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Religion is a meme – psychologist

We live surrounded by all sorts of ideas. We think it’s us producing and using them. But what if it’s them using us? We talked about memes with Dr. Susan Blackmore, psychologist, broadcaster and Visiting Professor at the University of Plymouth.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Susan Blackmore, psychologist, broadcaster and visiting professor at the University of Plymouth, it's really great to have you with us today. Welcome.

Susan Blackmore: Thank you very much. This should be fun, I hope.

SS: I'm sure it will be fun. Because you've done a lot of works on memes and their role in human evolution. So let's clarify this a bit. What exactly is a meme, because when I think of meme, I think of funny cat pictures from the internet and that's probably what most of the people that are my audience think. And you mean something slightly different by a meme. Could you give me a brief definition?

SB: Yes and no. Internet memes are one category of memes. It's not that they are something different, they are only one category, it actually everything in our culture that we pass from person to person is memes. So let me explain how the idea began. It was in 1976, long before the internet, let alone silly cat pictures, in Richard Dawkins’ best-selling book, The Selfish Gene. And what that book was about was what he called universal Darwinism. There is the idea that really Darwin's brilliant insight doesn't just apply to genes, it would apply to life on any planet anywhere. It's basically a kind of three-step algorithm. So if you think about how natural selection works, you have some kind of information, which could be genes, information, it has to be copied, it has to be copied with variations, and then there has to be selection, so that most of those variants are killed off. So if you take rabbits, for example, each rabbit has loads of babies, and most of them die. So the ones that survive, pass on whatever helped them survive – running fast or eating quicker, or whatever it might be. That's how it works with genes. But the principle is general. So at the end of the book, Richard Dawkins wanted to say, although it's about selfish genes, it's about any information that is copied that way. And he called those replicators. So genes are replicators. And he said, are there any other replicators on this planet? Yes, look, everything we pass from person to person, we're copying stories, songs, financial institutions, scientific theories, all these things are copied from person to person, we vary them by forgetting or changing them as we pass them on, then most of them don't get copied. So it is a Darwinian process happening on culture, we need a name for the new replicator, I want something that sounds a bit like gene, I'll call them memes, it literally comes from the Greek mimeme, which means that which is copied or that which is imitated. So memes are everything we imitate from person to person in our culture, and internet memes are just one example of that.

SS: Just to be even more precise, can you give me few really obvious examples and maybe less obvious examples of what a meme is?

SB: Okay, well, every word that we are using in this conversation is a meme. Because you didn't invent – you might have invented a new word, I think, I've invented a couple of new words, but you know, mostly our language – we learnt it from other people when we were little, or later on. And all those words are all memes. Then they are combined in different combinations to make new sentences and then the sentences into stories and then they are all copied and varied. So that's the kind of fundamental type of meme. Memes clump together into meme plexes, so complexes of co-adapted memes that go together. So religions, you might not think of a religion like Islam or Christianity as being a meme, but it is, it's a big complex of memes passed on with all these rules and regulations to make sure it's tightly passed on and that it gets into new brains. So that's an area that I'm particularly interested in. 

SS: We’re going to talk about religion actually, I have a few questions about that. Can something like fashion be a meme or a rumour or a tradition?

SB: Yes, absolutely. See, I thought when I did my hair about 30 years ago, it's all faded now with Covid, but you know, everyone was going to copy me, everyone would want pink and blue hair. It didn't really work as a meme and I didn't fill the world with it, but it would have been. I'm not a very fashionable person but if you go around, you will probably notice which kinds of jeans are in this year and that is copying, people see other people. Oh, I really fancy those jeans with all those ripped bits or whatever is fashionable now, I wouldn't know. And they think, “Oh, I'm gonna buy some of those.” And so more of those ones are made and fewer of the ones that don't take people's attention. So yes, all fashions, definitely. Richard Dawkins gave the example of baseball caps worn backwards, which was a craze then when he invented the term meme. Yes, definitely fashions count. You might think everything is a meme, then you get really confused. But if you want to know whether it's something that you're thinking about is a meme or not, think, has it been copied? Did I get it from somebody else? So for example, if you learn to ride a skateboard, the idea of the skateboard and the skateboard itself has been copied in factories and copied by people and so on, the idea, but the skill you need to balance on the thing and not fall off, well, you fall off and then you learn better, that you can't pass on, that's something you have to learn for yourself, so that isn't a meme, the same with learning to drive a car or all the physical skills that were that we acquire because you have to learn them for yourself. So they are not memes.

SS: Right, so meme is selfish information that strives to be copied whenever it can. Does a meme replicate itself like a virus in the sense?

SB: Well, yes, that's a very good question. Because it doesn't replicate itself in a vacuum. Like I mean, genes in order to replicate themselves need messenger, RNA and all the chemistry and all that; memes need a human, we might get on to technological means at some point, but ordinary memes need a human who can think and speak or write or in some way communicate, demonstrate things to other people. So that's what makes them a meme, that ability to be copied. So yes, in a sense, they're copying themselves. When you say they strive, you have to be a bit careful about that. Obviously, memes are just bits of information, like in words coming out of my mouth, how can they strive? What to say ‘they strive’ really means is if they can get copied, they will, which is important, because you have to stop them if they can, and you don't want them to. So if they can get copied, they will. And so that looks like striving and we can call it striving.

SS: Alright, so memes like cells, you're saying, engage in a Darwinian race for carriers – for our brains – and only the fittest meme survives, that's what I find really interesting? How do we know that there is an evolutionary drive inherent in information? Like, we know there is such a drive inherent in our species or any other species because it's been tested and proved biologically time and again. How can you test meme theory?

SB: Well, it's really difficult, which is why there isn’t a great science of memetics, there is some science of memetics, but not a huge amount, given that we are now – how long? Since 1976, you know, it's 45 years or something.... So, why not? Because it is difficult. But there is now fairly recently a thriving science of cultural evolution, which takes the idea that culture is evolving, which is really not that surprising or controversial that it's evolving in a kind of loose sense, although some people object even to that idea. Memetics goes a bit further than other theories in the more conventional types of cultural evolution theory, in calling it selfish replicators. So the difference really, between these different ways of approaching the evolution of culture is a lot of biologists will say, yeah, but ultimately, what happens in culture comes back to the genes. Ian Wilson, a famous biologist, long time ago, made a famous claim that the genes will always keep culture on a leash. And that remains true for many biologists and they think culture is therefore ultimately pulled back by the genes. It's got to be good for us, and okay, it'll make mistakes sometimes, but basically, it's controlled by what's good for us. Whereas memetics says no, the information is selfish, these memes are going to get themselves copied however they can. And we humans then have to try to choose the ones which are good for us, which help us or help our society, or make us happier or something, but we're not terribly good at it. And the selfish memes are constantly just doing their thing and trying to use our brains to copy them. And when you look at what's happening, and what's happened since the concept of meme was invented, well, we can see the kind of acceleration you expect with evolutionary processes. So if you think about  the four and a half billion years of the planet's existence, it was a very, very long time before it got cells at all. And then when the cells got eukaryotes, and more like bacteria, it was very, very slow, and it's speeded up and speeded up. It's not a unitary thing but it speeded up. And that's precisely what's happening. As there becomes more variation, more different stories, more communication across the world, because of modern technology, all of these things allow, there's more variation, there's more pressure for selection, so there's more happening and change going on. So that's the memetic view. And that's what we have to test against other theories.

SS: I want to talk about this interesting distinction, when you say the fittest memes survive, but not necessarily the best. How would you describe or measure the fitness or how would you measure the goodness of a meme?

SB: Right, you're right, hitting the very important questions here. So fitness for meme is how easy it finds itself to get copied. And this you can use, therefore, and people do, I'm no mathematician, but other people do the kind of mathematical modelling and so on, taking the methods from biology to look at fitness landscapes, and which ones thrive and which don't. And then the psychology which I'm more involved in as a psychologist, you ask, well, does this meme succeed because it just grabs your attention and takes you away from things that would be better for you? Does it succeed because actually it's very useful? You can ask those questions –

SS: Something like TikTok, it's not necessarily, it doesn't necessarily have any value to it for humanity, but it's a very fast replicating thing.

SB: And what it's doing, and it does this particularly with younger people and certain groups of people, it grabs your attention, because you've only got a very short time, you think, ‘I've got to respond now,’ you don't want to miss it. It's playing on all the biological – So we start as a biological organism, a social species, and then we've got language and everything else. But we've got those basic, you know, ‘I want to be in here, I want to be known about, I want to be popular, I want people to notice me.’ And these memes are playing on all those basic human tendencies. And so TikTok is a very good example, which is, I think, quite harmful for a lot of people because it simply keeps taking them away from being able to concentrate on something that really, they might enjoy more, or they might learn more from or might in many ways be better. But just to go back to really the framework of your question, when we take any meme or memeplex, we can say, is it fit that's in its own terms? Is it good or bad from a genetic point of view? In other words, keeping people alive and having offspring they might pass them on to and all that? Or is it good for us as individual people to make us happier or more skilful or something like that? Is it good or bad for whole societies? And those, you know, it's very complicated, because then you've got four different kinds of warring beasts, with their own interests: genes, memes, human individuals and society all have different interests. And the memes are just information, you know, playing around in this complicated sphere, and getting copied when they can.

SS: Well, those memes that do survive the test of time, I mean, in my opinion, would automatically be the most useful for human evolution, therefore good, right? Like, I know you're not a big fan of religion, that's where we get into it. And you say religion is not necessarily the most benevolent of memes. But I mean, it had its use when it appeared, it still has use among those who practice it giving them a sense of, I don't know, tradition, purpose, fulfilment, community. What is it that you don't like about religion in terms of it being a meme?

SB: Well, let's start from this point that it must have been useful at some point. I think, by and large, we humans are meme machines, we’re the copying, selecting, varying machines, we’re meme machines, trying all the time to choose, as you say, to choose the things that are good for us or good for our biology. Interestingly, that's true of many things, but it's particularly true of the major faiths. They started off very biologically based. So you find in Christianity, in Judaism and Islam, you find, you know, the men are in charge, the women are chattels and objects to be passed from one to the other. It starts with that which is inherent in our basic biology as the kind of species we are. So you start with that and build the religions on that. Now, that's very good from a gene's point of view. And it's still true today that Orthodox Jews have something like, I haven't seen the latest figures, but something like on average eight children per woman, Christians have somewhere between two and three, Orthodox extreme, Islam have more and atheists have below replacement level. So if you're relying on what's called vertical transmission, parents to children, parents to children, parents to... down things, that's what religions are very good at. And that plays into the biology. But over time, and this is the implication of your question, over time they escape. Now, if you look at something like the declaration of universal human rights, that goes right against those kind of basic biological things, and instead of giving the power to the genes, controlled largely by men, they give power to every individual, we are all of equal value, and we should all have human rights. And that is, I think, an understandable progression of the memes as it were extricating themselves from this firm connection to biological reproduction.

SS: Just to continue with this analogy between a meme and virus, let's assume there are good and bad means right? Vaccines stop viruses from spreading. How do you stop a bad meme from spreading? Is it even possible?

SB: Well, we're trying to do it all the time, aren't we? The current arguments going on about social media and whether governments can intervene and force social media to take down, you know, anti-vax stuff, all kinds of conspiracy theories, QA.., what's it called... The conspiracy theories going around the states, the QAnon, these kinds of things, they are attempts to manipulate the memosphere with greater or lesser effectiveness. Of course, we're always trying, you know, we've hit on this with your questions and some of my answers several times already. This is the difference in the interests between the memes whose only interest is to get copied, and us and our societies. 

SS: You know, when I look around, it seems like everything, whether it be food or a piece of furniture, clothes, music has been replicated and transformed from something that has already existed. Now, what I want to say is that we essentially live in the world of memes, right? Does anything original even exist? There are the ideas that we think are ours, that we think we first come up with essentially ours, or is everything that I'm thinking is a meme?

SB: Right. Well, first of all, I did mention earlier that, and this applies to your thoughts as well, you asked if everything you’re thinking is a meme? Well, if you come up with a new thought that's never been had before it's not a meme yet until you transmit it to somebody else, and then it becomes a meme. But also, if you think… Let’s say, imagine last time you were by a lakeside or the sea, you can conjure up a vivid image of that, you can't transmit that to anybody else. That when it comes into the problem of consciousness, which is something else I work on an awful lot. You know, that is private to you, it's your visual memory is able to evoke those kinds of images in your brain. And you're able to remember that scene, or remember the face of someone you loved or whatever it is, you can't transmit those things. There's an awful lot that goes on in your mind that is not memetic at all. Then to the other part of your question. Is there anything novel? Well, it's exactly the same as biology. If you ask, has there ever been anything novel in biology? Well, there weren't elephants at some point and now there are; there weren't human beings at some point and now there are. But you can trace it… It’s the power of evolutionary theory, of course… You can trace it back right the way down, you know, to the origins of life on this planet. And it is all because of the Darwinian evolutionary algorithm because information has been copied through those billions of years, we have this amazing diversity of biology, which we are threatening, but nevertheless, we do. And it's exactly the same with memes: our cultures are vibrant, changing all the time. But everything you say and write, everything in our conversation is new. There are probably sentences that each of us has said in the last 20 minutes which has never been said before. A lot of it will have been said before but we may have some sentence that's peculiar to this morning, and to who we are. And that's a brand new meme that somebody may go and repeat, they probably won't, but they might. And so novelty comes about by recombination. And that's the same with genetics, in genes, some come about by mutation, but the majority, at least in sexual species, comes about by recombining old genes into new order. So that's the same with memes, recombination is really what it's all about. And it's going faster and faster.

SS: Now, in the present, we're not only producing memes, like in the examples you've described, but also technological memes that are temes right?

SB: Tremes, I have started calling them because people thought I was talking about football or something when I called them temes in my TED Talk. So I've turned it into tremes from sort of tri-, meaning “three”, I'm sorry, it's confusing. I’d love to have got a better word. I did put an advert, a little request in New Scientist magazine, for people to suggest a good name for the new technological or cyber electronic memes, and like, they came up with 21 different names, and nobody agreed. And so it's tremes

SS: Okay, tremes. So, let me ask you this, are you saying that tremes reproduce themselves, and it's not humans inventing technology, its technology replicating itself through us? I mean, could you explain why your view gives humanity this passive role of replicators of information instead of a more conventional view of humanity as creators of information?

SB: Well, it just drops out of the whole meme theory. It's not that we're passive. But it's – is that our arrogance? And so often science doesn't it, it takes us down a peg or two from you know, we're the centre of the universe and all that, constantly being [inaudible]. We have this feeling that we have free will, and that we can use our free will to design amazing new technology and that we're in charge. Well, of course, we in a sense, it was humans who designed the first computers, and so on, so on. But the memetic way of looking at that is to say, well, people are always inventing new things, they're recombining old ideas. And then there's a competition for those to be adopted. If you think of all the startups that have gone by the board and the ones that succeeded because they were doing a job that we wanted, or because they attracted our attention, or because they made us feel good, whatever the reasons were, certain technologies progressed to the point where almost all of us have very clever phones in our pockets. And we just think, well, humans invented those, but why we have those is a result of the huge competition that went on. Now what gets to me is this and I did talk about this in my TED lecture, which is I kept worrying, is there something new going on? Or are all this stuff that we're sending through our computers and phones and servers and everything – should we just call that memes? Is it more memes? But it was troubling me there's something different about it. And the conclusion I came to was this: if you start with genes, than the animals, us that the genes made, started a new process of imitating and varying and selecting and that was memes and language and all of this culture. It could be another step in which these memes, us with our memes, construct some kind of new thing that is capable of imitating, copying, varying and selecting or doing itself. That would then be a third replicator: genes, memes, tremes. When would we say that's happened? And I decided this was a little over 10 years ago now that there really would be a new replicator, if the machinery itself was doing all the hard work, if we're kind of sitting here enjoying it, maybe, but the copying, varying, selecting are being done by the machinery. Maybe 10 years ago, it was pretty touch-and-go. But now it's quite clear. I mean, all the technology, the search engines, the sales pitches, the Amazons and what have you. They are all doing, they're taking information, they're copying it, they're varying it, they're putting it together into a new form just for you, because they've gathered all the information about you and they think, oh, she'll buy this. And they're not humans thinking that, it's just this software doing it. So it seems to me there is already a third replicator on this planet. And we're not realising it, we still think we're in charge, and people still think about artificial intelligence as ‘oh, it's going to be in a robot that might attack us or something of that kind.’ But that's not what's interesting me. I'm thinking well, out there in cyberspace it’s going to be happening what happens in biology and in memetics, things club together and make memeplexes, tremeplexes,  they made kind of organism, like organisms equivalent of ours, with membranes, with wanting to survive, and so on. And we really ought to see what's happening out there because it's not under our control. This is where it seems to lead me and I'm trying to understand it to see if this is a good idea or not. 

SS: This is a conversation for a whole other program.

SB: Probably, I'm sorry, I get carried away, I really should stop.

SS: No, it's been so wonderful speaking to you, it’s really interesting. I really appreciate you did this for us. And I hope that we get together again, to talk about the last point you've made.

SB: All right, let's do that one day. I'd enjoy that very much.

SS: Thank you so much, Sue.

SB: Thank you for all your questions. Bye-bye.

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