all my relatives over and have them eat him."

Another point on the tape included the following testimonial from a
U.S.-Vietnam war vet, "From now on I'm living my life on your time. I will
face the front line with you right now, Dad (Jones); I would die for you.
Thank you, Dad."

A young child then said, "I'm prepared to die for this family if I have to
die for freedom. Thank you, Dad".

Jones had somehow successfully inculcated an undetermined number of his
followers with the following ideas: that he was their (spiritual) father;
that disobedience was evil; that their lives were his; that they were
fighting for freedom. Jones needed to have inculcated, I would think a
rather largesh (sorry for being so precise) number with these ideas in
order to overpower the remaining ones who had not yet followed him this
whole way.

Some spoke about how good life was in the Guyana colony
>before Jones arrived in flight from the FBI. It seems doubtful that
>the latter group could have believed he was an emissary from any god,
>but probably did acknowledge him as their leader, albeit grudgingly.
This is an interesting point because the Disciples of Christ are generally
a fairly independant minded (altho moderately fundamentalist) Christian
sect. They do not believe that their ministers have some papal-like
authority to interpret scripture, that all (at least male) members have an
equal authority to interpret dogma. By way of background, the Church of
Christ (Disciples) is a Protestant group founded in the U.S. in the early
part of the 19th century and has a U.S. membership in excess of 3 million.
There is no controlling council or synod, each congregation is relatively
independant. The SF congregation was their third largest in terms of
numbers. My understanding is that Jones would have been hired by a council
of elders, sometimes known informally as the Church "business meeting". It
would be fascinating to trace the evolution of this to what happened in
Guyana. I would hypothesize that there would have been a gradually increase
in Jones' stature and influence coupled with an increased paranoia about
the forces "of the world". I would further hypothesize that Jones used this
as the basis for a further, forced evolution at Jonestown where he gave his
meglomania full reign.

>'Fanatics' are often less loyal to their leaders than outsiders or the
>leaders themselves might believe.

True, but this would generally be where the fanatics believe in a "cause"
as opposed to a leader.

>> There had to have been a shared belief system or you would not have had a
>> group.
>No, I think you make too many assumptions here. There are plenty of
>other reasons why groups coalesce.

So why do you think this group coalesced?
>There has to be some basis for the devotion and that basis is
>> within the framework of a compatible belief system. Now the shared belief
>> system can evolve and maybe that was what Jones was attempting to do thru
>> his trickery. The suicide meme had to attach itself to the belief systems
>> of enough of the group to make the mass murder/suicide viable.
>No, again I have problems with attaching a behaviour (suicide) to a
>belief, and analysing them on the same terms.
We don't just mass suicide like lemmings (actually, I don't even think
lemmings do). I should think that thoughts and feelings generally predate
the action. Now, if a person is suffering from a depressive illness, thinks
that things will never get better, is angry at perceived unfairness and has
had recent suicides in his neighborhood that person is high risk for
attempting. Similarily Buddhist monks who had abolished their sense of
selves and had compassion for the victims of the war going on around them
were, while in the presence of TV cameras, at some risk of pouring gasoline
on themselves while in Saigon. What was the process that let to the
suicides (and the decision to murder on the part of the murderers) in
Jonestown? I would suggest that there had to be some adjustments to their
mental (cognitive and emotional) processing that led to changes in their
belief systems that led to the decision to act. External pressure and
trickery can be part of the explanation. But internal processing has to be
taken into account too because, like you said, objectively there were other

It seems to me that if you define memes only in behavioral terms then you
are left without an explanation.



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)