The Social Cell

Post by Jim Newman


Daniel Dennett has upped the bar on meme machines in his new article “The Social Cell, What do debutante balls, the Japanese tea ceremony, Ponzi schemes and doubting clergy all have in common?” Daniel Dennett and researcher Linda LaScola investigated:

the curious, sad phenomenon of closeted non-believing clergy – wellmeaning, hard-working pastors who find they do not believe the creed of their denomination, but also find that they cannot just blow the whistle and abandon the pulpit.

How does this happen?

Here is how it often works: teenagers glowing with enthusiasm decide to devote their lives to a career of helping others and, looking around in their rather sheltered communities, they see no better, purer option than going into the clergy. When they get to seminary they find themselves being taught things that nobody told them in Sunday school. The more they learn of theology and the history of the composition of the Bible, the less believable they find their creed. Eventually they cease to believe altogether. But, alas, they have already made a substantial commitment in social capital – telling their families and communities about their goals – so the pressure is strong to find an accommodation, or at least to imagine that if they hang in there they will find one. Only a lucky few find either the energy or the right moment to break free. Those who don’t break free then learn the tricks of the trade, the difference between what you can say from the pulpit and what you can say in the sanctum of the seminary, or in your heart. Some, of course, are unfazed by this.

Dennett proposes this happens for Darwinistic reasons found in convergent evolution. Churches are social cells. They have the three basic attributes of a cell:

  • A way of capturing energy (a metabolism)
  • A way of reproducing (genes or something like genes)
  • A membrane that lets in what needs to come in and keeps out the rest.

Other social groups have similar social-cell attributes. In particular, he looks at Japanese Tea Ceremonies, Debutante balls, and Ponzi schemes:

Some cultural phenomena bear a striking resemblance to the cells of cell biology, actively preserving themselves in their social environments, finding the nutrients they need and fending off the causes of their dissolution.

Indeed this follows Emil Durkheim’s Moral foundations where a specific social group follows a structure.

  • Disciplinary, forcing or administrating discipline
  •  Cohesive, bringing people together, a strong bond
  •  Vitalizing, to make livelier or vigorous, vitalise, boost spirit
  •  Euphoric, a good feeling, happiness, confidence, well-being

More importantly, the structure allows a group to establish a particular ceremony, ritual, or practice that insulates itself from the rest of a society. It not only fulfills the social function but protects itself and then replicates itself. The social cell can also mutate to meet new evolutionary pressures. But it won’t go away and the original may remain intact. Like a bacteria it can evolve to be useful or it can evolve to be parasitical, or not evolve at all. Indeed, to preserve energy it would rather not evolve at all.

The Debutante Ball was a coming of age ceremony for the upper class to introduce or debut a new member. Originally it was meant to introduce a girl to appropriate upper class suitors and their families in the prospect of finding a mate within the right class. It began as a means of maintaining class stratification.

As the upper class weakened it became a means of upper middle class families to assert their class, as if they could be the upper class—and at least they aren’t the lower class. National Geographic recently published an article on Hispanic based debutante balls in Texas.

So on a blustery Friday night in February, a stage has been transformed into a replica of the Washingtons’ drawing room, right down to the twinkling crystal sconces and the pale green, period-hued walls. Seventeen local belles make their debuts, teetering across the stage in elaborate gowns while a narrator praises Martha Washington’s simple virtues with a solemnity that would satisfy the finickiest member of a First Family of Virginia.

The gowns can cost $35,000 and weigh 85 pounds.

Here in West Virginia, every year there is Cotillion, a fancy formal ball. It too serves as kind of coming out party for the better classes.

Among the upper classes it functioned as the presentation and ritualization of their status through grace of body and display of fine clothing and jewels. Among the lower, it could become competitive, enhancing ones reputation in the community. Personal ability, sophistication of taste, and availability of new material as well as social standing, region, and environment all affected dance interpretation and performance.

The quincinera is another mutation of this social cell. It is the fifteenth birthday formal celebration of a young woman in Latin American. It marks the transition from girl to woman hood.

In the US and Canada the Sweet Sixteen party was also about class but is now more a special occasion marking adulthood. As you might expect these two dates are colliding into one tradition.

One of he oldest still preserved but modified (allows girls now) version of this social cell are the Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah.

Catholics practice confirmation.

All of these versions of the coming of age ceremony, where being of the right class is important, reflect changes in their culture and but nevertheless preserve themselves.

If you are rich enough, and arriviste, you want your daughters to “come out” to society, and expend considerable effort and sums of money manoeuvring into position to accomplish this initiation. If your family arrived generations ago, you may still feel the pressure to preserve your position in society by participating in the prolonged and expensive rituals, something you might think you owed to your daughters, however ungratefully they respond to the pressure. A look at the website of the National League of Junior Cotillions ( shows much the same structure as the Japanese tea ceremony: “chapters” in place of “circles”, a hierarchy of volunteers, assistants and (paid) instructors, and – most interestingly – a “strong emphasis on volunteerism, patriotism and involvement in community activities”. Biologists know that you can infer much about the dangers in an organism’s environment by studying its defences, which have been crafted to protect it from the most salient challenges. The entire debutante tradition is threatened by the spreading opinion that it is a superannuated cultural parasite, so it is sporting its good-works overcoat, instead of a mink stole, to protect its high status, on which its life depends.

It is important to remember that there is very little inertia in culture; an art form or practice (or language or institution) can become extinct in a generation if its elements aren’t assiduously reproduced and reproduced. Not so many years ago, most city newspapers in the US devoted an entire section to “Society” and covered the ceremonies of debutantes with the same respectful care still accorded weddings and funerals. Today’s coverage tends to make note of the diminishing numbers of debutantes taking part, and often has the same snarky tone of amusement and withheld approval that distinguishes Hollywood gossip – except that the people named are not celebrities. Farewell, debutantes, except in Texas, where they will no doubt hold out for another decade or two.

In modern society where there is so much diversity, though class is still present, it is difficult to see how a debutante ball is useful or marks anything other than snobbery. So now it is just a party or it has a social worth. But I don’t think it will go away quickly. It meets too common a need, like stomach bacteria, to have a means of separating one’s self from the riff raff. There is even a blog community called Cotillion. No doubt, virtual means of establishing in/out groups will continue. Families will seek marking their children’s adulthood as a means of getting them to be adults. Its purpose will morph from class preservation to engendering responsibility.

My son’s 18th birthday came and went. While we had a bigger birthday than usual, it was mostly because it is his last year at home, with college on the horizon. I teased him that if he gets arrested now, they won’t call his parents.

Nevertheless, for many, the Debutante Ball with all its regalia is preserved—it hasn’t morphed but remained intact. The fact that most people don’t remember that it was originally a debut for the upper class girls shows how well it is a selfprotective ritual, blindly preserved for reasons utterly different than originally intended.

We see the same thing in the social cell called Conservative. Where no one really knows what it means to be a conservative but it is of the utmost importance to be part of that group for reasons having nothing to do with original conservative philosophy.

What’s important here is that, like memes, they replicate themselves but unlike memes they have a physical social structure.

Churches used to be the only way communities could gather or be governed. Now they are obsolete and megachurches have to advertise weight loss classes, boats for rent, and child care to attract members. It is no longer a place of worship. That is a less important aspect of its culture.

How many moderates do you know that go to church because of community or family, who don’t believe a word of it? Why keep going?

Jim Newman, bright and well and

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