virus: Sex, Drugs, and Cults

Date: Sun Aug 25 2002 - 18:22:02 MDT

Sex, Drugs, and Cults. An
evolutionary psychology
perspective on why and how
cult memes get a drug-like
hold on people, and what
might be done to mitigate the
By H. Keith Henson
In the aggregate, memes constitute human culture. Most are
useful. But a whole class of memes (cults, ideologies, etc.) have
no obvious replication drivers. Why are some humans highly
susceptible to such memes? Evolutionary psychology is required
to answer this question. Two major evolved psychological
mechanisms emerge from the past to make us susceptible to cults.
Capture-bonding exemplified by Patty Hearst and the Stockholm
Syndrome is one. Attention-reward is the other. Attention is the
way social primates measure status. Attention indicates status and
is highly rewarding because it causes the release of brain
chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins. Actions lead to
Attention that releases Rewarding brain chemicals. Drugs shortcut
attention in the Action-Attention-Reward (AAR) brain system and
lead to the repeated behaviour we call addiction. Gambling also
causes misfiring of the AAR pathway. Memes that manifest as
cults hijack this brain reward system by inducing high levels of
attention behaviour between cult members. People may become
irresponsible on either cults or drugs sometimes resulting in
severe damage to reproductive potential Evolutionary psychology
thus answers the question of why humans are susceptible to
memes that do them and/or their potential for reproductive
success damage. We evolved the psychological traits of capture-
bonding and attention-reward that make us vulnerable for other
maladaptive functions. We should be concerned about predator
and pathogen memes and the mechanisms that make us
vulnerable. The possibility of modeling important social factors
contributing to the spread of dangerous cult memes is discussed.
The history of the author™s experiences that led to understanding
the connection between drugs and cults is related.
Keywords: evolutionary psychology, memetics, Stockholm
syndrome, capture-bonding, reproductive success, dopamine,
endorphins, cults, drugs and attention rewards, brainwashing,
mind control, deprogramming, scientology.
œCult gatherings or human-potential trainings are an ideal
environment to observe first-hand what is technically called the
'Stockholm Syndrome¦ This is a situation in which those who
are intimidated, controlled, or made to suffer, begin to love,
admire, and even sometimes sexually desire their controllers or
captors. --Dick Sutphen
"Drug addiction involves co-opting the same neural circuitry than
normally provides motivation for eating and sex. I am interested
in drug abuse because, in addition to its importance as a social
and medical problem, it has the potential to illuminate profound
aspects of vital human behaviour."--Robert Edwards, The Wheeler
Center for the Neurobiology of Addiction.
For those who need an introduction, memes are replicating
information patterns--ideas you can pass on 1. With a few
exceptions, they exist in the context of human carriers and their
artifacts. Richard Dawkins invented the word and discussed the
concept and its consequences in the last chapter of The Selfish
Gene (1976). Memes, like genes, are in a Darwinian survival
contest, in the case of memes for the limited space in human
brains--brains that have evolved to be receptive to memes. The
information that is passed from person to person and from
generation to generation is the primary factor that gives humans a
competitive advantage over other animals. A modern example of
the power of memes is that human children do not have to learn
that streets are dangerous places by potentially fatal trial and
error. You only have to consider the relative number of cats and
dogs killed on the streets to the number of human children with
similar fatal encounters to see the value of the look-both-ways-
before-you cross meme.
In the aggregate, memes constitute human culture. Most of them
are of the rock-chipping/shoemaking/vehicle-avoiding kind--they
provide clear benefits to those who host them, i.e., learn
behaviours or information. 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 have no obvious replication drivers.
Memes of this class, which includes religions, cults and social
movements such as Nazism and communism, have induced
humans to some of the most spectacular events in history,
including mass suicides, wars, migrations, crusades, and other
forms of large-scale social unrest. These memes often induce
humans to activities that seriously damage or destroy their hosts™
potential for reproductive success. The classic example is the
nearly extinct Shakers--whose meme set completely forbids sex.
A more recent example is the gonad-clipping Heaven's Gate cult.
While inducing such behaviour makes sense from the meme's
viewpoint (diverting host time and energy toward propagating the
meme and away from bearing and caring for children) it makes no
sense when considered from the gene's viewpoint for a
susceptibility to this class of sometimes-fatal memes to have
Why are (at least some) humans highly susceptible?
To answer this question I must digress far into evolutionary
psychology. Evolutionary psychology (EP) grew out of the same
background as sociobiology. EP is based on the simple concept
that our minds have been shaped no less than our bodies by
evolution. Because evolution acts slowly, our psychological
characteristics today are those that promoted reproductive
success in the ancestral environment, i.e., our race's millions of
years of living as social primates in tribes and small villages. EP
asserts that our psychological traits are the constructs of genes that
were selected in the ancestral environment.
    The goal of research in evolutionary psychology is to
    discover and understand the design of the human mind.
    Evolutionary psychology is an approach to psychology, in
    which knowledge and principles from evolutionary
    biology are put to use in research on the structure of the
    human mind. It is not an area of study, like vision,
    reasoning, or social behaviour. It is a way of thinking
    about psychology that can be applied to any topic within it.
    In this view, the mind is a set of information-processing
    machines that were designed by natural selection to solve
    adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
    This way of thinking about the brain, mind, and behaviour
    is changing how scientists approach old topics, and
    opening up new ones." Leda Cosmides & John Tooby.
    for more on evolutionary psychology.)
There has not been enough time for human genes to adapt to the
changes in the environment in the last few thousand years. In fact,
most humans lived in tribes or small villages until relatively
recent generations. I suspect that a substantial fraction of human
problems in the world today, not just cults, result from the
mismatch between the current--highly artificial--environment and
the environment in which we evolved. (Though mismatch and all,
I much prefer the modern world.)
In the Western culture block the tribal environment is largely
gone--our success has greatly modified the world. We have to use
the few remaining hunter-gatherer groups and our nearest relatives
to give us a view into the past. While there was plenty of variation
in what people did for a living, (depending on local resources) the
picture that emerges for humans in the previous several million
years is that of a social primate living in small bands and villages.
There may be other factors, but I see at least two major evolved
psychological mechanisms emerging from the past to make us
susceptible to cults. The Patty Hearst kidnapping 2 exemplifies
one. We know that people can undergo a sudden change of
thinking and loyalties under threat of death or intense social
pressure and isolation from friends and family. Usually called
"brainwashing," it is also known as The Stockholm Syndrome 3
and œmind control.
An evolutionary psychology explanation starts by asking why such
a trait would have improved the reproductive success of people
during the millions of years we lived as social primates in bands
or tribes? One thing that stands out from our records of the
historical North American tribes, the South American tribes such
as the Yanomamö, and some African tribes is that being captured
was a relatively common event. If you go back a few generations,
almost everyone in some of these tribes has at least one ancestor
(usually a woman) who was violently captured from another tribe
Natural selection has left us with psychological responses to
capture seen in the Stockholm Syndrome and the Patty Hearst
kidnapping. Capture-bonding or social reorientation when
captured from one warring tribe to another was an essential
survival tool for a million years or more. Those who reoriented
often became our ancestors. Those who did not became breakfast.
Tribal life was not very many generations in the past even for
western people. Recent genetic studies in Iceland have found that
many of the women who were the founding stock of Iceland came
from England and what is now France. Some of them might have
been willing brides, but some were probably captured and carried
off in Viking raids only 40 generations ago.
Fighting hard to protect yourself and your relatives is good for
your genes 5, but when captured and escape is not possible, giving
up short of dying and making the best you can of the new situation
is also good for your genes. In particular it would be good for
genes that built minds able to dump previous emotional
attachments under conditions of being captured and build new
social bonds to the people who have captured you. The process
should neither be too fast (because you may be rescued) nor too
slow (because you don't want to excessively try the patience of
those who have captured you--see end note 3).
An EP explanation stresses the fact that we have lots of ancestors
who gave up and joined the tribe that had captured them (and
sometimes had killed most of their relatives). This selection of our
ancestors accounts for the extreme forms of capture-bonding
exemplified by Patty Hearst and the Stockholm Syndrome. Once
you realize that humans have this trait, it accounts for the "why"
behind everything from basic military training and sex œbondage
to fraternity hazing (people may have a wired-in "knowledge" of
how to induce bonding in captives). It accounts for battered wife
syndrome, where beatings and abuse are observed to strengthen
the bond between the victim and the abuser--at least up to a point.
This explanation for brainwashing/Stockholm Syndrome is an
example of the power of EP to suggest plausible and testable
reasons for otherwise hard-to-fathom human psychological traits.
Some cults use abuse and confinement to induce capture-bonding,
especially for those who try to escape. Others, particularly the
Moonies, use fear as an element to get prospective members to
bond. (In the 70s, those who went with them for a weekend found
themselves 30 miles from the nearest town.) Historically capture-
bonding was important in the spread of some religions. (Convert
or die, infidel!)
Capture-bonding does not by itself account for the influence cults
have on their victims, though it does account for the success of
classic "deprogramming" cult members by capture. To account for
the success of most cults we need to look at a powerful
psychological reward mechanism.
Of all the factors that have been measured in such representative
ancestral environments as we have (including chimps), social
standing (or social status) is the most predictive of reproductive
success. This is true for both sexes, but the potential rewards for
obtaining high social 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). See,
heading ˜Men, Women, and Status™ and the classic studies of the
Yanomamö. Yanomamö males obtain high status to a
considerable degree by taking part in killing males from rival
tribes. The high status Yanomamö males have about 3 times as
many children as low status males 6.
If anyone doubts that males can convert high status (represented
by wealth) into additional children, you can consult the historical
records right up to a few years ago when Gordon P. Getty™s
second family with three children came to light 7. Brigham Young
had 47 children, and over 50 women as wives.
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.) The evolutionary consequence is that humans
have evolved to be exquisitely sensitive to changes in status. With
the big genetic payoff looming, it is no surprise that over
evolutionary time humans have become so sensitive to status and
work so hard for it. Status was (and to some extent still is) highly
correlated with reproductive success. As Henry Kissinger noted,
"Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac." (Power is, of course, another
word for high status.)
Activities that lead to feelings of increasing status are highly
rewarding: that is, they cause the release of chemicals (dopamine
and endorphins), 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.
Of course, people repeat behaviour that leads to flooding their
brains with pleasurable chemicals. There are two causal loops
involved here. The short-term reward loop acts over hours to
years, and the long-term reproductive success loop over
generations. The long-term loop sets up susceptibility to the short-
term loop.
In other words, an Action (such as hunting success, for example)
leads to Attention (an indicator of status) that in the short-term
releases Rewarding brain chemicals and in the long term improves
reproductive success. Simple operant conditioning will move
some of the reward release "upstream," so that the actions that
later result in reward chemical releases will themselves become
In time humans discovered drugs that shortcut this Action-
Attention-Reward (AAR) brain mechanism and directly flood the
brain with pleasurable chemicals. The behaviour of eating,
drinking, smoking or injecting drugs that simulate the natural
chemicals is highly rewarding, and (in people genetically
predisposed) leads to the repeated behaviour we refer to as
The brain reward system involved in drug addiction can be
stimulated in other ways, for example by running (runner™s high)
or by gambling. People who liken compulsive gambling to drug
addiction are right; the rewards that compulsive gamblers get are
only one step removed from exogenous chemicals--with the
"Attention" step diminished (unless you are a big winner).
Gambling and addictive drugs cause misfiring of the AAR
pathway, and often result in severe damage to reproductive
potential, but both are recent on the time scale of evolution. In our
tribal past, evolution usually favoured those who were motivated
by the mechanism.
The importance of the AAR mechanism is hard to underestimate.
It may well be that social attention rewards are the most
important motivating mechanism behind human activities. In our
tribal past status indicated by social attention was tied directly to
reproductive success, and it is still a major factor in this
It should come as no surprise that this powerful reward
mechanism can be taken over by drug-induced rewards, but this is
not the only way the brain reward system can be hijacked. Memes
(we finally get back to them!), which manifest as cults and related
social movements, have "discovered" the brain's reward system as
well. Successful cult memes induce intense social interaction
behaviour between cult members. This trips the attention
detectors. Tripping the detectors causes the release of reward
chemicals without having any more connection to "real world"
improvements in reproductive success than abusing addictive
drugs. Anyone who has ever had the feeling of being higher than a
kite after giving a public speech is well aware of the effects of
Examples of cults using focused attention include "love bombing"
in Rev. Moon's Unification Church and "training routines" and
"auditing" in Scientology. (Scientology™s training routine 0 (TR-0)
has people staring at a partner, in some cases without blinking, for
extended times.) An explanation consistent with evolutionary
psychology for the propagation of the hard-to-explain memes at
the top of this article is that successful memes of this class induce
focused attention between those infected with the memes.
That attention in turn results in the release of pleasure inducing
chemicals into the reward system of the brain. This release of
chemicals results in the reinforcement of behaviours that led to
the attention--identical to the process we see in addicts. Thus, it
should come as no surprise that the behaviour of people under the
influence of cults is similar to that we observe in addicts. Typical
behaviour for both includes draining bank accounts and education
funds, selling or mortgaging property, neglecting children,
destroying relations with family and friends and losing interest in
anything except the drug or cult. (Not all people become this
irresponsible on either cults or drugs, but many do.) 8
Becoming dependent on drugs or cults is a feedback process on
the brain reward system as well. Once a person is using drugs or
alcohol to "excess" their non-involved friends withdraw attention-
rewarding contact because œwho wants to deal with a strung out
junky or a drunk? The same loss of attention rewards happens
when friends withdraw from a person who tries to recruit them
into his new cult. The result is to make the drug or cult a major if
not exclusive source of brain rewards.
In the most extreme forms of cult meme œpossession, victims are
so influenced by memes using the attention reward pathway that
their own survival becomes inconsequential. I have used the term
œmemeoid to describe people who fly airliners into skyscrapers,
or strap explosives to their bodies and set them off in a crowd. On
March 1, 2002 there was a news story on CNN about a Palestinian
mother of two who was expounding for a TV crew how she was
ready to strap on explosives. She was obviously revelling in the
attention, but ambivalent about the reality of leaving her children
orphans. Hopefully she will not carry through.
Evolutionary psychology thus provides answers to the question of
why humans are susceptible to memes that do them and/or their
potential for reproductive success so much damage. We evolved
the psychological traits that make us vulnerable because social
status is so important for reproductive success. Cults and drugs
both take advantage of the same essential motivational reward
What we might do with this knowledge
If we are concerned about the future of our species, we should be
concerned about predators and pathogens.
In articles and lectures I point out that the vast majority of memes
are cultural elements that are either useful to us (and our genes) or
at least not harmful. This is analogous to the biological world
around us. Microorganisms make beer, cheese, and decompose
leaf litter. Useful, interesting, but not a matter of intense concern.
(Unless, of course, they quit working!)
On the other hand, HIV, anthrax, smallpox and avian derived flu
are deadly pathogens. We are rightly concerned about them.
We should be equally concerned with pathological memes, those
behind cults and related social movements. As an example, the
Pol Pot mutation of the communist meme did as much damage to
the people of Cambodia as a major plague.
A lot of human history such as the religious wars that swept back
and forth over Europe were meme driven and can be modeled in
those terms. Given all the grief Nazism, Communism, and now
splinters off Islam have caused and are now causing, the study of
memes and (as important) the evolved pathways which cause us to
be susceptible to cult memes should be a major topic of research,
particularly modeling, with the models guiding public policy
The analogy might be the application of germ theory in guiding
public policy on health. A sign that evolutionary psychology and
memetics may be approaching the stage of guiding public policy
decisions is that on Feb 19, 2002, the New York Times carried an
article, œHijacking the Brain Circuits With a Nickel Slot
Machine. The article reported on the work of Dr. Gregory Berns,
a psychiatrist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta,
Dr. P. Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of
Medicine in Houston, Dr. Wolfram Schultz, a neuroscientist at
Cambridge University in England, and Dr. Jonathan Cohen, a
neuroscientist at Princeton. The information coming out of their
work is essentially consistent with the views in this paper.
Knowledge of the deep-seated and highly evolved brain
mechanisms involved in drug and cult addiction also permits
analysis of how existing treatments work. For example, the
rewards model derived above indicates that twelve-step programs
work not because of the specific steps involved, but because they
provide attention rewards from the group--substituting an
endogenous "natural" chemical reward for a exogenous chemical
reward. Success in getting out of the programs without returning
to the exogenous chemical reward would be expected to depend
on resuming relationships that provide attention rewards or
forming new relations. Some people recovering from drugs or
alcohol stay with the programs indefinitely making the recovery
program their œfamily or œtribe and a long-term source of
attention rewards.
Deprogramming, which was used to get people (generally young
people) out of cults, almost certainly worked by invoking the
capture-bonding social reorientation mechanism. Specific
programs designed around an EP-based understanding of the cult
bonding mechanisms discussed here have yet to be designed, but
the application of concepts seems fairly obvious. The converse is
also true. Cult recruiting methods based on dosing victims with
the brain chemicals released during capture bonding would make
cults even more of a problem than they are now.
A number of people including Paulette Cooper (author of one of
the first books about Scientology, and a victim of the cult's attacks
for 30 years) have said that as a group former Scientologists (and I
presume this would hold for other cults) were not distinguishable
except for being more easily deceived or duped than average
people. Scientology members have been subjected to an unusual
number of scams, including a $500 million Ponzi scheme that you
can read about in a number of magazine articles and at A long term Toronto Scientologist
in a thoughtful moment commented to me that the local
Scientologists he knew had been defrauded dozens of times, much
more often than any other group he could think of. As the NYT
article mentioned above put it œSome people seem to be born with
vulnerable dopamine systems that get hijacked by social rewards.
Scientologists seem to be selected out of the population to be
particularly vulnerable to attention rewards.
If a reliable psychological measure of this trait could be devised,
could people be trained to be less gullible? Or are you as stuck
with gullibility as you are with skin colour?
Possibly the answer is different for different people. While my
wife lived in British Columbia, she watched a half dozen cults
wash through the local community during the 70s. Her
observation was that the subset of people who joined and left a
cult would become immune from one experience or not at all.
Sceptics and other groups have been trying for years to get more
critical thinking into schools with little success. It would be a
radical approach, but perhaps teachers should be instructed in a
program where they lie to their students on a regular basis to
sharpen up their skills at detecting lies.
It is possible that lie detection is like language; there is a learning
window. Telling œwhoppers to small children seems to be a
family tradition in many families. (There were some great
examples in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbs.) Generally the
tradition is to tell lies so blatant that even small children spot
them. A study of the outcome of this variation in child raising
might be of great interest.
Understanding that the religious wars in Europe were meme
driven and given all the grief Nazism, Communism, splinters off
Islam and Christianity have caused and are now causing, the study
of memes and more important why we are susceptible to memes
like these should be a major topic of research, particularly
modeling, with the output guiding public policy.
It is not.
Some of this can be attributed to the slow spread of some classes
of memes. Take the œhandwashing meme as an example:
    In the late 1840's, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was an assistant
    in the maternity wards of a Vienna hospital. There he
    observed that the mortality rate in a delivery room staffed
    by medical students was up to three times higher than in a
    second delivery room staffed by midwives. In fact, women
    were terrified of the room staffed by the medical students.
    Semmelweis observed that the students were coming
    straight from their lessons in the autopsy room to the
    delivery room. He postulated that the students might be
    carrying the infection from their dissections to birthing
    mothers. He ordered doctors and medical students to wash
    their hands with a chlorinated solution before examining
    women in labor. The mortality rate in his maternity wards
    eventually dropped to less than one percent.
    Despite the remarkable results, Semmelweis's colleagues
    greeted his findings with hostility. He eventually resigned
    his position. Later, he had similar dramatic results with
    handwashing in another maternity clinic, but to no avail.
    Ironically Semmelweis died in 1865 of puerperal sepsis,
    with his views still largely ridiculed.
    In the 1870's in France, one hospital was called the House
    of Crime because of the alarming number of new mothers
    dying of childbed fever within its confines. In 1879, at a
    seminar at the Academy of Medicine in Paris, a noted
    speaker stood at the podium and cast doubt on the spread
    of disease through the hands. An outraged member of the
    audience felt compelled to protest. He shouted at the
    speaker: "The thing that kills women with [childbirth
    fever]... is you doctors that carry deadly microbes from
    sick women to healthy ones." That man was Louis Pasteur.
    Pasteur, of course, contributed to the germ theory of
    disease (the founder of this theory was Robert Koch). He
    was a tireless advocate of hygiene, but his efforts too were
    initially met with skepticism. Skepticism, however, was
    not the only problem facing advocates of hygiene.
    In 1910, Josephine Baker, M.D. started a program to teach
    hygiene to child care providers in New York. Thirty
    physicians sent a petition to the Mayor protesting that "it
    was ruining medical practice by... keeping babies well." "
When you think about it, it is in the interest of a lot of people not
to have widespread understanding of memes or related predictive
social models. Of course the fact that these models are based in
evolutionary biology sets them up for automatic opposition by
certain meme driven groups, particularly in the US.
Like the doctors who would not accept handwashing, even the
most knowledgeable of the anti cult people don™t seem inclined to
accept the concepts of memetics and evolutionary psychology that
lie behind our vulnerability to the mad social movements caused
by predatory memes. See for example, Combating Cult Mind
Control by Steven Hassan and ˜John Walker and the fatal flaw in
our war on terrorism!™, FACTnet Newsletter, 24th January, 2002:
    The US Intelligence community, the US military and the
    US State and new Home defense departments have failed
    America and the World Community by neglecting to pay
    attention to the root causes of Terrorism. John Walker
    Lindh the "American Taliban" is the embarrassing proof of
    this failure¦
    It does not make sense to Americans that John Walker
    Lindh should be found amongst the Taliban and,
    seemingly, willing to take up arms against fellow
    Americans. Unless he is seen in the more probable and
    logical context that he is a victim of modern mind control
    and cult techniques. At which point he becomes a shining
    example of what destructive powers a religious cult using
    mind control can bring to bear on a fellow citizen.
    The American public well knows how mind control cults
    can turn members into martyrs, like with Jonestown and
    Hale Bop, or how cults can turn members into terrorists, as
    in the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo
    The Al-Qaeda terrorist network is, at its core, a religious
    cult that is also manufacturing mind controlled cult
    martyrs and terrorists. These terrorists and martyrs have
    become of a similar mind to those people that played out
    the tragedies in Jonestown, Hale Bop and in the Aum
    Shinrikyo attacks and, not much different to the religious
    martyrs now turning Israel into a living hell.
Using the search function on FACTnet for meme, memetics or
evolutionary psychology comes up empty.
Nazism/communism caused more deaths this century than the
plague did in the 14th century. We understand what caused
plague, even our leaders understand. But the world's leadership
has no clue as to what are the root causes Aum Shinrikyo or Bin
Laden's cult. Mind control is a label to hang on it, but without
understanding why œmind control works it may be like trying to
advocate handwashing before Koch and Pasteur explained
microbes as the reason behind why handwashing reduced death
The upcoming trial of John Walker Lindh could be used to
educate people on the subjects of memes and the evolutionary
psychology bases reasons we are vulnerable to them. But more
likely it will be an example of primates continuing to play social
games without the least insight into what is killing them.
Models, we need models! Predictive models, evolutionary
psychology based social dynamics models. And we need to do
experiments on those models before we take steps that seem right
but only cause more problems later.
The Scientology connection--applied memetics--how it
Scientology has a deep connection to this article. Back in the
1950s, pulp writer L. Ron Hubbard published the first article in
Astounding Science Fiction on Dianetics, an amateur
psychological practice that eventually became incorporated into
the Scientology cult. Scientology is, of course, a meme of the cult
class. It is distinguished by such sub-memes as "fair game," the
practice of suing and otherwise abusing those to speak out against
its excesses. (See Scientology
allegedly spends between $20 and $30 million a year pursuing its
critics through the courts. (They admitted in Federal court to
spending at least $2 million suing me for exposing one of their
allegedly illegal medical practices and it may be as high as $5
million if funds for all the private investigators they have used on
my friends, my relatives and me are included.)
I had mentioned Scientology a time or two in my memetics
articles, but had taken no serious interest in it before January
1995. At that time a lawyer for Scientology issued a command
(rmgroup) to remove the Usenet news group
alt.religion.scientology from the Internet, apparently thinking that
this "denial of service" attack on the Internet would end critical
discussion about Scientology.
This attack on free speech backfired, having somewhat the effect
of a gang of thugs riding into town and burning down the
newspaper. This attempted censorship drew in dozens of Internet
free speech advocates, me among them. "A.r.s.," as it is known,
became one of the most popular groups on the net, with a
readership estimated as high as 100,000. Surveys place it in the
top ten and sometimes in the top 5 news groups.
This news group is a real-life soap opera, with dramatic subplots
on a regular basis. Popular topics include accounts of people
exiting Scientology, and a stream of reports on the cult's abuses
(up to and including the "treatment" of a woman who died of
dehydration--see See media section for claims of how the
government and police of Clearwater, Florida have allegedly been
corrupted, or put œScientology booger into Google.
The a.r.s. newsgroup has survived everything done to get rid of it.
After the rmgroup, it was attacked by cancelling articles. Then it
was hit with a denial of service storm of over four million forged
nonsense postings in 1998 and 1999. The forged postings were
eventually said to have been traced to group of cult operatives led
by Italian Scientologist Gavino Idda, as publicly reported by
former Scientologist Tory Christman. - Part5 (Tory's story
of leaving Scientology and being attacked is a saga in itself.) In
between Scientology has had a rotating group of agents posting
anti-psychiatry articles and attacking people on the group.
(Identifying some of these people is a major topic. Are they really
agents of Scientology? Or are they critics trying to make
Scientology look bad?)
The long running battle on the net has the horrid attraction of a
train wreck in slow motion. Several hundred of the spectators
have stepped out of the audience and taken a place on the stage
creating Web sites ( is a prominent site),
picketing Scientology locations, and being involved in many other
activities open and covert. My personal involvement reached the
state where I became a political refugee in Canada. (See for the latest update.)
The discovery of the deep connection between drugs and cults,
like many discoveries, started as a set of chance observations.
First was a woman who was only 16 at the time I knew her about
30 years ago. One thing that stuck in my mind from those days
was her effusive praise of the RUSH she got from a mixture of
heroin and methamphetamine she injected into a vein she found in
her thumb. (Heroin stimulates the endorphin reward pathway and
methamphetamine stimulates the dopamine reward pathway.)
Second was a woman who sought me out at a party early in 1996,
about the time Scientology first sued me.
She said: "I know now it is BS, but the time I spent in Scientology
15 years ago was the peak experience of my life!"
She said this in the same awed tone of voice and expression as the
first woman talking about her drug rush. The tone of voice was so
similar that the memory of the 25-year previous conversation was
immediately recalled. At the time, I was at a loss to explain why a
drug experience and a cult experience evoked such a similar
emotional description.
An evolutionary psychology related understanding came about at
a party late in 1996 in a conversation with Kennita Watson about
the similar effects of drugs and cults. (Kennita is a brilliant
computer hacker from Silicon Valley.) Kennita was familiar with
the attention highs from EST (a cult derived from Scientology)
and we both had been reading books about evolutionary
psychology. Applying EP was the key to understanding. Shortly
after that conversation in late 1996 I wrote the first article tying
cults and drugs together with the reward mechanism that underlies
both of them. The reward mechanism has roots deep in our
evolutionary past.
The World Trade Center
First drafts of this article were written well before the terrorist
events of September 11, 2001. The importance of EP and
memetics lies in their ability to form plausible models for
understanding the psychological mechanisms behind the creation
of fanatical totalitarian cult groups such as Usama Bin Laden's Al-
Qaeda organization. I suspect that its root is the ratio of wealth to
population (and perhaps as important the rate of change in that
wealth) and the undermining of one society's culture by another.
The largest known "suicide" example is the 1856-1857 Cattle-
Killing in South Africa in which perhaps 60,000 of the Xhosa
people died of self-induced starvation. (They destroyed their food
Most of the suicide hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, a place not
lacking in wealth. But due to rapid population growth, the wealth
per capita has fallen by about half in a generation. Furthermore,
those aspects of Islamic culture that are rooted in Medieval
Islamic fundamentalism are under attack. Though there is little
conscious effort to do so, the meme set of western culture appears
to be displacing parts of Islamic culture and in Saudi Arabia there
is highly organized resistance to this displacement--to the point
the religious police would not let œimproperly dressed young
women leave a burning building.
In regard to the WTC suicide hijackers, what could people have
done in the tribal days that translate today into strapping on
explosives as they do in Israel or crashing airplanes into
buildings? You have to understand the concepts of the famous
evolutionary biologist William Hamilton about inclusive fitness
for this to make sense. Bees kill themselves defending a hive
because shared genes to do so become more common in their
relatives when they do so.
The same is true of humans. William Hamilton figured out that
genes for saving more than two brothers or more than 8 cousins at
the cost of death should spread in an environment where such
choices happened. These kinds of selection choices most likely
were frequent for a million years or more of tribal warfare.
It should be noted that copies of the suicide hijacker™s genes in
their relatives seem to be doing rather well, even though the
hijackers themselves are dust. This is also true of the suicide
bombers in Israel. To the (unknown) extent that reality feeds into
the emotional and mental states driving suicide attacks, this
suggests that large organized responses against those gene copies
might curb such behaviour.
Before jumping in either side of such an argument, remember that
EP is about the selection of genes that shape us psychologically in
our tribal past when life was often very brutal. Life was brutal for
the simple reason that humans have no serious predators, and in
the pre-modern era human populations always expanded to and
beyond the ecological limits--whatever they were. (See the history
of Easter Island for a population crash example.) One of the
reasons the western culture block has had relatively little strife
recently is that technology has expanded carrying capacity faster
than population growth.
Back to the WTC. Questions EP might help understand are: Why
4-5 people in the hijacker groups? Were there just physical
reasons or did they have psychological support reasons for these
numbers as well? Is this group size be related to the size of the
smallest practical raiding party from tribal days? This has direct
relevance to spotting airline suicide hijacker groups (though it
seems extremely unlikely another will be permitted by the
Other questions that could be modeled include: What economic
and psychological conditions does it take to foster the growth of
meme based groups fanatic enough to commit murder suicide?
Can education make it less likely that people will get involved in
such cults? (In analogy to learning about germs leads you to avoid
drinking ditch water.) Can we measure from personality traits the
likelihood a person will get involved with a cult? Can we improve
the ability of more conventional groups to satisfy people's need for
attention? Are some societies more likely to give rise to suicide
cults than others? Are heterogeneous populations less likely or
more likely to give rise to suicidal fanatics? Are there ways to
modify societies that would make suicide cult formation less
likely? Could and should western societies crack down on high-
control cults the way we do on drugs? In the case of Scientology,
France this has already done this through new laws.
These examples are only the tip of what might be done with
application of evolutionary psychology/memetics models. It is
worth a considerable effort because even small cults are a serious
cost on the world economy, to victims, their families, employers,
friends, and credit-card companies. They cause by illness due to
improper medical, psychiatric and psychological treatment,
hospitalization, lawsuits, bankruptcies, and finally dump old
people who have made no social security payments on the welfare
system. Cults or related social movements such as the Taliban in
Afghanistan result in massive military expenses.
It seems to me it would be a wise investment to put serious effort
quantifying the damage cult-like movements cause and modeling
the world wide social environment to see where it is going and
what might be done about it.
[Thanks to Kennita Watson for the conversation where
understanding of the cult reward mechanism emerged and to my
wife, Arel Lucas, for suggesting the term "memetics," editing, and
many long engaging conversations on these subjects.]
1. My published article on this topic "Memetics and the Modular
Mind," appeared in Analog Magazine.
If you can't find a copy of Analog from Aug. 1987, and want to
read the article, it's on Use advanced
search with "Keith Henson" as author and "original" in the subject.
Since I wrote that article, a remarkable meme distribution system,
the Web, has arisen. Nowadays you can measure how common a
concept is in our culture (at least to some degree) by putting the
term in a search engine. You can calibrate on the major topics,
such as "nanotechnology" which gets (mid-2001) about 160,000
Web pages-up from 80,000 a year ago--on the Google search
engine. Try "evolutionary psychology" and you get about 23,000
Web pages. By comparison, "memetics" gets about 50,000 Web
2. For those who do not recognize the reference, Patty Hearst was
kidnapped, subjected to crude abuse, and joined the people who
captured her, ultimately being sentenced for helping her captors
rob a bank.
3. "In the summer of 1973, four hostages were taken in a botched
bank robbery at Kreditbanken in Stockholm, Sweden. At the end
of their captivity, six days later, they actively resisted rescue. They
refused to testify against their captors, raised money for their legal
defense, and according to some reports one of the hostages
eventually became engaged to one of her jailed captors. The
Stockholm Syndrome comes into play when a captive cannot
escape, is isolated and threatened with death, but is shown token
acts of kindness by the captor. It typically takes about three or
four days for the psychological shift to take hold.";
4. About 1980 John Tooby, then in graduate school, discussed the
concept of capture-bonding with various other students--
reportedly reaching the same conclusion as the author about its
evolutionary origin and widespread effects on humans and human
societies. (Personal communication with Leda Cosmides.)
Astonishingly, neither he nor anyone else known to the author has
published on the subject.
5. Your relatives have copies of your genes. This is at the root of
why people are generally nicer to relatives than they are to
strangers. The late William Hamilton explained in one of his
papers that evolution should have made him willing to die if doing
so would save more than two brothers or more than 8 cousins. The
reason is that genes for altruism on this level would spread
through a population (where such choices happened) because for
each gene copy lost more than one copy (statistically) would be
6. œIn the years that followed, Chagnon took various academic
posts and continued to return to Yanomamö territory, conducting
censuses and collecting detailed genealogical data. (Appropriately
enough, the Yanomamö, unable to pronounce Chagnon's name,
dubbed him "Shaki"--their word for a pesky bee.) Then, in 1988,
he published a paper in Science in which he reported that 40
percent of adult males in the 12 villages he sampled had
participated in the killing of another Yanomamö; 25 percent of
adult male deaths resulted from violence; and around two thirds of
all people age 40 or older had lost at least one parent, sibling or
child through violence.
œPerhaps most stunning of all, he found that men who had killed
were more successful in obtaining wives and had more children
than men who had not killed. "The general principle is not so
much that violence causes reproductive success. It's that things
that are culturally admired and strived for are often correlated
with reproductive success," Chagnon explains. "It may be wealth
in one society, or political power. You don't have to be violent to
have political power. But in the primitive world, where the state
doesn't exist, one of the most admired skills is to be a successful
If this tendency of larger numbers of children for killers has gone
on long enough for an œevolutionary stable strategy (ESS) to
emerge--a likely situation, then the actual reproductive success
over a lifetime for the killers and non-killers (read low and high
status) must be about the same. The adjustments you have to
make are that killers are more likely themselves to be killed, so
we are counting the children of the survivors. As one critical
paper said, fathers can™t be certain they actually were the father,
and spending a lot of time on the warpath may give the women a
chance to sample the stay at home lovers as well as the warriors.
8. œSome people seem to be born with vulnerable dopamine
systems that get hijacked by social rewards. February 19, 2002,
˜Hijacking the Brain Circuits With a Nickel Slot Machine™ By
Sandra Blakeslee. This is an excellent article that came out after
most of this paper was written. It reaches much the same
conclusions. or

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