Memetics: Applications for the evolution of religion

English: Daniel Dennett at the 17. Göttinger L...

Many memeticists have posed religions as viruses of the mind, but Daniel Dennett reminds us they can just as well be beneficial symbionts.


Having explored the key concepts of memetics last time, we now explore its applications for the evolution of religion, as well as criticisms of the field.


Parasitic religions


From the meme’s eye view, it appears plausible that religions could be parasitic entities.  Religious behaviors may serve none of the functions proposed by the social sciences, but may instead serve the function of replicating memes.


Of course, it could just as well be the case that memes cooperate with their hosts toward mutual benefit, serving functions for both meme and gene.  Daniel Dennett reminds us that there are three types of symbiotic relationships: mutualist, commensal, and parasitic.  In a mutualist relationship, both entities benefit, as in the case of the bacteria living in the human intestine, without which we could not digest food.  In a commensal relationship, the one is at least not harmful to the other, as with barnacles growing on the sides of whales.  It is only in a parasitic relationship, such as that of flu viruses infecting humans, that harmful exploitation emerges (Dennett, 2007).  If religious memes exist in symbiosis with humans, it could take the form of a mutualist or commensal relationship, not just a parasitic one akin to a virus.




Yet the virus is exactly the model many memeticists have employed (e.g. Lynch, 1998; Brodie, 2009).  It is perhaps this paranoid-sounding analogy that has most prevented memetics from being taken seriously.  While it has attracted a wide audience among popular readers, it has made little impact on academics.  A number of other criticisms have been leveled, but Laland and Brown suggest that most of them are also true of evolutionary theory in general.  For example, memetics has been faulted for the meme’s apparent lack of clear boundaries and propensity to merge one into the other, but in all fairness it is also difficult to tell where one gene ends and another begins (Laland & Brown, 2002).


A more serious charge is that memetics does not yet account for the possibility that our minds may more readily accept some memes than others.  Something like the innate modules of evolutionary psychology may predispose us toward certain memes.


Furthermore, memetics does not yet offer a way to clearly determine the relative strengths of genetic and memetic interests.  Without the clear incorporation of genetic interests, we are left with the same problem as the standard social sciences model: the mind becomes a blank slate equally receptive to all content, with culture explaining everything and biology nothing.  A method to weigh the relative power of genes and memes in a given situation is needed.


Despite these criticisms, and poor esteem by academia, memetics shows particular promise for understanding religious change.  From the point of view of religions, which may themselves be understood as complexes of memes or memeplexes (Blackmore, 2000), replication may be maximized by employing various strategies to attract followers, who may in turn pass on the religion to offspring and others to whom they proselytize.  The functions proposed by Durkheim, Malinowski, and Geertz may be how religions attract followers at the individual or societal level.  Religions offer the fulfillment of functions in exchange for propagation, in a largely if not entirely unconscious manner akin to how flowers offer honey to a bee in exchange for the spreading of its pollen.  At the same time, religions compete against other religions to fulfill these functions.  Religions may change in order to deal with changes in functional needs of followers as well as to contend with competing religions.  In many cases, the exchange between religions and followers may be more or less equitable, i.e. a mutualist relationship.  In other cases, however, conditions may make it more profitable from the religion’s perspective to exploit its followers, resulting in a parasitic relationship.  The situation would thus be a dynamic relationship between followers and their needs on the one hand, and religions considered as memes on the other.


Something is still left out of the equation here, though.  Just because memes have their own interests does not mean they are able to overpower genes.  As suggested by the criticisms above, memetics must account for genetic influence.  The power of genes to enforce their interests may be greater than, less than, or equal to that of memes.  Further, relative power may well be different in different environments and situations.  Finally, the way that genes express their influence, whether through psychological modules that predispose humans toward certain memes, or by some other mechanism, remains to be explained.  Thus, memetics leaves our theory of religious change incomplete until genes are factored back into the picture.  An approach that responds to this problem is gene-culture coevolution.


This post continues a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.



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3 thoughts on “Memetics: Applications for the evolution of religion

  1. tmtyler says:

    In defense of the “virus” analogy, it should be pointed out that not all viruses are deleterious to humans. For example, nacteriophages kill bacteria, Cow pox infections protect against smallpox (and have been used as vaccines) and the Seneca Valley Virus specifically kills cancer cells.

    As for memetics not allowing for coevolutionary change, I think all memeticists, understand and acknowledge this – many very explicitly. E.g. Blackmore (1999) has a whole chapter titled “Meme-gene coevolution.” Meme change is often much faster than changes in human DNA – so a good first approximation is to treat genes as being static. However all parties involved understand that that isn’t the end of the story.

    Memes are alive and well in academia – but go under different names there – such as “cultural variant”. Academics often like to distinguish themselves from regular folk by using arcane terminology, complex models and obscure mathematics. Cultural evolution in academia seems to be a good example of this. Unfortunately, evolutionary theory is basically simple and easy to understand. Knowledge of cultural evolution can’t easily become a badge of prestige in academia – the subject is too basic and fundamental.

    • Erik Andrulis says:

      I know the comment wasn’t directed at me, tmtyler, but I lol’d at this, “Academics often like to distinguish themselves from regular folk by using arcane terminology, complex models and obscure mathematics.” Well, I hit on 2 out of 3 of those. But, I might add, though I’m an academic I’m just a regular folk mahself. Peace.

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