Is Christmas a Virus?

Look around you at the hurrying crowds. Rain whips like shrapnel past shop doorways; the shoppers hunch into the approaching Christmas as if it were shell fire stamping over the horizon. Each one of them knows that they are buying things that are not much wanted or appreciated for prices much higher than they need pay in a fortnightís time. Surely these people are possessed, or perhaps victims of some terrible and contagious infection of the mind? Looking at people as puppets of alien desires is easy and may be natural: Once, when I was giving up smoking, I watched people smoking but saw instead the cigarettes consuming the smokers, so that the smoke would pop out of their lungs for a look around the world and then return like a submarine to the controlling depths.

Talk of possession is common in all sorts of religious language and folk psychology. Often it makes a lot of sense: anyone who has spent time around an alcoholic will have felt often that they are dealing with an intelligent and self-willed drug and not a human being. Some fundamentalist Christian sects have elevated it to the status of dogma: one of the most treasured volumes on my nutter shelf is by Bill Surbritzky, a New Zealander who exorcises from his followers the demon of nicotine, as well as the demons of oral sex and intellectualism. But is this view of motivation scientific? Is it any more than a figure of speech?

Certainly the idea that religions themselves are "viruses of the mind" has been widely propagated (has propagated itself widely?) ever since the Selfish Gene appeared in 1976. Itís a tremendously catchy one, and in many ways illuminating. Unfortunately, the catchiest part of it, the idea of "viruses" is also the most misleading. Of all the biological things that religions might be like, a virus is the most unlikely.

The idea that culture is like biology is I think embedded into all the language we use, from "culture" to "mental life". And itís a good one. The way in which languages change imperceptibly over time into distinct languages which cannot be mutually understood was one of the things that made the transformation of species one into distinct ones that cannot interbreed seem more likely in the nineteenth century. Obviously there are deep and important similarities and five secondsí further thought will show that there are important ways in which they are not alike. There does seem to be something like an ecology of ideas, in the sense that any idea, to flourish, needs to be embedded in a whole system of others. But talking about viruses of the mind, or about memes, goes rather further than this. It assumes that the important likeness between biology and culture is that there are selection processes operating in both, on things that are like genes, and that these control us without our knowledge.

This comes from an exalted view of the importance of genes, a perspective from which the individual matters hardly at all. The Selfish Gene is amongst other things a manifesto of the confidence among theoretical biologists that they had the mathematical foundations of a theory which would explain all sorts of complexities in animal behaviour by asking what it did for the genes involved, rather than the animals. At the same time itís obvious that human beings do all sorts of things that are not specified by their genes, and that different human societies have found very different ways of satisfying and expressing desires. Thereís nothing genetic about Father Christmas as opposed to the Christmas Troll or even the Lord of Misrule. So if our bodies and emotions were the products of genes, perhaps our minds were the products of something else, whether Ďmemesí or Ďvirusesí.

Now some of this is harmless speculation and some of it might actually be going somewhere. If you are committed to the view that things like genes must be responsible for all the complexity of the world, then imagining things like cultural genes at least lets you admit that humans are cultural creatures and that the complexities of the worlds we make cannot be read off our genes. And there are some selection processes going on in culture that are very like the "arms races" observed in biology. Arms races among humans, for instance; or the development of advertising techniques matched against the development of advertising-evasion techniques by their prospective targets. The trouble is that in almost all this language of memes or viruses is used as if real problem facing a theory of culture was to explain why people sometimes do things apparently against their own interest, like Christmas shopping or getting marytered.

This is, I think, because the architects of selfish gene theory thought the most serious problem they faced was what they called altruism: the tendency (most obvious among bees and ants) for an animal to suffer or die for its fellows when Darwinian theory seemed to demand that an animal look after its own interests at all times, or be selfish. By analysing what has happening at the level of genes, rather than ants or humans, they were able to show that this behaviour would spread even at the cost of some of the ants who carried it out, provided it benefited relatives enough. The existence of unselfish ants is explained by the existence selfish ant genes. Similarly, the impulses that lead a soldier to return into shellfire to bring out a wounded comrade have spread because hominid fighters who love each other and hate their enemies will eventually exterminate rivals who merely hate their enemies more than each other ó providing the contending troops are made up of relatives.

The point is, surely, that this does solve the problem of altruism, or at least it explains completely why we can have genuinely altruistic emotions. You donít need another explanation on top of that for why people deliberately do things that will damage them ó and if theyíre not done deliberately, then stupidity will explain this, as much else. You donít need to invent malevolent mind-viruses that will make people do crazy things. Yet this has been the main use so far of "meme" or "virus" language. If you track it across the Internet, where it widespread, it is mostly used by clever people as a way to explain away things that they canít be bothered to understand sympathetically. Iíve just spent the weekend driving around Belfast, where a memeticist would no doubt see all sorts of memes at work, driving people to paint huge murals on the sides of their houses or hang flags on the lamp-posts. Since there is no gene for painting murals of King William of Orange, the people who do it must the victims of wicked memes, which must be driven out of them.

Put like that, the falsity of the argument should be obvious. Calling religions or anything else you disagree with viruses of the mind simply dehumanises their possessors. A memetic analysis of Northern Ireland would simply mean that you studied the Catholics with the cold hostility of Protestants and vice versa. This is not a technique which has changed things much in the past. The people who paint murals do so for their own good reasons, not because the murals told them to do it; even Christmas shoppers are their for human reasons. A tendency to dehumanise people is as much a part of our make-up as the ability to humanise paintings. Thereís no need to encourage it by talking about mind-viruses.