on religions as viruses

It is probably safe to apologise now for a crime I committed nearly seven years go, in this very spot. I published something I knew to be rubbish, on the grounds that the readers were less important than the author. Actually, it was worse than that. The man I was trying to influence was neither reader nor author, but a lecherous homosexual who had designs on the author. He was in possession of some information I very badly wanted about the man who was in love with him. So I held my nose, and published a piece of turgid waffle about cultural evolution by a handsome young Australian schoolmaster. In due course his admirer came up with the goods. Such are the hidden depths of theological journalism.

The subject won't go away, though. The fashion for treating ideas as if they were viruses, or parasites of the mind is spreading through some very smart minds indeed. Daniel Dennett, Susan Blackmore, and Richard Dawkins have all been infested to a greater or lesser degree. None of them are entirely consistent in this usage: their own theories tend to be called "ideas", whereas those of their opponents are merely "memes", "infestations" or "viruses of the mind". This phenomenon points to one of the weaknesses of the idea. If all ideas, and all mental and cultural life, are in fact the product of millions of tiny wriggling memes, then this applies as much to true ideas as to bad ones: truth and falsehood are both viruses propagating in the human brains. Not just my arguments, but also yours, and indeed your personality as you read them are all no more than a swarm of memes; and this is a step which few proponents of the theory are willing to take.

The idea that memes exist is not based on observation obviously. It seems to be based on reasoning something like this:

But there are some fairly large holes in this syllogism. For one thing it is not at all clear that our mental life is the same sort of thing as life outside our heads. Most of the sensations from which thought arises are far too vague and blurry to be regarded as discrete things of the sort which populate the outside world. The human mind is not filled with fully articulated ideas manoeuvring around like well-drilled ants. Introspection reveals something more like a soup of amoebae. It may be full of movement and life, but it is very hard to say exactly what is moving, nor how many of these whats there are: they are constantly splitting and recombining.

One good reason for this difference between inner and outer worlds is that our mental life is not made up of things at all, in the sense that the outside world is. What we are aware of are not things but representations. There is plenty of evidence now of the huge amount of sub-conscious and pre-conscious processing that these representations undergo before we are conscious of them. There is no reason to suppose that these representations should mirror the processes by which what they represent became complex. The theory of evolution did not evolve in the same way that the natural world it describes evolved.

This is not to deny that human ideas are in some sense a biological phenomenon. They are produced by brains, which have evolved in a Darwinian world, and are dependent on them. But they do not follow Darwinian rules in any very interesting sense, any more than they follow physical or chemical laws in any very interesting sense. Darwinian complexity arises in things that obey the laws of physics and chemistry, yet everything that is interesting about it comes from different rules, superimposed on the original ones. Similarly, consciousness arise in Darwinian beings, but its contents is interesting when it obeys non-Darwinian rules.

To play in evolutionary competition you need to be born, to die, and to reproduce yourself fairly accurately. It's not at all clear that ideas, or even languages do any of these things. Rather they shift constantly into one another: their characters blend and they inherit all sorts of acquired characteristics

Specifically, the sort of evolution we find in ideas, languages, and culture generally contains two features which modern Darwinianism explicitly rejects. They show blending inheritance, and the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Blending inheritance is what Richard Dawkins would call analogue, rather than digital. In the biological world, it would mean that when a black cat mated with a white cat, their progeny would be grey, and not, as they are, black, white, or black and white. Applied to the chain of reasoning, it means that we are not dealing with "slightly inaccurate self-replicating entities"

They do evolve, nor that they form an ecology, into which new ideas can only appear by displacing some old ones and accommodating themselves to others

 
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