September 08, 2007

More on culture as disease

A few days ago, at the end of a post about how viral became a good thing (as in "viral marketing"), I added a link and comment from Cosma Shalizi, who noted the "fairly long history of the idea-infection analogy, and the idea-evolution analogy". I speculated that seeing the spread of disliked ideas as contagion probably goes back to classical times, and wondered when the analogy first starts to apply to "positively-evaluated information or attitudes or groups". Cosma's response:

"I guess that it wouldn't be a surprise to find that some third-century Romans saw Christianity as a plague": how about a second century Roman, namely Pliny the Younger? Here he is, writing as governor of the province of Bithynia, to the emperor Trajan in 110:

In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighbouring villages and country.

This is the translation in Project Gutenberg, letter 96 in book 10 of his letters. The Perseus Project gives the Latin text as

Neque civitates tantum, sed vicos etiam atque agros superstitionis istius contagio pervagata est

which confirms "contagious superstition" as Pliny's thought, and not the translator's.Clearly, Pliny does not approve.

On the other hand, here is Walter Bagehot in what seems to be the first selectionist account of cultural and social evolution, Physics and Politics (1872):

The same patronage of favoured forms, and persecution of disliked forms, are the main causes too, I believe, which change national character. Some one attractive type catches the eye, so to speak, of the nation, or a part of the nation, as servants catch the gait of their masters, or as mobile girls come home speaking the special words and acting the little gestures of each family whom they may have been visiting. I do not know if many of my readers happen to have read Father Newman's celebrated sermon, 'Personal Influence the Means of Propagating the Truth;' if not, I strongly recommend them to do so. They will there see the opinion of a great practical leader of men, of one who has led very many where they little thought of going, as to the mode in which they are to be led; and what he says, put shortly and simply, and taken out of his delicate language, is but this--that men are guided by TYPE, not by argument; that some winning instance must be set up before them, or the sermon will be vain, and the doctrine will not spread. I do not want to illustrate this matter from religious history, for I should be led far from my purpose, and after all I can but teach the commonplace that it is the life of teachers which is CATCHING, not their tenets. And again, in political matters, how quickly a leading statesman can change the tone of the community! We are most of us earnest with Mr. Gladstone; we were most of us NOT so earnest in the time of Lord Palmerston. The change is what every one feels, though no one can define it. Each predominant mind calls out a corresponding sentiment in the country: most feel it a little. Those who feel it much express it much; those who feel it excessively express it excessively; those who dissent are silent, or unheard.

(From Gutenberg e-text. The passage is on pp. 66-67 of my 1956 Beacon Press paperback edition.) Here what is "catching" (emphasis in the original) is a good thing, or at least potentially so, depending on content. He also speaks of "infectious belief" (but negatively, of superstitions), and "the infection of imitation" (neutrally). Your post led me to finally read Bagehot, a mere nine years after I picked up my copy of his book at a library sale... As always when reading the most respectable Victorians, the casual racism -- the apparent self-evidence of the causal racism -- is quite shocking: "To offer the Bengalese a free constitution, and to expect them to work one, would be the maximum of human folly" (p. 132). And this is in the context of arguing that "There then must be something else besides Aryan descent which is necessary to fit men for discussion and train them for liberty"! This probably calls for a post of its own.

[Above is a note from Cosma Shalizi.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 8, 2007 07:50 AM