Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Memetics | Origins, Selfish Nature, Religion

“All life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities” – Richard Dawkins

I’d like to expand, in this post, on the beginning of cultural transmission, the selfish nature of memes, and the relationship of memes to religion. Memes began to spread tens of thousands of years ago. It started when humans began to imitate verbal sounds, giving rise to verbal communication. Over time, the imitation grew into language. There are other animals that spread memes, such as birds and birdsong, but only the humans have the medium of transmission that is high-level language.

After this development, ideas began to spread. They form symbiotic relationships with humans, which is why such transmission was favoured by evolution. Some memes are useful, like the idea of how to start a fire. Indeed, one Harvard scientist claims that fire capabilities are what enabled humans to dominate the environment. It allowed us to cook food – which means more energy in the food, less contamination by harmful biological entities, and it gave warmth to humans, which led to less hair. So ideas may be beneficial, and these memes are what make us dominate -- even though we aren’t the biggest, strongest, most physically fit creatures.

But memes aren’t concerned with the welfare of genetic replicators. They are simply information that is recorded through some physical medium. Memes only care about their own propagation, in the same sense that genes love to exist. There were eventually memes that increased the spread of memes. We later developed writing, television, radio, and now the internet. The internet now allows memes to spread as fast as light can travel. These are all ideas that increase the transmission ideas. Education, too, is an idea designed to strengthen meme installation. Cultural ideas are not necessarily true or useful though. Like I said, they are only worried about their own existence in some medium.

So humans developed capabilities to store memories; it is a medium in which to store the symbiotic memes that are useful to the genetic replicators’ survival. And we also had to develop some sort of filtering mechanism. We can’t just let any old meme inside – it may be dangerous. You certainly wouldn’t want a meme that says to commit suicide (there are ideas which infiltrate the mind such as this). The result of this necessity for distinction between utile and dangerous memes formed the critical faculty of humans. Every time a suggestion or meme is expressed in your environment, your critical faculty verifies its validity – either accepting or rejecting it. As I have mentioned in the previous post, coherence plays a large role in this selection process.

One question that arises as a result of memetic theory is whether or not we should allow memes to control us. If we are genetic replicators, should we not be in full control of memes? To this I reply that there is no distinction between memes and genes when we are discussing the self. Ideas have taken some control of the genetic replicators, but that does not mean we have to side with either one. Memes are integrated into the identity of the human form. What would we be without art, music, expression or other pieces of culture? Memetic theory raises all sorts of philosophical questions, leading even to a re-evaluation of the meaning of life.

As an aside, I’d like to mention the difficulty in identifying a memotype (the actual content or information of a meme). There are some fundamental differences between genes and memes, even though they both are governed by the overarching process of evolution. Memes are much more associational, or blended than genes ever were. How do you quantify the distance between ideas that constitutes divergence? Perhaps this is why ideas are so good at forming memeplexes (a complex of memes).

Ideas congregate into memeplexes for the same reason that genes form gene pools within an embodiment. They help each other exist. A school of thought, a belief system, or a subject like biology all contain ideas that are mutually compatible. But at this level of complexity, memeplexes of parasitic thought may overcome the selfish agenda of genes with the selfish agenda of dangerous memes. The largest example of this phenomenon is religion. I have argued previously about the uselessness of religion, and here I explain why it is ubiquitous despite its uselessness. If you continue reading this post, chances are you are secularist, agnostic, or are curious about what I have to say about religion and memetics.

Religion is a system of ideas that has evolved to invade even rational minds. Looking at my previous post, and the variables involved in the fitness of memes, we can draw parallels between the qualities of highly fit memes and religion. An idea that is perceived as being valuable to the genetic replicators is one initial meme that draws people in: the idea that when you die you will continue to live forever in the afterlife. Wishful thinking. Then there’s a measure of consolation in hard times: the idea that there is an invisible, all-powerful being watching over and guiding you. This, as Dawkins mentions, is about the closest thing to usefulness there is within religion. This is because even a false belief may be consoling until the moment of disillusionment. And disillusionment may be unimportant regarding the afterlife since it is effectively death.

Coherence, I have argued, is one of the most important factors in the selection process of accepting or rejecting memes. Religion solves this problem by creating an entirely fictional background upon which to agree with its ideas. I’m talking of course, about holy scripture. In the case of the bible, it was written in accordance with ‘revelation’, by over 40 authors (none of whom met Jesus); it was copied many times, and edited many times. Thus when confronted with an issue that someone rational has illustrated, there is an endless amount of material that may be referenced.

Authority and publicity are other variables involved in religion as a memeplexe. Religion exploits authority even before critical faculties have been developed. In children, there is less of a mechanism by which to filter ideas because this is the period when they should be rapidly absorbing memes from their parents. This is why the indoctrination of children is used by religion. You are brought up to believe all of the ideas before you can criticize its acceptance. Dawkins goes as far as saying that the indoctrination of children is child abuse. Publicity, as well, contributes to its acceptance – people tend to conform to the majority because society itself is a form of authority.

Self-justification and self-reinforcement are techniques used by religion. These ideas are specifically focused on mutually benefiting religion as a whole. The idea that spirituality and mysticism is something beyond what we can understand and it must be accepted without evidence; the idea of blind faith. This meme was designed to bypass our critical faculties – it essentially says, “don’t think about it, just accept it without evidence.” Then there’s the idea that it is rude to criticize someone’s faith. Laughable. This meme is designed to immediately undermine opposition. If I realize the phony guise of a memeplexe that religion is, I can’t argue because it’s rude! Sometimes I’ll tell someone that I’m an atheist, and I’ve had people reply, “oh, that’s great that you’re questioning faith for yourself, but one day, when you’re older, faith will come back to you.” Typical pestilential answers.

Anyways, self-reinforcement and intolerance (more memes that constitute religion): repetition, such as a Catholic rosary and prayers. This increases retention and therefore increases heredity for memes. Then there’s intolerance – a meme that eliminates or disfavours competing memes. There are countless examples of this in religion, such as committing apostasy on pain of death (you are killed for converting out of the Islam faith). And I’d like to look at a particular meme within Islam that combines some of the memes I’ve already talked about. Suicide bombers are led to believe, by regular practitioners of Islam, that it will not hurt when they die, that they are doing a great and noble thing, and that martyr paradise will be waiting for them. They are not evil men. They are just men who have been infiltrated by parasitic, dangerous memes.

A couple of religions even include the self-embedded command of “spread me”, like that of a computer virus. Mormons, for example, go around trying to convert people. It is obvious why this meme caught on: it is centered upon the transmission and existence of religion.

And so I’d like to leave you thinking that you should spread this meme, and my other memes – if it coheres to your thoughts and you agree.

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