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Evolution and Semantic Contagion

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Is belief in evolution an acceptable way to be mad?

A fascinating article in the December, 2000, issue of The Atlantic explores the phenomenon of healthy people deliberately setting out to rid themselves of unwanted body parts, such as healthy limbs. Entitled, A New Way to Be Mad, the article explores the topic in terms of “pathologies” and asks, “Can the mere description of a condition make it contagious?”

What are we to make of epidemics of people, especially young people, who desire to amputate healthy body parts to conform their body to their mind’s perception? Even in the year 2000 the Atlantic article explored, “how to understand people who use the language of self and identity to explain why they want [surgical] interventions: [examples follow]; and—perhaps most common—transsexuals whose experience is described as being trapped in the wrong body.”

The Atlantic article, perceptively fixing the inquiry on “people who use the language of self and identity,” astutely observes that in the case of the amputation of healthy body parts, “In each case the true self is the one produced by medical science.”

Medical? Science?

Does all this sound familiar? Is there nothing truly new under the sun? Maybe, but the Atlantic article freely ponders the issue critically, being that it published in the year 2000 and not now. In the year 2000 the issue could be discussed more freely and seriously. The Atlantic article asks, “Why do certain psychopathologies arise, seemingly out of nowhere, in certain societies and during certain historical periods, and then disappear just as suddenly?”

And what if the pathologies do not disappear just as suddenly? What about a pathology centered around “the language of self and identity” that stems not from reality but is, instead, “produced by science” with scientists saying that human beings evolved in nature without purpose or meaning in the universe?

In the context of people “contemplat[ing] actions that they may not have contemplated before,” the Atlantic article visits the idea of semantic contagion. Could the rise in behavior of people wishing to conform their healthy bodies to the mental perceptions of themselves be attributed to semantic contagion?

The term “semantic contagion” first appeared in the work of Ian Hacking, in his book, Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory.1 Semantic contagion is the idea that people self-describe in certain ways in large numbers once language and terminology provide the avenue to do so. Hacking looks at the sudden rise of persons claiming multiple personality disorders (MPD) in the 1970’s after awareness of MPD spread among the psychiatric profession and by the media. By putting language to concepts that create categories of thought, semantic contagion creates new ways of being a person and new descriptions for the way people believe and act.

Importantly, Hacking did not concern himself with whether the basis for human reasoning is true, but rather, how the descriptions under which people act depend on the descriptions available to them. The idea of semantic contagion may shed light on many societal pathologies. Consider, for example, that the objective evidence of life on earth for millennia spoke of an unknown, maybe unknowable, but distinctly non-natural creator. What might happen if scientists introduce language publicly identifying a condition in which a natural creator (evolution) may instead be responsible for all of life on earth?

Darwin did just that when he popularized his revolutionary theory, paving the path toward fundamentally changing the way human beings perceive themselves. Seemingly overnight human beings embraced this idea of purely natural, God-less creation of every living thing, including human beings.

Why? How did this happen?

Note that nothing changed in reality. Our objectively physical bodies did not change. The objective physical evidence of unexplained life (that remains to this day) did not change. But Darwin nevertheless popularized language that spread like a contagion among a population primed to be “infected,” so to speak. Suddenly, people started “acting under the description” of evolution as they interpreted their existence in this newly created paradigm of existence.

Rarely does a scientific theory so quickly gain virtual “fact” status. Can we identify reasons why it did so?

For one, at a basic level Darwin provided the semantic categories of thought that gave structure and a scientific imprimatur to natural creation. Once the semantics of purely natural creation by “evolution” using “natural selection” became popularized in the public imagination people began to consider ideas of themselves they never contemplated before.

Why? For one, because they could.

But beyond the mere ability to contemplate purely natural creation solely because one can, is there more to the semantic contagion that swept the world after the introduction of On the Origin of Species? Is it possible that, as with all instances of semantic contagion, that there is a deeper, more fundamental reason that people are quick to “act under the description” of a purely natural origin story?

Yes. What Darwin popularized goes far beyond merely instigating a semantic contagion around a scientific theory. The semantic contagion spreads far and wide because the theory of natural creation by God-less processes allows people to interpret themselves as being free from any duty to a Creator God.

As noted by the relevant Wikipedia entry (bold emphasis added):

[A]cting under a description also has important implications for interpreting our selves.2 According to Hacking, selves are formed not only by our bio-physical constitution and the events we experience, but also by the descriptions we ascribe to the events that occur. These descriptions are often causal descriptions: explanations of how we have come to be the persons that we are. A person does not come to be the person that she is simply because the events of her past caused her to be this person. Rather, the descriptions attributed to events in the past are a formative influence on her being. These explanations are replete with meaning and causal attribution. We are substantially (though not entirely) the people we understand ourselves to be.3

Widespread belief in evolution by natural selection can be attributed to opening a respectable way for people to believe what they want to believe: Human beings are not responsible to a transcendent God who alone makes claims of objective moral standards. The human heart wants to believe such freedom from a jealous God is not only possible, but true.

Thus, unlike ordinary semantic contagions that spread among relatively small numbers, human beings willingly flock to and huddle in hordes with others seeking to experience the intellectual freedom of evolutionary God-lessness. And further, unlike the current semantic contagion of gender dysphoria, the semantic contagion of a God-less creation story tugs at the heart of every human being on earth.

Everyone senses within themselves a lingering glow of the image of God that they wish to throw off. Although all human beings know God in this sense, they will find any opportunity offered to avoid glorifying him as God or giving thanks to him.

Darwin’s semantic contagion of evolutionary theory provides the perfect vehicle for human beings to become futile in their thinking and have their hearts darkened. Evolutionists claim to be wise as they act under the description. But, in fact, they have become fools as they have exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Must we stand aside while the semantic contagion producing fools proceeds unhindered?

Think about it.

Photo modified from photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash


Hacking, Ian (1995), Rewriting the Soul: Multiple Personality and the Sciences of Memory, Princeton University Press.


Sugarman, Jeff (2009), “Historical ontology and psychological description.”, Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 5–15.


Hacking, Ian (2007), “Kinds of People: Moving Targets.”, Proceedings-British Academy, vol. 151, p. 285.


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