Monday, November 28, 2005

An Expensive Symbiote

In the previous article, I referred to gods as a kind of "parasitic intelligence" that borrows the hardware of the human brain to "run" on, as well as the human body, to make their desires manifest in the world.

A good case could be made that "gods" are symbiotes rather than parasites, even if they do come at a high price. Gods have motivated humans to do a great deal of good in the world, from founding charitable institutions and hospitals to creating magnificent art, architecture, and music. The various "holy wars" and persecutions, from the genocides of the Hebrew Bible to the present War on Terror are the price we've had to pay.

Did the Gods Create Man?

In an article, "Minds, Memes, and Selves," Susan Blackmore presents an intriguing hypothesis that the brain "co-evolved" with memes, with the memes having a major role in making our brains into radiaclly oversized (compared to those of other mammals) idea-processing organs:

"Why are our brains so big? Yes, I know this is an old chestnut, and there are lots and lots of good answers to the question. But are they good enough? Let us not forget how mysterious this issue really is. Brains are notoriously expensive both to build and to run. They take up about 2% of the body's weight but use about 20% of its energy. Our brains are three times the size of the brains of apes of equivalent body size. Compared to other mammals our encephalisation quotient is even higher, up to about [brsize]25. On many measures of brain capacity humans stand out alone. Brains are also dangerous organs to give birth to. The fact that such intelligence has arisen in an animal that stands upright may or may not be a coincidence but it certainly adds to the problem. Our pelvises are not ideally suited for giving birth to huge brains---yet we do it. Why?

The mystery was deepened for me by thinking about the size of the biological advantage required for survival. I was fascinated to read about a study addressing the question of the fate of the Neanderthals. Zubrow used computer simulations to determine the effect of a slight competitive edge and concluded that a 2% advantage could eliminate a competing population in less than a [comp]millennium. If we only need such a tiny advantage why do we have such a large one?


I am going to propose an alternative based on memetic advantage.

Imagine early hominids who, for good biological reasons, gained the ability to imitate each other and to develop simple language. Once this step occurred memes could begin to spread. And also---once this step occurred the genes would no longer be able to stop the spread! Presumably the earliest memes would be useful ones, such as ways of making pots or knives, ways of catching or dismembering prey, and names for people, events and tools. Let us assume that some people would have slightly larger brains and that larger brains are better copiers. As more and more people began to pick up these early memes, the environment would change so that it became more and more necessary to have the skills in order to survive. So these slightly larger brained people would have an advantage. That, I propose, is how we got our big brains.
The process is related to the Baldwin Effect. I like to use Dennett's 'Tower of Generate and Test' again here.

On the ground floor are the Darwinian creatures. As these develop they change the environment in which they live, creating new selection pressures that lead to new design improvements. One result is larger brains capable of learning and the arrival of Skinnerian creatures. These again change their own environment, giving an advantage to the quicker learners. One aspect of quicker learning is internalisation---thinking before you act. So Popperian creatures are born and again change their environment so that better thinkers are at an advantage. Finally the ability to copy actions appears, giving rise to the Gregorian creatures and the birth of the new replicators---the memes. Creatures of this kind again change their environment so that those most able to adopt the memes are at an advantage.

Although the process is similar to all the previous ones, this last step is a big one. Note, most importantly, that it depends not on learning nor on cleverness per se but on the ability to imitate. A second replicator has now appeared that spreads at a fantastic rate and changes the environment as it goes.

An early hominid who was incapable of mastering any of the new techniques of tool making, speaking or hunting would be at some disadvantage, and the importance of this disadvantage would increase as the memes spread. In a population with few available memes, brain size would not be very important, in a population with lots of memes it would. It seems to me that this fundamental change in selection pressures, spreading at the rate of meme propagation, provides for the first time a plausible reason why our brains are totally out of line with all other brains on the planet. They have been meme-driven. One replicator has forced the moves of another."

Though she does not mention religion specifically as an important "brain-building" meme, it has historically been a major bond holding a community together and distinguishing it from neighboring communities. It motivates members of a community to take care of each other, and stand together against other communities. Such behaviors offer significant advantages for a group's survival.

If gods were a significant factor in the evolution of the human brain, we would expect that the brain would have co-evolved specialized abilities to experience and interact with them. That the brain is "wired for god" is the theory proposed by Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene D'Aquili, M.D., and Vince Rause, authors of Why God Won't Go Away. In a review written for Psychology Today, Michael Shermer describes the authors' core discovery:

"The most dramatic finding in the book, primarily (and admirably) written by journalist Vince Rause, concerns a portion of the brain the authors call the orientation association area (OAA). The OAA, say Newberg and D'Aquili, is largely responsible for helping us distinguish between ourselves and other things. People with damage to this part of the brain have problems navigating their way around a room: They actually cannot discriminate between their bodies and the furniture. The researchers discovered that during meditation and prayer, at the moment when the monks were at one with the universe and the nuns felt the presence of a universal spirit, there was reduced activity in the OAA. Like patients with damage to this brain area, their selves became indistinguishable from their nonselves. From these findings the authors conclude 'that spiritual experience, at its very root, is intimately interwoven with human biology. That biology, in some way, compels the spiritual urge.'"

Apocalypse Now--or Never

If our brains and our gods co-evolved, then there is one overriding fact about our predominant world religions that must be given urgent consideration: the gods worshipped by the vast majority of humankind evolved in an era where swords and catapults were the most formidable weapons available. In such an era, war provided great benefits for the victors: slaves, wealth, additional territory and livestock, and a fresh supply of new worshippers for the victors' gods.[*]
In our time, nuclear weapons have made war between major powers far too dangerous to contemplate waging. The greatest threat from nuclear proliferation is that the weapons could fall into the hands of "true believers" (such as the clerics ruling Iran, or a terrorist group) all too willing to use them, confident of the blissful afterlife they will recieve should they be destroyed in retaliation. As technology advances, genetic engineering and nanotechnology could be used to create world-wrecking weapons even more dangerous than nukes, especially since they would not require hard-to-get materials like enriched uranium. DNA is everywhere.

Furthermore, we now live in a world where it is virtually impossible to avoid contact with rival religious and secular belief systems. An ancient Hebrew or medieval Catholic could easily live their entire life without ever encountering someone who believed differently from themselves. Nowdays, an endless fountain of information about thousands of religions is just a google away. Widespread travel and mobility insures that most people in the developed world will get to live and work in close contact with people of different faiths from their own, or none.

War is no longer advantageous, even for the "victors" or their gods. The survival and flourishing of life on Earth depends on both our brains and our gods adapting to present realities. It's time for there to be no such thing as believers in foxholes, either.

*Ancient Pagan gods placed a lower priority on conversion of foreigners than the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). A victor's gods would absorb or merge with the panetheon of the defeated, either through marriage of a victor's god to a conquered goddess, or equating the gods of both, according to their mythic correspondences (the defeated culture's sun god is the same as the victor's sun god, etc.). The insistence of the Abrahamic deities that they are "the One True God" rules out any such accommodation.
Is Religion a Computer Virus for the Brain?

"Among many anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers, it has recently become fashionable to dismiss all religions as memes - parasitic mental processes which propagate in the same manner as chain letters [Dawkins 1989, Dennett 1995]. In this view, religious belief is a self-perpetuating delusion. A meme (rhymes with 'dream') may be defined as any self-referential belief system which contains within itself the instructions for its own propagation. Memes are often described as the cultural equivalents of computer viruses.

A meme carries exactly the same fear-driven psychological motivation as a chain letter - "If you propagate me then something nice will happen, if not then something horrible will happen". In order to justify themselves against attack by reason, memes place absolute reliance on faith, which is seen as being superior to reason. They also contain self-referential or circular claims to the truth such as "This meme says it is the divine truth. Since it is the divine truth whatever its says must be true. Therefore it must be divine truth because it says so and all competing memes must be the work of the Devil".

These two types of self-referential statement "propagate me" and "I am the only truth" provide the driving force for memes to invade the minds of their hosts. In addition, many memes contain the instructions "Help people who believe in this meme, attack people who do not". These commands being the ultimate cause of all religious hatred, wars, pogroms and persecutions throughout the centuries.

The general defining features of all memes can thus be seen to be self-referential 'closed-loop' type of circular statements, and a strong tendency towards hate and intolerance. The science of the study of memes, their internal structures and modes of propagation is known as memetics (by analogy to genetics - how biological entities propagate themselves).

More detailed analysis will usually show the following features:Like a virus or parasitic worm, a successful meme must perform two actions:- Ensure it takes up long-term residence in its host.- Bring about the conditions for its spread.

To establish itself in the mind of its host it will use some or all of the following mechanisms:

[1] Promise heaven for belief.

[2] Threaten eternal punishment in hell for disbelief.

[3] Boost the believers' egos by telling them they are 'chosen' or superior to believers in false memes.

[4] Disable the faculties of disbelief ('immune response') by claiming that faith is superior to reason.

[5] Establish itself as the One True Meme, usually by some sort of holy book containing a circular self-referential argument such as:

X is the one true meme. We know X is the one true meme because The Source of Universal Truth has approved X. We know The Source of Universal Truth has approved X, because X contains statements which say so. We know what X says is true because X is the one true meme.Once it has parasitised the mind of its host, a meme needs to propagate itself.

A successful meme will contain instructions for some or all of the following:

[6] Holy war - convert or kill all unbelievers.

[7] Intimidation and terrorism - threaten and discriminate against unbelievers.

[8] Enforced social isolation or even death to apostates. (An apostate is a host which has cured itself of a meme-infection. It is especially dangerous to the meme because it might pass on meme-resistance to others).

[9] Fecundism - encourage true believers to breed faster than believers in false memes.

[10] Censorship - prevent rival memes from reaching potential hosts (a theological doctrine known as 'Error has no rights').

[11] Disinformation - spread lies about rival memes. Demonise them - the bigger the lies the more likely they are to be believed. The disinformation may even include instructions for a meme to lie about itself!"


This is a thought-provoking article, but I think there's more to religious memes than these simple "instructions." I think it is arguable that the "god(s)" of these religions represent a kind of "parasitic intelligence" that is able to "borrow" the processing capacity of the host brain to "think," "act" (via its hosts' bodies) and adapt to changing circumstances. For example, the Bible contains a considerable amount of information relating to the character and personality of Yahweh and/or Jesus, including stories (myths) showing how he acts, and a volume of propagandistic pronouncements, commandments, etc.

Taken together, this information is sufficient to enable the host brain to "run" a copy of the Yahweh persona, and through evangelism, transmit the Yahweh persona to others. When a Christian wears a "What Would Jesus Do" bracelet, this amounts to an instruction set:

1)Run Jesus Persona Program.

2) Consult its decisionmaking process.

3) Act in accordance with Jesus Persona Program's decision.

Through reading of the Bible, listening to sermons, etc., a Christian is able to build a model of Jesus' personality, values, etc. in their brain that is sufficient to "operate" their body as a secondary (or, arguably, primary, if the Christian is truly devout) personality, similar to what takes place in a person with "multiple personality disorder." The important distinction between an ordinary MPD persona and a "god" is that the "god" is copied in an entire community of hosts, rather than just one. The "god" is able to evolve on three levels:

1) Copying errors and "mutations." Since no two "believers" will have the exact same mental model of the god, the interaction of the different models within a community of god-hosts will provide the god with new information and adaptability just as mutations and variations of traits give a species new information and adaptability.

2) "Contradictions" in the software transmission system (e.g.the "scriptures" which are analogous to a CD-ROM). For example, it is easy to find in the Bible instructions for believers to be peaceful, loving, and submit to authorities or even aggressors ("Turn the other cheek"). It is also easy to find instructions to hate and make war (Entire books of the Hebrew Bible; "I came not to bring peace, but a sword," the doctrine of Hell, the Book of Revelation in the New Testament ). When the Yahweh-community possesses sufficient force, it is able to (and frequently has) repress rival memes. When theYahweh-community is faced with overwhelming force from rivals (as itwas in the era when Christianity was founded), it can switch to appeasement/adaptation and a devout pacifism that persuades the rivals of its moral superiority. Thus, in either case, the Yahweh meme is pre-adapted to survive. And, since both sets of protocols are preserved in "Holy Scripture," the community can switch strategies whenever it is advantageous, as Christianity did once Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. [*]

3) Conscious choice on the part of a host or hosts made while "running" the god-program. This can manifest in any number of ways. Whenever an ancient Hebrew prophet proclaimed "Thus saith theLord!" followed by a pronouncement relevant to a new situation (the appearance of Babylonian armies, etc.), he was "running" the god-program and giving it, through the use of his brain-hardware, the ability to think, feel, and react to the situation in real-time. Since a 'god' may be viewed as an actual, sentient program borrowing the brain-hardware of its hosts (and able to parallel-process to some extent as well via inter-communication between its hosts), it is far more resilient than a mere "dumb virus" (as described in the article) would be.

*This is a somewhat over-simplified description. During the Jewish Revolts against Roman rule, the Yahweh meme basically chose both stategies. The "warlike" path was represented by the rebels themselves, who fought to drive off the pagan Romans and establish a messianic Jewish theocracy. However, many Jews either benefited from Roman rule (the elites), or preferred a more tolerant, cosmopolitan approach than the strict fundamentalism of the rebels. The Romans exterminated the warlike Jews, leaving those willing to submit alive. This submit-to-the-Gentiles version was predominant in the Jewish community until after the Holocaust, which demonstrated that obediance to Gentile authorities and quiet endurance of persecution was no guarantee of survival. The result: a well-armed State of Israel that embodies a version of Judaism that is more than willing to fight.

The early Christian community may have experienced a similar evolutionary branching. Robert Eisenman's book James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls provides compelling evidence that the Jerusalem Church founded by Jesus and led by his brother James was a militant, populist sect aiming to expel Rome and restore the Davidic monarchy. According to Eisenman, this Church was closely tied to the Essenes (authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls) and the Jewish revolutionary movement in general.

It was rivalled by the pro-Roman Pauline sect that sought to abolish the Jewish law for Christians and welcome Gentiles into the Church without requiring them to become circumcised or adopt Jewish laws and customs. Eisenman proposes that James "the Just," brother to Jesus, and his successor to both leadership of the Church and the Davidic throne, was so revered by the Jewish revolutioonary movement that his martyrdom touched off the first Jewish Revolt in 66 C.E.

As with Judaism, Rome exterminated this early militant faction of Christianity, while the pacifist variant (Paul and his followers) survived...until Constantine provided the Christian version of the Yahweh Meme with Legions to enforce its will, beginning the era of Christian persecution of Pagans and "heretics" (i.e. mutant versions of the Meme).