In Breaking the Spell, philosopher Daniel Dennett expands upon biologist Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes to explain how belief systems could ultimately co-opt the will of their adherents the way that a parasite can change its host animal’s behavior to further the parasite’s own reproduction. Memes, in this view, are a cultural analog to genes, and as such are the basic units of cultural transmission. The ‘memes’ that survive are the ones that are more memorable and impart advantages onto their users. Whatever the reasons for why and how religious behavior evolved in humans (Dennett reviews several theories), the concept of the meme as a ‘selfish’ entity is central for him, and he appears to feel that religion has essentially outstayed its welcome—outlasted its utility in the human race. The threat of religion, for Dennett, is that it somehow undermines individual capacity for rational and logical thinking.Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
Memetics, at least as employed by Dawkins and Dennett, does not seem to be a detailed enough theory of cultural transmission because it attempts to argue that cultural evolution must operate by the same rules as genetic evolution. In this model, memes—as replicating units of culture—can be either beneficial, neutral, or parasitic to their ‘hosts’. Even in the realm of cognitive science where theories of “memetics” are more articulated, units of cultural transmission are often explained in terms of “thinking”, “ideas” and “cognition”, while the roles of emotion, situatedness, and affectivity are minimized or absent. While the meme-gene analogy may offer useful ways (especially for scientists) to think about culture, it is too easy to use memetics in its Dennettian form to essentially “write off” human culture as epiphenomenal, occurring on the surface of biological evolution. It seems odd to characterize any system of human meaning (in this case religion) as epiphenomenal or vestigial when one is interested in questions of “experience." When it comes down to it, Breaking the Spell just doesn’t seem to address issues of devotionalism, phenomenology, or subjectivity in religion, if simply because the author has concluded that the ‘pros’ of these things don’t outweigh the ‘cons’ he sees in religion. The book is a standard textbook for introducing cognitive-evolutionary approaches to religion, and contains many fascinating and sensible conclusions. Even so, using “memes” as the only way to broach the subjective realm leaves much to be desired for the religionist.
There might, however, be a way to investigate, and even emphasize human subjectivity in a “scientific” account of religion’s origins. In her book Evolving God, evolutionary anthropologist Barbara J. King attempts to excavate the affective and emotional roots of religion which she believes to be foundational to the human imperative of spirituality. For her “religion is all about practice and emotional engagement with the sacred, as defined by one’s social group; it is not necessarily about a set of beliefs concerning supernatural figures.” Thus her definition of religion differs from Dennett’s, who is more of a proponent of religion as a set of beliefs organized around supernatural entities. King criticizes the mainstream emphasis on “genes and brains” in her field, contending that it is too clinical and focused on individual psychology and pathology, and also on information as opposed to modes of transmission. Dennett’s conception of religion does indeed focus more on individual “brains” (and also assumes the homogeneity of cognitive architecture across the human race) while King believes that the human need to belong—arising from our evolution as social mammals—gave rise to what we call religion. In this view, the need to connect with each other led to the need to connect with the sacred. Though our need to connect with each other might have arisen from an evolutionary strategy for favoring group formation, it has manifested subjectively as a set of emotions and desires relating to connecting affectively with “others”, and consequently the ultimate “Other” that is God (or other, non-sentient sacred realities like the “infinite”). King goes so far to assert that sociality and “belongingness” drives cognitive evolution, and not the other way around.
It is not my intention to confirm or deny the outcome of the book’s larger goal of demonstrating the existence of religious meaning in pre-history. However, King’s emphasis on meaning, sociality, and the process by which meaning is made provide for an interesting thought experiment for human apprehension of the sacred in primitive settings. For King, meaning itself is not as much informational as it is emotional—which also means vectored or gestural “to” and “from” something—and thus shaped by specific group dynamics and mutable instead of fixed. In fact, it might make sense to say that for King, emotion and meaning form a feedback loop, because emotion is stirred through the experience of shared meaning and the dynamics of inter-personal communication. While Dennett, in a more Cartesian vein, is guided by questions of being and substance (e.g. memes and cognitive architecture, ‘neural wiring’, etc.), King in a more Whiteheadian vein emphasizes becoming and encounters (events) as being the true primary building blocks in human religious reality. She quotes Buber several times in the first chapter as someone whose philosophy corroborates her theory: ”all life is encounter”, “in the beginning is the relation”, and “man becomes an I through a You” all echo the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and others which sees events (not individual objects) as what give rise to the characteristics of reality, including the illusion of its static or essential nature.
Based on this, one guesses that King doesn’t locate primary forms of religious meaning in doctrines, texts, or even in language—but in experience. King writes that “humans seek God...in order to co-create meaning with sacred beings.” She rejects theories of semiotics that are based on a linear sender-receiver model in which a signal is sent from creature A and subsequently interpreted by creature B. This model places too much emphasis on “the signal” as something fixed and static that is sent—like a package—and ‘deciphered’ by the receiver, and also overemphasizes the “signal” as the central thing around which the act of communication is based. No doubt a computational understanding of information—as being digital and code-based—has influenced such models. Instead, King favors a hypothesis of meaning-making she calls “co regulation” that emphasizes the dynamic and embodied aspects of communication as it occurs in a situated time and place. In this view, the unit of “semiotic” analysis is the social event of communication, rather than disembodied signals. King writes:
“When apes or humans communicate, they adjust to each other’s actions and choices moment by moment, just as one dancer subtly shifts the placement of a hand, or the speed and angle of a turn, as her dance partner shifts his. Co-regulation, then, is the unpredictable and contingent mutual adjustment between partners.” (42, King)
Thus, meaning not contained only in signals themselves, but in the act of communication. Really, signals cannot be separated from senders and receivers at all—it is almost as if we, as living, communicating beings, are signals ourselves—we are somehow fundamentally semiotic in nature. “Co-regulation” illustrates the ways in which signals and meaning are dynamic and have to be constantly re-negotiated and agreed upon. It is in the event of communication between two beings where any gap or dissonance between a ‘signal’ and its supposed ‘meaning’ is adjudicated. This contested nature of language and meaning has been taken up in the humanities by thinkers like Derrida and Ricoeur, and has greatly influenced postmodern and poststructuralist discourse. It is notable (and heartening for religionists interested in transdisciplinarity) that King’s theory, firmly situated within evolutionary and biological anthropology, comes to similar conclusions.
The Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher’s concept of religion resonates with King’s. In On Religion, he writes that “religion’s essence is neither thinking nor acting, but intuition and feeling.” The most “universal formula of religion” is “intuition of the universe,” a sense of the infinite. Whether or not supernatural beings exist in an empirical sense, for King as for Schleiermacher, the phenomenon whereby sacredness is perceived is a fundamental framing mechanism for all human meaning. Sacred reality is an impression, a feeling created by (and generative of) a desire not just to agree upon meanings with other humans, but to somehow share meaning with the larger, super/supra-human world. For King, as for contemplative philosophers of religion like Schleiermacher, this reaching-for the sacred is a fundamental index for human purpose and meaning, and not delusional in the least.
Related posts on semiotics/memetics:
Reviving Eliade for a Semiotics of the Sacred
the oldest language on earth
Computers: Confounding Philosophy Since the Atomic Age
Memetics, Religion, and the Ancient Greco-Roman World