Thanks for the Meme-ories
Chapter 13 of The Plain Truth About God-101
(What the church doesn't want you to know)
by: Allan W. Janssen
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Among some Psychologists and nearly all Sociologists of the last few decades, a new phrase has come into use that describes a “belief system” which contains within itself the instructions for its own self-propagation. This belief system we could call a replicator!
In The Selfish Gene-Viruses of the Mind (1976) Richard Dawkins put forth the proposition that just as biological evolution can be studied at various levels - so too can cultural evolution be broken down and studied in its most basic forms.
He argues that the clearest way to think about any form of evolution would be to work from the point of view of its smallest replicating entities.
In the case of genetics, it is the gene.
By analogy, studies of cultural evolution in Darwinian terms can best be looked at by examining the smallest replicating units in a culture. In this case, they are units, or ideas, that we call “Memes.”
Examples of these “Memes” are popular tunes, catch phrases, fashion, and ways of making certain objects or cultural norms that are practiced by everyone.
Thoughts, like fleas, jump from man to man. But they don't bite everybody. --Stanislaw Lec (1909-1996)
Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so Memes propagate themselves in the Meme-pool by leaping from mind to mind by imitation.
In addition, this imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!
A perfect example of a self-replicating Meme is a catch phrase from a T.V. commercial for a hamburger that you might remember!
“Where’s the beef!”
This phrase was self-propagating to the point where it took on a life of its own and was repeated by everyone.
“Where’s the beef” became a catchword for the product itself and could stand on its own without any other explanation. It had a rhyme and rhythm to it that made it a natural to be passed from one person the next and by this very characteristic is one of the prime examples of a cultural “Meme!”
These “Memes” or replicators, cannot do anything on their own of course, but have within themselves the ideas or “hooks” that can trigger a self-replicating process within our brains that seem to give them a life of their own.
Every bit of fashion, or style, or new song, or popular phrase, or idea that is a Meme will be self-replicating to a greater or lesser degree.
And like a virus or parasitic worm, every successful Meme must perform at least two actions.
- Ensure it takes up long-term residence in its host.
- Bring about the conditions for its spread.
Biological evolution works by the mutation of genes and natural selection. The genes that produce an advantage get reproduced at a greater rate than genes that fail to confer an adaptive advantage.
In other words, genes that produce a biological advantage are rewarded, while genes that do not are punished by being reproduced less and eventually dying out.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has argued that something similar happens with ideas and social practices.
Since ideas are not autonomous beings, we know that it is humans who do the actual competing for bits of information in our minds.
So, while these “Memes” do not compete on their own, they propagate in our minds.
Nevertheless, some ideas and practices act as if they were autonomous since they promote their own success by encouraging their survival and accurate reproduction in a large numbers of believers.
In the competition for believers, Memes that aggressively promote their own survival propagate, while those that do not die out.
This is what we mean by Memic selection.
In real life, Memes are usually sets of related ideas that we can call belief systems, and they must do more than simply require their reproduction in people.
Some beliefs become very adept at sticking in people’s minds, such as the phrase from an old T.V. commercial; “Where’s the beef!”
Because these Memes stick out, they eventually spread to wide prevalence.
This line of study, known as Memetics, has far-reaching implications for beliefs about religion, health, family politics, war, abortion, sexuality and just about every other topic that concerns us.
Memetics offers us new ways to look at the spread of irrational thoughts and ideas by reversing the old adage of how people acquire beliefs. Instead, it asks us the reverse: “How beliefs acquire people!”
When beliefs take an active roll in acquiring new adherents, they are turned into very potent Memes that we can call “thought contagions!”
These “thought contagions” are insidious in their propagation from mind to mind because first of all, as the phrase suggests, they are so contagious. (Where’s the beef!)
Secondly, and even more importantly, successful mind viruses, just like computer viruses, are extremely hard to detect. If you happen to be the victim of one, the chances are that you do not even know it!
If you is sitting in a state of blissful ignorance about a Meme-infestation, what are the tell tale signs to look for? Imagine how a medical symposium might describe the symptoms.
- The patient finds him/herself impelled by some deep inner conviction that something feels true, right, or the way it should be; a conviction that does not have any evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, they feel is totally compelling or convincing!
Doctors refer to such a belief as “faith.” The typical patient will make it a positive virtue to have his/her “faith” strong and unshakeable. This feeling of superiority or righteousness will persist in spite of a lack of evidence. In fact most people will believe that the less evidence there is ----the more virtuous the belief!
This lack of evidence is a positive virtue where faith is concerned because if is a self-sustaining program. This means that once a proposition is believed, it automatically undermines opposition to itself. The “lack of evidence is a virtue” idea is admirable since it teams up with “faith” itself to form a mutually supportive viral program!
- Along with the two already mentioned symptoms of a Memics infection, we have a related symptom that may also be present in a faith-sufferer. This is the conviction that “mystery” (i.e. the mystery of faith) is not something to be solved. It is not a virtue to solve mysteries, but rather we should enjoy them and revel in their insolubility.
Roman Catholics, for example, have a belief in infallible authority, which compels them to accept that wine becomes physically transformed into blood. By the same token, they have the exact same trick performed in the “mystery” of the Trinity!
- If you have a faith bug, it is statistically overwhelming that it is the same faith as your parents and grandparents had. Moving stories and parables, along with stirring music and magnificent houses of worship have had some influence, but by and large, the most important variable in determining your religion is an accident of birth!
The convictions that you so passionately believe would have been a completely different set of beliefs if you had been born somewhere, or by someone else!
- The infected persons may find themselves behaving intolerantly towards rival faiths, in extreme cases even killing them or advocating their deaths. They may be similarly inclined towards apostates or heretics! This feeling of animosity can even be translated into hostility towards other modes of thought that are potentially inimical to their faith, such as the scientific method (evolution, etc.) which may be an anti-viral agent to him/her.
The road that leads to denunciation of another person’s faith is a long and perilous journey at best.
Because these viruses implant themselves so deeply into our psyche, often from a very early age on, to challenge them or attempt to “bring down the house of cards” can have serious consequences for the individual.
The threat to kill the distinguished novelist Salmon Rushdie is only one in a long list of sad examples.
Murder is an extreme example of course, but we have examples of even more extreme behavior in the suicide of the militant observers of a faith.
Like a soldier ant in an ant colony, Arab or Japanese, or Sikh extremists, they are programmed to sacrifice their life.
To die in a holy war is the quickest way to heaven.
On the surface, this may seems outright preposterous, but remember, the true test of a faith is the ability to believe without question!
Memes are not only immaterial thoughts, but can also manifest themselves as concrete objects when they are employed as the bases for objects such as a book. A book is a successful way of transmitting a Meme and we are going to look at one of the most successful Memes of all time. The Bible!
In terms of the number of copies in existence, the Bible represents one of the most prolific books ever produced. Where other great texts of the ancient world have either been lost or else exist only in a relatively small number of copies, the Bible is everywhere!
The Bible has existed generally in its present form for the last two millennia.
If “survival of the fittest” has any validity as an evolutionary slogan, then the Bible seems a fair candidate for the accolade of the fittest of all books.
It exists today in over two thousand different languages and is distributed worldwide making it one of the best examples of a self-propagating “Meme.”
The Bible has exerted more influence on Western and even World culture than any other book. In art, literature, politics and religion, the biblical narratives and quotations are all-pervasive. As Western culture became globalized, so to did the Bible. For example, fully one quarter to one third of all Japanese households today possess a bible. This in a country where only one or two percent of the population has any Christian adherence whatsoever.
The Bible has propagated itself so well in Japan because it is regarded as essential background for a proper understanding of Western culture.
This means that one effect of the spread of Western culture through trade, conquest and missionary activity has been the spread of an ancient Hebrew and Greek text to every corner of the globe.
Where Western culture goes, so goes the Bible.