Not having done my homework yet, but thinking ahead, it seems that thinking about the various types of viruses, as metaphor for memes, could be useful. As we learn more about memetics, then we'll want to go on to applied memetics as well, where the knowledge will be used, one hopes, for the betterment of life on earth. Much of our current management of viral infections and disease also came from learning how viruses live, evolve, and replicate. From that information, we developed ways to manage or treat many viral illnesses.

Some examples, of viral interactions with humans, include -

Hepatitis A, you get it, you're miserable for a while, and your immune system fights it off, then it's gone. Those antibodies are good for life, you won't get it again. Spread by unsanitary conditions.

Hepatitis B, you get it, and may either develop a carrier state or might fight it off. People who fight it off may become immune. People with the carrier state can infect others. It can lead to fatal complications. More than 2 billion people worldwide have been infected with this virus, similar to the number of christians worldwide. Spread by intimate contact, blood, cuts, sex.

Ebola virus, most people who get this die within a couple of weeks, spread through body fluids. People bleed from multiple orifices, enhancing the spread, but it kills off its hosts so quickly, & has such limited transmissibility, that outbreaks are quite limited.

Most cold viruses are very easily transmitted via particles from coughing and hand to mouth contact, mutate rapidly, you get it, you get over it, and it's gone. But you probably gave it to someone else.

And then there are the scary ones like variations of influenza that are highly transmissable and rapidly lethal. These fortunately dont come up very much, but they wind up killing their hosts off rapidly then die out because there are no susceptable hosts remaining.

Offhand, I can't think of a human virus that benefits its host. There are some viruses that infect bacteria and can pass on antibiotic resistance, so that the bacteria with the virus survive and replicate, while the bacteria that dont have the virus die when exposed to the antibiotic.

There are also viruses like Fig Mosaic Virus. Almost all figs are infested with this virus. In most cases, it doesn't kill the tree. It is thought to weaken the trees, slightly, and reduce fruit yields, but basically the effect is mild. Not easily transmissible, probably from biting insects, but mainly from propagation of infected stock into new trees.

I can think of similar concepts with memes. A meme that catches on quickly, spreads from person to person, and then dies out, would be like a cold virus. Silly fads would be an example.

A meme that infests it's host with the potential to last lifelong, but some victims develop serious complications while others become immune, requires close contact, and can occasionally be fatal, would be like Hepatitis B. As noted above, christianity, or parts of it, might be an example

A meme that is highly virulent and infects its victims quickly, then dies out when they die out would be like ebola virus. An example would be certain cults, such as Heaven's Gate or Jones Town.

A meme that infects its host, but is beneficial, improving the survival of the host while at the same time propagating itself would be like the antibiotic-resistance viruses that infect certain bacteria. An example would be the application of science to medicine. As science cures disease, the scientific meme spreads and also improves survival of those who are infected with it.

A meme that infects its host, does not do significant damage, just kind of hangs out and slows it down all little, would be like fig mosaic virus. Example? Physical ideals of perfection that lead people to low self esteem, so they accept less in life and may be less competitive for jobs or spouses.

These are probably quite flawed as metaphors, but I thought I would share them and see what others think. A ramble to help move the conversation forward.

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Replies to This Discussion

Not rambling at all. The writing is quite orderly and logical. The viral analogy was started by Dawkins himself. There's no doubt there's a commensalism (living together), both positive and negative. Even the Nazi memeplex brought a lot of benefit to its hosts: feelings of superior, national pride, comradeship, jobs, security, etc.

Here’s a great video by Dr. Dennett. I love the analogy of the lancet fluke that commandeers the neural apparatus of the poor ant. The rabies virus does this quite well also. It even attacks the salivary glands to provide its own vector, means of transfer.

I would assume that most religions that are really successful (millions or billions of people infected) would have to provide a selective benefit to their infected community, even if they harm individuals and are false and inhumane. Catholicism has survived (rounding up) 2,000 years, even though priests, nuns, friars, and monks don't usually reproduce, therefore harming their gene replication. Their memes are carried forward, but not their genes. In a sense, these meme-carriers function as the reverse of a bee colony. For bees, the queen reproduces and the worker bees do not. For catholicism, the priests and monks (again, usually) don't reproduce, but the followers do.

Another interesting virus, Tulip mosaic virus. In the artificial environment of the gardener, this virus caused exotic and beautiful variation in the tulip flower. Tulip fanciers collected the mutated tulips, and propagated them, so that a situation that would have decreased survival in nature, increased survival and replication in the human-created ecosystem of the garden. The same virus is fatal to lillies. Getting into the wrong host (lily), it caused a dead end for itself and its host. Getting into the right host (tulip), it was replicated by the 'intelligent designer' - the gardener. Hmmm. I'll have to think of a meme metaphor for this one. It does demonstrate host specificity. I could see cultural settings that are more likely to promote certain religious memes over others such as wealth / poverty, education / illiteracy, war / peace.
Well done. I discuss this line of thinking in my book but don't go into this much detail. I agree that different religions infect in ways similar to different pathogens. I discuss the ways in which pathways are opened to a given religion (pathogen) though sex, guilt, hypnosis or music. I think you create a taxonomy of religious infection techniques and the relitions that use those techniques. Just as HIV uses a certain set of keys to penetrate and infect a cell, Christianity uses guilt and sexual guilt to penetrate and infect a person. I think a taxonomy of personal characteristics is probably possible as well. Characteristics that make a person susceptible or resistant to a given religion. I don't know what those might be, but your idea is right down the line with what I think is possible in the future. Have you read my book? I think you would find a lot that supports your notion. Thanks for sharing this.
Thanks for the compliment, and I'm glad that you are joining into the conversation on memes.

I'll have to read your book, it does sound interesting. I will definitely put it on my list. Looking at your profile page prompted me to look for you on you-tube, and I found the exerpts from your lectures very interesting.

I imagine that other factors that would help christianity memes to infect a person include priming by grief, loneliness, fear, disease, war, poverty, vulnerable states such as innocence and trust of childhood, and the sexual awakening & hormonal intensity of puberty. A primed individual or group would be susceptible to proselytysing, missionaries, the friendly hand of a respected or loved 'carrier'. Also force, where people or groups take on the trappings of religion whether they actually beleive them or not, in order to protect their lives or their children, and in a generation this 'acting like a beleiver' turns into the cultural norm and actual beleif.

Interesting stuff to think about. I hope Im not sounding pedantic - this is stream of consciousness, I'm making up as I go along :-)


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