Some months ago, I was talking to my friend Paul about Richard Dawkins’s meme theory. Like so many people, he seemed to have missed the core concept of the theory, which makes it in any way worthwhile as anything other than analogy. I sought to remedy this, but somehow forgot to send the bloody thing after writing it. Finding it on my laptop earlier this evening, I decided to put a bit of polish on it, post it here, and invite Paul and others to discuss it here.
Now, let us leave aside, for the moment, discussions as to whether or not this theory is correct. This is a worthwhile discussion to have, and one which I will be happy to have at some other time, but at the moment, I see it as a distraction and an obstruction.
Meme theory was introduced, as you may know, as an adjunct to the study of genetics. The point of doing so was to look at these memes as an alternate form of self-replicator, much akin to genes. Genes are not conscious, and do not consciously make decisions in order to advance themselves, protect themselves, or to adapt themselves to changing situations, but the successful ones will create, in the bodies which they build in order to propagate themselves, systems, organs, and tissues which will serve to protect them and ensure their successful transmission to a next generation of bodies.
Memes, likewise, are not conscious, and do not make conscious decisions to advance, protect, or adapt themselves, but the successful ones will create behaviours, beliefs, and cultural mores to protect themselves and ensure their successful transmission to new minds.
Let me illustrate by way of example.
The Albigensians were a peaceful and reclusive culture of christians living in France in the middle ages. The meme structure of albigensianism (if you will) included many lesser memes, which could not survive or reproduce in isolation any more than a white blood cell can survive or reproduce in isolation, but which served the greater body of albigensianism. Among these were the meme "We are the bodily descendants of Jesus Christ; he had children before his ascent to heavan, and we are their offspring". Another meme was "All things material are evil, and all things spiritual are good. Therefore, we will own no more than we need in order to survive, as material excess is sinful".
Now, the Albigensians lived in isolation, way out in the boonies. They were remote and removed enough from catholicism for this memetic specieization to take place, and for the meme-structure of albigensianism to thrive, since in those isolated areas, it had no competition.
However, there came a time when the more aggressive predator which was Catholicism came into contact with the peaceful and sedentary albigensianism. This had the effect of a breeding population of wolves being placed on an island of dodo birds. Catholicism had sharp teeth like papal infallibility, and vicious claws, like the inquisition. The meek albigensianism didn’t stand a chance. The memes which comprised catholicism caused catholics to respond extremely poorly to this heresy, considering them enemies of the church, and so they moved in to convert the albigensians to their way of thinking. Thus, the memes of Catholicism attacked the memes of albigensianism, trying to claim their territory: The minds of the albigensians. The albigensians had no weapons, because the meme which told them not to amass wealth precluded the possibility of their being able to afford them. This meme was like the genes of the dodo which had caused wings to diminish beyond the point at which they could keep the bird aloft; a mutation which would be survivable only in the absence of competition or predation. Thus, the meme-structure of albigensianism was ill-equipped to protect itself against the organism of Catholicism, which had meme of the mandated the forceful conversion or execution of heretics at this time.
As such, very soon, the meme structure of albigensianism was wiped out. Those who did not convert were killed. Thus, the meme structure had claimed the territory and resources of its competitor – the minds and bodies of the albigensians – and ensured that it would not have this competitor for resources in the quest for continued competition.
Two species come into contact in a previously isolated territory. In this territory, there are limited resources, which these two species are in direct competition for. The meaner and more competitive one destroys the weaker one, and claims the territory for itself. Natural selection. The memes themselves never made any decisions. All they did was provide the belief-structures and behavioural framework to cause the two organisms which they had created – the catholic community and the albigensian community – to perform certain tasks and functions. The one with the memes for deadlier traits won.
Martin Luther nails a list of declarations to the door of a church in Germany. These declarations are, if not new memes per se, then a new means of these memes to replicate themselves. A mutation. The culture in this region was insular enough to allow specieization to take place (though not without strife!). This new, mutant strain of Catholicism, which is called Protestantism, or Lutheranism, contains memes not found in the parent-organism. The two strains do battle for the territory which is the minds of the parishioners, each trying to supplant one another. The meme structure of Protestantism is hearty; certainly meaner than the Albigensian meme structure was. More survivable. It persists to this very day. Like hyenas and lions locked in constant struggle with one another over territory on the plains of Africa, these two predators constantly vie for one another’s turf.
Memes are not always passive. Sometimes they are. Sometimes, like spores carried by air currents, they drift, and fall where they may. But many of the larger, more rugged and survivable memes are better-adapted, having evolved many traits which will allow them to take and hold territory, fend of competitors, stave off the diseases of doubt and internal dissent, and ensure successful replication over the course of many years, many generations.
Dawkins calls religion a virus of the mind, making reference to its capacity to invade an existing idea structure, such as a culture, and use the existing structures of that culture to replicate itself, often to the detriment of the host organism (parenthetically, I feel his choice of the use of the pejorative term ‘virus’ is informed by his overall feelings on religion, and his perceived role as an enemy thereof. I don’t necessarily disagree, in principle, though I don’t know how useful it is in this debate). I make reference to it here as a predator. Really, neither is entirely accurate, because the "ecosystem" of human minds is not precisely analogous to the world’s physical ecosystem. In order to study and discuss this theory meaningfully, you would need to create a new vocabulary (just as the word "meme" had to be coined in order to even be able to frame the discussion). It is nevertheless instructive to think of the concept of memes in these terms so as to provide the logical framework necessary to envision what Dawkins saw when he first proposed the idea: Another variety of self-replicators, which are not so very unlike our own genes that we cannot see in the way they ‘live’ a parallel to our own biological systems.
(X-posted here: http://community.livejournal.com/richarddawkins/5129.html )