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The virulence of analogies

Published on 20 December 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

What moves human societies? I’ve long expressed doubts as to the broader relevance of rational discourse, or ideas, as an agent of social change.[1] I have pointed to joint experience as a far more powerful instrument in creating collective intentionality and human cooperation.[2] “Enablers” – material or mental tools if you wish or “congealed experience” – have been a favorite of mine. I’ve now found striking evidence of the virulence of analogies[3] as an instrument toward collective thinking. Analogies are “mental enablers,” similitudes so striking as to appear “self-evident.”[4]

Martina KING – a medical doctor as well as a Doctor in German philology has traced the spread of “Koch model of bacterial infection” – discovered in 1876 – through the society at large.[5] Ms KING goes on to show how the “bacterial analogy” spread throughout the society: popular entertainment dipped into the topos, and even art, from Art Nouveau to Dadaism, took inspiration from it. This need not retain us here, but as further evidence that the topos was widely known and understood; nay, that it was pervasive, and spread fast throughout the body politic. Here, I’ll explore her analysis in more detail in the context of international relations.

Disease in Western culture had long been linked to malevolent stars or divinities, by analogy to evil eyes of neighbors, then to the internal balance of humors (Hippocrates, Galen). Paracelsus was the first to promote antisepsis[6] and (mineral) drugs. Basically, however, we felt helpless and called “pestilence” one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, thereby encapsulating its incomprehensible nature. Pasteur and Koch demonstrated the bacterial source of infections. Koch[7] in particular was able to explain tuberculosis in 1882 and cholera shortly thereafter. Both were scourges of humanity, affecting high and low. Koch also developed the first curative agent (tuberculin). In his footsteps, other bacterial and viral diseases were identified, and the worldview about the fatal character of disease changed rapidly. Medical doctors became “microbe hunters.”[8]

The hopeful topos of acute (albeit surreptitious) infection leading to illness, but also to cure through drugs or vaccines spread like wildfire. Struggle and recovery was at hand. It was a profoundly emotional and exhilarating moment. People suddenly felt humanity’s empowerment. From mechanical cause/effect relationships one had moved to biological ones. The temptation, analogically to apply the model of infection/cure to the social world was overpowering. It was a self-evident, unarguable truth.

Ms KING shows that at the time, the analogy between the human and the social body – which dates back to medieval times and beyond[9] – was transformed by adding a medical dimension, which included “cleansing” of the nation through war. The microbe infection topos came with a healing message that “vermin” attacks could be successfully rebuffed. This microbial topos also came with a novel message: disease could be prevented – either through vaccine, or hygiene. Hygiene in particular had a strong social component, for it postulated that only collective efforts could protect the individual from disease. The similarities between individual and collective health became powerful, because so plausible.

This theme of fight against invisible pathogens in the social fabric dovetailed with the contemporary social Darwinist[10] ideology of “survival of the fittest” – but with an ominous twist. While the struggle between races was a manly face-to-face combat among nations, here we had social “vermin” surreptitiously infecting the social body. This twist is enough for me to maintain that the two – the analogy of bacterial invasion and the ideology of social Darwinism – have wrongly been conflated. We can better understand the difference is we consider that war weakens the contestants – the best die in establishing supremacy – and thus is not the logically preferred tool of social Darwinism (which would rather work by “shock and awe”).. “Cleansing” actually makes the nation stronger, even as it loses many of its best fighters.

Anti-Semitism has more to do, in my view, with the microbe infection topos than with an alleged social Darwinist superiority of the Herrenvolk. For the Jews had no nation, in fact they were accused of being “internationalists” – state-less, and of conspiring in the darkness to take over the body politic. Jews were “vermin” – to be eradicated: the nation had to be made “judenfrei.” This is the highly emotional language of infection. The “industrial” approach to the extermination – the most repellent aspect of the Holocaust – can be better grasped within the context of a medical analogy. At the same time, Hitler also dreamt of an “open frontier” to the East, where he could make available Lebensraum for a growing agricultural German nation. As a lesser Volk the Slavs had to make room for the stronger race, just as the American Indians had been forced out of the prairies of the Western US by the Americans. Hence Hitler’s two-pronged approach to “cleanse” the nation of the Jews and to create an open space in the East.

Fascinatingly, the law of war underwent an epochal change[11] around that time the microbe infection analogy was spreading. Conquest (and pitched battle) was no longer recognized as a legitimate means of resolving disputes between nations. The then emergent law of nations only permitted “self-defense” – the similitude to microbial invasion is palpable. Just as palpable is the similarity of “preventive war”[12] with vaccination. “Ethnic cleansing,” with its clear medical connotations, also emerged about that time as “legitimate” state policy and held sway until the 50s.[13] This observation would need deepening and verifying: it might explain, however, why e.g. workers so readily went to the battlefield, at the outset of WWI, when they should have shown little enthusiasm for struggles for supremacy between nations. Socialists never recovered from this puzzle of worker enthusiasm. In my view, the workers were marching to a different tune: the analogy of war and microbial infection.


Foregrounding a topos implies back-grounding other narratives, or even certain aspects of the main story. We are so taken in by the evidence of similarity that we ignore the points of difference. We have here the “availability bias” at work, but also our tendency to think symbolically in order to conquer the abundance of a context. Pars pro toto leads us astray, when the symbol does not capture the full content of the context. Plato’s bane was precisely the division of fact into essence and contingency. All “points of congruence” were arbitrarily grouped as “essence,” and the dissimilarities dismissed as “contingencies.”

In the case of the microbe infection analogy, focusing on acute infection concealed the existence of chronic illness. Malappropriate cures have been proposed; including, in the field of international relations, the “hit them hard and early” heuristic. The mechanical “aggression <=> response” approach hides direct and dialectic interactions which are responsible for the evolution of the illness. It was not Koch’s fault, but the phenomenon of resistance to drugs, which was only observed later, never did gain the same purchase in the public mind as the eradication effect of antibiotics. Finally, the coevolution of host and parasite are one of the life’s evolutionary fundaments. Far from being dastardly killers – vermin to be eradicated – viruses have allowed the evolution of life in ways that we ignore (at our peril).[14] Who knows, coevolution may be the better metaphor after all.


[1] Recapping some of my coarse reflections: One-on-one communication is slow – even after the invention of the press (how many people read non-fiction works?). Though the favorite means of communication within an intellectual elite, rational discourse is emotionally “empty” – does not resonate emptionally – and thus beyond the cognitive understanding of most people. Emotions drive action, and discourse seems to be more of a commentary or justification after the fact. In any case, this process is “good enough” for small-scale diffusion within the elite, but not a driver of larger social phenomena.

[2] See e.g. Michael TOMASELLO (2014): A natural history of thinking. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. In a similar vein, Clive GAMBLE – John GOWLETT – Robin DUNBAR (2014): Thinking big. How the evolution of social life shaped the human mind. Thames & Hudson, London.

[3] https://stanford.io/1zf6xdu

[4] See e.g. Douglas HOFSTADTER (1980): Gödel, Escher, Bach. An eternal golden braid. Vintage, New York; ibid. (1995): Fluid concepts and creative analogies. Computer models of the fundamental mechanisms of thought. Baisc Books; David HOFSTADTER – Emmanuel SANDER (2013): Surfaces and essences. Analogy as the fuel and fire of thinking. Baisc Books, New York.

[5] Martina KOCH (2014): Von der Massenunterhaltung bis zur Avantgardekunst. Bakteriologie als ästhetisches Spektakel der Moderne (1880–1930) University of Bern, unpublished manuscript.

[6] https://bit.ly/13kILit

[7] https://bit.ly/1xtzYbh

[8] Paul de KRUIF’s book “Microbe hunters,” published in 1926, crowned the genre. https://bit.ly/1v7qBbi

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_politic

[10] I regret that Darwin’s name is mixed up in this. Darwin had no truck with this theory, which was proposed by Herbert Spencer, utilizing misunderstood passages of Darwin’s work. https://bit.ly/1x4J5j1 Arguably. The social Darwinian topos was rather a secularized update of the ancient “trial by battle,” over which now nature, and no longer God or the gods, presided. The term “theory” only brought pseudo-scientific authority to an ancient myth.

[11] See e.g. James Q. WHITMAN (2012): The verdict of battle. The law of victory and the making of modern war. Harvard University Press, Cambridge. This author puts down the change to the emergence of total war that replaces pitched battle.

[12] On the origins of WWI: “The Germans felt themselves to be encircled and gradually outmaneuvered by the growing military strength of Russia and France. In this environment the earlier talk of preventive war attained new urgency. The chief of the German General Staff, Moltke, even asked the Foreign Secretary to precipitate a preventive war. Although Jagow refused, he admitted that the idea influenced him throughout the month of crisis that followed the Sarajevo assassination. There was also a feeling among Germany’s conservative upper and middle-class rulers that a war would resolve the social conflict between the liberal and socialist lower classes and the conservative-aristocratic ruling groups. https://bit.ly/1v7UiJs

[13] See, e.g. Russian ethnic cleansing of the Circassians (1864-67); the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey under the treaty of Lausanne (1923); the massive state-sponsored ethnic cleansing of Germans after WWII https://bit.ly/1GCxPLW ; or the evacuation of about one million people from North Vietnam under the Paris Treaty of 1954.

[14] See e.g. Luis P. VILLAREAL (2005): Viruses and the evolution of life. ASM Press, Washington DC.

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