Re: "Retarding the Progress" - Some Specifics

Paul Marsden (
Fri, 26 Feb 1999 17:11:41 -0000

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: "memetics" <>
Subject: Re: "Retarding the Progress" - Some Specifics
Date: Fri, 26 Feb 1999 17:11:41 -0000

>As one who would rather not "retard the progress of memetics," I would like
>to see how either my JoM-EMIT paper or my book might have done so in a
>specific topic: the Hutterites. Both Derek and Paul have just joined me in
>discussing the Hutterites (in the "Group Selection" thread), so perhaps
>they can now apply their insights to that specific case.

Aaron, let's look at what you actually say about Hutterites in the two
thirds of a page you devote to the subject in TC. You start with a number
of statements

You state that Hutterite couples have on average more than ten children each
(no source).
You state that they superficially resemble the Amish in terms of agrarian
life-style and "old-fashioned" attire
You state they are hosts to many Christian memes, and cite a single example
of monogamous marriage
You state the biggest memetic difference (to what?) concerns family
structure - where all adults share responsibility for each child, and that
children MUST not develop closer ties to their biological parent.

Then you make one claim

"By distributing parental responsibility, the Hutterites greatly dilute the
usual pragmatic motives for regulating fertility. Having only one more
child only slightly raises a couple's expected share of care and support
efforts. This, then, accounts for their extraordinary achievements in

and go on to make one further ancillary point that due to their isolation
there is a "resulting dropout rate (under 10%) [which] allows the high
fertility to yield rapid net expansion".

Now there are a number of specific points that can be made about this.

Firstly, so what? Any social scientist will tell you that non-genetically
transmitted information (AKA culture (by definition)) in humans can affect
their behaviour, including reproductive behaviour. (Notice we are talking
about behaviour here). In this sense, your claim is entirely predictable
within standard social science - you don't need contagious thoughts to make
this claim - socialisation/learning will do nicely.

Secondly, and in a related fashion, you use meme/thought contagion simply as
a synonym for culture - this is fine, but again so what? Using a partial
metaphor for a perfectly good term (culture) seems highly disingenuous and
invites confusion. We have to look at what the TC metaphor adds to/is
different from standard social science to assess its usefulness - your
Hutterite example sheds no light on this.

Thirdly, it is not at all clear that "parental responsibility" is the usual
motive for regulating fertility. If that were the case, societies with free
child care facilities (reducing the responsibility) would have larger
families. This is not the case, for example in France, a nominally Catholic
country, where child care is heavily subsidised, and is often completely
free, where the fertility rate is so low the
government gives you a reduction in the income tax for each child you have,
and will pay for Nannies.

Fourthly, you provide absolutely no evidence for the statements or claims
you make.

So to answer your question, of why the use of your Hutterite example is
retarding the progress of memetics. The answer is because your conclusions
are either

a) self evident, to which the thought contagion metaphor adds nothing,
b) vacuous
c) unsubstantiated

Your central argument in TCP is that given parent-child fidelity in cultural
transmission, that the culture held by one generation will increase in
prevalence at a rate correlated with the fertility rate. Well, yes, this is
simply common sense. However your premise of high parent-child fidelity in
modern society where culture jumps genetic lineages, is fallacious
(particularly related to sexual mores and norms which change faster than
genetic deadtime) EXCEPT in culturally isolated communities - where as I
said you claim is simply common sense, if not a tautology.

Now, you ask why the Thought Contagion metaphor is retarding the progress of
memetics. Derek and I have listed why this is the case in 1) the original
article,2) the focus, and 3) my commentary, please read them again if you
are still unclear.

Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279

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