Change Reactions


The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible and Other Journeys Through Knowledge, by James Burke, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 310 pages, $23.95

Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society, by Aaron Lynch, New York: Basic Books, 182 pages, $25.00

As the pace of change quickens, the human desire to understand change strengthens. That desire is a corollary of the larger human desire to grasp why things happen–the desire at the root of all science, most technology, and some ideology. Two recent books give differing, and in some ways opposing, looks at how and why things change, as they attempt to analyze and explain chains of causation in man's physical and mental worlds.

One book–James Burke's The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible and Other Journeys Through Knowledge–emphasizes technology. The other–Aaron Lynch's Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society–emphasizes ideology. Burke's is closer to traditional history. It tells specific stories about actual events, compressed in depth of detail but spread wide over human space and time.

Lynch's book tries to explain how human ideas spread, grow, and change. His goal is to define and defend the value of a brand new "discipline"–memetics–whose catch-phrases are popular in the world of the digerati, if nowhere else yet. (A new academic journal dedicated to the nascent field is due this year.) The term was invented by popular-science writer and zoologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene.

Neither of these books is masterful. Burke's, at least, manages to entertain and to give a deeper and more accurate look at how change is most likely to affect us. At the same time, he gives hope and comfort to those who hope for change in the direction of greater human liberty.

Burke is best known to public TV and Learning Channel mavens as the host of the popular history series Connections, in which he indulges in the same shtick as in this book: spinning convoluted stories to trace the links in a long chain of causation that tie together two apparently different inventions or happenings. In most cases the connections are meant to be paradoxical, counterintuitive, or just very strange. Burke's history glides on the surface: Personalities are limned with quick, broad brush strokes; political and social history are barely mentioned; the larger picture is missing.

Still, Burke's attention to the choices, discoveries, and fascinations of specific individuals seems truer to human life than Lynch's disembodied, eerie vision of ideas as viruses that acquire people far more than people acquire ideas. Burke's is a world of acting, purposeful individuals, who admittedly often stumble upon the most earth-shaking discoveries merely by fortunate coincidence or accident. Lynch's is a world of "thought contagions" that somehow program people's minds to spread them: ideas as alien invaders.

Burke's stories cover the discovery and effects of concepts and technologies ranging from postage stamps to the permanent wave; the steam engine to the phosphorus match; interchangeable machine parts to spectrometers; cost accounting to dynamite; barometers to railroads. While recounting these tales, he touches on many ideas, from European imperialism to German racial nationalism to Baconian empiricism to Jansenist Christianity.

To Burke, such ideas are secondary to physical realities and the techniques by which we manipulate them. Still, one big idea lies at the core of the motor that moves Burke's chaotic, multi-causal, dizzying world of change. That idea is summed up in the first sentence of chapter 5, which tells the story of how the lust for spices led, centuries down the road, to smart bombs: "The marketplace has a profound effect on how change comes about. If enough people want hot pickle and will pay any price for it, somebody else will go to extraordinary lengths to find hot pickle for them."

Of course, no one would pay any price for hot pickle, but Burke's mind is in the right place. And while he rarely states the point as baldly as here, that same motivation is discernible in almost every tale he tells: People make changes because they want more for less; because of economizing man. That's the one big idea threaded throughout Burke's skein of history: People desire things, and they desire them to be more plentiful and cheaper. That engine is more powerful than any of the viral ideas whose contagion is charted in Lynch's apologetic for memetics.

Burke plays tricks with his readers. Each chapter traces a different connection. At the heart of many of his chapters is a link that is not direct causation, but merely a rhetorical flourish (something just reminds Burke of something else) or a connection through mere proximity (someone works in the same industry as someone else, or invests in some land that contains a mineral that ties into another narrative). Has Burke fooled himself with his verbal legerdemain, or is he merely trying to fool the reader? Alternatively, perhaps Burke is trying to impart the lesson that change and growth in human technologies are too interconnected, complicated, and twisted to be meaningfully modeled as link following link following link following link.

Indeed, Burke's book is designed with a crude print approximation of computer hypertext. At certain points in one chapter's tale, the margin lists page numbers linking that story backwards or forwards to another chapter entirely–a more sophisticated version of those children's books where you spin a wheel to choose what page to leap to at certain turns in the story. The incidents (or accidents) and inventions that appear as crucial connections in Burke's world range from the "of course" to the "how's that?": dyes, coal tar, railroads, Romanticism, the telegraph, risk insurance, the European love for Chinese porcelain.

In contrast to Burke's glorious muddle, Lynch has an arid vision of change, one that denies Burke's chaos. Lynch harbors a scientistic lust for prediction, and hubristically hopes the new science he's hyping could prove a real-world analog to science fiction writer Isaac Asimov's vision, in his Foundation series, of "psychohistory": a nearly infallible predictive social science.

The prediction and modeling of social orders is one of the hottest cross-disciplinary topics in computers and the social sciences. But memetics, at least on the popular level presented by Lynch, is far from the kind of quantitative exactitude that computer models need. With its object of study as inherently unpredictable as how people embrace ideas such as the nuclear family, Mormonism, diet fads, astrology, and gay gender differences (a random list of topics essayed in Lynch's book), it's hard to imagine that memetics will be quick to leap from a collection of just-so stories to a science that can predict what will happen with ideas tomorrow.

Lynch promises that he will render "apparently arbitrary currents of culture freshly comprehensible." He starts by listing the seven main modes of meme transmission: 1) quantity parental (idea encourages those who hold it to have more children); 2) efficiency parental (idea increases probability that children will hold their parents' ideas); 3) proselytic (idea encourages holders to try to convert nonholders); 4) preservational (idea encourages holders to remain holders); 5) adversative (idea encourages holders to attack or harm nonholders); 6) cognitive (idea seems reasonable or cogent to others); and 7) motivational (holding idea yields social benefits).

This is a recognizable method of social science: systematizing a collection of what might seem, after one hears them, to be truisms. And indeed, it is almost certainly true that ideas will spread further if their adherents have lots of children and encourage their children to hold their ideas and spread them to others. It's also helpful if the ideas strike most thoughtful human beings as sensible–and of course, one must never underestimate the motive of personal gain.

But Lynch almost completely ignores one important realm of ideology–morality, or a sense of right and wrong–that lies at the heart of many of the battles he discusses: family structure, sexual behavior, policy issues like guns, abortion, and drugs. He may be implicitly saying that morality is just a mask draped over one of his seven memetic modes, but he never grapples with the issue directly.

Does memetics deliver the explanatory or predictive goods? When discussing such inflammatory political topics as drug use/abuse and gun control, memetic thinking comes to these daring conclusions: "Society could thus face continuing cycles of waxing and waning drug consumption" and "Strong replication advantages thus work on both sides of the firearms issue in modern America." (Lynch thinks one of the main reasons people profess opposition to gun control is to frighten potential attackers into assuming they must have a gun.)

Too often, Lynch's analysis comes down to this: Any widely held idea has some reason for existing. When your list of transmission modes includes such givens as "the idea makes sense" and "holding the idea gives advantages to the holder," it's not too hard to cobble up endless just-so stories that show how your theory can explain everything. Of course, a theory that can explain everything explains nothing.

Even on his own terms, Lynch's argument often slips. While he is careful to acknowledge at certain points that not every idea has 100 percent efficiency parental spread, he occasionally falls into implicitly assuming that memes are like genes, transmitting perfectly from generation to generation.

And for someone who is attempting to explain historical events, Lynch seems strangely uninterested in looking into or even addressing areas where non-memetic history could shed light. He posits a memetic take on why Christians believe in the resurrection, one that involves speculating on the relative growth of different Christian sects, without any discussion of standard histories of the early church. He also comes to a memetically reasonable conclusion that the financially well-off should have more children than the worse off and doesn't seem aware of the real-world evidence that just the opposite is true.

On a simpler level of historical blindness, Lynch blithely assumes that those who condemn masturbation in fact don't masturbate–not a proposition I would bet on. But that's emblematic of the weakness in Lynch's entire memetic structure: It too often treats people as mere victims, in a sense, of ideas. Despite modes six and seven, which actually treat individuals as thinking actors, most of the book concentrates on the modes involving parents or the preservation of the ideas themselves, ignoring the question of why an individual should embrace an idea just because the idea has qualities that help it spread.

Burke and Lynch, without meaning to, offer opposing parables about human liberty. In terms of both positive liberty (there's more we're able to do) and negative liberty (there's more that it's almost impossible to stop us from doing), the technologies whose stories Burke tells have been tremendously significant–even more significant, in some ways, than the ideology of liberty. (Of course, there's a feedback loop–a certain degree of liberty was necessary for these technologies to spread.) And despite memetics' weaknesses, it does perhaps shed some light on the ideology of liberty's failure to sweep the world (it's good in the proselytic and cognitive modes, weak in all the others). Fortunately, biologically derived metaphors like memetics can never be the last word when it comes to human beings, who have volition on a level that genes do not. And Burke's technologies can expand human freedom without the need for the designers, the users, or the potential tyrants to understand the ideas.