Where do Medicine and God Meet?

A Comparison between Dawkinsian Memes and the Soul

Thank God for Mutations

In The Selfish Gene, Professor Richard Dawkins sets out the basic premise of his scientific worldview; that all the matter and states that exist in this world are how they are because of natural selection. The planets and stars of the universe are made up of a set of molecules that have been selected, competitively, from a wide range of potential molecules because they are the most suited to build the structures of the world. Nothing is immune to natural selection, even rocks evolve; the tougher and more compact a rock the more likely it is to survive the destructive forces of erosion and entropy. As a result, it is easy to understand that natural selection is not so much a biological force as a universal process. According to this very principle, matter became organised into progressively higher level systems, and the greater the organisation, the more evident the competition. At some point in the history of Planet Earth, a complex molecule arose which was capable fairly miraculously of producing (nearly) perfect copies of itself. These so-called replicators were placed into immediate competition with one another; those more adept at reproducing gained the most influence over the second generation. However, that the process was not perfect allowed for variance in that next generation; mutations. Through the wonderful selective powers of environmental competition, a happy medium was found between the creation of diversity through mutation and the preservation of a certain integrity in the basic make-up of the replicator. 

Life is merely a by-product?

This was the beginning of the gene; perhaps the most complex level at which cruel competition pressures and moulds existence. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explains that the seeming focus of evolution; the multicellular organism, is in fact just a vehicle for it’s genes. For evolution does not take place at the level of the organism, but rather at that of the gene. For an intelligent life form, such as human beings, a gene is a free-loading parasite. It commands our being and our action, forcing us to live simply for the benefit of it’s own survival and reproduction.

That we have a life outside of the gene’s battle to survive is seemingly anomalous. Indeed, the choice exercised over life by the intelligent mind, and it’s battle with evolutionary urges, could be seen as analogous to a very religious duality. If the gene is body, then intelligence is soul. Following the gene makes us slavish and debased; following the mind makes us free and moral. The view of humanity in which we battle against evolutionary necessities in the name of human and intelligent morality is very much that of Judeo-Christian history and philosophy. If Jesus is man freed from sin, then the tempting Devil in the wilderness is a gene and his moral denouncing is reason. This same pattern of temptation by natural forces in the face of what is reasoned and right exists throughout the Bible; right from original sin in Eden, through Job and Moses to salvation.

Living Theme

Dawkins, however, would not accept this. He theorises that intelligence, separate as it may be from sin is entirely engaged in the fight for survival of yet another parasite; the cultural replicator; the Meme. A meme is, according to Dawkins (and others have taken up the study and definition of memetics after him), an element or aspect of culture which survives (or not) throughout the ages by competing with rival memes. Languages are memes, styles of clothing are memes and, indeed, religions are memes. How the gene has shaped the meme is a strange and complex process. Suffice it to say that, while the process of reproduction for genes is human interactions, that same process for memes is human psychology and intelligence. 

The River God

While he does not go into enormous detail, Dawkins explains that the emergence of religion could be put down to the (very sensibly present) psychological tendency of children to believe what they are told by adults. If a child in a tribal society is told not to go near a river by a parent who has knowledge of the dangerous crocodiles there, he will most likely obey. The child that does not obey is not a child likely to pass on his genes! He may also go on to warn his own children away from the dangerous river; and so on and so forth. It is likely, following this passing on of information, that the true reason for avoiding the river (crocodiles) is entirely forgotten and there will simply exist a cultural fear and mistrust for the river. It is easy to see, following this, how superstition can arise. It would not be difficult for that same culture of tribal folk to arrive at the conclusion that the river will only be traversable if the God that governs it be placated. The dark shapes that patrol the waves are his mysterious and many-toothed minions and they will drag non-believers to their watery doom. Our River God worshipping tribe may come into (evolutionary) competition with another tribe, whose people they subjugate. Newcomers will only be welcomed into the tribe if they are prepared to take on their religion. The River God will, in this instance, become a powerful meme, exerting influence over a growing number of people. The Empire of his followers have become the host and tool of a meme, their purpose being simply to spread it.

Incendiary Atheist

Professor Dawkins being an incendiary atheist, it suits him well to create a science which describes religion as a parasitical anomaly, plaguing humanity. However, as we have seen, memes can be of initial (or continuous) use for humanity, if not for our genes. Religion may have a chequered history, but the ethics and philosophies it has generated (memes themselves) have helped develop civilisation. Chants of devotion to a God of the River, of the Sky or of the Desert, have driven us towards Bach, Wagner and Peter Gabriel. What’s more, the great thinkers (or more precisely, the great talkers) have managed to achieve a type of immortality through the survival and spread of their ideas. The original child who avoided a reptilian demise may have been forgotten; however Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, Zoroaster, Buddha Gautama and Confucius survive because of the same memetic processes. The cultural immortality of Nietzsche and Homer (and the cultural divinity of Yahweh and Christ) follows the animistic belief that a man still lives while his name is still spoken.

Wisdom and Scientific View

Here, then, we see the primary comparison between memes and the soul; that a cultural practise naturally selected may preserve the survival of ideas and of personalities. It is likely that the abstract existence of the World Wide Web will outlive the mortal body of Tim Berners-Lee, but how much of his person will be maintained in the endurance of his creation? Not only does this concept have a plethora of analogues in traditional religions and philosophies, but it also justifies a respect for old wisdom and thinkers often absent from a scientific view of the world. 

It is clear that this is as close to religion as Dawkinsian science is likely to get. Professor Dawkins has no time whatsoever for considerations on the nature or existence of the soul and is not going to change his position until such a debate can truly be described as scientific. What is more, as far as organised religion is concerned, memetics is as much an adversary as an ally. Dawkins makes it clear that he views religion as having little value either morally or genetically; he views it as a parasitical meme that has outlived it’s relevance. That, memetically, ideas are perpetuated in a curious way according to strange processes is unlikely to consolidate the theory with religious beliefs on the soul. While memes do represent a level of existence and communication outside of the body, they work according to physical science and do not allow for the existence of a spiritual plane or ether. As a result, the theory may be partially tolerated under an Aristotelian worldview but not a Platonic one. Plato, like most Christian thinkers, sees the soul as being utterly separate from the body and from the physical world. It works and exists in a divine and perfect way not merely due to natural selection.

Reconciling Religion and Science

Richard Dawkins is right when he says that philosophy (or religion) and science should be reconciled. However, while this means that it is wrong for religion to attempt to inform science, the opposite is also true. Memes may help to explain how religions and philosophies came to be, this is not sufficient to denounce them; nor is it likely that physics and biology, however wonderful and fascinating, will ever replace God or the soul.