What is Religion?: Memes, Religions, and Organism

So far we’ve talked about how religion is all of the following things:

  1. Religion is a cultural unit of transmission that is replicated much like a gene. That is to say, religion is a meme.
  2. The adherents of a religion are the resource used to replicate the meme.
  3. In most cases, the meme a religion replicates is rooted heavily in a set of beliefs about certain truth claims. Often, as in the case of the LDS Church, it’s a set of beliefs and truth claims about a narrative that answers difficult questions about life and gives people a feeling of connection and purpose.
  4. Religion is a subset of a larger family of memes that we could call ‘meaning-memes.’ They are memes rooted in our biological sense of morality and create a reason to live (and sometimes a reason to die) by giving us a sense of purpose and meaning in our lives.

I want to emphasize that as far as the theory of memes goes, genes and memes are not intended to be mere analogy. The epistemological claim being made is that memes are an actual unit of information that Darwin’s natural selection applies to and the same laws are followed. In principle this means that memes can be understood and measured through some future information theory,  though we don’t yet know how using our current theories.

Elsewhere, I talked about the ‘organism’ for a meme. Now to be clear, I did intend this as just an analogy. Memes literally obey the laws of natural selection, but they do not literally have an exact equivalent to a biological organism.

Biological vs Memetic Organisms

In the biological world genes replicate themselves by creating what Richard Dawkins called giant lumbering robots whose purpose is to replicate the information contained in the genes. We call these robots either phenotypes or organisms. We are examples of such organisms.

In the case of religion, what is the meme ‘equivalent’ to the organism?

This question is analogical at best. Most memes probably don’t have any equivalent to an organism. But that’s okay, because many genes don’t have an organism either. (Like, say, viruses.)

As Physicist David Deutsch points out (in The Beginning of Infinity, Chapter 15 “The Evolution of Culture.” This is a must read book, by the way.) memes exist in the brain and in the nervous system, but also in a behavior form. The way a meme is copied from mind to mind is by getting someone else to replicate certain behaviors.

The upshot of this is that memes necessarily become embodied in two different physical forms alternative: as memories in the brain, and as behaviors. (p. 376)

So it shouldn’t suprise us that memes don’t necessarily have an equivalent to an organism.

On the other hand, since memes obey the same laws of natural selection, it shouldn’t suprise us that in some cases memes do have an ‘organism’ of sorts. It’s hard to miss that schools and universities play a role very similar to a biological organism that is meant to replicate certain sets of memes.

And in the specific case of religion, there is often something very similar to an organism involved too: a Church organiation. This seems to be a pretty good analogy in the case of the LDS Church, in any case. (And, yes, Correlation plays a very important role here that has a pretty direct biological analogy. Can you see what it is?)

So let’s map between gene and meme equivalents:  The LDS Church’s “genes” is our religious narrative. The Church organization is the phenotype or organism. The people that make up the Church are like the proteins or cells that build the organism. They are the ‘colony of cells’ that make up the geshtalt organism.

But What Exactly Constitutes an Organism in the Biological World?

This brings up an interesting scientific question. What, exactly, represents an organism?

The truth is that the concept of ‘an organism’ is difficult to precisely define. Without getting into too much detail — after all whole books have been written on these subjects — in the world of biology the genes in DNA can spread themselves in basically any way that works. There is no right or wrong way to go about it per se. A virus that hijacks cells in a human body has no organism in the usual sense. Yet it still has an effective strategy for replicating itself using the organism built by competing genes.

Making things less clear are ‘animals’ that seem to us more like a collection of animals rather than a single animal. The Man-o-war is an example of this. To our eyes, it looks like a single animal. But scientists insist it’s really a colony of animals.

Confused by this concept, I once tried to figure out what, exactly, were the individual animals that made up such ‘colonies.’ It turns out that often some of the parts of the colony can and do exist alone as a single animal. But other parts of the ‘colony’ can’t. So can we really say it’s a ‘colony’?

The real truth is that parts of the ‘colony’ are separate animals in the sense that they can exist as a single organism. Other parts of the ‘colony’ are simply specialized adaptions to support that rest of the colony.

This isn’t so different than our own body. In evolutionary theory all organisms are descendants from single celled animals. The theory is that these single cells, through evolution, adapted to live as colonies. Eventually these colonies started to specialize and where therefore unable to exist separate from each other any more. Flash forward a few million or billion years and at some point the merger between the separate single-celled animals was so complete that it was convenient to stop thinking of these single celled animals as a ‘colony’ and instead thing of them as a single large macro organism. But in reality, our bodies are still in some legitimate sense a colony of single celled animals, but just with such great specialization of the cells that they can’t exist for long on their own any more.

Given this progression from single celled animals to macro organisms, it is not surprising at all that there are animals that haven’t (or had no need to) make that transition all the way. Therefore the line between a macro-organism and a single-celled animal is more a matter of human convenience in language more so than some ontological reality.

Also, think of insect colonies like ants. It’s not mere analogy that we call ant colonies ‘super organisms.’ The way their DNA replicates allows for the ants to specialize in ways very similar to our body’s cells but with the added innovation that now they aren’t even touching each other.

Parasites and Hosts

Even the difference between a ‘parasite’ and its host can be difficult to separate. For example, there is good evidence that viruses often started out life as legitimate genes in the human body and many genes that today we think of as part of the human genome started out as virus. (p. 247) Or consider an ‘organism’ like lichen. It’s actually two organisms, one of which is a plant and the other a fungi. But they never grow separately because they are dependent on each other.

What Makes a Gene “Part of the Organism”?

Richard Dawkins suggests a startling explanation for what constitutes an organism: it’s caused by having the genes in the DNA share a method of replication! He gives some fascinating examples of how this works in real life.

An example of what is clearly a ‘parasite’ is crabs and Sacculina.

[Sacculina] drives an elaborate root system into the tissues of the unfortunate crab, and sucks the nourishment from its body. It is probably no accident that among the first organs that it attacks are the crab’s testicles or ovaries; it spares the organs that the crab needs to survive – as opposed to reproduce – till later. …rich pickings for the parasite at the expense of the crab’s reproduction. (The Selfish Gene, p. 243)

 But then consider the example of the flukes and snails. Dawkins points out that flukes are a parasite that seems to be helping the snail. The fluke causes the snail to grow a thicker shell. Now shells protect snails and also protect the parasitic fluke inside the snail. Win win, right?

Helping the Organism vs. Helping the Gene

Hardly! Because it in fact the fluke requires more resources to create that thicker shell. The organism, that is to say the snail itself, is more likely to live longer. But it’s also less likely to reproduce due to the expenditure of the additional resources in the thicker shell.

All these resources, if they were not spent on making a shell substance, could be spent on something else such as making more offspring. A snail that spends lots of resources on making an extra-thick shell has bought safety for its own body. But at what cost? It may live longer, but it will be less successful at reproducing and may fail to pass on its genes. … So, when a fluke makes a snail secrete an extra thick shell, the fluke is not doing the snail a good turn…. It may be prolonging the snail’s life. But it is not helping the snail’s genes. …Both snail genes and fluke genes stand to gain from the snail’s bodily survival, all other things being equal. But survival is not the same as reproduction and there is likely to be a trade-off. Whereas snail genes stand to gain from the snail’s reproduction, fluke genes don’t. This is because any given fluke has no particular expectation that its genes will be housed in its present host’s offspring. They might be, but so might those of any of its fluke rivals. Given that snail longevity has to be bought at the cost of some loss in the snail’s reproductive success, the fluke gens are ‘happy’ to make the snail pay that cost, since they have no interest in the snail’s reproducing success. (The Selfish Gene, p. 241)

So Dawkins comes up with a theory about what constitutes a parasite vs. what constitutes a true member of the organism.

I suggest that the most important question to ask about any parasite is this. Are its genes transmitted to future generations via the same vehicle as the host’s genes? If they are not, I would expect it to damage the host, in one way or another. But if they are, the parasite will do all that it can to help the host, not only to survive but to reproduce. Over evolutionary time it will cease to be a parasite, will cooperate with the host, and may eventually merge into the host’s tissues and become unrecognizable as a parasite at all. (The Selfish Gene, p. 243)

Dawkins even suggests that this may explain how viruses come into existence. A human gene might mutate in such a way that it can now replicate without using the normal means (i.e. sexual reproduction.) That gene will no longer have the ‘incentive’ to not harm the ‘host’ and will soon be a full-fledged parasite.

Likewise, the reverse can happen where a virus’ genes get inserted into a sperm or egg cell and due to a mutation it turns out that it can only replicate itself through sexual reproduction. It will soon cease to be a parasite and will become part of the organism.

Implications of Religions as Memes?

So what does this have to do with memes? Remember that genes are just information that is transmitted through DNA strands. Memes are information transmitted through cultural transmission. They are really the same thing in different forms. The laws that apply to genes – that of Darwinian natural selection — also apply to memes. Again, I emphasize that in the theory we are not talking about analogies between genes and memes. They are, in some sense, two forms of the same thing: information. And both must follow the laws of natural selection.

So to summarize, the LDS Church’s narrative is its memes. The Church structure is the organism. The organism is made up of a ‘colony’ of individuals who formed a group for two reasons: 1) to replicate the meme (i.e. the Gospel narrative and ordinances in the case of the LDS Church), 2) because doing this creates meaning in their lives.

As mentioned in a previous post, the memes that are closest to each other are the ones that are the most competitive. That explains why Evangelicals fear Mormons more than Atheists. It’s literally because the two religions are so similar and therefore are more directly competing for the exact same resources. (In this case, the religious adherents.)

If this hypothesis of religious memetics is correct, there are a number of seeming mysteries that suddenly have an explanation. And there are numerous implications of the hypothesis, some ‘bad’ and some ‘good.’ At the risk of a “just so’ story, can you suggest ways to connect this hypothesis to actual observation?

2 thoughts on “What is Religion?: Memes, Religions, and Organism

  1. This is a very interesting theory, but there is something about this metaphor that doesn’t work for me. I think it’s because I don’t believe that the fundamental motivations for religions have to do with mortal survival and reproduction.

    For example, how do you define Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac within the meme construct? How do you explain the celibacy of the Shakers, the crusades, monasticism, polygamy, and other self-defeating behaviors? I think the fact that religions have often been responsible for the perplexing wars and destruction of the world is evidence that religion operates under a different set of rules than the works of nature.

    As the Book of Mormon says, the dust of the earth obeys the will of the Lord, (the laws of nature), but man does not. Man partook of the forbidden fruit, and has since been interested in something beyond mere survival and replication. His religious constructs are not a response to instinctual urges to replicate, but a response to the mystery and meaninglessness of a life destined to end at death. Religion seeks transcendence after death, not prolongation and propagation of life. Because that post-death transcendence is a mystery and not a self-evident reality, religion often behaves in strange and self-defeating ways as it gropes towards something it can only perceive through the eyes of faith.

    I think that religions can be perhaps perceived in a kind of pragmatic way, like a meme, which leads it’s adherents to a prosperous, abundant life, which propagates and multiplies itself. But I think this is the view of the flesh, not of the spirit. The path of Christ was the mortification of the flesh, and the life of the spirit, being martyred for a kingdom not of this world, and a path of sacrifice.

    There is the phrase in the Proclamation on the Family, “Happiness is most likely to be achieved when founded upon…” This makes Mormonism sound like just another meme, simply operating under the laws of Natural Selection. And I admit, there are many Mormons see it only in this way, assuming that all their prosperity is a result of following the natural laws of God, and everyone else’s suffering is a result of their disobedience. But I don’t think that was the message of Christ, who told Peter, “when you are old, another shall gird thee, and take thee to a place thou wouldst not go, speaking of the manner of his death.”

  2. “I think that religions can be perhaps perceived in a kind of pragmatic way, like a meme, which leads it’s adherents to a prosperous, abundant life, which propagates and multiplies itself. But I think this is the view of the flesh, not of the spirit”

    Yes. I agree with basically eveything you say.

    My view is that we should expect both sides to be true. Religion should, on average, provide real pragmatic benefits here and now. This may not be true for every case (you give several examples) but on average it would be difficult to imagine religion having no real benefits for real human beings and yet persisting as it does.

    But those benefits are (usually for religion) based on explanations of what comes after life. And my hypothesis that it ‘provides meaning’ (amongst many other benefits I’d imagine) is, of course, disconnected from temporal benefits in the usual sense. So I basically agree with you. Religion is ‘unique’ in terms of ‘evolutionary benefits’ and is not like other types of benefits. (Though I would expect it’s evolutionary benefits to be measurable and demonstratable.)

Comments are closed.