Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Repurposing epidemiology

Memetics is deeply based on the science of symbiosis. However, sometimes the study of symbiosis seems to be in almost as much of a muddle as the evolution of culture.

I think one of the more obvious proposals for fixing its terminology involves the term "epidemiology".

Epidemiology is the study of health-events, health-characteristics or health-determinant patterns in a population.

The etymology of the word says it means, roughly speaking: "what is on the people".

Epidemic is worse - that says epidemics are concerned with disease spread.

At the moment, the word occupies a position which could potentially be useful to the science of symbiosis. What the science of symbiosis really needs is a term to refer to the spread of symbionts through a population of hosts.

However, epidemiology today seems to be all about health. Health varies due to host genes and inorganic environmental factors as well as being affected by symbionts.

At the moment, epidemiological terminology is used ubiquitously to describe symbiosis. However it is pretty bad at dealing with mutualisms. Students of symbiosis really need to decide on their terminology. The most obvious options are:

  • Hijack epidemiology and attempt to repurpose it;
  • Develop a "generalised epidemiology" variant that covers any trait - not just health;
  • Develop a "symbiotic epidemiology" variant;
  • Deploy some entirely new terminology to describe the spread of symbionts;

I think there's a good case to be made for the first option. The second option has some merits too. I expect that the fourth option is not going anywhere.

The "rationale" for the first option is: mutualist symbionts actually have a positive effect on health. Exactly neutral symbionts are too rare to be worth mentioning. As for the fact that health varies due to host genes and inorganic environmental factors: that is acceptable.

This is pretty-much how I treated epidemiology and its associated concepts in my "Memetics" book.

I think the etymology is supportive of widespread deployment in the context of symbiosis. An alternative to repurposing epidemiology would be to develop a science of symbiology - with its own terminology. This would deal with the spread of symbionts - but not inorganic environmental factors such as chemical spills or nuclear fall-out. However, symbiology is currently underdeveloped and doesn't yet have good terminology in this area.

Perhaps in time, "epidemics" and "epidemiology" will lose their explicitly medical associations as well.

The terms "pandemic" and "plague" should also probably be taken away from medicine and repurposed for the greater scientific good.

Update: see the Generalised epidemiology post for more details.

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