Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society

Overview

Fans of Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Bennet, and Richard Dawkins (as well as science buffs and readers of Wired Magazine) will revel in Aaron Lynch’s groundbreaking examination of memetics—the new study of how ideas and beliefs spread. What characterizes a meme is its capacity for displacing rival ideas and beliefs in an evolutionary drama that determines and changes the way people think. Exactly how do ideas spread, and what are the factors that make them genuine thought contagions? Why, for instance, do some ...

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Overview

Fans of Douglas Hofstadter, Daniel Bennet, and Richard Dawkins (as well as science buffs and readers of Wired Magazine) will revel in Aaron Lynch’s groundbreaking examination of memetics—the new study of how ideas and beliefs spread. What characterizes a meme is its capacity for displacing rival ideas and beliefs in an evolutionary drama that determines and changes the way people think. Exactly how do ideas spread, and what are the factors that make them genuine thought contagions? Why, for instance, do some beliefs spread throughout society, while others dwindle to extinction? What drives those intensely held beliefs that spawn ideological and political debates such as views on abortion and opinions about sex and sexuality? By drawing on examples from everyday life, Lynch develops a conceptual basis for understanding memetics. Memes evolve by natural selection in a process similar to that of Genes in evolutionary biology. What makes an idea a potent meme is how effectively it out-propagates other ideas. In memetic evolution, the “fittest ideas” are not always the truest or the most helpful, but the ones best at self replication.Thus, crash diets spread not because of lasting benefit, but by alternating episodes of dramatic weight loss and slow regain. Each sudden thinning provokes onlookers to ask, “How did you do it?” thereby manipulating them to experiment with the diet and in turn, spread it again. The faster the pounds return, the more often these people enter that disseminating phase, all of which favors outbreaks of the most pathogenic diets. Like a software virus traveling on the Internet or a flu strain passing through a city, thought contagions proliferate by programming for their own propagation. Lynch argues that certain beliefs spread like viruses and evolve like microbes, as mutant strains vie for more adherents and more hosts. In its most revolutionary aspect, memetics asks not how people accumulate ideas, but how ideas accumulate people. Readers of this intriguing theory will be amazed to discover that many popular beliefs about family, sex, politics, religion, health, and war have succeeded by their “fitness” as thought contagions.

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Editorial Reviews

Booknews
Promotes the contagious disease model of ideas. The approach is based on the concept of meme, defined as an identifiable unit of cultural imitation that becomes significant because of its effectiveness at self-replication, rather than, for example, because it is a good idea. Draws examples from popular beliefs, social science, children and families, religion, and health.
Publisher Weekly
A meme, in the newly emerging discipline called memetics, is a self-propagating idea, a unit of cultural imitation that, much like a biological or computer virus, effectively programs its own retransmission. Memes can percolate through society by motivating their "host population," or by reshuffling old ideas into novel configurations, or via human proselytizers. According to Lynch, formerly a Fermilab engineering physicist, a nuclear family meme set combining ideas of sexual monogamy, long-term commitment and biparental upbringing ensures that the people whose mating behavior produces the most children will also personally raise those children. A crucifixion meme, he cautions, leaves Christianity vulnerable to exploitation by phony religious leaders who generate guilt-inspired contributions; the Yahweh god meme, spreading among the ancient Hebrews, fostered a unified moral code. Lynch also uses memes to explain current controversies over abortion and handguns, men's breast fetishes, homophobia, diets that achieve temporary results and much else. Memetics is a radical science, modeled on genetics, that cuts against the grain of conventional and habitual thinking; Lynch does a fine job of covering its pros and cons, exploring its range and making it accessible to nonexpert readers.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465084678
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 11/27/1998
  • Edition description: PBK ED
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 1,414,928
  • Lexile: 1280L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Aaron Lynch was an engineering physicist. In 1990 he was awarded a grant for full-time research by a private sponsor.

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Table of Contents

Preface: vii
1: Self-Sent Messages and Mass Belief 1
2: A Missing Link: Memetics and the Social Sciences 17
3: Family Plans: Ideas that Win with Children 41
4: Sexually Transmitted Belief: The Clash of Freedom and Restriction 73
5: Successful Cults: Western Religion by Natural Selection 97
6: Prescription Beliefs: Thought Contagions and Health 135
7: Controversy: Thought Contagions in Conflict 157
8: Thought Contagions of "Thought Contagion" 175
Bibliography 179
Index 183
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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 25, 2006

    Author Took 200 Pages to Describe a 3-Page Concept

    I suppose I'm a glutton for punishment for actually finishing this book. Introduces the concept of a 'meme' (a self-regenerating idea) and the modes of transmitting memes (e.g., parental influence, etc.). Provides examples of memes and meme transmission, such as the proliferation of Islam (e.g., active, public prayer leads to greater exposure . . . large families likewise impacts growth of believers). Unless this book is something you are required to read, I'd take a pass on it.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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