The New Horizon

A new world explored with a rational view

Memetics and Cultural Evolution: The Roots of Religion

with 4 comments

What is Memetics?
The term “meme” coined and popularized by the biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, refers to a “unit of cultural information” (cognitive or behavioral pattern) which can propagate from one mind to another in a manner analogous to genes (i.e., the units of genetic information). Some contemporary examples of meme can be popular proverbs (“Hard work pays”), gossips, health consciousness (“wash hands before eating”), nursery rhymes (even epics and religious books), conspiracy theories, terms and phrases (“Whassup”) and a lot more.

Memeplexe or Meme-complex is a group of Memes; those are interdependent and survive as a ‘colony’ of memes – such as religion, culture or political doctrines.

Memetics, coined as a similar sounding word of Genetics, is an approach to evolutionary models of information transfer based on the concept of the meme. The popular Memetics hypotheses that memes do not replicate only, but refined, recombined or modified in new memes.

Propagation of Memes
The better a meme can be copied; more it will become common part of the culture. This depends on copying fidelity (accuracy of copy), fecundity (rate of copying) and longevity of the meme. The successful propagation of memes depends on various things – experience of the individual, speculation of the individual, social censorship, distinction of source of the meme. Two communities, those who mix rarely, can be thought of as memetically isolated communities, e.g. Americans and Arabs.

Children as the media of meme propagation
As per behavioral evolution, children who are more obedient to their parents get natural selective advantage over others. This unique nature of children enables human civilization to build upon past experiences. Children, who accept the words of adults as rule of thumb, as “Don’t go to cliff of the roof”, “Don’t swim into the deep water” or “Don’t go to the forest alone”, are more likely to survive and reproduce later. When grown up, they propagate their memes, accumulated in the childhood to the next generation, and may be in a modified format. The memes that are more appealing tends to propagate more accurately than the others.

Religion as a Memeplex
Religion and the existence of God as a set of memes have got the unique appeal to human civilization. It provides plausible answers to deep and troubling questions of the nature, suggests the ‘injustice’ will be rectified in the next and one will be placed in relatively good or bad places after death depending on the performance in this life. Dawkins, in his book The God Delusion (pg 199) has provided a list of religious memes those had high survival values in human civilization.

The reasons for the high survival of religious memes include social experience, speculations and distinct source. The religious people always express their experience as positive to add the survival value to the meme, e.g. faith is a virtue and prayer is the way to seek help from God. People speculate about mysteries of nature, miracles, life and death that ensure high survival for the religious explanations. Last but not the least, the revered and distinct source (religious leader/book) adds additional survival value to it. Presence of ‘exclusivist’ memes in the organized religion is striking. For example, punishment or ostracism for heretics, apostates and blasphemers are such ‘exclusivist’ memes. These memes protects the memeplex to get infected from ‘outsider memes’. One of the distinct features of Indian culture is the lack of ‘exclusivist’ meme, that enables India to be built on top of a unique plural society.

A reflection on the above theories can provide you clues why religious sects exist. Sects came into being due to different variation of ‘interpretation’, resulted out of different memetic evolutionary path followed by different sects. Same way, the recombination of different memes resulted in same religion to be performed in different ways in different regions.

The Roots of Religion
As we know how religion and the features propagate, we can proceed how it came into being initially. The best explanation, although controversial, I have got is from Daniel Dennett, in his book The Intentional Stance. He classified the stance of human beings with respect to an object in three ways – physical stance, design stance and intentional stance. In a Physical stance, man tries to explain the object and its’ behavior in terms of natural laws. The second one is design stance, to predict the behavior of the object as it is designed to perform that, e.g., the bird flies by flapping the wings or an alarm clock is designed to ring at a particular time. This is in effect a shortcut over the earlier one and provides advantages if established upon experience. The last one is the intentional stance, that enables personification of the object and predict the behavior as per the intention of the object. The intentional stance, very frequently gave humans advantage over other animals e.g., to identify predators (like Tiger) and cattle (Dogs). The noticable point is that the abstraction of objects is increasing in each stance. The human civilization is basically a race from the third one to the first – initially they had to take the more abstract ones due to lack of knowledge to go to physical stance. Dennett argues that it is best to understand human beliefs and desires at the level of the intentional stance, without making any specific commitments to any deeper reality to the artifacts of each and every folk psychology. The gods and the God, along with the Angels and Daemons are nothing but these personifications of these objects – survived in human societies as memes.

The Future
The clash of reason and religion is basically the clash of memes. The memes of reason are supported by evidences, those a human being can directly experience. The memes of religion are appealing and has high propagation value. The battle is likely to continue in future.

A memetic view of religion is undoubtedly better than any view proposed by the popular religions as the ‘first cause’ or the beginning of themselves. The explanation gives us idea on how the simple ‘personification’ of unknown objects turned into what we see as organized religion, by means of propagation of memes. The hypothesis, may have a lot of technical drawbacks, but overall is very effective in this case.

A bibiliography on meme.
The multi-dimensional evolution.
Susan Blackmore and her “The Meme Machine“.
The Selfish Meme – a concept.
Intentional Stance made easy. Also from the blog , book and video.

Atheism, Evolution, Meme, Dawkins, Religion.


Written by Diganta

May 28, 2007 at 8:29 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Wonderful write up …
    Thanks for this. ( and the links )


    May 29, 2007 at 8:21 am

  2. I think we are in some transitional phase w.r.t. religion. I think memes of religion, atleast those promulgating orthodox, outdated views are getting phased out with a more modern religion in conformance with science in some respects. Progress will be slow ofcourse, because of our innate resistance to change. But its time for a more rational religious meme to start taking hold.

    Ofcourse, memetic evolutionary time scales are lesser than those of genetic evolution. I haven’t read enough but it seems to me to be that way.


    May 29, 2007 at 10:30 am

  3. memetic evolutionary time scales are lesser – I agree with you. That’s why people can progress rapidly – even internet had spwned off a lot of memes in recent past.


    May 29, 2007 at 10:48 am

  4. […] Memetics and Cultural Evolution: The Roots of Religion […]

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