Theology and Evolutionary Psychology, Interlude (Yeah, another one): Memes and Theological Immune Systems

The Thinking Blogger meme got me thinking, well, about memes.

The idea of a meme was proposed by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene, one of the founding books in the sociobiology movement which later morphed into evolutionary psychology (which this series is about).

Dawkins invented the idea of a meme to draw a parallel between cultural evolution and evolution based on natural selection. The Selfish Gene is notorious for its reductionistic "gene's eye view" of biological evolution. In a similar way, Dawkins was looking for an analogous "unit of selection" for cultural evolution. Given that genes are units of information that replicate with high fidelity, is there something similar going on with cultural evolution? Is there a pool of competing, self-replicating, cultural "genes" that are evolving over time?

Enter the meme. Dawkins proposed in The Selfish Gene that little nuggets of cultural information might be considered the cultural equivalent of the gene. Dawkins called this unit of cultural evolution a "meme." He chose the word "meme" for two reasons. First, "meme" looks similar to "gene." Second, "meme" has its linguistic roots in the Greek word meaning "to imitate." Imitation was important for Dawkins as it functions as the means of mimetic "reproduction," the way a meme could make copies of itself and spread through a population.

Here is Dawkins' original description of the meme:

“Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothing fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation…When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of the host cell.”

In this quote we see Dawkins deploy two different metaphors, each now common in the subsequent literature:

Meme as gene.

Meme as virus.

With these two metaphors, we can unpack a bit of the meme idea. I've made the following chart for use in my classes to draw out aspects of the metaphors (you may need to click on it to enlarge it in order to read it):

I'd like to make two observations, relevant to theology, about memes.

First, why do memes propagate? We know that someone has to imitate the meme, to repeat it behaviorally or verbally. So the question is, why do people latch on to particular memes?

Think of theological memes. Why do some theological ideas "catch" and take hold in a population? This is an important issue in that some very poor theological memes have indeed taken hold. Consider this blog post from the Faith and Theology concerning Worst Theological Innovations. If you read through the comments to that post, you'll see some pretty bad theology memes. My question, as a psychologist, is why did these memes spread in the first place? What was so attractive about them?

I think there are many reasons. A full scholarly analysis is yet to be done, but I think such a project would be worth pursuing. Why? If we knew why poor memes prove so popular, we might defend ourselves against them. It would be the theological equivalent of washing your hands after you go to the bathroom. A theological prophylactic action. A theological vaccination. If we could eradicate smallpox, could we not work on eradicating bad theology?

And this goes to my second observation. If a theology meme is like a virus the meme/virus competes against the host's defenses. For viruses this is our immune system. But what constitutes a theological immune system?

Because, in my opinion, it looks like lots of people in the churches I attend have compromised theological immune systems. Any theological meme, no matter how poor, weird, or dubious, can get adopted and propagated within a church via the disease vectors of small groups and adult bible classes. Soon we have this bad theology mimetic outbreak. And you almost feel the need to quarantine your children against the epidemic ("Sally, I know your Sunday School teacher told you X, but that's not right.").

So, how do protect ourselves? How do we help improve theological immune systems? How do we help provide theological vaccinations?

Because bad theology is at epidemic proportions in America.

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10 thoughts on “Theology and Evolutionary Psychology, Interlude (Yeah, another one): Memes and Theological Immune Systems”

  1. I like the metaphor of theological memes. However, I am a bit uneasy about taking it to the level of a theological immune system. No doubt, there is much pathogenic theology out there, but who has the authoritarian position to state absolutely what is good and bad? That reminds of Foucalt's panopticon of power, and that's an arena I'd rather not be in.

    Rather, I suggest we take the microbiological example further. One of the body's best defenses is to let nonpathogenic, or even helpful microbes proliferate. These compete against the pathogenic microbes for the wealth of nutrients that the body as a host offers.

    Perhaps instead of creating a system to quarantine bad theology(which runs the risk of becoming a theological Foucaltian nightmare), we should merely host and produce as much good theology as possible in hopes that it will take root and block out the bad theology.


  2. Dave,
    That is a brilliant insight. Plus, it makes me sound hypocritical (or at least lacking insight) as that is exactly the idea behind this blog: To let ideas compete and see which thrive.

    All in all, just a fantastic point.

  3. Richard,

    In light of Girard's notions of mimetic conflict, we might want to consider how good and/or bad memes
    contribute to pathogenic social behavior--i.e. to scapegoating and sacrifice. According to Girard, "sacrificial violence" is a minimal and "divinely" blessed "vaccine" which, at least temprarily (like yearly flu vaccines), strengthens religious and social immune systems. "Eradicating" bad theology is simply another form of genocide.



  4. It seems to me that the product of evolution, whether biological or cultural, is diversity. As I was reading through the list of what people were coming up with as the worst theological innovations, I couldn't help but be struck at the variety there. Some I agreed with, some I didn't. Certainly in biology, diversity is advantageous for survival. I'm starting to think that the same is true, theologically speaking. Thus, any sort of eradication program would have the effect of limiting diversity and in effect, survival. That made me wonder if maybe the worst theological innovation is that of nonacceptance of "heresy" or heterodoxy. Perhaps, when the seeds of Christianity were sown, it would have been best to give them all a chance at first. Then, hopefully, the inherently strongest or best suited for the cultural environment will survive. I guess this is similar to Dave's point at this level.

  5. Since I haven't read much Dawkins, perhaps he addresses this somewhere, but I'd really be interested in knowing how far he's willing to go with the "meme as virus" analogy... since it seems to me that such a perspective works against Dawkins own continuing efforts to eradicate the ignorance of religion from the world. What I mean is, if religion is like a virus, and Dawkins thinks education/science are the vaccine, has consideration been given to the possibility that trying to "cure" these memes may in fact simply be creating "super-memes", much in the same way that many of the vaccines we've created (for the flu, etc) are resulting in more virulent strains of the virus? So, using Dawkins' own theory, he may be working against his own goals... anyone know whether much has been said about that? I'd love to read a scholarly article on that topic.


  6. George,
    "Eradicating" bad theology is simply another form of genocide.

    That gives me pause. Thanks.

    I think it was Augustine (or some church father) who noted that the church needs heretics. I understand the need for creeds, but I've heard some ACU bible profs float the label "heresy" as ideas are floated and its just a conversation stopper. Plus, floating the "heresy" label is kind of like Bush floating the "Crusade" label. Those two words have such bloody histories.

    That is a very interesting idea. I too would like to see some more study on the religion/meme interface but from pro-faith perspective (why should Dawkins have all the fun?). Regardless, you make a good point. Is Dawkins trying to control thoughts by replacing one set of memes he doesn't like with another set he does like? Why is this not brainwashing to some degree?

  7. "float the label "heresy" as ideas are floated and its just a conversation stopper."

    Yeah, I was actually called a heretic during Easter lunch by a fellow church member. Considering the season, I felt compelled to start a conversation on the meaning of the cross. Girard's thinking was especially poignant after being forced to watch clips from "The Passion" while listening to "O wonderful cross of Jesus." The juxtaposition was too much for me. Anyway, while the rebellious side of me was secretly satisfied by being called a heretic, it didn't leave much to say.

  8. Is it possible that all theology is bad theology?

    I say this not only as someone who was forced to study theology more or less against my will for one year but also because it's the only seriously esteemed "logy" (I discount, for example, astrology and parapsychology) that I can think of where the object of study isn't known to exist.

  9. Geoff,

    I, too, haven't read much Dawkins, but I've wondered if Dawkins explains somewhere how his own staunch atheism may not be a meme.

  10. Pecs,
    Well, just know you'll always have friends here at this blog.

    I tend to agree with you. One of the things l like about both Jesus and the Buddha is that they both tended to deemphasize the metaphysical aspects of faith, focusing more on moral issues in the here-and-now: The classic "by their fruits you will know them." In sum, as a thinker I love theological conversation. I like ideas. But I feel very little pressure to get things right. Because, as you note, how could you ever verify "right"? Thus, I'm for orthopraxy over orthodoxy.

    Speakeasy, (My new sign-off for this blog.)

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