Re: Significance of memetics (Jonestown)

Lloyd Robertson (
Fri, 04 Dec 1998 22:42:06 -0600

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 04 Dec 1998 22:42:06 -0600
From: Lloyd Robertson <>
Subject: Re: Significance of memetics (Jonestown)
In-Reply-To: <>

My apologies in taking so long to reply. I am frequently travelling during
weekdays as part of my work.

>> It seems to me that if you define memes only in behavioral terms then you
>> are left without an explanation.
>I can't provide an explanation, but perhaps that's because we don't
>know enough about memetics yet.
>Do you think that thought contagionism provides an explanation? If you
>do I'd be interested in hearing it.

I'm afraid I'm going to have to disappoint you, Derek. I think that
memetics has the potential to provide such an explanation but I don't have
one either. I only came across the word "meme" about two years ago in
Dennett's book, Darwin's Dangereous Idea, so I'm not going to kick myself
for this failure on my part. I think I have a direction in which to look;
however, and would appreciate your help (and anyone else's) in pursuing it.

I agree with your earlier statement that Jonestown does not appear to be an
example of simple thought contagion which can be measured behaviorally
using frequency distributions in a given population. There are other
elements including psychic and physical coercion which rules out a simple
thought contagion model. None-the-less, if memetics is to be really useful
it should be able to explain Jonestown and, in the process, develop a model
for explaining the Germany of Hitler's era (I would recommend Goldhagen,
"Hitler's Willing Executioners" to examine the scope of that problem). In
any case I am more interested in Jones' willing executioners than in Jones

I have to own up to my personal background here. I was raised in the sister
church of the one to which Jones ministered. The Church of Christ
(Christian) is more conservative and fundamentalist than are the
"Disciples". Our worldview was that only the Disciples and us were
Christians (altho the Disciples were said to have erred because they had
pianos and organs in their church buildings) and everyone else was "of the
world" which is a polite way of saying "of Satan".

A rather tight world view was generally shared by church members. Some of
the mutually attractive and supporting memes included: god--faith--a
literal view of the bible--the "evilness" of the world--distrust of those
not in the church--value of personal sacrifice--etc. In addition, each
congregation was independent. That meant that each had the potential to
evolve separately from the rest. Memetic drift, therefore, could be subject
to local conditions and pressures in addition to a normal random drift that
would tend to separate congegations. An example of this drift: the
congregation in which I was raised believed that "mixed swimming" (boys and
girls in the same pool) was sinful. Yet the church in a small city 300 km.
from ours had no such "sin" in it's teachings.

The San Fransisco congregation was unusual in that a sizable portion set
up a commune (presumably modelled on the first Christian church in
Jerusalem). Communal living is not an ideal that is normally taught in
either the Disciples or the Christians. It would not be enough to simply
ideolize a particular vision of the early Christians in Jerusalem. It would
also be necessary to modify the injunction to "spread the seed" (yes, the
Churches of Christ are door-knockers, Bibles in hand). The point is that
this congregation would have been evolving rapidly before Jones went into
his openly meglomaniac phase.

It is apparent from the tapes you quoted, Derek, along with the ones to
which I referred in my last post, that Jones was intent on "evolving"
(forced evolution, like breeding) the shared meme-system further to include
personal recognition of his own omnipotence and to include the value of
mass suicide/murder. These two concepts are normally anathma to the dogma
of this church. However, if other memes had already evolved in importance
and placement in this particular congregation to reduce the egalitarian
tendency, increase the isolationist paranoia tendency, to emphasize the
self-sacrifice meme, to re-frame the "go forth and spread the gospel" meme,
then he could have been at least partially successful (as he apparently
was) in changing the nature of the "beast" by which members of his
congregation governed their lives. I would go further and suggest that
where faith in a belief system is put ahead of reason that the meme-system
becomes an independant and self replicating life form that controls
members. And if that "beast" evolves, for whatever reason, then the
behavior of those members evolve. I would like to look at Jonestown from
that point of view.

>Tangentially but not entirely unrelatedly, Le Bon's "Psychology of
>Crowds" (1895) was apparently a book with which Hitler and Mussolini
>were both familiar (Eatwell 1995, p.8). Hitler, unlike Mussolini, was
>not an avid reader or even very literate. He only read those things he
>saw as utterly important. If you see social contagion and memetics as
>two sides of the same coin (who said that??) as I do, then it is rather
>intruiging that this demagogic pair were both into a proto-memetics

I agree, this is intruiging. While the personal meme-structure of Hitler
was no doubt influenced by what he read; what is of even greater interest
is why his particular world-view should have so easily meshed with that of
the German people of his day. The evolution of the Christian view of Judism
is instructive. For centuries all Christian churches had taught that the
Jewish faith was of Satan. But this allowed the possibility of individual
conversion to Christianity. Then, in the 1870s, the liberals won a series
of human rights battles giving German Jews a measure of equality with
Christians. The expectation was that these Jews would eventually convert to
Christianity. This did not happen. Conservatives then began to argue that
Jews were incapable of becoming Christian because of some genetic
predisposition. This led, eventually, to a general acceptance of the "final
solution". In fact, both Lutheran and Roman Catholic leaders criticized
Hitler for not moving fast enough to settle the "Jewish question".

I think memetics has great potential in studying the evolution of such
cultural phenomena. I think that to study cultures we have to work at
competing self-replicating structures between the individual and the culture.


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)