Sunday, January 02, 2000

Dawkins: Companion to Part 4: Times Change. Keep Up! or Admitting The Reality Of Memetic Natural Selection

Soundtrack time: Tom Waits: Chocolate Jesus

(an immaculate confection)

This is the companion piece to my essay here: how to regain a relevant voice.

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. The next essay.

Ever since humans started thinking, ideas have smacked up against each other, like rocks in a tumbler, or plants and animals competing for resources on the savannah; eventually, the better ideas gained consensus, while the weaker ones faded into irrelevance. Though they forced him to drink poison, Socrates' ideas have survived, and their worries that he corrupted young minds couldn't stop them from spreading. It's impossible to keep a good idea down. It's also impossible to prop up a weak idea indefinitely. The great rock-tumbler of ideas will eventually grind weaker ideas into dust, though the excision might be painful, and even bloody (those remaining despots sure kick up a fuss, even as the free world makes them less and less relevant).

Dawkins talks about this when he discusses the changing moral zeitgeist; he even has a name for these little units of information and ideas that circulate, combine with other ideas, change with the times, or fade away: he calls them memes. The idea that “All men are created equal” became an important meme in the American, and French Revolutions. Its influence grew, and led to the civil rights and suffragist movements. Like creatures in an ecosystem, memes generally follow the principles of survival of the fittest: they form symbiotic alliances with other memes (for example, the way guilt and grace make such a harmonious pair in atonement theology), and sometimes, the way a drought, or a pack of wolves culls the herd of its sickly or unfit deer, some idea comes along with the force of a wrecking ball, and forces every other meme to either adapt or perish.

Like every other institution, religious prinicples have followed the same Memetic Natural selection; what we accept as religious truth is much more fluid than we realize. For example, the idea of the rapture and tribulation actually only became widespread in the 1800s, and you can bet that while before the revolution, the French clergy demonstrated biblically that the people needed to obey the monarch God had placed above them, after the guillotine blades started dropping, they demonstrated biblically that liberty, equality and fraternity were, and had always been, precious Christian values. The way the holy texts are taught and religion is practiced has changed constantly through the ages, to suit different cultures at different times.

If you don't think religious practice has changed over the years, or that religious thought has been subject to the same memetic natural selection as the rest of human thought, ask yourself when you last saw a witch trial, or paid an indulgence to get your Grandpa out of purgatory, or heard someone say that God made whites the rightful masters of other races, as shown in the story of Noah and his three sons (Genesis 9).

In fact, two of the best examples of real boss wrecking-ball memes were Martin Luther's 95 Theses, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. It was a painful and bloody process for Luther's 95 theses, and the memes that followed from them, to trim all the fat out of the complacent, corrupt European church, but the church was much healthier in the end, and the Protestant and Catholic churches have kept each other accountable ever since. Jesus deliberately taught in the "you have heard it said. . . but I say to you" format, like a leopard-meme pointing out the fattest, laziest, sickliest deer-memes in the herd one by one, saying, "First I'm gonna get that one, then that one, then that one. . . " It was a bloody and ugly transition for the early Christians, too, before Jesus and Paul's teachings started gaining widespread consent.

All these words to establish: the world changes. Organizations and institutions and prevailing thought patterns change, constantly. Yeah, the basic human dilemmas are same in a lot of ways as they always have been, human nature remains muddled and imperfect, but generally, as time goes by, we seem to be getting closer to the mark, both in organized religions and in society at large. Whether you credit it to the Holy Spirit (or the will of Allah, or the continual karmic purification of souls, or what have you)'s guidance, or (if you aren't into that Higher/Other Power stuff) to the natural process of memetic selection, the conclusion is the same: religious practice is just as liquid as the rest of human social behaviour. It would help our case to acknowledge that, and maybe to trust that the flexing and changing of ideas is generally moving (with hiccups, snares, and the occasional rabbit trail) in a consistent direction toward increased freedom and empowerment of all people.

When a set of memes gets too rigid or inflexible (like, say, the idea of a Monarch's right to absolute power), it eventually gets discarded, like an organism that refuses to adapt to its environment: it simply can't compete with other, more supple frameworks.

Why is this a challenge for the modern religion?

As more people gain access to education and information, the speed at which prevailing ideas change increases. Every time communication speeds up, society changes faster, as ideas take less time to disseminate and gain consensus. That rock tumbler is rattling around now at a speed and ferocity that would shock scholars from the days when monks spent years copying Bible manuscripts, and it took decades or even generations for some ideas to travel from a philosopher-monk in Lisbon to a Sufi mystic in Damascus, or vice versa.

Information travels so quickly these days that religious authorities can no longer control, or spin it the way they used to when they basically controlled every aspect of the information infrastructure. Moreover, people are no longer WILLING to submit to some authoritative Source Of Wisdom: this is the completion of the movement started (in the west) with the Gutenberg Printing Press and the Protestant Reformation: the reformation was Martin Luther saying, "I don't WANT to just take it from the Pope; I'd rather read the bible myself." Now, that preference to see for ourselves has reached its logical conclusion: countries where almost everyone has the education and access to check their own references, and test what they've been taught, the same way Luther did.

Yeah, in the days when the priest was the only educated person in the village, it made perfect sense for him to be the main authority on morals and everything else that involved ideas instead of farm implements and brains instead of blacksmiths' bellows, but these days, everybody has access to the same information, and many of us have been trained to understand and interpret it. It's natural that we're a little less willing to let somebody say, "this is the meaning of all the facts," than we were back when the guy saying "I'll tell you how it is" was the only person in town who'd finished university.

Next Obvious Truth: knowledge of all kinds is decentralizing, and institutions that do not realize that will find themselves circumvented and ignored, like a boulder in a river that used to be a stream, complaining that it no longer changes the whole stream's course the way it used to.

So what does that have to do with the current attack on faith?

Well, the first step organized religions must take in finding a viable framework for interacting in a relevant way with society at large is to embrace the fact we have changed to suit the spirit of the times before, and CAN CHANGE AGAIN without losing our identity. Next, we need to recognize that we are no longer considered the main authority for truth, the way we were back before public education, science, sociology, modern democracy, and clinical psychology were invented, and added their two, four, six, or seventeen trillion bits to the discussion. We are one of many voices competing for attention, in the information age, and the sooner we come to grips with that, and start to adjust, the better off we'll be.

On to Essay 4, proper: The Crisis in Moral Authority

To read the other essays in my Richard Dawkins series:
The previous essay. Table of contents. The next essay.

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