Sunday, February 06, 2005

On the Persistence of Religion part V

This is the fifth part of a multi-part essay on the persistence of religion.

In the first installment of the essay, I raised the question of the persistence of religion in individuals and sought to demonstrate that this persistence was not, as many unbelievers would like to think, genuinely akin to belief in such entities as Santa Clause. I explored a number of possibilities to account for the difference, without reaching any conclusions, and ended by suggesting that in order to explain the individual persistence of religion, we may need to consider its cultural persistence.

In the second installment I noted that religion was one of a small number of true human universals that transcends times and cultures. I also introduced and examined the hypothesis that the reason for this may be that religious beliefs persist because most humans have some sort of sense that the brain interprets as evidence of (for lack of a better word) a spiritual reality.

In the third installment I addressed a potential a priori objection to natural explanations for the persistence of religion in the form of the existence of atheists. I noted that polymorphistic features in biological organisms are permitted although they do require additional layers of explanation. I then proceeded to introduce the conjecture that religion may have adaptive value even if we don't posit that it is an adaptation whose function is to directly perceive some other sort of reality. I called this the Weak Adaptive Hypothesis and provided a few potential adaptive scenarios.

In the forth installment I introduced two new conjectures. The first conjecture was that religion may be a "spandrel", which is a non-adaptive biological feature that is the result of other adaptive features. The second conjecture, and the first one to more outside the realm of biology, was that religion may be have functional value for societies and that, as a consequence of this, those societies that successfully promote religious belief in their populations would be more stable than those societies that failed to do so. I called this the Social Preservation Hypothesis.

Just as the Social Preservation Hypothesis sought to describe the persistence of religion in terms of non-biological factors, so will my next, and final, hypothesis. In order to understand this hypothesis, however, it will be necessary to introduce the concept of memes. In order to understand memes, however, I will need to ask you to indulge me in a few digressions. This is going to take awhile, so please be patient.

In 1976, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins published a book called The Selfish Gene. The book was almost immediately the source of immense controversy and is the principle reason that Dawkins has become simultaneously famous as well as notorious.

Much of the book's controversy has come from misunderstandings stemming from the title and the central notion of a selfish gene. Many people have erroneously concluded that the book advocates a view that either genes have emotional states (i.e., selfishness) or that because our genes are "programmed" for selfishness then we, too, should behave selfishly. Neither stance represents Dawkins position and he has gone to great lengths to make that plain.

The book's actual goal is to suggest that evolution can best be understood by taking a "gene's eye" perspective. The common view, before Dawkins, was to assume that evolution acted for the good of the species.1 One can still find nature documentaries that suggest that individuals will sometimes sacrifice themselves for the good of the species. Dawkins demonstrates that genuinely self-sacrificial behaviors would be selected against by natural selection since those animals that lacked such self-sacrificing traits would prosper at the expense of their altruistic comrades.

The central thesis of The Selfish Gene is that natural selection does not act upon species, as a whole (a notion called group selection), nor even individuals. Instead, natural selection operates at the level of genes. The reason for this, Dawkin's argues, is that genes are the only things that persist from generation to generation. While an individual animal may have a lifetime that's measured in decades (and some trees in millennia) genes can persist for millions or even billions of years.2 From the "perspective" of a gene, individual organisms are temporary receptacles whose primary function is to ensure that its genes make it to the next generation.

It is because natural selection favors genes that are good at making it into the next generation that genuinely altruistic behaviors are selected again, hence the concept of "selfishness". The genes are not, themselves, selfish (or, in any sense, aware at all) but those genes that promote "selfish" behaviors are the ones that tend to do best when it comes to the critical task of being reproduced. Now, that said, the focus of this essay is not to defend the selfish gene hypothesis (read the book if you want the best possible argument for the hypothesis); however, it is important to offer one clarification. Although the hypothesis forbids the evolution of genuinely self-sacrificial behavior, it does allow for the development of a type of altruism known as reciprocal altruism.

Reciprocal altruism is a type of behavior where an animal will act in the interests of another animal in exchange for similar acts in kind towards itself. So, let us say that I am a member of a troop of monkeys and we are foraging for food. I happen to get more food than I strictly need while another monkey in the troop gets less than he needs. In the strictest sense, it would be to my advantage to eat all the food I got and to save up extra calories against future want; however, if I give the disadvantaged monkey my extra shares, I'll be at a net advantage if he does the same thing for me when our circumstances are reversed. This works even better if the tribe, as a whole, does this as a matter of course.

Of course this only works if the other monkeys would actually reciprocate, which means that there must be ways of identifying and punishing cheaters who try to take advantage of the system without putting anything back into it. This is a relatively high bar to cross and the reason that reciprocal altruism is the exception and not the rule in the natural world; however, game theorists have constructed models that demonstrate that such systems can naturally evolve. One of the critical components is the ability to remember whether or not your conspecifics actually do hold up their end of the bargain.

It should also be noted that Dawkins specifically exempts humans from being slaves to our instincts. He rather boldly proclaims that we, alone among the animals, have the ability to rebel against our selfish genes.

In Dawkins conception of how natural selection works, the fundamental unit of natural selection is something called a replicator. In the most basis sense, a replicator is something that makes copies of itself. There is more too it, though. Dawkins uses the example of fire as something that copies itself while, never the less, failing to be a replicator. In order for something to legitimately qualify as a replicator it needs a few critical ingredients.

The first ingredient is fidelity. Heredity is the property whereby a copy is significantly (as opposed to trivially) similar to its "parent". To use the example of fire, a small fire can produce a big fire (or vice versa), a greenish blaze can produce a yellowish blaze, and so forth. In short, one type of fire can lead to a wholly different kind and there is no "essence of this fire" that gets transmitted between fiery "generations". Heredity requires that replicators are not only good at making copies of themselves, but that those copies are, more often than not, faithful. Low fidelity obliviates heredity.

Fecundity is a nice term that refers to the rate of copying that a replicator undergoes. Even the most benign environment contains dangerous. A replicator that isn't good at making copies of itself faster than those copies get destroyed by its environment can not succeed.

Longevity, as you might well guess, is a description of how long a given instance of a replicator is able to keep making copies of itself before it expires. A replicator that doesn't tend to survive long enough to make at least one copy of itself is, of course, doomed.

Finally, we have variation. Variation simply means that it's possible that any given link in a chain of replicators will be different from its "parent". As you might well guess, this is essentially the idea of mutation. Variation may seem at odds with fidelity, but perfect fidelity does not allow for evolution. By itself, variation doesn't do anything for natural selection. When you couple it with the other elements of heredity, though, you have everything you need in order for natural selection to do its work. This is especially true when replicators are competing for limited resources that they need in order to manufacture more copies of themselves. In that circumstance, variation leads to competition which, in turn, creates selective criteria that favor those replicators that do the best job of out competing their rivals.

In the biological world, genes are replicators. Individuals are not and neither are species. At this point you might well wonder why we need the term replicator when we already have the concept of genes which precisely fulfill the role. Dawkin's provided the answer to that in the very last chapter (of the original edition) by noting that even though genes are the dominant replicators on this planet, there is no reason to suppose that replicators need to be genes, so long as they fulfill all of the necessary requirements. In order to illustrate this, he suggested that a new type of replicator has recently arisen on this world: the meme.

A meme is, more or less, a small bit of information.3 Examples of memes are jingles, political slogans, recipes, chain letters, and simple superstitions (e.g., you should throw spilled salt over your shoulder). What makes memes special is that they are replicators. They have the necessary components of heredity and variation. Instead of replicating inside the mechanisms of the cell, however, memes replicate within the cognitive machinery of the human brain and spread themselves from mind to mind by way of imitation.

You may find it difficult to afford memes the same sort of reality that we give to genes. Genes, after all, are physical entities. One can pry apart genes with chemical tools and examine them using a variety of techniques, but memes seem to be rather abstract by comparison. However, before we draw to sharp of a distinction, genes, in reality, are ultimately nothing more than information encoded in nucleotides. Cells take that information and convert it into proteins that are, ultimately, used to create more cells (and, ultimately, whole organisms) but the fundamental nature of genes and DNA is abstract information. Indeed, genes are, quite literally, digital, which is one of the reasons that it has such a high degree of fidelity when it makes copies of itself. The main difference, as far as fundamental natures go, between memes and genes is that genes encode their information in nucleic acids whereas memes encode their information in human neurons.

The analogy between genes and memes goes deeper, too. Just as genes can work in concert to create more complex structures, so can memes. When genes do it, we call the result DNA, which is a long sequence of genes that are bound together. When memes become grouped, we call the result a meme-complex.4 An example of a meme might be the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (da-da-da-dum!) whereas all the Fifth Symphony, itself, is an example of a meme-complex. Some meme-complexes are so tightly bound together that they almost act like enormous memes (meaning that the whole thing tends to get replicated). Other meme-complexes are more loose with a given meme-complex having similar but divergent components from another meme-complex of the same type (just as two members of a given animal species will have similar but different DNA). As an example of this, if we were to thoroughly examine the socialist meme complexes in two individuals who have embraced socialist doctrines, we would find a lot of the same "socialist" memes, but also differences.

Accepting, for the sake of argument, that memes are real, what's so important about them? Just as genes invert our view of the way biology works, memes invert our understanding of human cultures. Memes, like genes, are in competition for a limited resource. That resource is brain space. Because they are in competition, mimetic evolution favors memes that are "selfish", meaning that those memes that do a better job of getting themselves into human brains and which do a better job of spreading themselves to other brains will be favored by natural selection. It also means that the ideas that memes encapsulate don't have any necessary benefit for the people who hold them. It is important to fully understand the implications of this, so I'm going to spend a little time exploring what this means.

Traditionally, we tend to think of ideas as being for benefit of the people who hold them. From a meme's-eye view, though, people are only vehicles that are used for the propagation of more memes. Some (including Dawkins) have, in fact, compared memes to viruses. Viruses use the machinery of cells to propagate themselves and memes use the machinery of the brain to do likewise. It is a tempting comparison, but one that I think we need to be wary of. The reason I advise caution is that viruses are almost wholly parasitic whereas the relationship between memes and meme-hosts (i.e., people) is generally more complex.

In the natural world, a parasite is an organism that utilizes a host organism in order to further its own survival. The relationship that a parasite has with its host is detrimental to the host. A symbiote, by contrast, may also exist within another organism. The difference is that the relationship between a symbiote and its host is mutually beneficial. An example of a parasite is a tapeworm, which eats the food that passes through its hosts intestines without providing anything in return. Tapeworms are parasites. By contrast, there are intestinal microorganisms that are not only harmless but necessary for digestion. Such animals are symbiotes. It must be stressed that symbiotic organisms are still being selfish. In this case, it is in their self-interest to work with their hosts for their mutual benefit. This is a special case of the sort of reciprocal altruism that I discussed previously.

We tend to think of parasites and symbiotes as being entirely different and, indeed, opposite of one another. In the real world, however, there is a spectrum of entities with parasite and symbiote simply being two poles on a continuum. To my knowledge, there is no single term which neutrally describes animals that exist in this continuum, so I would like to suggest that we call them hospiotes (hoss-'pE-Ots), from the Latin word for guest. Just as one can have welcome and unwelcome guests, a hospiote may be beneficial or detrimental to its host. Memes should be viewed as hospiïtic (hos-'pE-i-tic) organisms.

A given meme (i.e., idea) doesn't have to be good for a given person that it bonds with (again, I prefer "bond" as a neutral term to be preferred to the term "infect", which carries pejorative connotations). An easy example of a bad meme is the idea of suicide bombing. Memes that encourage suicide bombing are clearly detrimental to the survival of those who carry them (or, more precisely, to the subset of those hosts who act on the idea), but they also clearly do manage to spread themselves – which brings us to the next point about memes.

Some meme theorists also tend to cast humans as being nothing more than passive carriers for memes. I believe that this is also a misrepresentation of the theory. Humans are sapient entities. We have the ability to consider the ideas that we believe in and reject them if we feel that they are harmful. As such there is a selective pressure for memes to evolve towards the symbiotic pole of the hospiïtic spectrum – a meme that encourages people to play in poison oak is going to have a much more difficult time spreading than a meme that helps its hosts avoid poison oak ("Leaves of three, let it be!") – however, detrimental memes can (and do) have means of spreading if they can get past the critical filters that otherwise cause us to reject unfavorable memes.

Consider memes that encourage smoking cigarettes. Smoking tobacco is clearly unhealthy and most people are aware of the health risks involved. A naïve reading of meme theory might lead us to suppose that any meme that encouraged smoking would be doomed because people would reject it. Obviously that doesn't happen in the real world. So how to these memes propagate themselves? One advantage that they have is that smoking is addictive. Once a person starts smoking, it's very hard from them to stop. A given meme, however, doesn't "care" whether or not a particular host acts upon it. It's "concern" is spreading new copies of itself to other individuals. This means that "smoking" memes need to bond with individuals who haven't already embraced the idea.

One such avenue is persuasive advertisements (an example of smoking memes working together with other memes as a meme-complex5) which help to convince people that smoking is socially beneficial. Another, more direct, method is peer pressure. Although these memes are clearly not beneficial to their hosts, they able to spread by convincing new hosts that some mitigating advantage to smoking that offsets the costs (e.g., "If I smoke, I'll be popular").6

Because memes are selfish replicators, the memes themselves have no intrinsic preference for where in the hospiote spectrum they find themselves. Because we try to select good ideas and reject bad ones, there is an overall trend for obviously good ideas to do better than obviously bad ideas when it comes to finding new hosts, but a harmful meme that can get around our cognitive filters can spread just as well as a helpful meme that utilizes a strategy of mutual beneficiality. Indeed, there are circumstances where such memes will spread more rapidly than their symbiotic competitors.7

At this point, we can cautiously bring religion into the discussion. Religions can be viewed as hospiïtic meme-complexes. I wish to note that I am taking pains to use neutral terminology. This is, unfortunately, an especial necessity given that many meme-theorists go out of their way to describe religion as a viral complex (indeed, Dawkins, who is definitely not friendly towards religion, titled his essay on religious memes Viruses of the Mind). I believe that neutral language is necessary for developing a proper memetic theory of religion. A given religion may well be disadvantages to a given host (like an encouragement to smoke), neutral (like a jingle) or beneficial (like a warning against poison ivy). In fact, the very same religious meme-complex may be beneficial towards one individual and detrimental towards another depending on how that given individual reacts to it.

The advantage of viewing religions as meme-complexes is that we are freed from the necessity of having to presume that religion needs to be a biological adaptation or that it needs to serve any necessarily positive role in human society. Memes exist to spread memes. What strategies they use to do so are only constrained by the set of strategies that would be successful for the task.

If we hypothesize that religions are meme complexes, we need only presume that, at some point in the distant past, some certain proto-religious memes developed. Perhaps these were some sort of crude belief in an afterlife or a belief that certain natural forces had personalities. Whatever the case may be, all that matters is that those early memes were at least moderately successful at spreading themselves. Once we have that, the fact that they are replicators means that they will evolve via the mechanisms of natural selection.

The critical thing is that those religious memes and (eventually) meme-complexes that were better at a) finding new hosts and b) preventing rival memes and meme-complexes from co-opting those same hosts would be selected for. Those memes that weren't able to compete died out. In the simplest possible terms, this means that religion, once started, wouldn't only continue to persist in human populations, but that religion, over time, would become a more and more powerful influence among humans as those religions that were better at finding and keeping believers would out-compete those that weren't.

One corollary to this can be found in observations of how bacteria evolve in the presence of anti-bacterial agents. When an anti-bacterial agent is initially introduced into a population of bacteria, the bacteria initially experience a die-off. However, any mutant bacteria that survive the initial onslaught will eventually repopulate the environment, passing their anti-bacterial resistance to their descendants. In meme-pools, the same effect can be predicted. An idea that might initial serve to inhibit certain strains of memes (say, Enlightenment-style skepticism towards traditional Christianity) may initially inhibit the population. Those memes that are resistant to the new inhibitor, however, will quickly replace the original meme-strains (as happened with post-Enlightenment Christianity). This means that we not only have a hypothesis that allows us to account for the persistence of religion in the past, but a positive prediction that religion will continue to persist throughout the foreseeable future.

One final advantage of viewing religions as meme-complexes is that different religions can use different strategies to spread themselves, so long as their strategies are successful enough to continue leveraging them into the future. As such, some religious meme-complexes may utilizes such strategies as evangelization while others may "prefer" a strategy of generational indoctrination and others, still, may tend towards individual mystical revelations (and so on). Given this, meme theory, while giving us a unified theory of religion does not require us to have a unified account of how religions persist. Each religion can be considered a distinct case, just as every species of animal represents a distinct solution to the problems of animal survival. Where our other hypotheses may imply that all religions are fundamentally alike (having a common adaptive or social function, for instance), meme theory allows for given religions to be fundamentally different from one another.

This, at long last, brings us to our bullet for The Memetic Hypothesis:
  • Religion persists because religious ideas are memes. Once religious memes arise in the human population, selective pressures will favor those religious memes and meme-complexes that are better at propagating themselves against rival ideas and other cognitive obstacles.
This will conclude this next-to-last installment of the essay. In the next installment I will briefly consider one set of hypotheses that I will not be granting any bullets and will explain why I won't be doing so. I will then give final consideration to the hypotheses that we have explored. In doing so, I shall draw this essay to a conclusion.

There is, indeed, a light at the end of the tunnel. I'll see you next week.8

1 A similar, and equally implausible suggestion is that predators serve their prey species by weeding out the old and the sick. While that does tend to happen, it is not because lions (for instance) are being altruistic towards gazelles. The reason that the old and the sick tend to be the ones caught is simply because they are the easiest to catch. The proof that there is no inherent altruism in predation can be found in the simple observation that along with the old and the sick, predators also catch young animals in disproportionate numbers.

2 The HOX gene complex in animals is an example of a genuinely persistent gene. All animals have HOX genes, which indicates that we inherited them from the common ancestor of all animal-kind, meaning that they extend back into the Precambrian.

3 Please note that I am not using bit in the formal sense of being a single unit of information that is either true or false.

4 The memes are not, of course, themselves socialists. They merely represent bits and pieces of socialist dogma.

5 Meme-complexes are also sometimes called memeplexes. Although the word memeplex is certainly catchy, I think that it's bit too cute for my taste, so I'll stick with the compound term.

6 People often get confused by the difference between memes and the physical expression of those memes. A gene-complex (i.e., DNA) is a coded set of information for creating an organism. The actual organism is the gene-complexe's physical expression in the world. A dog is not its DNA, nor is dog DNA a dog. A meme-complex is a set of ideas that can be spread between individuals. Such a complex may find expression of those ideas in the real world. The "Porsche" meme-complex is not an actual Porsche. A Porsche is not the Porsche meme-complex. The production of physical Porches, however, does aid the dissemination of the Porsche memes (just as dog bodies help spread dog genes).

7 One of the most striking examples of this happened to the Xhosa. The Xhosa were an African tribe suffering from the effects of European colonialism. In the mid-1800's a self-proclaimed prophetess told the other members of the tribe that she had received a revelation. Her revelation was that if the Xhosa killed their own cattle and stopped plowing their fields, the dead would come back to life and that the Europeans would be expelled from their lands. Because of the desperate circumstances of the Xhosa, this idea rapidly spread through the Xhosa population, resulting in a wholesale slaughter of cattle. Because of this, the Xhosa succumbed to famine and were forced to throw themselves on the mercies of the Europeans who separated and assimilated the survivors, effectively ending the existence of the Xhosa as an independent culture.

8 There is a lot more to meme-theory than I have been able to touch on. For a fuller exploration, I would suggest starting at the Wikipedia entry on memes. The Principia Cybernetica is another excellent starting point.

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