Towards a Cultural Immunology

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Jesper Sørensen


Aarhus University


DKK 730,093




Monograph Fellowships


This project addresses a central question in the humanities and social sciences: why do some ideas spread easily, whereas others fail? Recent approaches argue that this can be explained as the combined effect of the difficulty of an idea and universal features of human cognitive architecture. Some ideas are more easily comprehended, remembered, and deemed more relevant. This project explores a complementary, culturally informed factor: that the differential spread of ideas depends on their degree of fit with an already existing ecology of ideas that forms a cultural immune system. Ideas do not exist in a vacuum, but take part in larger constructs, such as cultural models and cultural systems. This project explores how such models constrain the formation and spread of new ideas.


Understanding ecologies of human ideas points us in the direction of an even more important question: why do human cultures stabilize at certain levels of complexity? By reinvestigation culture as a number of immunological systems, I will explore the factors that allow certain ideas to penetrate the system, while others are rejected. Finding the basic mechanisms in recent accounts of human cognitive processing, Predicitive Processing, I will present a novel and innovative model of: What cultural immunological systems are and what they are good for. How they attain resilience and stability with a special focus on religion. How they interact with other cultural systems and with social institutions.


The project is predominantly conceptual. By integrating recent models of immunology from theoretical biology with state-of-the-art neurocognitive theories of Predicitive Processing, I will construct a theoretical model of the dynamic interaction between relatively stable, cultural systems, and their conceptual and behavioral environment. This will lead to an examination of their adaptive functions, why they seem to stabilize at certain levels of complexity, and what happens when they interact. Finally, I analyze a number of distinct cases, from small-scale societies, over the emergence of ‘axial-age’ or world religions, to the formation of modern nation-states in order to explore if religions function as the primary immune-response that instils resilience to cultural systems.

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