Is God a meme? Or a virus?
Since faith in God, for Dawkins, is utterly irrational, it remains to be explained why so many people share such a faith. The answer lies in the `meme', which Dawkins defines as an intellectual replicator. People do not believe in God because the intellectual case for such belief is compelling. They do so because their minds have been infested with a highly contagious and highly adapted `God-meme'. They are the innocent, unsuspecting victims of a malignant `g`virus of the mind'.
Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain by a process which, in the broad sense of the term, can be called imitation.
This view is first set forth in The Selfish Gene in 1976, although it later writings Dawkins prefers to speak of God as a `virus of the mind'. The notion of an invasive replicator is retained; the biological analogue is, however, reworked.
There is no doubt that Dawkins' greatest impact on popular culture has been through his concept of the `meme'. Although the notion of a cultural replicator was far from new, Dawkins has done much to popularise the concept, and make it accessible to a wider audience through his simple terminology and illustrations. As Dawkins immediately applied the idea of the `meme' to issues of religious belief, it is clearly important to explore this concept in this lecture.
In what follows, I shall explore Dawkins' concept of the `meme'. There are four critical difficulties that confront this specific idea, as follows.
1. There is no reason to suppose that cultural evolution is Darwinian, or indeed that evolutionary biology has any particular value in accounting for the development of ideas.
2. There is no direct observational evidence for the existence of `memes' themselves.
3. The existence of the `meme' itself rests on an analogy with the gene itself, which proves incapable of bearing the weight that is placed upon it.
4. Quite unlike the gene, there is no necessary reason to propose the existence of a `meme'. The observational data can be accounted for perfectly well by other models and mechanisms.
In view of Dawkins' emphasis on evidence-based reasoning, the second of these two concerns is of especially pressing importance in this lecture. Dawkins is aware that his thesis is seriously underdetermined by the evidence. Quite simply, there is no observational evidence that demands the meme hypothesis. In his preface to Susan Blackmore's Meme Machine (1999), Dawkins points out the problems that the `meme' faces if it is to be taken seriously within the scientific community:
Another objection is that we don't know what memes are made of, or where they reside. Memes have not yet found their Watson and Crick; they even lack their Mendel. Whereas genes are to be found in precise locations on chromosomes, memes presumably exist in brains, and we have even less chance of seeing one than of seeing a gene (though the neurobiologist Juan Delius has pictured his conjecture of what a meme might look like).
Dawkins talking about memes is like believers talking about God - an invisible, unverifiable postulate, which helps explain some things about experience, but ultimately lies beyond empirical investigation.
And just what are we to make of the point that `the neurobiologist Juan Delius has pictured his conjecture of what a meme might look like'? I've seen countless pictures of God in many visits to art galleries - such as William Blake's famous watercolour known as The Ancient of Days (1794). So being able to picture the meme verifies the concept? Or makes it scientifically plausible? Delius' proposal that a meme will have a single locatable and observable structure as `a constellation of activated neuronal synapses' is purely conjectural, and has yet to be subjected to rigorous empirical investigation. It's one thing to speculate about what something might look like; the real question is whether it is there at all.
The glaring contrast with the gene will be obvious. Genes can be `seen', and their transmission patterns studied under rigorous empirical conditions. What started off as hypothetical constructs inferred from systematic experiment and observation ended up being observed themselves. The gene was initially seen as a theoretical necessity, in that no other mechanism could explain the relevant observations, before being accepted as a real entity on account of the sheer weight of evidence. But what about memes? The simple fact is that they are, in the first place, hypothetical constructs, inferred from observation rather than observed in themselves; in the second place, unobservable; and in the third place, more or less useless at the explanatory level. This makes their rigorous investigation intensely problematic, and their fruitful application somewhat improbable.
And what about the mechanism by which memes are allegedly transmitted? One of the most important implications of the work of Crick and Watson on the structure of DNA was that it opened the way to an understanding of the mechanism of replication. So what physical mechanism is proposed in the case of the meme? How does a meme cause a memetic effect? Or, to put the question in a more pointed way: How could we even begin to set up experiments to identify and establish the structure of memes, let alone to explore their relation to alleged memetic effects?
Undeterred, Dawkins went on to develop his meme-concept in another direction - a virus of the mind. `Memes', Dawkins tells us, can be transmitted `like viruses in an epidemic.' The idea of God is thus to be thought of as a malignant, invasive infection, which infests otherwise healthy minds. Again, Dawkins' key point is that belief in God does not arise on rational or evidential grounds: it is the result of being infected by an infective, invasive virus, comparable to those which cause chaos to computer networks. As with the meme, the key to the `God as virus' hypothesis is replication. For a virus to be effective, it must possess two qualities: the ability to replicate information accurately, and to obey the instructions which are encoded in the information replicated in this way. Once more, belief in God was proposed as a malignant infection contaminating otherwise pure minds. And again, the whole idea founders on the rocks of the absence of experimental evidence.
Not only is there a total absence of any observational evidence that ideas are like viruses, or spread like viruses - a decisive consideration that Dawkins glosses over with alarming ease. It is meaningless to talk about one kind of virus being `good' and another `evil'. In the case of the host-parasite relationship, this is simply an example of Darwinian evolution at work. It's neither good nor bad. It's just the way things are. If ideas are to be compared to viruses, then they simply cannot be described as `good' or `bad' - or even `right' or `wrong'. This would lead to the conclusion that all ideas are to be evaluated totally on the basis of the success of their replication and diffusion - in other words, their success in spreading, and their rates of survival.
And again, if all ideas are viruses, it proves impossible to differentiate on scientific grounds between atheism and belief in God. The mechanism proposed for their transfer does not allow their intellectual or moral merits to be assessed. Neither theism nor atheism are demanded by the evidence, although both may be accommodated to it. The merits of such ideas are to be determined on other grounds, where necessary going beyond the limits of the scientific method to reach such conclusions.
But what is the experimental evidence for these hypothetical `viruses of the mind'? In the real world, viruses are not known solely by their symptoms; they can be detected, subjected to rigorous empirical investigation, and their genetic structure characterised minutely. In contrast, the `virus of the mind' is hypothetical; posited by a questionable analogical argument, not direct observation; and is totally unwarranted conceptually on the basis of the behaviour that Dawkins proposes for it. Can we observe these viruses? What is their structure? Their `genetic code'? Their location within the human body? And, most importantly of all, given Dawkins' interest in their spread, what is their mode of transmission?
We could summarise the problems under three broad headings.
1. Real viruses can be seen - for example, using cryo-electron microscopy. Dawkins' cultural or religious viruses are simply hypotheses. There is no observational evidence for their existence.
2. There is no experimental evidence that ideas are viruses. Ideas may seem to `behave' in certain respects as if they are viruses. But there is a massive gap between analogy and identity - and, as the history of science illustrates only too painfully, most false trails in science are about analogies which were mistakenly assumed to be identities.
3. The `God as virus' slogan is shorthand for something like `the patterns of diffusion of religious ideas seem to be analogous to those of the spread of certain diseases.' Unfortunately, Dawkins does not give any evidence-based arguments for this, and prefers merely to conjecture as to the impact of such a hypothetical virus on the human mind.
The `thought contagion' metaphor has been developed most thoroughly by Aaron Lynch, ........