Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Selfish Meme

We are all indebted to Richard for coming up with the idea of the meme. In the remainder of chapter five of ‘The God Delusion’, having disposed of the adaptive significance of religion to his own satisfaction, Richard considers religions as clusters of self-replicating memes. One obvious consequence of the ‘meme’ model is the concept that in any successful cluster of ideas, or memeplex, there will be ideas that have no logical connection with the others but are only there to ensure the survival of the memeplex. The most important of these ‘selfish memes’ is surely the meme: ‘Only this memeplex is true’ (e.g., this meme is clearly part of Richard’s aggressive scientism). Closely allied to this meme is ‘You will be punished for not adopting this memeplex’ (e.g., in Richard’s worldview, those who cling to the God delusion are punished with various psychological problems and their societies remain barbaric and dysfunctional).
By recognising these omnipresent ideas as examples of the selfish meme, we can discount them. They are just things that any successful memeplex will tend to accumulate as it goes along.

Here is an exercise you should try:

(1) Get one of those little New Testament and Psalms that the Gideons hand out on university campuses around the country.

(2) Read through the Gospels in the order scholars are agreed they were written. That is, Mark first, then Matthew/Luke, then John.

(3) As you read through, take note of any statements along the lines of ‘No one shall come to the Father but through the Son’, or similar assertions either that Jesus is the only way or that those who reject him will be punished. Colour these passages in with a coloured pencil you have procured for the purpose.

You will find that there really aren’t any statements like that in Mark, that they are present but not frequent in Matthew and Luke, and that John ends up mostly coloured in. What do you reckon? Is it plausible that some evangelists just happened to write down all these robust assertions of Christian supremacy and uniqueness, while others didn’t? Or, is it more likely that these are selfish memes that have crept in along the way, and that Mark corresponds most closely to what Jesus really said and did?

This is the main reason I am most fond of the Gospel of Mark and least fond of the Gospel of John.


Marco said...

Nice Post! See, if I read the book, it would just send me into a purple spin of rage, and I would find it hard to suppress my "mulch" reflex (if its paper and it's not worth keeping, mulch it). It never occurred to me in this case that he may have left himself open to use his own arguments against himself as you have. It should be turned into a sport.

winstoninabox said...

I've never read the Gospels and my knowledge of the them and their authenticity is at best sketchy.

I'm not so convinced that because Mark is the oldest and John the youngest that Mark is closest to the words of Jesus. It's my understanding (and I could be very wrong) that the earliest Gospel was written anything up to 50 years after Jesus. Depending on this time period, and going with the meme idea, Mark's Gospel could already be polluted with memes. It would be interesting if there are other sources that corroborate the Gospels.

The differences might also be attributable to the author's (authors'?) individual preference for what Jesus might have said at the time. Selective memory is a wonderful thing. So is having an agenda.

If biases are readily apparent between the Gospels, then I am more inclined to believe that it is because of human fallibility or skewing for one's own purpose.

Not disagreeing, just talking 8-)
Please keep up with these wonderful posts.

Chris Fellows said...

Disagreement is good! More discussion means more clarity, means more understanding, doubleplusgood!

The possibility that the four evangelists just put their own different spins on the story is of course a real one, but I am attracted to the 'selfish meme' idea because of the correlation with assumed time of writing, and because it seems more fruitful: we could take it and run the discussion with it without having to know a lot of first century history, which we couldn't do if the difference in the gospels arises purely from the different agendas of the evangelists.

Chris Fellows said...

Curses... despite me clicking 'cancel request', blogger has put me down as me instead of as my quasi-secret identity. I don't know any of fixing this except by deleting all the comments on this post, so I will just go and have some coffee.

winstoninabox said...

A quick wikipedia about the order in which the Gospels were written was very interesting. There are various orders proposed, although the order you talked about seems most commonly held to be true. The earliest date proposed for a Gospel is in the 50s, but more conservative (or should that be "less conservative") dates start in the 70s. The one thing I did find out was that a proper understanding of the subject could be a lifetime of work.

On a lighter note your secret id would eventually have been revealed (or you would have been forced into retirement) when the " Evil Clam Registration Act" was enacted.

Nato said...

apologies for my job has been pretty consuming until just recently.

Dawkins meme concept has been in advertising for many, many years (think jingles in commercials - if you hum it, you've been 'memed').

Dr.Clam's analysis of the Gospel 'memes' as a basis for preferring Mark over John does not recognise the different literary styles and audiences that the Gospels were written for.
Mark's punchy, 6 O'clock news journalism style almost obscures a remarkable chiastic structure that reveals many hidden treasures. The fact that Mark is shorter does not mean there are fewer references to Christ's supremacy & uniqueness - just that both these are revealed in parables and miracles, as opposed to extended episodes of teaching that carries great symbolism for its intended audience. :-).
For a fuller appreciation of the Gospels, knowing the intended primary audience and literary styles employed (i.e. author's intent) makes a huge difference in how we see the content of the Gospels.
Winston has it right - there are many lifetime's work in studying the richness of these texts. :-).
PS Dawkins has a long interview article in today's Devil Bunny Herald:
You can have your say to Mr Dawkins directly, Chr - sorry, DrClam :-(

Dr. Clam said...

What do you mean, 6 o'clock news style? Mark isn't the Gospel that blames everything on the Jews...

I don't think we can ever really know the authors' intent with the Gospels, or what the intended audiences were. You may be right- I may be crazy. But it just might be a lunatic you're- oops, sorry. Try the experiment, that's all my advice is! :)