Re: "Retarding the Progress" - Some Specifics

Aaron Lynch (
Fri, 26 Feb 1999 13:33:49 -0600

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 26 Feb 1999 13:33:49 -0600
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: "Retarding the Progress" - Some Specifics
In-Reply-To: <000201be61af$3ed57460$935295c1@pc>

At 05:37 PM 2/26/99 -0000, Paul Marsden wrote:
>Aaron wrote
>>Now from Paul Marsden's commentary, we have a remarkable quote from his
>>second paragraph:
>>"As Gatherer notes, the thought contagion metaphor persists largely because
>>of what could charitably be called a `disregard' for linguistics and
>>cognitive science. To this I would add a dangerous `disregard' for the
>>corpus of social science in general, and evolutionary social science in
>I'm glad you find it remarkable - you'll make me blush with pride ;-)
>>Now I could make a case that it is others, not myself, who have been
>>dangerously ignoring the social science work done on the Hutterites, but
>>that is not my purpose here.
>Then why bother to say it? Who, for example?
>>Rather, if Paul sees me as "dangerously"
>>disregarding linguistics, cognitive science, and other social sciences,
>>then he can presumably tell me how this has affected my discussions of the
>Your if... then... claim does not necessarily follow. But anyway, the
>answer is because the example is uninformed and unsubstantiated where it is
>not vacuous (see previous list).
>>Therefore, I would like Pual himself to tell me how how HIS
>>explanation of why the Hutterites have spread instead of going extinct uses
>>linguistics, cognitive science, etc. I didn't see any linguistic or
>>cognitive science arguments in his posts on the Hutterites, but my present
>>invitation affords him an opportunity to share those insights.
>I wasn't aware I had an explanation. Aaron, I have nothing against what you
>say about Hutterites per se (apart from the above) - simply that what you do
>say has nothing to do with contagious thoughts, how they combine and
>separate etc. You are simply saying beliefs survive because they can be
>passed on non-genetically (the only way they can get passed on). This is
>simply saying that those beliefs that survive get passed on, and their
>prevalence depends on how may get passed on.
>>Specifically, Paul, how do you propose to use linguistics and cognitive
>>science in a memetic explanation of why the Hutterites spread instead of
>>going extinct.
>By a) dropping vacuous and misleading neologisms, and b) building on the
>literature on group psychology c) drawing from studies that have already
>been conducted on Hutterites, d) backing up my claims with evidence.
>Culture is transmitted non-genetically, by definition, and a group employing
>standard techniques of social influence and compliance, especially with
>reference to authority and power structures of groups and families will
>increase its survival chances (see Cialdini 1988 for an introduction to
>social influence (and a more limited introduction in Richard's Virus of
>Mind), Petty and Cacioppo 1981 for an overview of techniques). Memetics
>does not need to reinvent the wheel - especially where it has nothing new to

Paul, this looks more like an effort to dodge the question than to explain
specifically how you would apply linguistics and cognitive science to
understanding the non-extinction and expansion of the Hutterites. Yes,
there is more work that one can do on the memetics of the Hutterites. What
you have not done is shown specifically how to apply linguistics or
cognitive science to the Hutterite case. I do not wish to be told to go
read Cialdini 1988 unless you can tell me here on this list what Cialdini
1988 says that helps memetically explain the growth of the Hutterites.

In your other message, you said:

>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).

The source is Hostetler, 1974. This work was cited in the text, but not in
an academic style. I believe it is clear from context that this is my
source of information on the Hutterite fertility rate. I will, however,
attempt to make the source more clear when I get around to writing "Thought
Contagion II: The Believing." :-)

>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.

Non-genetically transmitted brain-stored information is what I refer to in
less technical terms as "contagious thought," "self-propagating ideas,"
etc. Not all of culture consists of such brain-stored information.

>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.
>The term "culture" is less specific, and includes artifacts and behaviors.
When Dawkins used the word "meme" to discuss beliefs in God, etc., was he
being highly disingenuous?
>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.

I do not claim that parental responsibility is the only motive, but merely
say that it is greatly reduced in the Hutterite case. I agree that
countries with low fertility rates have been giving incentives for
reproduction. This would explain the presence of such programs in France.
Did the government subsidies raise fertility rates from an even lower
level? The question of whether reducing the labor and financial
responsibility of raising a child promotes having more children is
certainly a good research topic in general, and a good subject of
investigation in the Hutterite case in particular. But how does proposing
the hypothesis of incentive-mediated fertility in the Hutterite case
"retard" the research? If anything, it seems more likely to prompt someone
to investigate the subject. Until then, there remains circumstantial
evidence of the sort that supported early Darwinism. Specifically, this
group with a very unusual family structure has a phenomenally high
fertility rate and just so happens to be rapidly growing.

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

The evidence for high fertility rates, low dropout rates, old-fashioned
attire, doctrines, etc. are in Hostetler's book.

>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,

This is a particularly poor complaint, as the whole idea of "natural
selection" can also be called "self evident."

>b) vacuous

This is vague and unsubstantiated.

>c) unsubstantiated

Point c is unfalsifiable, in that I expect you can always call a conclusion
"unsubstantiated" unless it is absolutely proven. What remains
unsubstantiated even to a circumstantial degree is the claim that anything
I have written on the Hutterites has "retarded the progress" of memetics in
the Hutterite case.

>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.
I do not have a premise of high parent-child fidelity in modern society. I
allow for different ideas to show different fidelity rates, and have even
expressed those rates as mathematical parameters that need to be measured
in future work. I fully accept the idea that fidelity rates have declined,
and that this has affected the prevalences of all sorts of beliefs.

>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.
The original article, focus, and commentary did not give a specific example
how "the thought contagion metaphor" had "retarded the progress of
memetics" in a case to which it was actually applied--as distinct from
hypothetical cases involving Windsor knots and Napoleonic death dates.
Given the invitation and the opportunity, you still have not given such an
example, leading me to conclude that the claim you made on this matter was
itself vacuous.

--Aaron Lynch

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