A Few Kind Memes About Memes
by Robert Wright

The academic fountainhead of cynical views of religion is Marxism. In tempering the cynicism, I don't mean to dismuiss the whole Marxist view of the world. Marx gets nthing but applause from theis corner for depecting religion as a mediator of deep economic imperative. Kudos, too, for the more general Marxist claim that a society's "super sctructure" (religion, ideaology, morality) reflects an underlying "infrastructure" (technology, and the relations of of economic power implied by the technology). Even a certain amount of Marx's specific cynicism about religion is hard to argue with. religion does sometimes function as the opiate of the masses and elites do try to use their power to shape ideas to their ends. Marx just went a bit too far. And this century more than a few archaeologists and cultural anthropologists joined him.

Toward the end of the century, a new source of excessive cynicism about religion sprang up - not Marxist in orientation but Darwinian. Anti-Darwinian Richard Dawkins titled the last chapter of his 1976 book The Selfish Gene "Memes: The New Replicators." Trying to accent the parallel between cultural and genetic evolutions, Dawkins posited the existence of "memes" - units of cultural information that can spread through a culture rather as genes spread through a gene pool. It's worth taking a quick look at the Dawkinsian view of cultural evolution - in part to see where it goes awry in depicting religion, but also for a larger reason; this initially disorienting, topsy-turvy view of cultural change is ultimately fertile, and will surface repeatedly in this book.

A meme can be just about any form of non-genetic information transmitted from a person to person: a word, a song, an attitude, a religious belief, a mealtime ritual, an engineering concept. Bodies of memes can be whole religions or ideologies or moral systems or technological systems. The positingof basic units of cultural information, analogous to genes, is far from new. ("Idene" was among the previously proposed labels.) But, more than most past thinkers, Dawkins was willing to see memes as active - even, in a certain sense, alive. He asked us to invert our usual worldview. Don't think of songs, movies, ideologies sa passive bbodies of information that you , the active agent, choose. Think of them as competing for access to your brain, which they use to propagate themselves. When you whistle a favorite song, that song - the meme - has successfully manipulated your brain to its ends.

You may object that memes surely aren't concious - they don't actually calculate strategems for penetrating your mind. True enough. Then again, genes aren't conciously calculating, either. In fact, in acertain sense, genes ren't even active; their chemical environment just reacts to them in prdictably constructive ways. Yet biologists find it useful to view genes as active agents that "replicate themselves" and "compete" for precious space in the gene pool; biologists talk about effective "strategies" of repliction from the "gene's prspective." The justfication for this metaphorical shorthand is that the natral selection preserves those genes that happen to act as if they were pursuing a strategy. And so it is with memes. Songs that effect yoru brain in a way that causes you to whistle them - songs that deftly "manipulate" your brain - are the kind of songs that evolve. You are their breeding ground, like it or not. Short of committing suicide or living in a cave, there is now way to avoid that role.

So far so good. Now here comes the problem. Dawkins compares memes not just to genes but to viruses. memes hop from one person to another much as viruses do. Moreover, memes, like viruses, can be bad for the people who help spread them. The meme of injecting heroin is so ppleasurable that a person may do it repeatedly, and eventually die from it. The meme then dies with him, but that's tolerable from its point of view so long as some of his friends have picked up the habit from him. The heroin-shooting meme, like the AIDS virus, can thrive even while killing its host, so long as it waits long enough for the execution and transmits copies of itself inthe meantime.

Notwithstanding the rarely viral nature of memes, "mind virus" has now become almost synonymous with "meme." And this parasitic view of culture get applied with particular zeal to religion.The philosopher Daniel Dennett writes of "the religious memes themselves, in effect, parasitically exploiting proclivities they have 'discovered' in the human cognitive-immune system." Dawking himself (whose hostility toward religion approaches religious intensity) has compared belief in God to a virus.

Well, it depends on the god. Members of the Heaven's Gate commune, who in 1997 got all dressed up and committed suicide, indeed seem to have indulged a virulent theology. But many, if not most, religious people are happy and productive, and enviably free of existential angst. Meanwhile, the theology of Heaven's Gate doesn't seem to be catching on.


The casual ascription of "viral" or "parasitic" properties to religion often rests on the conflation of two seperate issues: truth and value. Religious doctrines have indeed often entrenched themselves in people's brains otwithstanding the fact that they are probably alse. (Heaven and hell, for example.) But being false is not the same as being bad for te believer. Though all religions can have unpleasant side effects (neurotic aversion to "sin," say), it is hardly clear that religious belief is on balance worse than the various alternatives (heroin addiction, say).

Maybe the biggest problem with the "viral" view of culture is the way it ignores or at least downplays the various levels of social organization at which memes do battle with one another. Cultural evolution isn't just memes leaping from person to person; often memes leap from group to group. Chiefdoms fight each other, and the culture most conductive to victory tends to prevail. Meanwhile, within a chiefdom, villages vie with other villages for status, clans vies with clans, families with families, and finally individuals with individuals. Since this competitiion is typically nonviolent, people don't die, but memes do, because successful individuals and families and clans and villages get imitates. Their memes displace other meems through cultural evolution.

A premise of this book is that meems which manage to pass through this gauntlet of cultural selection, and come to characterize whole societies, often encourage non-sero-sum interaction. After all, a common reason that groups of people get emulated - families, clans, villages, baseball teams, corpoprations, sects, nations, whateer - is their productive and (relatively) harmonious interactions. So memes that bring productive harmony get admired and adopted.

Consider, again, the heaven and hell memes. Almost all religions have the functional equivalent: good or bad consequences that are said to result from good or bad behavior. And, almost invariably, the "bad" behavior includes cheating in one sense or another: stealing your neighbor's property, lying about your contribution to the communal effort. By discouraging such parasitism, these religious memes help realize non-zero-sumness.

Cultural evolution, as various scholars have noted, is quite different from genetic evolution - in particular, faster and messier. Cultual innovations - new memes - can be introducedpurposefully, not just randomly, and can spread like wildfire. And defining particular memes is famously difficult, given the fluidity of cultural information, Still, memes can leave distinct footprints that help us to track them. The footprints may be in the earth - styles of pottery that spread across early Europe, say. Or the footprints may come in the form of words. When languages evolve over nillennia from a single, common source, linguists can reconstruct the vocabulary of that mother tongue by comparing its living descendants. Fro example, we know from studying languages in Europe and India that the ancient spakers of proto-Ino-European had horses and harvested grain and mined metal.

When a language family spreads across a large area - as Indo-European did, as the Polynesian languages did - it is tempting to look at the reconstructed proto-language for keys to the culture;s fertility. It is not surprising, for example, to find that proto-Polynesian contained words for sail, paddle, cargo, and voyage. These cultural elements, these memes, no doubt helped move the larger Polynesian culture across the south Pacific and keep it robust.

What else might have helped to propel and sustain Polynesian culture? It turns out that proto-Polynesian also contained words for mana and tapu. The details of the concepts have no dubt changed, and indeed came to differ from island to island. Still, the basic ideas proved robust over two millennia of manifest cultural fertility; societies that survived the frequent warfare of Polynesian life were societies that took mana and tapu seriously. This robustness suggests that these concepts were doing more than burnish the vanity of chiefs, and were not simply "parasitic" on the societies that hosted them. (It suggests, you might say, that the memes and their host societies had a positive-sum relationship.) So does the fact that notions strikingly like manu and tapu have evolved seperately in various cultures, ranging from the Tiv of Africa to the Iroquis of North America.

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