MEMETICS: Evol. psych. connection between drugs and cults

arkuat (
Fri, 27 Dec 1996 12:41:27 -0800

Keith Henson <> asked me to post this to the
list for critical feedback and discussion. I thought the essay
interesting enough to post to the list, and I hope that no one is
terribly inconvenienced by its length.

Eric Watt Forste ++ ++

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A Memetic/Evolutionary Psychology Connection Between Drugs and


By H. Keith Henson (,

I have studied and written about *memes* for well over ten years.
Much about these *replicating information patterns* is obvious--
given the selfish gene model from which the concept was derived.
Memes, with few exceptions, exist in the context of human carriers
and their artifacts. The information which is passed from person
to person and from generation to generation is the primary factor
which gives humans a competitive advantage over the rest of the
animals. A modern example which shows the power of memes is that
human children do not have to learn that streets are dangerous
places by trial and error.

In the aggregate, memes make up human culture. Most of them are of
the rock-chipping/shoemaking/vehicle-avoiding kind--they provide
clear benefits to those who host them. They are passed from
generation to generation because of the benefits (ultimately to the
genes of their hosts) they provide.

But a whole class of memes fails to have such obvious replication
drivers. Memes of this class, which includes religions, cults and
social movements such as communism, have induced some of the most
spectacular events in human history, including mass suicides, wars,
migrations, crusades, and other forms of large-scale social unrest.

These memes often induce humans to actions which seriously damage
or destroy their potential for reproductive success. The classic
example is the nearly extinct Shakers--whose meme set completely
forbids sex. While inducing such behavior makes sense when viewed
from the *meme's* viewpoint (diverting host time and energy from
bearing and caring for children to propagating the meme) it makes
no sense when considered from the *gene's* viewpoint for a
susceptibility to this class of memes to have evolved.

This is where my understanding about the vulnerability of humans to
this class of memes was stuck for many years. It was recently
unstuck by a new discipline which has grown out of the early work
in sociobiology. This new field is most often called evolutionary
psychology. What evolutionary psychology proposes to do is explain
the features of the human mind in terms of what mental traits led
to *reproductive success* in the *ancestral environment*.

The reason the *ancestral environment* is specified is that
evolution works slowly. There has not been enough time for human
genes to have adjusted much to the changes in the environment in
the last few thousand years--and, in fact, most humans lived in
tribes or small villages until relatively recent generations.
That environment is almost gone--our success has greatly modified
the world--but the few remaining hunter-gatherer groups and our
nearest relatives give us a general picture. While there was
plenty of variation in what people did for a living (depending on
local resources) the picture which emerges of the previous several
million years is that of a social primate living in small bands and

Of all the things which have been measured in such representative
ancestral environments as we have, social standing or status is the
most predictive of reproductive success. This is true for both
sexes, though the potential rewards for high status were--and still
are--higher for males. High status males had multiple wives or
additional mating opportunities in the ancestral environment (and
for that matter, still do). High status females, from what we can
see in chimpanzees and humans, have no more offspring than low
status ones, but their children are more likely to survive. (In
bad times, much more likely to survive.)

It follows that humans would have evolved to be exquisitely
sensitive to changes in status, which (no surprise) is the observed
situation. Activities which lead to feelings of increasing status
are highly rewarding: that is, they cause the release of chemicals
which induce highly pleasurable states in the brain. This reward
system is fundamental to human motivation, and in the ancestral
environment it worked to enhance reproductive success most of the
time. It makes sense for hunters who brought in the first meat the
tribe has seen in six weeks to get a lot of attention (a mark of
status) from the other tribe members and to experience rewarding
feelings about what they had done as a (real) increase in social
status. Of course, people tend to repeat behavior which led to
flooding their brains with pleasurable chemicals. In our hunter
example, more hunting leads to more protein for the hunter's
mate(s) and children which in turn leads to improved reproductive
success--and thus to another generation of status-seeking hunters
who are rewarded individually with brain chemicals and in the
evolutionary sense by more children. There are two causal loops
involved here. The short term one acts over hours to years, and
the long term one over generations. The long term loop sets up
susceptibility to the short term loop.

In short, an action (such as hunting) leads to attention (an
indicator of status) which in the short term releases rewarding
brain chemicals and in the long term improves reproductive success.

Simple conditioning of the Pavlovian type will move some of the
reward release "upstream" so that the acts which later result in
reward chemical releases will themselves become rewarding.

In time humans discovered drugs which shortcut this action-
attention-reward (AAR) brain mechanism and directly flood the brain
with pleasurable chemicals. The behavior of smoking or injecting
drugs which simulate the natural chemicals is highly rewarding, and
(in some people) leads to the repeated behavior we refer to as
addiction. The brain reward system involved in drug addiction can
be stimulated in other ways, for example by gambling. People who
liken compulsive gambling to drug addiction are right; the rewards
compulsive gamblers get are only one step removed from exogenous
chemicals--with the "Attention" step diminished or removed.

Gambling and drugs cause misfiring of the AAR mechanisms, and often
result in severe damage to reproductive potential, but both are
very recent in human history. In the past, evolution favored those
who were motivated by the mechanism.

The importance of the AAR mechanism is hard to underestimate. It
may well be the most important motivating mechanism behind
virtually all human activities. In previous times it was tied
directly into reproductive success, and it is still a major factor
in this endeavor.

It should come as no surprise that such a powerful mechanism can be
taken over by drug-induced rewards. It seems that this is not the
only way the brain reward system can be parasitized. Memes which
we see as cults and related social movements seem to have
"discovered" the AAR reward system as well. Successful cult memes
induce behavior (typically focused attention) between cult members
which trips the "improving status" detectors. Tripping the
detectors causes the release of reward chemicals without having
much (if any) connection to "real world" improvements in
reproductive success.

Examples of focused attention are "love bombing" in the Moonies and
"auditing" in Scientology. As an explanation for the propagation
of the meme classes mentioned at the top of this article, I propose
that successful cult memes induce behavior between cult members
which results in the release of pleasure inducing chemicals into
the reward system of the brain. This release of chemicals results
in reinforcement of behavior similar to that we see in addicts.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the behavior of people
under the influence of cults is similar to that we observe in
addicts. Typical behavior for both includes draining bank accounts
and education funds, selling or mortgaging property, neglecting
children, destruction of relations with family and friends and lack
of interest in anything except the drug or cult.

Unfortunately, understanding of the mechanisms behind cult or drug
addiction has not yet led to better ways of treating either, but
knowledge of the deep seated and highly evolved brain mechanisms
involved in both may lead to better treatment methods.

[Thanks to Kenneta Watson for the conversation where this
understanding emerged and to Arel Lucas for editing suggestions.]

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