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Religious Memes

The term meme was coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (1976) to name the equivalent of a gene in the inheritance and evolution of culture, and can refer to a cultural element that combines with others to determine the character of a particular religious phenomenon.  Other leading figures of the period proposed different terminology; for example Charles Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson (1981) suggested culturgen, while Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Marcus Feldman (1981) more modestly used the phrase, cultural traits rather than devising a new word.  Subsequently, Dawkins (2006) rather aggressively attacked religion from the perspective of Atheism, yet his term meme became far more popular than the alternatives, so we can use it in analysis of religious evolution without endorsing his personal views on the subject.  The concept that units of culture might function like biological genes emerged as part of the development of sociobiology (Wilson 1975), that initially analyzed the genetic roots of social behavior in a range of animals, from insects to mammals, then began analyzing the complex social patterns exhibited by human beings.

Evolutionary ideas in the social sciences have been significant for at least a century and a half, notably in works by Herbert Spencer (1857) who believed that social evolution followed the same laws as biological evolution, but with a teleological quality that natural selection in biology lacked, because humans consciously seek to achieve a better future.  Building on the axiom that each cause tends to have more than one effect, and conjecturing that a multiplicity of effects become causes in their complex interaction, he deduced that all forms of long-term evolution would lead to increasing complexity.  Traditional societal institutions would not become extinct, but coalesce around specific functions, as society became more differentiated.  Thus, religion might focus on the ultimate meaning of human lives, and the support of spiritual communities, while some of its traditional tasks, like lawmaking and treatment of disease would spin off to newer societal institutions, such as formal legislatures and the medical profession.  A century after Spencer, Talcott Parsons (1964) described religion explicitly as an evolutionary universal, absolutely required for human survival, like the universality of lungs in large land animals, even as other institutions of society assumed some of its ancient functions.

As appealing as the global philosophies of Spencer and Parsons may be, they do not offer much advice about how to conduct detailed research about religion or culture more generally in modern societies, or to make good sense of empirical results.  The meme concept introduces the possibility that rigorous mechanisms may operate in the process of cultural change, as they do in biological reproduction and heredity.  However, we may well doubt that cultural traits are governed by any underlying rigor, as biological genes are based on DNA structures.  In a critical essay on the widespread use of evolutionary metaphors in archaeology, James Boone and Alden Smith (1998) noted the important distinction in biology between genotypes and phenotypes, the sequences of DNA base pairs that determine genes versus the visible manifestations of inheritance manifested in adult organisms.  They offered this model of how biological evolution works:

  1. Genetic variation is continually produced by mutation and recombination
  2. This variation interacts with external environmental factors to shape phenotypes
  3. These phenotypes and associated genotypes are differentially successful in surviving and reproducing.
  4. Offspring inherit some of the genes and thus tend to develop the associated phenotypes of their parents.
  5. The proliferation of more successful genotypes results in transgenerational increase in phenotypes that are better adapted to local environments.

The Boone and Smith critique argued that the equivalent of genotypes probably did not exist for the artifacts studied by archaeologists, and triggered a more general debate as other scholars added their comments after the article.  Similarly, applying modern evolutionary thinking to linguistics seems promising but proved difficult (Croft 2008), as is certainly the case for culture more generally (Aunger 2000).  By the beginning of 2016, Wikipedia was confusing as much as it clarified by presenting Internet meme and viral phenomenon as near synonyms, citing each biological metaphor on the page devoted to the other.  Indeed, one problem with the critiques of the meme concept is that they demanded memetics to exactly translate into the terms of genetics, when really only a metaphoric similarity is intended (Strong and Bainbridge 2003).  For example, Strong (1990) suggested that cultural evolution was Lamarckian, that is, assuming that characteristics acquired during life could be inherited by subsequent generations.  Meme, after all, is a contraction of mimesis, a technical term meaning imitation.

Nearly a century ago, William Fielding Ogburn (1922) offered a four-step theory of human cultural evolution that gave technological invention the key role, but can be translated into evolutionary and cultural terms:

  1. Invention in which new forms of knowledge are created, comparable to mutation in biological genetics.
  2. Accumulation of inventions, like the development of a complex genome of an advanced organism.
  3. Diffusion, comparable to the emergence of a complex gene pool for a diverse species.
  4. Adjustment, as the culture adapts to the set of recent technological innovations, as they interact in combination.

The result of the fourth step is analogous to a cultural phenotype, whereas the complex of technological inventions is the genotype.  This approach to cultural evolution continued to have some influence within the social science of technological development (White 1959), but it also is possible to transfer this mode of analysis to the development of religious traditions and institutions within cultural sciences.  For example, religious organizations can be clustered into families, and when a sect breaks away from a denomination, it is like a child being born from a parent.  Religious innovation often involves a combination of ideas from two or more already existing religious movements, in a process where the elements that function like biological genes are specific beliefs and practices (Bainbridge 1985).


Aunger, Robert.  2000.  Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bainbridge, William Sims.  1985.  “Cultural Genetics,” pp. 157-198 in Religious Movements, edited by Rodney Stark. New York: Paragon.

Boone, James L, and Eric Alden Smith.  1998.  “Is it Evolution Yet?  A Critique of Evolutionary Anthropology,” Current Anthropology 39(51): S141-S174.

Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca and Marcus W. Feldman. 1981. Cultural Transmission and Evolution. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Croft, William.  2008  “Evolutionary Linguistics,” Annual Review of Anthropology 27: 219-234.

Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, Richard. 2006.  The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Lumsden, Charles J. and Edward O. Wilson. 1981. Genes, Mind, and Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ogburn, William Fielding.  1922.  Social Change with Respect to Culture and Original Nature New York: Huebsch.

Parsons, Talcott. 1964. “Evolutionary Universals in Society.” American Sociological Review 29: 339–357.

Spencer, Herbert.  1857.  “Progress: Its Law and Causes,” The Westminster Review 67: 445-485.

Strong, Gary W.  1990.  “Neo-Lamarckism in the Rediscovery of Culture,” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13(1):92-93.

Strong, Gary W., and William Sims Bainbridge. 2003.  “Memetics: A Potential New Science,” pp. 318-325 in Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, edited by Mihail C. Roco and William Sims Bainbridge. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.

White, Leslie A.  1959.  The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome.  New York: McGraw Hill.

Wilson, Edward O.  1975.  Sociobiology: The New Synthesis.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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