Are persistent ideas or beliefs the intellectual equivalent of a successful virus? According to Lynch, in this workmanlike,...


THOUGHT CONTAGION: How Belief Spreads through Society

Are persistent ideas or beliefs the intellectual equivalent of a successful virus? According to Lynch, in this workmanlike, if dour, survey of the emerging science of memetics (the study of how ideas or convictions spread through a society), they are. Former Fermilab engineering physicist Lynch charts the development of the concept of the meme--a self-propagating, contagious idea--through discussions of its originator, zoologist Richard Dawkins (in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene), and other influential thinkers such as Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter. Using the model of a virus retransmitting itself among people, he explores how ideas retransmit themselves and affect all aspects of life, from areas of academic study to everyday existence. For example, an Amish religious taboo against modern farm equipment necessitates a great supply of manual labor; thus the Amish need large families, and their population doubles twice as fast as the world's. Deciding to bear a child engenders optimism because ""its great expense . . . requires an optimistic view of one's future."" Similarly interesting conclusions about the effects of declining taboos against homosexuality (likely, Lynch suggests, to lead to a decline in the gay population), the impact of the Christian concept of love on the growth of the early Church (""Love thy neighbor as thyself"" was a meme so broadly appealing that it was guaranteed a long life), and abortion prohibitions (cyclical, likely to remain a persistent presence causing social discord), dot the book and provoke thought. But stultifying jargon (such as the phrases ""proselytic competition"" and ""high-fertility meme"" in a paragraph about ""sex talk"") and a lack of stories, anecdotes, or quotes within the larger structure of a survey stop the book cold. And jargon-filled lists, such as one on the modes by which memes retransmit themselves from ""host"" carrier to group ""host population"" also lose general readers. Lacking humanism, wit, and readability, this is hardly the popularizing primer it might have been.

Pub Date: Oct. 9, 1996

ISBN: 0465084672

Page Count: 208

Publisher: Basic

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1996