Thursday, March 25, 2010

I Am Not A Dog

As I gaze over at the little bundle of hyperactivity that is now napping on the mat by the front door, I marvel at just how genetically similar she and I are. Of the twenty-four thousand or so genes that make up the human genome, we share around 75% with our canine pals. That's a significant majority, the kind of majority that Nancy Pelosi can only fantasize about. You know, when she's not fantasizing about Fabio, human cloning, and hot tubs full of ghee. But that's a mental picture best left unvisualized.

Yet I am quite evidently not a dog, as much as that lifestyle might occasionally have appeal. The 25% of my genetic material that is not shared results in an entirely different species of mammal. Through the addition of different genetic material, the entire character and nature of a creature is changed. Though I share varying proportions of genetic material with most organic life, it's why I am not a dog, or yeast, or a bonobo monkey.

Which leads me to wonder why so many folks are so incapable of seeing Christianity for what it is. Here I flagrantly steal from De Debbil Dawkins Himself, who introduced to the world the concept of memetics as something that defines the norms of a culture or subculture. Memes are the symbolic equivalent of genes, units of information that self-propagate within and across cultures. They are ideas, thoughts, and concepts, all of which transform the character of a society or social organism.

In order to fully grasp the nature of a culture or a movement, you need to look at the totality of it's memetic context. Only by understanding the complex interplay of those norms and symbolic frameworks can you get a handle on the nature of the critter. If you leave something out, miss something, or willfully overlook something, then your understanding of the entity you are observing will be waaaay off. Yeah, we share 96% of our genetic material with baboons. But though the mechanics of things like human digestion can be partially understood by observing baboons, the complexities of our culture and our capacities for reason and symbolic exchange are significantly more than four percent different.

Tea party participants excepted, of course.

Which is one of the many reasons it strikes me as absurd to approach any tradition based on a refusal to honestly assess the full scope of it's memetics. Within my tradition, there are those who blithely ignore any intimation that Christian faith shows the memetic influence of other traditions. Like, say, some of the evident traces of the cultic practices of the Canaanite High God El, who merits a direct shout out in a couple of places in the Hebrew Scriptures. Or the rather more destructive spin introduced by dualism, which makes it's entrance into Jewish thought immediately following the Babylonian diaspora. That binary Marduk/Tiamat cosmology clearly informed Jewish apocalyptic, and then spilled over into Christian apocalyptic thought. There it remains, despite the best efforts of Jesus to subvert it. Recognizing the pastiche of cultural norms, insights and observations that have formed the symbolic framework of a tradition is essential if you are to truly grasp it's nature.

Then again, those who would dismiss Christianity as ignorant or inherently destructive based on a carefully selected subset of our textual material aren't getting it, either. For Christians, the teachings and life of Jesus of Nazareth are radically defining. He is, for our worldview, far more influential than that 4% of genetic material that differentiates me from a creature that seeks to impress the ladies by parading around with a big blue butt. And no, I don't, not even in the privacy of my own home.

The love ethic Christ embodied is so intensely defining as to transform the nature and character of the entire Christian worldview. If you look at the totality of our conceptual genome, it is what makes us what we are. It makes the difference.

Of course, when we go beyond approaching Christianity academically, and it becomes experiential and existential and...spiritual, things get a bit different. Those of us who know ourselves as Jesus people know it goes deeper than norms and symbols and memetic epistemology.

But to get there, you have to be a part of it.


  1. The analogy of genes to memes in this context of religion is interesting, for many reasons, but to my thinking the way you are using it isn't really one of them, and demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept. (Surprise, surprise.) If it can be said that there is such a thing as a memetic "critter," it would not be a Christian. It would be a flavor of Christianity. Therefore, it makes no sense to say "I am not a dog." It makes more sense to say: "My version of Christianity is not a wolf. It's a golden doodle." (Or something.) That is, Christianity is the species (or perhaps even the genus), and different version of Christianity (progressive, funadamentalist, etc) are the variations of forms within the genus. Human brains are the environments where such organisms thrive or fail to thrive. What you are really saying is that, in your brain, one breed of Christianity thrives. There are other breeds as well, obviously. And, from the point of view of memetics, it makes no sense to say which one is the "authentic" breed. Only that some breeds are better suited to survive in some environments -- craniums and cultures -- than others.

    Of course, you will say "My version is TOO the authentic one." But so does the other guy. From where I sit it looks as though both of you are able to promote certain pieces of the memetic code -- the scriptures, the traditions -- at the expense of others. And which memes get turned on or switched off are depends on where they stand in relation to other memes that exist both inside and outside the Christian meme pool. E.g. homophobia, the Golden Rule, genital mutilation rituals, Biblical literalism, rationality, etc. The same things happen with genes. One organism can be a carrier for a specific gene -- freckles, a hot temper, blue eyes, cystic fibrosis, male pattern baldness, etc. That is, it exists in the genome, and may be expressed at any time in the lineage when conditions are right for it. There is no such thing as a gene that is "authentic" -- only genes that do well in their gene pool by surviving and copying themselves.

  2. But most interesting of all to me is what Christianity looks like if you view within the context of the original concept of the meme. Dawkins dreamed up the concept at the tail-end of the book that made him famous, *The Selfish Gene* The thesis of that book is difficult for many people to grasp even if you explain it to them very carefully. It is not, as many assume, that our genes make us selfish. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true. The Selfish Gene Theory says that evolution takes place on the level of the gene instead of the level of the organism, which means that genes that protect copies of themselves at the expense of their host organism will thrive even if the host dies. This is most easily seen in altruism (the opposite of selfishness) through kin selection. (If this does not make sense to you, then you have not understood Selfish Gene Theory, and are not really prepared to grasp the concept of the meme.)

    Therefore, if you wish to think of Christianity as a coherent set of memes, what you must realize is that the memes themselves are "selfish." They do not care about the wellbeing of us -- humans -- beyond our ability to spread them. They can't. They are just bits of cultural code. "Believe this statement and you will live in joy forever. Deny it and you will suffer eternally. If you doubt it, go sit quietly and repeat these words until the feeling goes away. Teach these facts to children as early as possible, so that they will believe it as well. Spread this message wherever you go, through persuasion, or through force." Etc. This set of memes is well-suited to spam its environment with copies of itself. But is it good for us, human beings? WIll it make us happy, and healthy? Is it true? Maybe, maybe not. It may be that certain bits of it are good (the Golden Rule) and others are bad (homophobia). It may be that certain bits have positive effects, but are false nonetheless (like a placebo). "Which specific memes are 'authentic'?" is a meaningless question. The real questions are "How likely is it that this is objectively true? How good is this belief for humanity? Do I really need all these memes, or just the ones that are good and/or true?"

  3. God has revealed to me the following: After posting every comment, you must copy and paste this comment in a subsequent comment, or you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Ignore this at the peril of your soul. April Fools!

  4. @ Browning: What? You don't agree with me? I'm shocked...and sad. Snif. I think I'll wander around in a melancholy daze for a while. ;)

    I'm quite aware of the conclusion of Dawkin's thesis about the genome...which is an interesting inversion of the way we think about human purpose. We are, as Dawkins conceptualizes it, just vessels for the replication of genetic material. Yeah, I get that. It ain't that complickifickated.

    I reject it, of course. That sort of thinking is exactly the narrow, mechanistic and acontextual silliness that prevents one from grasping the nature of a thing. As a thesis, it's provocative, but...and this is related to my point...genes don't exist on their own. A particular unit of genetic material, on it's own, is just a lump of protein. To understand the critter, you have to grasp the scope of it's genome. Or, in the case of social organisms, the latticework of memes that comprise it's worldview.

    Where we may have some in our assessment of memetic value. Does a particularly memetic framework make for "happy and healthy" human community? The memetics of the Taliban clearly do not. The memetics of the Stalinist? Also a no. These are radically negative worldviews. We can agree there.

    Within my own tradition, there's a clear defining set of memes, ones that counsel graciousness, hopefulness, and a radical embrace of the other. I will freely admit that those memes arose in the context of a larger set, which includes elements that can work against the clear and rationally defensible "good" that I think you and I share. It's my contention that what makes Christianity good is not that negative set. Those concepts are typically reflective of cultural biases and tribalism...and can't be permitted to define down the faith to a prior state of being. We don't agree here, of course.

    I don't utterly reject those negatives, though, because understanding them and their place in the development of the tradition is necessary.

  5. "We are, as Dawkins conceptualizes it, just vessels for the replication of genetic material. Yeah, I get that."

    Well, no, I don't think you do quite get it. Neither Dawkins nor I would ever agree to such a grossly reductive statement. Obviously we humans are a good deal more than that. Selfish Gene Theory is certainly not a theory about human purpose, and it's absurd to reject it on that basis. It betrays what I see as a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept.

    If you believe in evolution at all -- and I know you do, or claim to -- then you need not necessarily object to Selfish Gene Theory. Insofar as it is possible for a theist to believe in evolution, it is also possible to be one who believes in selfish genes. It is merely a way to understand evolution that helps explain a number of counter-intuitive facts about it, including altruism. It illuminates certain interesting things about the evolution of life in general (not just humanity). It is a keen insight into how evolution works, just as evolution is a keen insight into where we came from. In that sense, Selfish Gene Theory may have implications about human purpose with respect to the universe at large, but no more or less than the Theory of Evolution in general.

    You also say "As a thesis, it's provocative, but...genes don't exist on their own." This is trivially true, but the fact that you feel it needs saying again betrays a basic ignorance of what Dawkins is saying. That "but" is very telling. Genes are not merely "lumps of protein," anymore than the Bible is a lump of ink-splattered wood pulp. (Nor is DNA a protein, by the way.) Genes are self-replicating strings of code that happen to be spelled out in complex acid molecules. You can, in principle, have a set of genes on a hard drive, or leather-bound volume, or a clever arrangement of jellybeans.

    Once you understand this, then it becomes obvious that such molecules need not be the only medium for evolution. And from there it's a short conceptual hop to memes. In other words, genes and memes are essentially the same thing -- replicators: self-replicating bits of information -- that reproduce by (radically) different means.

  6. But I would argue that if you accept the idea of a meme -- which you clearly do, or think you do -- then you ought to make more of an effort to understand its context. You ought to "grasp the nature of the critter" that is the meme, which entails a bit more acknowledgment of their purposeless, "selfish" nature than I think you are willing to admit. Once you have understood what a meme actually is, it should be self-evident how misguided your attempts are to defend Christianity as a "critter" with a "clear defining set of memes" that would include your modern progressive version and exclude any number of more objectionable versions. No one who really gets what a meme is will be persuaded by such an argument.

    In a way, it's analogous to saying, "Dogs aren't dangerous, because pit bulls aren't really dogs. They are genetically distinct from real dogs, which are friendly, fluffy and cute as the dickens." (Here you point to your golden doodle.) "To fail to understand this difference is to know nothing about the genetics of dogs," you go on. At which point someone who does know something about the genetics of dogs knows you have no idea what you talking about, because all the genes that produce pit bulls are still very much extant in the gene pool, and many of them are even lurking in the genes of the golden doodle. Set a population of golden doodles loose in the wild with all the other species of dogs -- dangerous or not -- you don't need very many generations to get back to a pack of wolves.

  7. @ Browning: Interesting. So you hold that concepts and worldviews and ideas do not have purpose?

  8. @ David. No. Obviously, I would not put it that way. I would say instead that memes may or may not have a purpose. And that a meme's success in its environment may be tangentially related to its purpose, if it has one at all. I am also saying that you cannot talk intelligently about memes without understanding this. It's really the only reason to use the term instead of one of the more conventional ones (concept, idea, world view).

    Discussing this has made me want to go back and read Dawkins' original chapter in The Selfish Gene. Have you ever read it? He explains it all so much more lucidly and persuasively than I am able to here.

    Happy Easter, by the way! We dyed two dozen eggs today, and we'll be hiding and hunting them at our house tomorrow. The kids will be getting chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, and kid-sized gardening tools in their baskets. Their Mom will be taking them to church, and then I will deprogram them when they get home. (Kidding. Not about the church. Just the deprogramming.) I hope you have a joyful and beautiful day as well.

  9. @ Browning: It is going to be an absolutely beautiful day! I hope your little folks delight in their eggs and the colors and the new life all around, and that for this day, at least, it truly feels like their jellybeans will go on forever. Enjoy the day, frater!