On Memes and Genes

I’m reading Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett, and so far it’s great. It’s funny that with this book he has been lumped in with Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as the “militant atheists” or (even worse) “fundamentalist atheists” (see here for an explanation of why that insult is utterly vacuous). Now, you can call Dawkins or Harris strident (and Hitch downright belligerent), but Dennett seems like something else altogether. Unless he really lets loose in the last hundred pages, Breaking the Spell doesn’t seem very polemical at all. Don’t get me wrong—I think a good, well-reasoned polemic has its place in modern intellectual discourse, and I think that Dawkins in particular did a damn good job in The God Delusion—but Dennett makes the mild-mannered Dawkins look like a red-faced crusader with a flaming sword in comparison. He makes a painstakingly polite, empirically solid, rational case for treating religion as a natural phenomenon and then seeing where such an intellectual exercise of peeking behind the curtain might lead.

Honestly, books like this might as well be Alaya catnip. I adore them. If Dennett and Dawkins gave concerts, I think I’d be a groupie.

One of his most interesting discussions is that of memes. And not in the over-simplified “religion as virus” sense that Dawkins-haters love to plump with straw and attack, but as a fully-realized and nuanced theory. He postulates that many of our cultural conventions (of which religion is merely one) are discrete, self-replicating ideas that evolve in similar ways as organisms, except that the substrate of their replication is not genes, but the human brain itself. Thus, unlike genes, they can be passed “laterally” (i.e. your best friend can convert you) instead of just to your descendants (but you are still more likely to believe in your parent’s religion). One thing that utterly bowled me over was his discussion of the idea that memes themselves could have interacted with our genes to encourage the genetic selection of centers in the brain that would make the memes easier to propagate. This is a little more complicated than the “accidental preference gets amplified by runaway selection” hypothesis that underlies obvious features of sexual selection (the peacock’s tail, the bowerbird’s preference for blue, etc.) In this case, he argues, a propensity toward being amenable to hypnosis (or the placebo effect) might have affected a person’s reproductive fitness by reducing their stress, enabling them to make better decisions. In the population that now has this trait of being amenable to hypnosis, memes that postulate rituals of worship and animism might flourish more readily, because they lend more credence/power to the “witch doctor” doing the hypnosis in the first place. The memes themselves would acquire features—in the same undirected, free-floating rationale of genes—that give sexual preference to those believing in the same creed. Now we not only have a genetic reason for the propagation of certain kinds of credulity and propensity for religious experiences, but a memetic reason as well: the memes survive best when those who carry them mate with others who carry them. Now, carriers (believers) of Meme A are forbidden by the gods to intermarry with believers of Meme B. The reason this meme became so widespread in the first place was through a certain genetic propensity, and the memetic propagation amplifies the genetic lattice upon which it’s built. I’m very curious now to read the critiques I know exist of meme theory, but it strikes me as a very exciting possibility. I’m sure it doesn’t explain all human ideas and thoughts, but it does seem to accurately describe certain kinds of them.

(Disclaimer about the above. I’m not a biologist, and I’ve taken only the very basic required science courses. Anything that is painfully, glaringly wrong above is clearly my fault, and not Dennett’s. I just wanted to share.)

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