firstname.lastname@example.org (H Keith Henson) Memes, Evolution, and Creationism (this seemed on
email@example.com (H Keith Henson)
Memes, Evolution, and Creationism (this seemed on subject, so I posted--KH)
Copyright 1989, the authors.
Copyright 1990 Institute for Memetic Research. A close version of this
article appeared in Vol 1, No. 1 of the Journal of Ideas, September 1990.
Contact the editor, Elan Moritz (firstname.lastname@example.org) for current
subscription information. Posted by permission, but use other than
personal requires permission from the Institute.
By H. Keith Henson and Arel Lucas (email@example.com)
ABSTRACT: This paper discusses the question of creationism and evolution
theory in the context of memes. Several key questions are raised
including the questions of why humans have beliefs at all, and why does
belief in evolutions excite substantial opposition. The authors address
the competition of memes in the meme pool and propose the existence of
meme 'receptor sites' responsible for strong maintenance of religious
beliefs. KEYWORDS; memes, creationist, evolution, learning, games,
The widespread and long-lived opposition to evolution by
fundamentalist Christian cults is not the first time the religious sector
has opposed the findings of science. Copernican astronomy excited
centuries of opposition before finally being accepted. Why did the
Catholic Church defend the theories of a long dead Greek? Why do
"creation science" followers defend an Anglican bishop's calculations of
a world only a few thousand years old?
We would like something better than an intuitive, hand-waving answer
to these rather serious questions. We would like to be able to make
specific predictions and recommendations. Our attempt to answer the
"creation science" question above will be in two parts: Why do humans
have beliefs at all? And why does the belief in evolution excite so much
In attempting to find answers, we will invoke Darwin in two places.
First in asking where human evolution has gone the last few million
years. Second to consider the evolution of ideas (which we will also
call memes, replicating information patterns, or beliefs) and the forces
that shape them. Human and meme evolution is inextricably tangled. This
discussion will switch back and forth from one to other in seeking an
understanding (in evolutionary terms) of why evolutionists run into so
much opposition from certain segments of the wider community. Knowledge
of the modern concepts of evolution is assumed.
Footnote: Richard Dawkins' *The Blind Watchmaker*, is a well-written and
entertaining book which describes the recent advances in understanding
how evolution works.
Current interpretation of hominid fossils is that the split between
the line which led to humans and the one which led to the chimpanzees
came about 5 million years ago. A whole suite of changes, male
provisioning, bird-like pair bonding, more frequent births, sequestered
estrus, and bipedality evolved together, perhaps in response to the
shrinking of the relatively safe forest and the expansion of the
dangerous but protein-rich grasslands. These changes long proceeded any
significant increase in brain size.
Hominid evolution in the last 2.5 million years, that is since our
ancestors started chipping rock, has mostly been in the direction of
elaborating brains and learning ability. Even prior to "modern"
technology humans lived over a wider range of the Earth's surface than
any other animal of comparable size. It seems fairly obvious that large
brains supporting powerful learning abilities are part of the answer as
to why humans (and their ancestors) have been so successful in occupying
such a wide variety of habitats. The rest of the answer is in the skills
which today, as it was in the past, we must learn to survive.
We learn skills and, once in a while, discover new knowledge as
individuals. But most of our learning is from others. A simple example:
learning by trial and error that streets are dangerous because of cars is
*not* a practical approach for children. A good deal of our learning is
across generations, the rest from our contemporaries, or from information
stored in some material form (books, etc.).
Most of what we learn is from the "meme pool" (analogous to gene pool)
of our culture, and a *selected part* of it gets passed on to the next
generation, thus setting up the conditions for the evolution of culture.
A meme pool may be imagined as the set of circulating information
patterns (ideas, blueprints for making artifacts, customs, and so on)
which indirectly structures the artifacts and behavior of a culturally
The earliest cultural-information-propagated-across-generations (meme
for short) probably dates back to our common ancestor with the
chimpanzees. Young chimpanzees learn from their elders how to make tools
for extracting termites from termite hills. Surviving hominid artifacts
which indicate cultural passage of information date back 2.5 million
years. Though it got off to a slow start (chipped rocks look about the
same for 2 million years), memes and the human line formed a hyper-cycle
(in analogy to the DNA/protean hyper-cycle) where improving knowledge
made human line survival ever more likely, and the resulting larger
populations discovered and passed on an ever increasing amount of
(mostly) useful knowledge. Today humans and a huge, abstract mass of
information, have become fully dependent on each other.
In addition to humans evolving the capacity to learn and spread memes,
we see Darwinian forces acting on the replicating information patterns
themselves. One evolutionary force affecting the frequency of a
particular piece of shared information has been the reality of the
physical environment. Because they shape behavior, memes that are too
far removed from the way the world functions lose influence either by
being refuted or by poor survival of their hosts. Memes that cause
serious harm to their carriers usually become inactive, though it may
take a long time. The Shaker belief persisted in its active form for
about 100 years despite incorporating a ban on host reproduction.
Another primary force in the evolution of memes is the rest of the meme
pool. Simple competition between similar replicating information
patterns for a limited number of "slots" in human minds results in the
survivors of this process being very good at getting themselves into new
hosts, and, once they have, excluding competitors.
A few meta-memes apply powerful selective forces to the rest. The
scientific method is perhaps the best known "artificial" meme selection
force. Phrenology (as a replicating information pattern) is no sillier
than palmistry. In spite of a fairly good start, it failed to survive in
the scientific meme pool where a testable relation to reality is an
A goodly number of memes have no significant relation to reality at
all. Yet they are quite successful (in the Darwinian sense of existing
in many copies). Into this class we would place astrology, Marxist
economics, and religions. Our concern in this article is about those
"schemes of memes"* which excite those infected with them to actively
oppose the evolution meme. How can we account for the opposition?
Footnote: Cooperating groups of memes. Credit this clever turn of phrase
to Douglas Hofstadter.
We will start by showing that our minds developed organizational
quirks as a byproduct of interacting modules in enlarging human brains,
and than show how these quirks provide a mental substratum for the spread
of a whole class of "reality unrelated" replicating information patterns.
Among them we will find the one(s) which excite opposition to Darwin's
Why did our brains enlarge? The advantage must have been larger than
the high cost in terms of increased infant care and maternal mortality
from getting those oversized heads born. William Calvin in *The Throwing
Madonna* proposed one continuous selection mechanism that would come into
play for a primate that started throwing rocks and obtained a survival
advantage by killing the target instead of just scaring it away.
Timing the release of stones or spears to hit small targets must be
done much more accurately than the nervous systems of our remote
ancestors could achieve. Rebuilding the basic chemistry of nerves, or
converting to electronics is out of range for the small steps of
evolution, but adding more of the same is an old story. Parallel
redundant neural networks reduce timing error by well understood
mechanisms. Better accuracy, more protein on the table, and more
surviving children for rock-throwing ancestors. However they came to
enlarge, the brains we now possess support even self-awareness.*
Footnote: Marvin Minsky proposed in *Society of Mind* that what we call
"consciousness" arose as the result of the evolutionary reassignment of
redundant capacity to new tasks. Thus, the larger brain may have
preceded the "smarter" brain. "Newer" thinking skills (which have had
less evolutionary honing) may still have more variation than older
Recent work has found the mind to be organized into a vast number of
interacting, simpler modules. A substantial amount of data has emerged
from the work of neurologist Michael Gazzaniga, artificial intelligence
expert Marvin Minsky, and others. (In historical prospective, this work
was presaged by Freud & Co.) Simple mental modules or "agents" (Minsky's
word) combine into larger agencies to accomplish tasks of great
complexity. Starting from a base of hardwired connections from the
senses to the brain, Minsky shows how motor activity and feedback from
the physical world builds agents that allow a small child to stack
blocks. Stacking blocks is not a task to be sneered at. Many a graduate
student-year has gone into building machines that fall short of the
abilities of a three year old!
Memes may be seen to program or direct the formation of more complex
agencies such as those for chipping rock or making clay pots or shoes.
Minsky speculates that a substantial number of our agents are censors.
It's easy to see how, with an enlarging number of modules in potential
conflict for "attention" we need censors to stop us from getting into
logical tangles or "inappropriate" behavior. They may work by detecting
unfruitful "loops" or painful thought activity in other parts of the
brain, and inhibiting the part that is thinking "improper thoughts."
One "improper thought" is to think about our mortality. In getting
smarter and being able to plan far enough ahead to store food or plant a
crop, we have gained powerful agents with "think ahead" ability, and they
have been so successful in helping us survive, that we can't "wire out"
the ability to think about the future and consequently about our own end.
This is, however, an unproductive and (at least potentially) a
survival-threatening class of thinking. Such thoughts are likely to
activate censor modules that powerfully inhibit further thought about the
So far we have Minsky's censors and "think ahead" agents. Gazzaniga
clearly demonstrated the presence of another agent, an "inference
engine." This mental module detects or invents plausible "causal"
relations, sometimes when there aren't any. New replicating information
patterns seem to be invented (or recombined) here. The same hardware
seems to be involved in judging meme input from others for plausibility.
It makes evolutionary sense that unsatisfied inference engine problems
would be anxiety provoking. If there is no "explanation," there is no
way to predict (or control) when similar events, especially frightening
ones, will happen. Almost any answer, no matter how far fetched, reduces
anxiety. There is a great deal of data on the functioning (and
misfunctioning) of this module in Gazzaniga's *The Social Brain*, and in
the landmark *Human Inference* by Nisbett and Ross. Ritual passed on
through memes (praying, rites, etc.) gives the illusion of human control
over events, a psychological condition thought to be essential for mental
health. (At least the counter condition of hopelessness is known to be
Though the plausibility standard of the inference engine is pure
*National Inquirer*, the importance of this module should not be
underestimated. It was a milestone in our evolution, and lies behind
every advance we make. But it was shaped by evolution to jump to the
conclusion that the noise in the bushes is a bear. People who screen out
its less plausible outputs do so at the conscious level, making use of
difficult-to-learn logical and mathematical skills.
To sum up, our think ahead (and look back) capacities raise painful
questions, for which our inference engines either invent "causes" or
judge acceptable some meme obtained from others. The effect of these
modules has been to open our minds to replicating "explanations" of our
origin and fate. Religions and such "new age" philosophies as "cosmic
consciousness" memes or beliefs satisfy the inference engines in most of
us, providing explanations-- superficial or profound--to account for
times before birth or after death.
Just as chemical replicators were the consequences of the primal soup,
this entire class of memes is the consequence of the way our mental
processors were long ago wired up by evolution, and the recent growth (in
evolutionary terms) of these processors. Beliefs in this class can be
traced back at least as far as the beginnings of oral history, and
probably go back much farther, given the finding of flower offering in
70,000 year old graves. It may be that primitive versions of such
beliefs were essential stabilizers, which had to be on hand prior to the
last great expansion of the human brain.
By now, the difficulties evolution has as a replicating information
pattern should be apparent. In explaining one side of the
where-did-we-come-from/where-are-we-going question, the evolution meme is
in serious competition for limited mind "space" with long-evolved
religious memes. Unlike the memes of physics, it is out there in a
Darwinian fray for mind space with a large group of well adapted,
fearsome competitors, some of which have induced those infected to
incredible physical exertions, from building cathedrals to flaying
There is an even more important strike against evolution in this
competition. Most of the religious memes provide for both origin and
fate. Unlike them, evolution deals only with origin and says little
(certainly nothing comforting!) about our fate, either as individuals or
as a species.
With so little going for it, why has the meme of Darwinian evolution
had any success at all? First, physical evidence--especially from
geology and biology-- and the meta-meme of the scientific method are
strongly supportive of evolution as a meme. Second, the (relatively)
tolerant, secular world, with its diverse religions, and rapidly
increasing scientific knowledge was complex enough when the concepts of
evolution were first introduced that space in minds was available that
was not wholly committed to competitive memes. Had there been no
diversity in the religions at the time of Darwin, the religious meme
carriers might have succeeded in suppressing ideas about evolution, or at
least censoring those holding such beliefs as they did temporarily with
As it turned out, the memes of evolution have spread well in the
subpopulation of receptive humans. They fit in seamlessly with the
scientific meme pool. Since Darwin, most religious schemes have evolved
to at least ignore natural history, waxing metaphysical and getting vague
about the meaning of passages written by (or about) nomads thousands of
years ago. But a few of the religious belief patterns have successfully
evolved into an expanding niche (especially in the southern part of the
US) where organized opposition to evolution memes is a distinguishing,
even driving feature. Anti-evolution beliefs involved fit comfortably
into a meme pool that is almost an inversion of the scientific one. The
developing situation is reminiscent of the struggles driven by memetic
competition that sometimes turn into physical conflict between groups of
people infected with different religions.
On this rather alarming note, let us resume thinking about mental
models and see if a better understanding of the processes within the
minds of "creation scientists" and their ilk can come out of it.
We are going to assume some "mental space," and speculate a little
about the shape and function of it. We are not proposing a literal,
physical space into which ideas tumble and take root, like fertilized
eggs in a uterus, yet the metaphor is useful. Consider "mind" to be
composed of various "modules," or functioning computation sites like
parallel processors within a computer. The form and identity of many of
these modules are shaped by memes. Thus we could say (from examination)
that person has the baseball meme (or memes). That is, enough knowledge
so that they could teach a recognizable game to a group of children who
had never seen or heard about it.
"Game" memes seem to have relatively little competition with each
other. Knowing about baseball probably has little influence on
susceptibility to learning marbles, hockey, or hopscotch, though there is
competition among these memes for a person's "game time." This is not
true of all memes. Memes of the religious class are quite effective in
excluding each other. Games do not include a "play only this game"
sub-meme, religions ordinarily do. Religious memes may be taking
advantage of the mortality censors, i.e., having acquired an
"explanation" that accounts for "after death," the censors close off
thinking that may change the structures of this area. For those who
already have one religion, there is little to be gained by acquiring a
different one. In former times, and to some extent today, changing
religion often cost you your social group. During our tribal past,
questioning the tribes beliefs or ritual was potentially disruptive, a
threat to the group, and, even up to late historical times, put your
survival in question.
Anything statistically affecting survival can cause genetic bias to
emerge if there is variation in the available genetic material. Edward
Wilson and Charles Lumsden in *Genes, Mind and Culture* provide
suggestions as to how units of cultural transmission may influence
hereditary "biases" toward certain kinds of behavior via a cycle of both
physical and cultural reinforcement over several hundred generations. It
seems fairly obvious that if your tribe makes its living with chipped
rocks, inability to learn how to chip rock will be bred out after a
while. Likewise, we may have coevolved with religious memes to accept,
and not question, the one of our tribe.
Memes of the religious class infect a majority of the people in most
countries of the western world. The combination of widespread
vulnerability to these memes and (normally) exclusive rule of one set of
memes per mind has led one of us (Henson) to propose a "religious meme
receptor site" in human mental space, with the usual properties
(selective stickiness and exclusion) of chemical receptor sites.
Selective stickiness means that only "religious" beliefs can occupy the
site. The "energy currency" to measure stickiness might be the lower
level of anxiety from "solving" inference engine problems of the
where-did-I-come-from/where-am-I-going kinds. Exclusion provides a test
of what *is* a religious belief, and forces us to include (for example)
communism in the class of competitors for the site. Unless our analogy
is misleading, the "site" may be shaped/prepared by other memes
(concepts) and experiences that are commonly learned in childhood.
Wherever it is in human mental space, the "religious meme receptor site"
seems to be ROM like. That is, once occupied, programmed, or
constructed, its content does not change, and its influence is not likely
to change in intact people (though ablating a small area in the temporal
region of the brain completely destabilizes beliefs of this category,
according to Gazzaniga). It is not that people never change religious
beliefs, but rather that they are just relatively more stable in this
aspect than say, political opinions. "Changing" religious beliefs seems
to be more of a process of building a new mental structure and cutting
the old one off from behavioral connections.
Religious meme receptor sites may be "close" in mental space to the
"mortality censors" mentioned above. Religious memes may be protected by
the censors, normally preventing us from thinking about (and potentially
changing) beliefs near to this area.
Since we are discussing receptor sites, let us mention "module
activation sites." This would be a recognition activity on the "surface"
of the module built by a meme. For example, the baseball agency built by
the baseball meme would recognize a physical baseball (or a bat, a mitt
...) through visual or tactile senses and activate the appropriate parts
of the module given the context. These sites would recognize the spoken
or written word "baseball" and the names or pictures of prominent
players. There might even be a site that would recognize roasting peanut
smell. (The baseball agency might respond by bringing up the memory of a
In the case of a person with an influential "creationism" meme
programming much of their behavior, the very words "evolution" or
"Darwin" may instigate complex behavior patterns, especially when
children come home from school and mention that they were studying the
"E" word that day.
Are there practical applications to these theories? That is, can we
make predictions with this knowledge? Most of the predictions we have
thought of so far are post hoc: we already know that those spreading the
evolution meme run into dedicated (and from their viewpoint irrational)
opposition. The theory partly accounts for the difficulty we have in
trying to explain our case, but we already knew that logical arguments
have little effect in changing the beliefs of people who believe in the
Perhaps one idea to try would be to avoid the trigger words that
arouse these mental structures. It is in fact more descriptive to refer
to principles of "random variation and non-random selection" than to
evolution. Richard Dawkins' "biomorph" computer program is particularly
good at demonstrating these phenomena. We would be very interested to
hear how a creationist reacted.
Copernican astronomy displaced the Ptolemaic system because it
provided a superior world view. For the same reason creationist beliefs
will eventually be displaced. This analogy might be of use in public
arguments. The comparison alone may be a useful argument if it opens a
chink in "mind armor" enclosing creationist memes. The most effective
people in spreading creationist memes are intelligent, but have mental
agents that put up strong defenses against the commonly used arguments.
New arguments may engage other mental mechanisms. It is even possible
that novel thoughts about the mental structures holding their beliefs
might shake a few of them.
A more attractive possibility would be to construct a "scheme of
memes" which includes science and evolution memes but is more effective
in competing for the religious meme receptor site. There are a number of
such movements, Humanism for example, but none are very successful. In
competing for religious meme receptor sites in human minds, we see two
ways in which such beliefs fare poorly in comparison to the competition.
First, humanist and related beliefs answer where-are-we-going at the
personal level with no hope for anything beyond a short life and
oblivion. Second, they deny human control over the forces of nature
(except through raw engineering efforts). As human control over our
environment improves, the second will become less of a drawback. We have
personally found a way to hope for better than oblivion through
nanotechnology, the developing concepts of cell repair machines, and the
concepts of biostasis (cryonics) to take advantage of future medicine but
going into detail would take another article.
Even if we can't propose specific methods to counter the spread of
creation memes or deal with those who are infected with these memes, it
is useful to know what we are facing. The knowledge may eventually lead
to really effective programs, but even if it does not, it may keep us
from wasting our time on futile activities, such as conventional arguing
with fundamentalists. At least we are personally less upset by the
irrational behavior all around us now that we know it has an
understandable origin in our evolutionary past.
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank