virus: Re: virus-digest V2 #49

Glenn Grant (pawn@CAM.ORG)
Tue, 25 Feb 1997 06:10:39 -0500 (EST)

Tadeusz Niwinski <> sez,
>David R. wrote:
>>Eva wrote:
>>>I do have a quibble with David R.'s usage of the term 'virus' here;
>>>someone else mentioned it earlier too.

>>Eva is saying that ALL memes, whether or not we approve of them, act like
>>viruses. So, there needs to be a distinctive term for memes we don't approve
>>of. Any suggestions? -David

>The analogy genes-memes: genes are NOT viruses. Genes carry information to
>make organisms which can live (and feed themselves) by utilizing solar
>energy, water, and minerals (these are most plants) or by eating
>(destroying) other living organisms (animals). Viruses carry information
>how to destroy living organisms in order to replicate.
>In the CoV Memetic Lexicon, by Glenn Grant, the term virus is not even

Not as an entry in the Lexicon, no. But I deliberately and explicitly use
the "meme = virus" analogy right there in the first line of the
Introduction: "What if ideas were viruses?" I then go on to compare ideas
to the T-phage virus. Phages hijack the genetic reproductive systems of
bacteria to make them produce more phages. Memes persuade our brains serve
as their replicators, and they do it by appealing to our many needs and
desires: our thirst for interesting facts, funny jokes, hummable melodies,
cool fashion ideas, satisfying stories, and so on and on...

I hate to break this to you but this meme is a virus. So is this one.
You've just been exposed, matey! Maybe even infected! Maybe two years from
now, you'll type out a sentence just like this one, without even being
aware of it! Shields up, Cap'n, this mail is a-crawlin' with data-vermin!

I'm serious, though: *all* ideas are really are like viruses. By which I
mean that ideas are life forms that have no power to reproduce themselves,
but instead reproduce by taking advantage of the data processing abilities
of the brain to produce their progeny. A meme plays on your emotional and
intellectual needs to make you want to pass it on - if it doesn't appeal to
those needs, it's an unsuccessful meme and will soon be extinct.

Keith Henson has even suggested (in Whole Earth Review and other venues),
that dangerously toxic memes must evolve into less-dangerous parasites and
eventually into benign symbionts, given enough time - just as real viruses
and bacterial parasites must eventually evolve away from killing their
hosts into something that the host can tolerate, and eventually (with luck)
into a form that the hosts can't do without. Nature is full of benign
parasitisms like this. Not all virii are bad.

FrEx: People think it would be lovely to get rid of all common cold virii,
but that would be foolish: your immune system would get lazy and sooner or
later something new would evolve to take advantage of your lax defences.
Rhinovirus has evolved into something we actually need, every now and then.
At one time, it was probably deadly in the extreme, but that's just not a
viable long-term replication strategy. Infectious organisms are constantly
evolving from lethal to tolerable to beneficial - consider the bacteria
that digest your food for you.

Some people also think it would be lovely to get rid of memes they consider
dangerous - this is called Censorship, and it's a mistake for a lot of
reasons, among them the same reason that eradicating the common cold would
be a mistake: if we eliminated all "unhealthy" memes from our local
meme-pool, so that we don't have to deal with them on a semi-regular basis,
we would soon forget how to defend ourselves from them - through the
rigorous application of our immuno-memes (metamemes such as "Critical
Thought", "Rationality", "Skepticism", etc.). We would forget how to tell
Slack from shinola...

>The word virus does not appear in the ten-page long index of
>"Thought Contagion" by Aaron Lynch. Richard Dawkins in "Viruses of the
>Mind" talks about *deadly* ideas which spread like viruses.

>The deadly notion that ALL ideas are "dinky little viruses" is produced only
>in one temple in Seattle.

As Susan Sontag has written in her essay "Disease as Metaphor", the
equation of social phenomena with viral infection can indeed be a very
deadly meme - she points to Hitler's denigration of the Jewish community as
a "parasite" on society. We need to wary of it, especially here in
Memeland. *However*: the meme "ALL ideas are viral information" happens to
be true, and it it shouldn't be deadly once we recognize that viruses are a
normal and inevitable part of any healthy ecosystem - biological, memetic,
digital, whatever. And that everybody is producing and reproducing memetic
viroids all the time, virtually every time we open our mouths. It's what we

Sure, it's tempting to say that some memes are Good and constructive, like
genes, while other memes are Bad and destructive, like viruses. But once we
start making such distinctions, we might start deluding ourselves that,
since viruses are Evil, virus-like memes are Evil and should be stamped
out, by any means necessary. NB: *I know this is not what you said, Tad;
I'm not trying to put words into your mouth.* I just hope to show that this
distinction between 'gene-like' and 'virus-like' memes is a false
dichotomy, and in the wrong hands it can be molded into a slippery slope
that leads somewhere not very nice...

Of course, I'm as guilty as anyone: I came up with the terms "auto-toxic"
and "exo-toxic", for memes which are, respectively, "dangerous to their
hosts" and "dangerous to people other than their hosts". But these terms
are meant to apply to memes which have a proven record of leading to the
somebody getting killed - like the Aum Shinrikyo meme, ethnic nationalism,
or the Jim Jones meme. Dawkins, Henson and others have focused a lot of
attention on such memes, because they're the most glaring, spectacular
examples of memeoid behavior.

This focus on toxic memes tends to obscure the virus-like nature of *all*
memes, not just the ones that kill. I would hasten to point out that just
about *any* idea, no matter how seemingly benign, can become toxic if
incorporates intolerant co-memes. For instance, "Democracy" is generally a
healthy meme-complex for its hosts, but if allied with certain memes - such
as "Us-vs-Them" and "Manifest Destiny", or "The Domino Theory" and
"Hemispheric Interests" - it can become part of something definitely
poisonous to other cultures, even endangering the whole planet.

So it's not enough to watch out for potentially toxic memes out there in
the ideosphere - we have to stay alert to such memes at the source, inside
our own little heads.

Ever vigilant,


-----------------------Glenn Grant-----------------------
Web: <>
"That which does not kill us makes us stranger."
-- Trevor Goodchild