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Viral Beliefs

Entry 676, on 2008-01-17 at 21:21:55 (Rating 3, Science)

Recently I heard an interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast with Keith Stanovich, a psychologist from the University of Toronto. The subject was how humans could free themselves from the control of their genes and memes. The idea that genes use the living thing they create as a way to create more genes was introduced by Richard Dawkins in his well known book, The Selfish Gene. But the concept can be extended to ideas and beliefs. A meme is belief system which replicates itself when it is passed from one individual to another. The interview seemed to concentrate mainly on this and it was a fascinating insight into human (and other animal) behaviour.

The idea of "Universal Darwinism" is controversial, of course. But we would expect it to be controversial, wouldn't we? After all half the population of the US can't even cope with the biological aspects of evolution, let alone the social and psychological implications. And the fact that the greatest example of a meme in history is Christianity probably doesn't help.

So a meme is a belief system which "infects" a person and perpetuates itself by spreading to others. It doesn't need to be true and it doesn't even need to provide any benefit to the individual. All it has to do is spread. This explains why an important part of most religions is convincing other people to believe in them. That's a major mechanism which allows the belief to spread. Others would include the promise of various benefits, such as eternal life (remember that it doesn't need to be true), social acceptance, and fear of negative consequences if the belief isn't accepted, as well as simple imitation.

Other characteristics of successful memes are the preclusion of other memes and the resistance to evaluation. So a religion which says you may not believe in any other religion is just protecting itself from being replaced with another belief. And the requirement to accept the belief on faith and not to question any anomalies is an obvious self protection strategy. Not surprisingly, these are also common attributes of religions.

The meme doesn't even have to originate through conscious thought. Its just as likely that religious belief systems evolved (isn't that ironic) through a series of new ideas which weren't specifically designed to protect the belief, some of which were more successful than others and strengthened the next generation of that meme. So Christianity represents the end point of successive refinements in religious beliefs which evolved over many thousands of years.

When considered this way a lot of human belief makes sense. And accepting or not accepting Darwinism in general isn't important because anyone who just looks at the logical steps involved would have to agree that its hard to see how this mechanism couldn't occur as a natural consequence of normal behaviour.

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