I was watching some Dan Dennett the other night, he is sometimes called one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism along with Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the now passed Christopher Hitchens. The video was about his book, now a few years old, called ‘Breaking the Spell’.
(I will link the video at a future date. Right now, my internet is on the fritz.)
The idea, and I’m sure philosophy lovers won’t consider it a new one, is that of memetic fitness. That is, the evolutionary history of ideas, how they go from a pure thought to something that is global, and what that means for religion. Considering religion is often called a virus of the mind, the implications are interesting.
There are aspects of what he says that despite the strength of the whole theory, ring true. For instance, the birth of an idea often comes from a snap reaction. We see a shadow, something passes by us, we hear a noise, and our brain jumps to a conclusion. That conclusion, no matter how ridiculous, from it being a person to it being the end of existence as we know it, is a new life in our brain. That life may pass in seconds, we may forget we ever thought anything, or we could repeat the idea, reinforce it, that meme having generations of ‘life’ inside of our mind until new instances and thoughts help it mutate and grow into something new.
As a writer, I am willing to run with that theory. Basic thoughts are born, and soon they mutate into grand ideas that merge with others in our minds, become complicated memetic lifeforms. They can spread to other minds through simple transfer, being told to someone else, being read in a book, seen on screen. It doesn’t take much more than that for an idea to spread.
So what about memetic fitness? That idea would be that just like the fitness of evolution, not every change in an idea helps it. Sometimes an idea doesn’t change enough, and it becomes boring, useless, and left behind. A meme is fit when it can occupy a mind, when a brain has enough use to keep it around. Do you call on it often? Does it amuse you? Does it make you want to smile or dance? Has it protected you? Relieved you?
So when you first heard the macarena, it might not have struck you as useful. Another tune? The beat is ‘meh’, there are other catchy tunes like it. Then the dance was introduced to you, a new version, a stronger and more violent strain of that terrifying virus known as the Macarena. Now it has a purpose in your brain, now it occupies it, lives there and grows. Eeeh Macarena!
When writing, when creating art, memetic fitness could be useful. What story can you create that is powerful enough to take up space in someone’s mind? Will powerful characters do the trick? Maybe sayings and lines that are beautiful enough to be recalled and spread? Does already identifiable memes help the memetic fitness of a work? Is the Red Crosse Knight more memorable because of the Christian elements attached? King Arthur? I bet it is, but those elements allow it to tell a larger story with elements that require deep examination.
As for religion itself, if religion was ever a wild meme, that time was thousands upon thousands of years ago. Once they are born from the gremlins and demons of individuals, combined to form folktales and legends, they grow from there. Dan speaks about some of the possible uses religion could have had for a mind, even in this tribal state. My favorite is ‘super-duper coin flipper’. When you want to make a decision, or a choice is hard, who better to ask than imaginary figures? Rattle some bones, look into tea leaves, and if you see an answer there you have made your choice, and you have someone to blame if things go wrong. Why not just flip a coin? Who would flip a coin for a really important decision? That is just silly.
Now though, once a religion has matured (and many religions have matured and died off over time), they are no longer wild, but domesticated. Unlike the wild things of the past, mutating when a farmer sees a new demon, growing when a king has a new law to set down, a domesticated religion is being forced to breed like a modern cow. We breed for strength, for survivability, for usefulness. In this way you take the strong breeding stock of the Christian Labrador, and it will continue to work for society, protect those who need it, comfort children, and look beautiful. If you want, you could also try to force another breed, like the Mormon yorkshire teacup. They couldn’t survive long in the wild, but they don’t have to, society has good uses for them.
The important note is while useful, memetic fitness implies that the organism (in this case a thought) is in it for itself. Not to imply it is alive, but that only ideas that are built to spread themselves can compete in similar fields. If you’ve ever wondered why Christianity is so dominant, you don’t need to wonder. It breeds well, as does its cousin Islam. In comparison, faiths like Jainism or the tribal faiths of Australian Aboriginals, they cannot keep up. They haven’t had the time to adapt, they don’t have as many shepherds, as many fields, and they are not designed to spread like a rodent.