How Did Evolution Give Us Religion?

Hat tip to Joseph Kimball for flagging the video above

Above is a very interesting video that discusses the problems with explanations of religion based on genetic evolution. 

This suggests that religion is more likely to be a product of memetic evolution. Internet "memes" may be an example of memes, but in many respects a bad example. The current incarnation of the Wikipedia article "Meme" defines a meme this way: 

A meme (/ˈmiːm/ MEEM) is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture — often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

Richard Dawkins is the coiner of the word "meme," giving it this meaning in his book The Selfish Gene

The key point Dawkins made was that evolution only requires something that can be (a) propagated with reasonable fidelity, but (b) not with perfect fidelity, leading to variation, which (c) provides the raw material for some variants to be propagated more effectively than others. 

Richard Dawkins made another, less well known point in his book River out of Eden:

In the chapter "God's Utility Function," as I interpret it, Richard Dawkins argues that it is things that are subject to evolutionary selection that have utility functions. Viewing things that way, genes have utility functions, and so do memes. The utility functions of religious memes are especially obvious.  

For a brilliant book on the memetics of religion, read Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained. Among memes that already exist, fidelity in transmission is a big evolutionary advantage. Among other things, Pascal Boyer shows how to do simple experiments akin to Chinese whispers ("the telephone game" in the US) to gauge the transmission fidelity of different concepts of God or the supernatural. He finds, for example, that violating one normal law of nature is much more memorable than violating two at once—at least until a meme gets off the ground. 

Pascal Boyer's technique of Chinese whispers experiments to measure transmission fidelity can be applied to other types of memes as well. For example, I have long thought that the memetics of ideas in the heads of people who trade in financial markets should be studied in this way. If ideas circulating on Wall Street and among traders on other exchanges were identified early on and tested for how memorable they are and how much people want to repeat them, it might be possible to predict which way markets would move in the future. (An idea identifiably good at propagating is likely to gets into more heads.) This would be a way of making more testable Robert Shiller's view of the stock market that I write of in "Robert Shiller: Against the Efficient Markets Theory."

There is a key difference between financial market memes and memes in established religions. Many financial market memes—including financial market memes that move markets—are quite falsifiable. When they are falsified, they often die. By contrast, religious memes that have survived for a long time tend to be very hard to falsify. For example, beliefs about the afterlife are not that easy to falsify. Young religions sometimes have easily falsifiable beliefs, old religions much less.

One of the things that made it easier for me to stop believing in Mormonism is that Mormonism, as a young religion (officially founded in 1830), it still has many reasonably falsifiable beliefs, such as the belief that one can get personal revelations from God that I write about in the middle section of "Five Books That Have Changed My Life." Believing Mormons who read my account are likely to immediately being pushing the belief in personal revelation in a less falsifiable direction, and even I did some of that, but not enough to keep me a believer. 

I have long had a fascination with Memetics. (Twice, I taught a Spring semester course on genetic and memetic evolution at the University of Michigan.) I have heard that many people in Silicon Valley and the rest of the tech community have this fascination as well—which is part of how the word "meme" became attached to certain internet objects. I think much more should be done to strengthen Memetics as a scientific discipline. Within anthropology, Memetics is typically called "cultural evolution." That is an important field within anthropology. But Memetics is important for other social sciences as well.

I hope to write more about Memetics here on this blog in the future.