Why humans are susceptible to ideas strange and dangerous

Ideas strange and dangerous abound in most human populations. We need something to believe in, but believing in things that distort reality only takes us down a dark alley to nowhere.

A book I read a few years ago that will stay with me forever is Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge, by Bruce Thornton. I’ve always been interested in how people can come to believe so much that just isn’t true. Two types of people do this. Those that just fall for the bunkum and balderdash and those who promote and peddle it for some sort of gain, which may be money or status or both. The slicksters may or may not believe the lies or crazy notions they hawk to others.

Memetics is a new scientific inquiry into that very thing, how do people acquire ideas and why do many people so easily become Eric Hoffers’ True Believers.

Gresham’s law holds that bad money drives out good money, and It may also be true that bad ideas drive out good ideas in our minds. In this essay the author explores the possibility that the opposite can also be true, like good bacteria and bad bacteria, filling our minds with good ideas may protect us from harmful and dangerous ideas. Good ideas don’t necessarily have to be proven as true so long as we recognize that it’s an untested idea that may or may not be true. An idea that is most certainly true only in part is also acceptable so long as we know the difference between established truth and conjecture.

All this is meaningless to those who don’t believe truth even exists. They are lost until they clear the cobwebs from their minds.

“An idea is something you have;
an ideology is something that has you.”
—Morris Berman

Below is an excerpt from an essay that appeared in The Whole Earth Review, #57, a journal that ceased publication in 2002.


From MEMETICS: The Science of Information Viruses By Keith Henson [Bracketed text added]:

brain_eaters “Meme” [rhymes with cream] is a word coined in purposeful analogy to “gene” by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. To understand memes, you must have a good understanding of the modern concepts of evolution, and this is a good source. In the last chapter of Dawkin’s book memes were defined as replicating information patterns that use minds to get themselves copied much as a virus uses cells to get itself copied. (Dawkins credits several others for developing the concepts, especially the anthropologist F.T. Cloak.) Like genes, memes are pure information, whether the sequence is coded in DNA, printed on paper, or written on magnetic tape.

Humans are not the only creatures that pass memes about. Birds can learn variations of songs. The songs of whales are also replicating information patterns that fit the model of a meme. So is the termite-catching technique that chimps pass from generation to generation.

Meme is similar to “idea”, but not all ideas are memes. A passing idea which you do not communicate to others, or one which fails to take root in others, falls short of being a meme. The important part of the “meme about memes” is that memes are subject to adaptive evolutionary forces very similar to those that select for genes. That is, their variation is subject to selection in the environment provided by human minds, communication channels, and the vast collection of cooperating and competing memes that make up human culture. The analogy is remarkably close. For example, genes in cold viruses that cause sneezes by irritating noses spread themselves by this route to new hosts and become more common in the gene pool of a cold virus. Memes cause those they have successfully infected to spread the meme by both direct methods (proselytizing) and indirect methods (such as writing). Such memes become more common in the culture pool.

Given that memes have been interfering with our reproduction for a long time [Nazism, Communism, and similar mass movements that killed people by the millions], one must wonder why humans are still so susceptible to information diseases. [Seems to contradict natural selection] The answers to such questions are starting to come from research into artificial intelligence, neuroscience and archeology. It is becoming apparent that our vulnerabilities are a direct consequence of the way our minds are organized, and that organization is a direct consequence of our evolutionary history.

Marvin Minsky (a principal founder of AI) and Michael Gazzaniga (one of the major workers in split brain research) have independently come to a virtually identical model of the mind. Both view minds as vast collections of interacting, largely parallel (co-conscious) modules or “agents”, or a “Society of Mind.”** The lowest level of such a society of agents consists of a small number of nerve cells that innervate a section of muscle. A few of the higher-level modules have been isolated in clever experiments by Gazzaniga, some of them on patients whose right and left hemispheres have been divided by trauma or surgery.

One surprise from this work is that we seem to have our mental modules arranged in a way that guarantees that we will form beliefs. What we believe in depends, at least in part, on what we are exposed to and the order in which we are exposed. Gazzaniga argues that we slowly evolved the ability to form beliefs because the ability provides a major advantage in surviving. Being able to infer, that is to form new beliefs, and to learn, in the sense of acquiring such beliefs from others, was a major advance over learning by trial and error. Being able to pass the rare new ways of our ancestors found for chipping rock or making pots from person to person and generation to generation was vital in allowing humans to spread over the Earth.

But as this ability became the norm, communicating human minds formed a “primal soup” in which a new kind of non-biological evolution, that of replicating information patterns or memes, could get started. A wide variety of competing memes has evolved in the intervening seventy thousand years or so. It should not be surprising that the survivors of this process, like astrology or religions, are so effective at inducing their hosts to spread and defend them. It is also plausible that in the tens of millennia since memetic evolution became a major factor there has been biological co-evolution. The parts of our brains that hold our belief systems have probably undergone biological adaption to be better at detecting dangerous memes and more skeptical about memes that result in death and seriously interfere with reproductive success.

[On the biological adaption of the human brain a previous post, The Ghost in the Machine, explores some fascinating ideas from Arthur Koestler’s 1967 book of that title.]

This type of co-evolution is known as an “arms race” to biologists. One such biological arms race has resulted in almost perfect egg mimicry by the cuckoo [tricking other birds into thinking the cuckoo’s eggs are their own] and in correspondingly sharp visual discrimination in the birds it parasitizes. By analogy, while we get better at spotting dangerous memes, the memes may be evolving to be more effective at infecting us. Advancing technology (which itself is an improving collection of memes) changes the environmental conditions where memes survive or fail as well. The modern telephone system and the tape cassette player were major factors in the takeover of Iran. It has been argued that the rise of the Nazis depended strongly on radio reaching a previously unexposed and unsophisticated population.

I have picked dangerous examples for vivid illustrations and to point out that memes have a life of their own. The ones that kill their hosts make this hard to ignore. However, most memes, like most microorganisms, are either helpful or at least harmless. Some memes may even provide a certain amount of defense from the very harmful ones. It is the natural progression of parasites to become helpful symbiotes, and the first such behavior that emerges in a proto-symbiote is for it to start protecting its host from other parasites. I have come to appreciate the common religions in this light. Even if they were harmful when they started, the ones that survive over generations evolve and do not cause too much damage to their hosts. Calvin (who had dozens of people executed over theological disputes) would hardly recognize Presbyterians three hundred years later. Contrariwise, the Shaker meme is now confined to books, and the Shakers are gone. It is clearly safer to believe in a well-aged religion than to be susceptible to a potentially fatal cult. [emphasis added]

See also:
How Ideas Spread: The Virus Analogy
The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures by Nicolas Wade
Climate Change: The Facts by J.Abbot (Author), J.S. Armstrong (Author), A.Bolt (Author), R.Carter (Author), & 20 more
A Disgrace to the Profession by Mark Steyn

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  • Todd Foster

    I don’t see an advance in understanding over familiar training and conditioning theory. Not to mention conformity and intimidation. That knowledge exists in limited blocks, in conceptusl form, seems obvious. Treating these as viruses which purposefully infect, propogate and spread seems merely metaphorical, little more than a fanciful restatement of passive consensus following to me.

    • TeeJaw

      Formation of a consensus must occur first.

  • Dave Lienert

    My first thought after the last paragraph was that one must produce or reproduce to survive. The Shakers produced fine furniture and clothing however they did not produce offspring. This is not to say everyone must have children but if no one does the group will die off.
    Could it be that some ideas are so strong, good or bad that they take on a life of their own by generating (reproducing) new ways of thinking?

    • TeeJaw

      An idea can become a meme if it offers some psychic benefit to those who hold it, and make others want to hold it. That’s true of both good and bad ideas, benevolent ideas and evil ideas. The mystery is why some people cling to ways of thinking that are harmful to themselves and others. The thesis sentence of Henson’s essay seems to be, ”Given that memes have been interfering with our reproduction for a long time [Nazism, Communism, and similar mass movements that killed people by the millions], one must wonder why humans are still so susceptible to information diseases. [Seems to contradict natural selection]” Words in brackets were added by me.

      Traditional religion, those religions that are not infected with the information disease of liberalism, protects the believers from the ravages of liberalism. The wealthy don’t need religion or anything else to save them because their wealth allows them to afford liberalism’s cost, although it diverts much of their wealth to the nefarious activities of government. One of those nefarious actions of government, now largely financed by the wealthy, is holding poor people hostage to welfare. The poor who have neither religion nor a store of wealth to protect them become addicted to what they perceive government is doing for them. Some go on to become unwitting cheerleaders for those who are holding them down to keep themselves in power.

      One need not be a religious believer to understand that liberalism in all its forms, socialism, nazism, communism, etc. is a harmful meme. One merely needs to suffer the hard labor of thinking it through. Bruce Thornton’s book is, to my mind, an excellent guide to clear-headed thinking, and to better memes.

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