“Gott und Gen” – Basel, February 2007

The God Meme – Why Faith is So Infectious

This conference is searching for the biological basis of religiosity. I suggest two answers:

First, we are surrounded by religious memes that have evolved over thousands of years to be extremely infectious and to resist most forms of memetic immunity in their hosts. Therefore most people get infected with a religion early in their life and few are able to throw off the infection.

Second, religious memes have been around, in simpler forms, for most of human evolution, giving ample time for the memetic driving of human genes.

As a result of these two processes, religious memes have succeeded in creating meme machines that are especially good at storing them and passing them on. We humans are religious because the memes have made us so.

I shall begin by explaining the concept of memes, how it was invented by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, and how it is defined. The idea begins with Universal Darwinism – the idea that whenever you have something (some kind of information) that is copied with variation and selection then you must get evolution. This applies not just to genes (which are chemical information copied within cells) but also to everything that we copy from person to person in culture. So memes include skills, habits, stories, songs, and technologies. Anything which is copied from person to person, or person to book or computer, is a meme. Anything you learn by yourself for yourself cannot be. Most species cannot have memes because they are not capable of imitation.

I shall show some funny examples of memes, such as the triangular folded toilet roll that has spread across the world, and photographs that end up in strange places.

To understand the power of memes you have to see memes a selfish replicators – that is, they are information that will spread if it can without regard for the consequences to us, our genes, or the planet. They are said to be “selfish” in exactly the same way as genes are. So we need to ask, which memes do best and why? In general the answer is that some memes spread because they are good, true, beautiful or useful, while others spread even though they are not. These are more like versus and may use a variety of tricks to get themselves copied even though they are harmful to their hosts.

I show a picture of me with brightly coloured hair as an example of a meme that did not succeed.

Examples of viral memes are chain letters and email viruses. These have a simple structure – a “copy me” instruction backed up with threats and promises. I show two examples of recent email viruses, ask who has received these in their email (I want a show of hands) and who passed them on. Why do people pass them on?

Now we turn to religions. These have precisely this same viral structure. I give examples from various religions to show how they suck up human resources, present a threat to health and happiness and yet still thrive. They use many tricks to do this: beauty (cathedrals, music etc), altruism (persuading people they are good), preventing criticism and humour (the Danish cartoons), but above all are the threats and promises (heaven and hell).

Why can’t we throw off the power of these religions? Even for rational people who do not intellectually believe in god this can be difficult. I suggest that there is a second and deeper reason why human beings are so religious, and that is that we have coevolved along with religions and they have affected our brains. This is the principle of memetic drive. I shall explain how I believe memes forced human genes to create first the big human brain, and secondly a brain especially adapted to store and pass on the memes with which it evolved. (If I have time I may ask for two volunteers to come up to the stage and do silly things, to demonstrate the difficulty of imitation). A simple example is music. Dennett imagines a hominid who first made a rhythm on wood. Others copied him and the best copiers attracted better mates. So genes for being good at banging good tunes spread in the gene pool (I may get people banging on the tables to demonstrate this). The same argument can be applied to religious behaviours – ritual, prayer, song, dressing up, idolatry and so on. If those who were best at these also attracted more mates then human brains in general would gradually become better at copying these behaviours. This is memetic drive – the direction taken by the memes forces genes to redesign the meme machine (the human being).

I conclude with a brief look at modern communications. As we communicate ever faster and further, memes are copied more quickly and religious memes come into conflict as they never have before. We may wish to throw off these dangerous memes but we should understand why this is so difficult given our long history of memetic evolution. Are we doomed?

It is the proliferation of memes that is threatening the viability of our entire planet. Religions cannot help us out of this disaster, but understand how memes operate just may help.