This is the third and final installment of the “Information as Infection” series. Check out Part I and Part II to get the whole story!
The concept is compelling – that passing along ideas or practices to others is like spreading the DNA of a virus. If information copied from one human to the next is like an infection, then culture itself begins to resemble a parasite. The notion that the human ‘self’ is more like a cluster of cultural information than a physical body seems disorienting and outlandish. Yet scholars and philosophers have always noted the peculiar duality of human nature. Psychologist Sigmund Freud’s concept of a civilizing “super-ego” suppressing the bestial “id” (through ego), was among the first attempts by science to uncover the hidden mechanisms of this dichotomy.
Today, the theory of “dual process cognition” is used to describe the same relationship noticed by Freud more than one-hundred years ago. Apparently, there really is a part of our brain that overrides automatic gene-level behavior to help us pursue social endeavors. In most cases, this trait appears to be working fantastically, and might explain why our species has been (so far) an evolutionary success – it takes an awful lot of impulse-suppression and social cohesion (language use, cumulative knowledge, political maneuvering, complex planning, task specialization, etc.) to put a man on the moon. Oftentimes, we become hypnotized by nifty techno-gadgets and forget about the truly amazing feats of social engineering that precipitate such technologies.
Then again, this social/cultural component hasn’t always lead to intelligent behavior. For instance, virulent outbreaks of bubonic plague in 13th century Europe led to the widespread popularity of flagellation, a form of self-torture which (it was thought) could appease the angry god responsible for such pestilence. True to the theory of memetics, this practice originated with a single individual, an ex-hermit named Ranieri Fasani, and was spread in disease-like waves across the continent for several centuries. These humans were adversely infected on two distinct levels: body and mind. How can a society cultivate ‘healthy’ cultural diseases that advance the human cause, while avoiding scary ideas that inevitably lead to suffering? More importantly, how can societies avoid ‘cultural witch-hunts’ – the persecution of innocent ideas based on unfounded biases or warped political agendas?
In keeping with the theme of this blog, I’m reminded of the folk remedy for immunizing against Chickenpox in which unsuspecting children are exposed to infected playmates. This practice (though considered obsolete in an era of vaccines) leads to mild symptoms, whereas contracting the virus later in life can be quite painful. Perhaps one solution to the problem of destructive ideas lies in controlled exposure. We must be careful which ideas we ‘shut-out’ of consciousness. Rather, let us continually open our minds to a full range of possibilities. Let us invite debate and argument too, if only to inoculate our minds.
Image courtesy of James Cridland, used under CC BY 2.0 license. Thanks James!