Cults as Memes

The idea of 'memes' was first advanced by Richard Dawkins in 1976, towards the end of his book 'The Selfish Gene'. The meme is a unit of information (or instruction for behaviour) stored in a brain and passed on by imitation from one brain to another. Dawkins gave as examples; ideas, tunes, scientific theories, religious beliefs, clothes fashions, and skills, such as new ways of making pots or building arches.

Religions are, according to Dawkins (1993), huge co-adapted meme-complexes; that is groups of memes that hang around together for mutual support and thereby survive better than lone memes could do. Other meme-complexes include cults, political systems, alternative belief systems, and scientific theories and paradigms.

Below is an extract from a paper, 'Waking from the Meme Dream', presented by Dr Susan Blackmore at The Psychology of Awakening, an International Conference on Buddhism, Science and Psychotherapy in England in 1996. (N.B. - not an FWBO organisation)
Full paper available at

See also 'A Beginner's Guide to Memes' by Dr Susan Blackmore.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea

There is one scientific idea which, to my mind, excels all others. It is exquisitely simple and beautiful. It explains the origins of all life forms and all biological design. It does away with the need for God, for a designer, for a master plan or for a purpose in life. Only in the light of this idea does anything in biology make sense.

It is, of course, Darwin's idea of evolution by natural selection. The implications of natural selection are so profound that people have been awe-struck or maddened; fascinated or outraged, since it was first proposed in The Origin of Species in 1859. This is why Dennett (1995) calls it Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Sadly, many people have misunderstood the idea and, even worse, have used it to defend indefensible political doctrines which have nothing to do with Darwinism. I therefore hope you will forgive me if I spend some time explaining it as clearly as I can.

All you need for natural selection to get started is a replicator in an appropriate environment. A replicator is something that copies itself, though not always perfectly. The environment must be one in which the replicator can create numerous copies of itself, not all of which can survive. That's it.

Can it really be that simple? Yes. All that happens is this - in any one copying generation, not all the copies are identical and some are better able to survive in that environment than others are. In consequence they make more copies of themselves and so that kind of copy becomes more numerous. Of course things then begin to get complicated.

The rapidly expanding population of copies starts to change the environment and that changes the selective pressures. Local variations in the environment mean different kinds of copy will do well in different places and so more complexity arises. This way the process can produce all the kinds of organised complexity we see in the living world - yet all it needs is this one simple, elegant, beautiful, and obvious process - natural selection.

To make things more concrete let's imagine a primeval soup in which a simple chemical replicator has arisen. We'll call the replicators "Blobbies". These blobbies, by virtue of their chemical constitution, just do make copies of themselves whenever they find the right chemicals. Now, put them in a rich chemical swamp and they start copying, though with occasional errors. A few million years go by and there are lots of kinds of blobbies. The ones that need lots of swampon have used up all the supplies and are failing, so now the sort that can use isoswampin instead, are doing better. Soon there are several areas in which different chemicals predominate and different kinds of blobby appear. Competition for swamp chemicals gets fierce and most copies that are made die out. Only those that, by rare chance, turn out to have clever new properties, go on to copy themselves again.

Clever properties might include the ability to move around and find the swampon, to trap isoswampin3-7 and hang onto it, or to build a membrane around themselves. Once blobbies with membranes appear, they will start winning out over free-floating ones and super-blobbies are made.

Another few million years go by and tricks are discovered like taking other blobbies inside the membrane, or joining several super-blobbies together. Super-dooper-blobbies appear, like multi-celled animals with power supplies and specialised parts for moving about and protecting themselves. However, these are only food to even bigger super-dooper-blobbies. It is only a matter of time before random variation and natural selection will create a vast living world. In the process billions and billions of unsuccessful blobbies have been created and died, but such a slow, blind process produces the goods. "The goods" on our planet includes bacteria and plants, fish and frogs, duck-billed platypuses and us.

Design appears out of nothing. There is no need for a creator or a master plan, and no end point towards which creation is heading. Richard Dawkins (1996) calls it "Climbing Mount Improbable". It is just a simple but inexorable process by which unbelievably improbable things get created.

It is important to remember that evolution has no foresight and so doesn't necessarily produce the "best" solution. Evolution can only go on from where it is now. That is why, among other things, we have such a daft design in our eyes, with all the neurons going out of the front of the retina and getting in the way of the light. Once evolution had started off on this kind of eye it was stuck with it. There was no creator around to say "hey, start again with that one, let's put the wires out the back". Nor was there a creator around to say "Hey, let's make it fun for the humans". The genes simply do not care.

Understanding the fantastic process of natural selection we can see how our human bodies came to be the way they are. But what about our minds?

Like many other scientists I would love to find a principle as simple, as beautiful and as elegant as natural selection that would explain the nature of the mind.

I think there is one. It is closely related to natural selection. Although it has been around for twenty years, it has not yet been put fully to use. It is the theory of memes.


A Brief History of the Meme Meme

In 1976 Richard Dawkins wrote what is probably the most popular book ever on evolution - The Selfish Gene. The book gave a catchy name to the theory that evolution proceeds entirely for the sake of the selfish replicators. That is, evolution happens not for the good of the species, nor for the good of the group, nor even for the individual organism. It is all for the good of the genes. Genes that are successful spread and those that aren't don't. The rest is all a consequence of this fact.

Of course the main replicator he considered was the gene - a unit of information coded in the DNA and read out in protein synthesis. However, at the very end of the book he claimed that there is another replicator on this planet; the meme.

The meme is a unit of information (or instruction for behaviour) stored in a brain and passed on by imitation from one brain to another. Dawkins gave as examples; ideas, tunes, scientific theories, religious beliefs, clothes fashions, and skills, such as new ways of making pots or building arches.

The implications of this idea are staggering and Dawkins spelt some of them out. If memes are really replicators then they will, inevitably, behave selfishly. That is, ones that are good at spreading will spread and ones that are not will not. As a consequence the world of ideas - or memosphere - will not fill up with the best, truest, most hopeful or helpful ideas, but with the survivors. Memes are just survivors like genes.

In the process of surviving they will, just like genes, create mutually supportive meme groups. Remember the blobbies. In a few million years they began to get together into groups, because the ones in groups survived better than loners. The groups got bigger and better, and a complex ecosystem evolved. In the real world of biology, genes have grouped together to create enormous creatures that then mate and pass the groups on. In a similar way memes may group together in human brains and fill the world of ideas with their products.

If this view is correct, then the memes should be able to evolve quite independently of the genes (apart from needing a brain). There have been many attempts to study cultural evolution, but most of them implicitly treat ideas (or memes) as subservient to the genes (see e.g. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981; Crook, 1995; Durham,1991; Lumsden and Wilson, 1981). The power of realising that memes are replicators is that they can be seen as working purely and simply in their own interest. Of course to some extent memes will be successful if they are useful to their hosts, but this is not the only way for a meme to survive, and we shall soon see some consequences of this.

Since he first suggested the idea of memes Dawkins has discussed the spread of such behaviours as wearing baseball caps back to front (my kids have recently turned theirs the right way round again!), the use of special clothing markers to identify gangs, and (most famously) the power of religions. Religions are, according to Dawkins (1993), huge co-adapted meme-complexes; that is groups of memes that hang around together for mutual support and thereby survive better than lone memes could do. Other meme-complexes include cults, political systems, alternative belief systems, and scientific theories and paradigms.

Religions are special because they use just about every meme-trick in the book (which is presumably why they last so long and infect so many brains). Think of it this way. The idea of hell is initially useful because the fear of hell reinforces socially desirable behaviour. Now add the idea that unbelievers go to hell, and the meme and any companions are well protected. The idea of God is a natural companion meme, assuaging fear and providing (spurious) comfort. The spread of the meme-complex is aided by exhortations to convert others and by tricks such as the celibate priesthood. Celibacy is a disaster for genes, but will help spread memes since a celibate priest has more time to spend promoting his faith.

Another trick is to value faith and suppress the doubt that leads every child to ask difficult questions like "where is hell?" and "If God is so good why did those people get tortured?". Note that science (and some forms of Buddhism) do the opposite and encourage doubt.

Finally, once you've been infected with these meme-complexes they are hard to get rid of. If you try to throw them out, some even protect themselves with last-ditch threats of death, ex-communication, or burning in hell-fire for eternity.

I shouldn't get carried away. The point I want to make is that these religious memes have not survived for centuries because they are true, because they are useful to the genes, or because they make us happy. In fact I think they are false and are responsible for the worst miseries in human history. No - they have survived because they are selfish memes and are good at surviving - they need no other reason.

Once you start to think this way a truly frightening prospect opens up. We have all become used to thinking of our bodies as biological organisms created by evolution. Yet we still like to think of our selves as something more. We are in charge of our bodies, we run the show, we decide which ideas to believe in and which to reject.

But do we really? If you begin to think about selfish memes it becomes clear that our ideas are in our heads because they are successful memes. American philosopher Dan Dennett (1995) concludes that a "person" is a particular sort of animal infested with memes. In other words you and I and all our friends are the products of two blind replicators, the genes and the memes.

I find these ideas absolutely stunning. Potentially we might be able to understand all of mental life in terms of the competition between memes, just as we can understand all biological life in terms of the competition between genes.

[Dr Blackmore went on to discuss the idea of 'self' as a meme or meme complex]

- - - - - - - end Susan Blackmore extract - - - - - -


Bearing in mind that the idea of memes is only a hypothesis or metaphor at present, it may be interesting to look at the ways in which cults appear to exhibit meme-like behaviour.

A cult belief system is like a self-replicating meme complex. All it cares about is replicating and spreading itself. It spreads by infecting the minds of people who are open to exploring new ideas. Once a cult meme infects a person's mind, it can be very difficult to get rid of. It will tend to grow within a person's mind to the full meme complex, and it may come to dominate their whole mind and behaviour. In the most serious cases, a person may devote their whole lives to proselytizing, to spreading the meme complex or belief system to other receptive minds.

Perhaps one of the ways in which a cult meme complex differs from other more mainstream religions or belief systems is in its tendency to want to dominate, rather than co-exist happily with other memes. Cult memes tend to be more ambitious and domineering. They will try to infect other memes, so as to turn them into replicas or relatives of themselves.

An example in the case of the FWBO might be the way they try to infect Darwin's original idea or meme, of evolution through natural selection, with their own meme of 'spiritual hierarchy'. (This is a non-Buddhist meme which could be considered the basic seed or blueprint for the whole FWBO meme complex and belief system.)

For a person infected with the FWBO meme, Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection becomes transmogrified into a theory about higher and lower evolution, which is basically a version of the FWBO 'spiritual hierarchy' meme. And the idea of natural selection, which is key to Darwin's theory, is simply dropped. Likewise, the FWBO meme does its best to infect Buddhism too, along with much of Western philosophy. A cult meme complex or ideology is a kind of mono-culture, which tends to see itself as the only valid source of truth and understanding.

Not all memes try to infect other memes. Some, like the arch-building meme, are benign (and verifiable), while others are more aggressive (and non-falsifiable). Perhaps the 21st century will come to be seen by cultural historians as a series of battles between the mono-culture memes and other more tolerant, culturally diverse memes.