The Matrix, a famous 1999 Wachowski movie set in a near dystopian cyperpunk future, deals with a "neuro-interactive simulation" that was created by out-of-control machines and pulled over the "desert of the real" in order to enslave humanity. The Matrix (the software) belongs to the realm of the mind, whereas the machines (the hardware) belong to physical reality, while humans (the users) live and die in both worlds.

Agent Smith is a "rogue" neural program within the Matrix, a full-blown virus of the mind that infiltrates, replicates, spreads, and consumes - modifying human behavior into treason and murder.

In a classic scene, Smith - while torturing Morpheus, a human rebel - provokes the audience with a stark observation on human behavior:

I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed, and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we...are the cure.*

Having just recently watched this masterpiece during two long weeks of self-isolation, I was left with a lasting impression by both its philosophical implications and political actuality/relevance. Fact-checking on Smith's epidemiological analysis, I found several examples in modern history that seem to check virtually all the 'epidemiological' boxes regarding virulence, human-to-human transmission, global spread, resources consumption, and destructiveness:

Coming from a physics background I lack the knowledge and proper training in political science, but AFAIK there are theories that champion a similarly "mechanical", "inevitably Darwinist" view on politics, human nature, and history ("realism"?) as advocated by Agent Smith's character.

Let's, for a moment, make the assumption that realism holds and that ethics does not exist, i.e. let's consider the software + hardware and neglect the user.

=> Are there works in political science that actually use epidemiological concepts, models, and methods to analyze and possibly predict politics?

There are fictional works that describe powerful predictive frameworks such as "psychohistory" in Asimov's Foundation trilogy - but how much is this in the realm of current scientific practice?

*I hope it's clear that the idea is not to equate humans (users) with viruses (software), but to identify those cultural elements that drive and sustain "virulent" politics. Smith's analogy, of course, is fundamentally flawed - but it touches on important moral problems, e.g. ethics in stem cell research:

Quite apart from the fact that a [genetic] program cannot be equated with its result, this statement [that a fertilized egg cell is already in the full sense a human being] is also incorrect for other important reasons. [...] Without the mother's organism, the fertilized egg cell can only develop into a vesicle made up of a little more than a hundred human cells; the factors in its own cytoplasm are sufficient for this, but not further.

From: "Wann ist ein Tier ein Tier?" (When is an animal an animal?), Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, 2001

  • 5
    You might be interested in the idea of Memes. Not internet memes with text on pictures, but Richard Dawkins’ use of the term to describe a transmissible idea, by analogy to genes
    – divibisan
    Aug 1, 2020 at 0:28
  • 1
    I suspect the whole question is more in the realm of scifi.stackexchange.com Aug 1, 2020 at 3:21
  • @Burt_Harris Funny you should mention that... we had a very similar question to this on Movies.SE a few days ago.
    – F1Krazy
    Aug 1, 2020 at 7:45
  • 4
    for what it's worth, I find the Foundation trilogy thoroughly unconvincing when it comes to psychohistory. It's inspired by one particular political context, that of the Roman empire and tries to generalize from it. Nor does its insistence on predetermination account much for wild cards a la Hitler or Genghis Khan. It's a nice intellectual exercise, but has very limited actual political applicability, IMHO. No disrespect meant to Asimov - this is a work of fiction. Aug 2, 2020 at 4:05
  • My guess: no, politics cannot be completely explained with epidemiological terms. How would for example elections be explained? Jun 26, 2022 at 16:13

4 Answers 4


There's a bit of everything in this question and it has actually little to do with politics but let me entertain it:

Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not.

This is incorrect: if any group of animals (or plants) is put in an environment where they don't have any natural predator, they also proliferate and can potentially destroy their environment eventually. This is the reason why there are laws to control the importation of animals or plants between countries. A infamous example is the introduction of rabbits in Australia.

You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed, and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area

This is a kind of Malthusian hypothesis, where human population will eventually outgrow the Earth food resources. To the best of my knowledge, so far in history there is no area on Earth where humans have finished consuming every single resource. It could still happen in the future, and there are serious signs about this danger, but so far this is not true.

I found several examples in modern history that seem to check virtually all the 'epidemiological' boxes regarding virulence, human-to-human transmission, global spread, resources consumption, and destructiveness:

  • Global conquest of Christianity
  • European colonialism
  • Western imperialism
  • Endless "Cold" Wars that keep turning hot

There's a lot of confusion here, and the analogy is very questionable: is there notable resource consumption in Christianity? Is there human to human transmission in European colonialism? Sure wars tend to be destructive, but thankfully they rarely spread globally. Finally what OP calls "Western Imperialism" (involvement of the US and Russia - sic - in regime changes) has almost nothing to do with any of the characteristics of a virus. Also one may notice that some of these historical events have reached their end or are decreasing: Christianity is decreasing in many countries, European colonialism has ended. This contradicts the above idea that the "virus" spreads until total destruction of its environment. Unless OP means that each of these events is like a "virus" on its own, but then it defeats the idea that humankind as a whole acts like a virus.


  • The instinct to reproduce and to expand to new territories is not specific to humankind
  • As the species which managed not to have any natural predator, humans are indeed causing a lot of trouble to the environment.
  • This can be seen as parasitic behavior, of which viruses are a good example.
  • The damage caused by wars and various other human bad habits is clear, but considering this as evidence that humankind is akin to a virus is just an interpretation.

Finally, it's worth mentioning that politics is (or at least should be) about finding solutions so that humans can live peacefully together and have a sustainable future. In theory this is why we have international organizations such as the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, etc. In reality... it's a bit complicated.

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    Beavers would be an example of animals where that pattern can be observed in their "home" environments: they dam a creek, slowly drown the trees, live and eat the trees within reach. When the feed ressources are depeted, they move to another valley (or starve). One may also argue that various herbivores that follow seasonal migration patterns do the same: they eat the plants where they are and move when the combinaton of energy spent on moving, energy gain for the next bite here (depleted after a while) and energy gain for the next bite a step further points to moving. And the very same ... Aug 1, 2020 at 10:55
  • ... thought applies to the predator as well. When they become so many that the prey gets scarce, they have to move on. (I don't think a predator is needed, unless you include parasites, various microbes and viruses into the predator category) Aug 1, 2020 at 10:57
  • It is hypothesized that the reason for the fall of the Aksum empire in 8th century was overexploitation of land. Easter Island is another known example. These are two known examples of communities running out of vital natural resources.
    – liori
    Aug 1, 2020 at 23:48

What you seem to be looking for here is network theory. What you call "hardware" are like the vertices or nodes of a network (human individuals), while the "software" would be the edges or connections (their relationships to others). All of the phenomena you mention can be studied with the same type of underlying mathematical model in mind.

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The prominent historian Niall Ferguson has a nice book for the general reader called The Square and the Tower which applies network theory to modern political history writ large. It was adapted for a PBS series called Networld which includes a segment on how viruses spread. Much of the rest relates to the kinds of historical/political processes you list in your question. One of Ferguson's overall points is that when new technologies (the printing press, railways and telegraphs, the Internet) increase networked connectivity, it disrupts the hierarchies of power that maintain stability and thereby produce periods of rapid historical change.

  • Interesting! Let me provide you with an example to illustrate how Ferguson switches cause (political agency) and effect (disruption) by portraying planned aggression as "unintentional" consequences of "natural" dynamics. It's basically portraying murder as accident (or worse: an inevitability dictated by physical laws): "The GSM network, commonly called 2G, was designed during the 1980s when the Cold War was still on. Due to political pressure from European governments, the security of GSM was deliberately made weak to allow easy interception by law enforcement agencies."
    – david
    Aug 10, 2020 at 4:18
  • "Weak security was purposely built into the system because various European governments requested the ability to deactivate or break the encryption on the radio link in order to eavesdrop on mobile phone conversations. [...] In 1991, MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) outside Europe were forced to use weak encryption, whereas European operators could use relatively strong encryption. For that reason, a strong and a weak set of cryptographic algorithms were designed. [...] The discriminating crypto policy of 2G reflected the mindset of the Cold War."
    – david
    Aug 10, 2020 at 4:19
  • Source: A. Jøsang, L. Miralabé, L. Dallot (University of Oslo, Norway): "Vulnerability by Design in Mobile Network Security", The Journal of Information Warfare, Vol. 14-4, 2015
    – david
    Aug 10, 2020 at 4:21
  • ...gives you a whole new perspective on the current 5G polemics, doesn't it? https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_pot_calling_the_kettle_black
    – david
    Aug 10, 2020 at 4:24

The rabbit hole you are peeking at is formally called cultural evolution. Here is a reasonably accessible and rigorous source on the matter : https://evolution-institute.org/this-view-of-life/

I will shortly comment some of the answers provided earlier, and then try to articulate how the notions of cultural evolution answer your question.

  • On divibisan's comment : The notion of meme is valid only as the abstract idea that information is communicated between humans. There is no identified unit of information for cultural inheritance, discussed notably in Mesoudi, Alex, Andrew Whiten, and Kevin N. Laland. 2006. ‘Towards a Unified Science of Cultural Evolution’. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29(4): 329–47. Besides, it lacks any predictive power at the level of socio-cultural evolution
  • On Brian Z's answer : Network models are instrumental in studying social behaviour, but I do not see how by themselves they answer by any mean OP's question. They could in principle be applied in political science, and they are, but network modelling is not political science in and of itself.
  • On Erwan's answer : It points out correctly that the drive for growth is not specific for humans. It is instead a consequence of evolution, and unstable growth is a widespread concern of both empirical and theoretical ecology. See for example the Lotka-Volterra model of predator-prey interaction (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lotka%E2%80%93Volterra_equations), which along with constraint on reproduction or thermal fluctuations may drive self-extinction by predator population. The level at which living systems are optimised are not the level of species, rarely the level of population, and self-harm often result of between-level competition : Wilson, David Sloan, and Edward O. Wilson. 2007. ‘Rethinking the Theoretical Foundation of Sociobiology’.

Getting to my own answer. Life, notably in its social manifestation, is a result of dissipative self-organisation (see eg Karl, Friston. 2012. ‘A Free Energy Principle for Biological Systems’. Entropy 14(11): 2100–2121.). This means that the dissipation of potential gradients must somehow be involved in its maintenance. Its particularity in regard to other instances of dissipative self-organisation, such as fire or Bénard cells, is that its structure is somewhat heritable between instances. The most studied mode of inheritance is genes, although epigenetic, social, or cultural modes are known to exist (Jablonka, Eva, and Marion J. Lamb. 2007. ‘Précis of Evolution in Four Dimensions’. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 30(4): 353–65.). The result of this particularity can intuitively be understood as the competition between informations for controlling energy fluxes so as to reproduce their material implementation. Human societies are notably structured by cultural inheritance, and therefore subject to selection pressure (Richerson, Peter J. et al. 2016. ‘Cultural Group Selection Plays an Essential Role in Explaining Human Cooperation : A Sketch of the Evidence (+ Commentary)’.).

In other words, social forms that are more apt to control population will likely (even though not certainly, wide fluctuations being at play) end up controlling a bigger share of the population. A clear example of this is the agriculture-city-State complex, which in and of itself leaves every single individual worse off (Scott, James C. 2017. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Yale University Press.). Yet it allows social coordination at a wider scale (Gavrilets, Sergey, and Peter Turchin. 2009. ‘Evolution of Complex Hierarchical Societies’.), better military performance (Turchin, Peter, Thomas E. Currie, Edward A. L. Turner, and Sergey Gavrilets. 2013. ‘War, Space, and the Evolution of Old World Complex Societies’.), and catalyses cultural adaptation (Bettencourt, Luís M. A. et al. 2007. ‘Growth, Innovation, Scaling, and the Pace of Life in Cities’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104(17): 7301–6. ; Muthukrishna, Michael, and Joseph Henrich. 2017. ‘Innovation in the Collective Brain’.). More detail on this specific issue here : https://kairos-research.org/articles/beyond-state/

So yeah, there is such a thing as a drive toward growth that structures much (even though certainly not all or even most) of human social organisation. This growth can either be expressed in control of energy fluxes or in control of population, these nomenclature being respectively justified by out of equilibrium physics and direct application of evolutionary principles. It is very much out of control in the case of human societies, as it is in the general case, even though selection may favor more stable structures in the long run.

The go-to literature to understand these dynamics in down-to-earth terms (which is not at all what I aimed to here) is Jared Diamond's work on historical anthropology. Diamond, Jared M. 1997. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton. explains how societies with larger scale coordination "win" the control of land and population over time. Diamond, Jared. 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Penguin. explains how the very same dynamics may lead to unstable development. Other relevant, accessible work on historical anthropology would be Scott, James C. 2017. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. Yale University Press., Graeber's "Debt" (can't find a proper citation), or Turchin's "Ultrasociety" (can't either).


Many scholars see cultures as a kind of mental infection or parasite, with humans as its unwitting host. Organic parasites, such as viruses, live inside the body of their hosts. They multiply and spread from one host to the other, feeding off their hosts, weakening them, and sometimes even killing them. As long as the hosts live long enough to pass along the parasite, it cares little about the condition of its host. In just this fashion, cultural ideas live inside the minds of humans. They multiply and spread from one host to another, occasionally weakening the hosts and sometimes even killing them. A cultural idea – such as belief in Christian heaven above the clouds or Communist paradise here on earth – can compel a human to dedicate his or her life to spreading that idea, even at the price of death. The human dies, but the idea spreads. According to this approach, cultures are not conspiracies concocted by some people in order to take advantage of others (as Marxists tend to think). Rather, cultures are mental parasites that emerge accidentally, and thereafter take advantage of all people infected by them.

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