How Dawkins got pwned (part 1)

Richard Dawkins recently wrote a book called The God Delusion. You’ve probably heard of it.

Professor Dawkins is a great scientist and one of my favorite writers. And I have no quarrel at all with his argument. I was raised as a scientific atheist, and I’ve never seen the slightest reason to think otherwise. These days I prefer the word “nontheist” – for reasons which will shortly be clear – but there’s no substantive difference at all. Except in the context of role-playing games, I have no interest whatsoever in gods, goddesses, angels, devils, dryads, water elementals, or any such presumed metaphysical being.

Nonetheless, it’s my sad duty to inform the world that Professor Dawkins has been pwned. Perhaps you’re over 30 and you’re unfamiliar with this curious new word. As La Wik puts it:

The word “pwn” remains in use as Internet social-culture slang meaning: to take unauthorized control of someone else or something belonging to someone else by exploiting a vulnerability.

How could such a learned and wise mind exhibit an exploitable vulnerability? And who – or what – has taken unauthorized control over Professor Dawkins? The aliens? The CIA? The Jews? The mind boggles. As well it should. Patience, dear reader. All will become clear.

Professor Dawkins’ explanation of religion, with which I agree completely, is that religion is a memeplex built around a central delusion, the God meme – an entirely unsubstantiated proposition. Religion exists because this memeplex is adaptive. This explanation is both necessary and sufficient. It is also parsimonious, a la Occam’s razor. It may not be simple, but it’s a heck of a lot simpler than “God.”

(I dislike the word “meme” and the complex of terminology that’s grown up around it, mainly because (a) the word has a dorky sound, and (b) it means the same thing as “idea.” However, in deference to Professor Dawkins and his numerous acolytes, I’ll use it for this discussion.)

In Darwinian terms, Professor Dawkins’ main point is that the adaptive interests of religion – or of any other memeplex – are not the same as the adaptive interests of its host. As a celibate priest, for example, you are helping Christianity to be fruitful and multiply. It’s performing no such service for you.

Biologists have a word for this: parasitism. Probably because he wants to be nice, Professor Dawkins tries not to use the p-word. But he’s clearly thinking it.

The God delusion is a parasitic meme because, being alien to reason, it does not serve the interests of the host. Furthermore, some of the memeplexes which include it – or “religions” – include far more pernicious memes, such as suicide bombing, which are lethal both to the host and anyone within its blast radius. The case would seem to be closed.

But immunology is tricky. After all, if Professor Dawkins is right, anyone who believes in God is most certainly pwned – that is, infected by a parasitic religious memeplex. This category includes some of the smartest people in the world today. Intelligence is certainly no barrier to memetic infection. Worse, there have clearly been periods of civilized history in which everyone was infected by this parasite. The things are dangerous, there is no doubt.

Therefore, without disputing Professor Dawkins’ Darwinian conclusion, I think it’s prudent to step back a little, and attack the problem with a slightly broader and more careful approach.

The God Delusion is what immunologists might call a specific immune response. Professor Dawkins notes that religion is alien to the reasoning mind. He notes that it reproduces and evolves. He sees that similar phenomena have caused many problems in the past and continue to do so in the present. He identifies a common feature of these problems, the God meme, and churns out antibodies to it.

This process is not infallible. Suppose, for example, you note that a patient is ill and can’t eat. You take a biopsy of his guts and find that they’re full of – bacteria! Bacteria are clearly not human. They’re a well-known cause of disease. So the obvious problem is that the patient has a bacterial infection, and you prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics. Meanwhile, the poor fellow is dying of colon cancer, and you’re trying to eradicate his intestinal flora.

Biological immune systems make all kinds of mistakes. Presumably the same is true of memetic immunology. After all, what was the Inquisition thinking? They thought of heresy exactly the same way Professor Dawkins thinks of religion: as a sort of mental virus, whose eradication, while unavoidably painful, would bring peace and sanity.

In memetic immunology, it’s often very difficult to distinguish parasite from counterparasite. When we see two populations of memes in conflict, we know both cannot be healthy, because a healthy meme is true by definition and the truth cannot conflict with itself. However, we might very well be watching two parasites competing with each other. They will certainly both claim to represent truth, justice and the American way.

So I think it might be worthwhile to attack the question from another angle, using the analogy of a generalized immune response. Rather than asking ourselves whether specific traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc, are parasitic, we can focus on the problem of parasitic memeplexes as a whole.

If Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc, turn up on this screen, perhaps we’ll want to point some T-cells at them. But a generalized approach will also detect any other parasitic memeplexes we may be infected with. After all, the God delusion isn’t the only delusion in the world.

One way to approach generalized memetic immunology is to design a generic parasitic memeplex. Avoiding specific details which may confuse us, and focusing on the combination of adaptive success and parasitic morbidity, we can construct design rules for an optimal memetic parasite. We can evaluate potential threats by looking at how well they fit this template, which should be as nasty as possible.

When dealing with actual biological agents, of course, we can work in biosafety labs. The most dangerous viruses, such as smallpox, Ebola, and the 1918 flu, cannot be safely handled without elaborate, multiply redundant containment systems. Some would argue that they cannot be safely handled at all.

With memes and memeplexes, there’s none of this. By designing the memeplex, we effectively release it into the wild. Fortunately, UR has a small and discreet audience, which strikes me as very wise and conscientious. I’m sure none of you will be tempted to abuse this dangerous memetic technology, which in the hands of less scrupulous thinkers could easily become a formula for total world domination. Remember, this is only a test.

So our generic parasitic memeplex will be as virulent as possible. It will be highly contagious, highly morbid, and highly persistent. A really ugly bug. Let’s focus on these design aspects separately: contagion, morbidity, and persistence.

A contagious memeplex is one that spreads easily. The template may not have to infect everyone in the world – although that’s certainly one option. However, for any really significant morbidity, we’ll want massive, lemminglike misdirected collective action. This requires mass infection.

There are three general ways to transmit a memetic parasite: parental transmission, educational transmission, and social transmission. Needless to say, our template should be a champ at all of them.

If your parasite can’t be transmitted parentally, it’s really not much of a parasite. Children learn the basic principles of reality and morality before they are six, and – as the Jesuit proverb goes – anything that can slip in at this age is likely to stick. “Give me the child and I will give you the man.” Fortunately, any simple idea, even if it is nonsense, can be transmitted at this age. Unless the template is fundamentally dependent on some meme which children are unlikely to grasp, such as partial differential equations, parental transmission is no problem.

But educational transmission – infection of children and young adults by institutions whose ostensible purpose is to instill universal knowledge and ethics – is the mainstay of any successful memetic parasite. Since these same institutions educate future educators, replication can continue indefinitely.

Over multiple generations, educational transmission outcompetes parental transmission. Changes of religion by executive fiat, for example, are common in European history. In the more recent past, the Allied victors eradicated militarist traditions in Germany and Japan through their control of the educational system. Furthermore, by treating the press as an educational institution, we can create a system of continuing, lifelong reinfection in which parasitic memes are omnipresent. (Of course, it’s important to remember that exactly the same techniques can also cure a memetic infection.)

But neither parental nor educational transmission can bootstrap itself from a small initial infection. While most parasitic memes probably originate as mutations of preexisting memes, they can certainly be invented from scratch (unlike genes). And even a mutation has to spread somehow.

Therefore, no memetic parasite is complete without a system for social transmission: informal transmission among adults, following existing social networks.

The first step in designing for social transmission is minimizing preexisting immunity. Nazism, for example, would not be an adaptive meme for a 21st-century parasitic memeplex, because so many prospective hosts have strong negative reactions to Nazism, Nazis, swastikas, etc. Any meme which conflicts with its prospective hosts’ present perception of reality or morality is socially maladaptive.

The second step in designing for social transmission is to look at the status structure of social networks, and construct memes that will flow naturally along the usual network direction: from high status to low status.

That is, our parasite should be intellectually fashionable. All the cool people in town should want to get infected. And infection will make them even cooler. They will be the hosts with the most. For example, one common trope in various religious traditions is asceticism: the voluntary renunciation of material comforts. Since this tends to be much easier for those who start out wealthy and comfortable, it’s an effective status marker. Any memes that can associate themselves with asceticism gain a clear adaptive advantage.

Our parasite is now optimized for contagion. But is it bad? Is it truly evil and destructive? The most contagious parasitic meme in the world, if all it brings to its hosts and those around them is happiness and prosperity, isn’t worth worrying about.

So we need to move on to morbidity, which is a fancy medical word meaning “badness.” The key to memetic morbidity is that, for a really nasty parasite, morbidity must be essential to its reproductive cycle. Otherwise, because morbidity is after all nasty, it will probably be maladaptive. Our parasite will be outcompeted by a benign mutation of itself – totally defeating the purpose. D’oh.

Most forms of morbidity involve a political step in the replication process. In other words, they allow the parasite to obtain informal power, which it can use to take over educational institutions, suppress counterparasites and competing parasites, etc, etc. There is no period in the history of any human civilization in which political (including military) power has not been a critical factor in the struggle of ideas. This is not to say that such a level playing field or “marketplace” of memes cannot be created – only that it has not yet been done.

First, a parasitic meme is not even parasitic if it is not delusional. It must contain some assertion which is alien to reason, which no sensible person would independently invent. The “God delusion” – a metaphysical construct, like Russell’s teapot, with no basis in reality – is a perfect example.

How can a delusion be, on its own, adaptive? Very easily. A delusion is a perfect organizing principle for any kind of political movement. By accepting some body of nonsensical doxology, you demonstrate your loyalty to the group. The result is cohesive collective action. As we’ll see, most forms of parasitic morbidity involve a political step in the replication cycle.

A frequent strategy, for example, is to present the delusion as recondite and counterintuitive, and the truth as simplistic and wrong. This “emperor’s new clothes” strategy is a proven recipe for defeating Occam’s razor. Who, for example, really understands the Trinity? But if you don’t understand the Trinity, aren’t you just stupid? Through internal competition, this counterintuitive delusion generates a revolutionary elite deeply steeped in Trinitology. The harder it is to understand the delusion, the more dedicated your cadre will be.

Another good general strategy for high morbidity is antinomianism, the opposition to law. Since the rule of law can be defined in terms of property rights – property is any right that you can own – any meme that opposes property opposes law. It therefore declares continuous and informal transfers of resources to be morally justified. Antinomianism builds political power by providing an easy avenue for punishing enemies and rewarding supporters, all in the service of whatever bogus concept of “justice” our parasite concocts as a replacement for law.

Finally, our parasite will employ a strategy of politicization, insisting that everyone in a society be involved in the contest for political power. Since our memetic parasite is already bound to one or more political factions, politicization leaves no one with the option to ignore it, and simply live their lives. Neutrality is not acceptable. All those who are not actively infected, and who do not openly endorse the parasite, are by definition its enemies. And they will be crushed. The safest thing is to play along, and raise your children in the faith – even if you don’t really believe, they will.

High contagion and adaptive morbidity will allow our parasite to spread widely and rise to power, where it can continuously propagate itself through educational institutions. But there is still another problem: persistence. If our parasite does not resist competitors, or succumbs easily to healthy counterparasites, it won’t last long and it won’t be much of a threat. It should be as hard as possible for hosts to reject the parasite, whether they are replacing it with a competitor or simply returning to reason.

Our first defense against rejection is mere euphoria. It should feel good to be infected. It should improve the host’s self-esteem, making them feel like a better, happier person. If they need to make sacrifices for their faith, if they suffer for it, fine. They are doing what’s right.

At a certain level, euphoria graduates into full-on anesthesia. Anesthetized hosts can endure horrific suffering, or the moral pain of inflicting suffering on others, in the name of the faith. Did a wolf come into your house and eat your baby? You have been blessed. The wolf is the sacred animal of Rome. Your baby now dwells with the gods of the city. If the wolf comes again, pet him and speak to him sweetly, and at least give him a hamburger or something.

Indiscriminate and total anesthesia constitutes ovinization. An ovinized individual never imagines responding to any kind of threat with any kind of defensive action, certainly not violence. To the ovinized, anything bad that happens is either (a) an accident, or (b) the result of some sin or other moral error. The concept of an “enemy” does not exist.

Needless to say, euphoria, anesthesia and ovinization all greatly inhibit the ability of our hosts to react against their parasite and eject it – and its followers – from their lives. But sometimes this is not enough. Humans, after all, are bipedal apes. They evolved from some very truculent ancestors. Even if they are specialized for civilization – a certain degree of genetic ovinization is almost certainly present in populations which have lived in governed societies for many generations – occasional throwbacks are to be expected.

Therefore, diversionary hysteria is another essential tactic in our parasite’s bag of tricks. Hosts who would otherwise be tempted to notice the morbidities of infection, and attribute them to the parasite itself, must be diverted. Either their defensive energies will be directed either toward other symptoms which are in fact not serious, or they will attribute the real problems to other causes which are not in fact significant.

We can kill two birds with one stone by directing our hysteria toward those who reject the parasite, and identifying their efforts to cure it as the cause of the morbidity. This strategy of counterimmunity, in which the infected treat disinfection as if it were contagious – which, of course, it is – has been a staple of memetic parasites throughout the ages.

The goal of a counterimmune strategy – such as the Inquisition – is to eradicate heresy. But this is actually only the simplest approach to counterimmunity. We can get much fancier.

Suppose, for example, our parasite does not try to eradicate counterimmune responses, but in fact tolerates them. However, we make sure the heretical memes are contained and cannot engage in any serious attack on our replicative cycle. That way, we have them where we can see them – under control. How might we accomplish this?

One approach is to maintain a neutered false opposition. This gang of tolerated heretics, against whom our wise philosophers speak out at every opportunity, must be unable to establish a replicative cycle of their own.

For example, the tame heretical memeplex may include a meme which is delusional, and which anyone intelligent is obviously resistant to – thus binding to, and disabling, the dangerous countermemes which would attack our parasite, by blocking the “early adopters” who would otherwise be tempted to consider the heresy. Similarly, it may include unfashionable memes which impair its power of social transmission. And it may be administratively excluded from educational transmission. It is hard to prevent parental transmission, but as we’ve seen, over time parents will tend to lose the battle against educational institutions, especially if social transmission is also blocked.

An especially effective approach is to treat the heretical memeplex as if it were, in fact, the dominant parasitic meme. Thus, siding with the parasite will be seen as an act of resistance and defiance, a pose which tends to be fashionable. Furthermore, if the delusional strategy is employed, our friendly hosts will be able to identify obvious delusions among the heretics, who will be unfashionable and educationally isolated.

Since parasites mutate, evolve and improve over time, a good choice for a tame heresy may in fact be an old edition of our parasite itself. Normally this would simply be discarded, and not tolerated at all. By definition it is less competitive. However, if we do tolerate it, we can modify it to attract heretics, doubters, and unbelievers of all kinds, keeping them safely neutered. Hosts infected with the latest version of the parasite will treat these stick-in-the-muds as deluded fools who have not yet liberated themselves from these ancient doctrines, and seen the new, brighter light – who, even worse, are working actively to prevent the truth from being born. Clearly, they must be stopped. And so on.

I think at this point we have a pretty good design for a successful memetic parasite. Don’t you agree? If not, how do you think the parasite could be improved? (Of course, this sort of “intelligent design” by no means implies that any such beastie was designed by some purposive plan. We are just trying to reverse-engineer the effects of Darwinian selection.)

Now let’s compare Professor Dawkins’ target, the God delusion, to this ideal parasite.

Forgetting other religions for a moment, Christianity clearly fits the profile. Every one of the strategies observed above has been employed by some Christian sect, some set of believers in the “God delusion,” at some point in time.

However, if I may project a little, Professor Dawkins’ readers are not concerned about the Anabaptists, the Arians, the Monophysites, the Nestorians, or any such obsolete sect. They are concerned with vintage-2007 American Christian “fundamentalism.” If your goal is to solve a problem, the problem must exist in the present tense.

Fundamentalist Christianity – I prefer the term “salvationism,” because the belief that only those who are born again in Christ will be saved is essential to almost all “fundamentalist” sects – certainly matches some of the above descriptions.

For example, it is clearly political, and it is clearly using doctrine as an organizing tool. Antinomianism is a little harder to find – salvationists for the most part are, if anything, big believers in law and order. But depriving women of the right to control their bodies counts to some extent, although this right cannot be transferred and thus only attacks enemies, without benefiting supporters. If this isn’t morbidity, I don’t know what is.

In the contagion department, however, salvationism is curiously lacking. Compared to other successful memetic parasites of the past – for example, Catholicism before the Reformation – its presence in educational institutions is negligible. In fact, under present law, salvationism is entirely barred from the entire mainstream educational system. At present its great ambition seems to be to sabotage the teaching of Darwinian evolution in primary schools, a goal which it has been generally unsuccessful in. And even if they were to succeed in this, I find it almost entirely impossible to see how it could be of any adaptive value to the salvationist memeplex.

Nor is social transmission of any help, because salvationism is incredibly unfashionable. Quick – how many salvationist celebrities can you name? At the average chic dinner party in Manhattan, how many of the guests are likely to be salvationists? How many salvationists are employed by Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, Random House, Viking or Knopf? And so on.

So, one might argue, the salvationist meme is a threat, it is just a small threat. It needs to be kept in its place, that’s all. Sure, the influence of the God delusion has been steadily decreasing for the last four hundred years. But if we take our eye off it, it might come back! I’m certainly not prepared to dismiss this as absolutely inconceivable.

However, there’s another candidate we have to consider.

In the first chapter of The God Delusion, Professor Dawkins describes himself as “a deeply religious non-believer.” He calls his belief system “Einsteinian religion,” and waxes poetical as follows:

Let me sum up Einsteinian religion in one more quotation from Einstein himself: “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.”

It’s easy to see that this statement is not exactly the theory of general relativity. In fact, it appears to have no factual content at all. Hm.

What, exactly, is this “Einsteinian religion?” Did Professor Dawkins invent it? Did Einstein? What else do Einsteinians believe in, besides “beauty and sublimity”? Are there other Einsteinians, or need only distinguished scientists apply? If an Einsteinian were to stoop to anything so mundane as voting, who would he or she vote for?

And how does “Einsteinian religion” stack up against our parasite test? We’ll consider these fascinating issues in part 2 of this essay, which will appear next Thursday.

[Please note that I’m on the road and will be more than usually tardy in responding to feedback. However, I will get to it all, hopefully this weekend. I’m especially curious to hear if anyone has any ideas for improving the parasite design.]


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