Gotta admit — I’m a collector. I hope I’m actually NOT a hoarder, but sometimes, when I look around my living room, surrounded by both my antique tool collection, as well as all sorts of mechanical cameras, I gotta wonder.
One thing that I do collect, at least in my mind, are memetic representations from the past — true “tribal knowledge” — that sheds light on modern-day issues. One of my favorites is the vampire icon, and I write about this here. Short version — the vampire exists across cultures, and roughly describes a narcissistic psychopath. Vampires were invented long before modern-day psychology, and folks with these types of problems have existed across the historical timespan.
Same with things like bipolar disorder or any other forms of mania, which I think likely inspired the werewolf metaphor.
The latest that I’ve been crunching through is the idea of a “miasma”. It used to be pretty widespread, before modern germ theory, that disease was spread through bad air. Even Hippocrates believed in, he of the Hippocratic Oath that every doctor has to take.
Make no mistake — I believe in modern germ theory, which is the scientific basis of how we approach illness today. But the challenges in pinning down COVID-19, in specific our focus on Non-pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) has made me wonder if we can’t learn something from the Ancients. We’ve built an entire set of intervention tools around the prevailing mental model of germ theory, which basically says that viruses need to be in droplets that can be stopped by masks. Yet “The Science” (I hate that term, BTW) has informed that COVID-19 actually spreads as an aerosol has only grown stronger in the past six months, meaning it’s no wonder that our NPIs are meaningless. If you can smell a fart through a mask, you can surely expect viral transmission through the same.
This is a great piece, and the author also brings up the miasma notion. What’s old is new again.
Now, I’m not a big one to double down on all historic beliefs. A lot of things people did believe in the past were utter nonsense. But there is something to what I’ll call memetic persistence. Vampires have lasted over millennia because there was a useful archetype buried in the mythos. It’s the same with miasma. Modern-day science has given us aerosols as explanations for spread which maps very closely to the idea of bad air. And the only NPI I’ve seen that makes any difference as far as COVID harm reduction has been improved ventilation. Regarding memetic persistence, the short version is that things only last that have some profound level of validity grounding in them — ideas that explain the way things are and map to examples in the real world. Without that deep validity, the archetypes vanish in history.
It’s something to think about — how old myths might actually encourage reframing of how we think about things. And it’s also a lot of fun!