Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Influenza and the Power of Religious Evolution

Welcome back, faithful readers! I'd like to tell you that my hiatus from writing over the New-Year holiday was because of all the fun I was having, but influenza was the real cause. Evolution is a marvelous science to study, but when I get hit with a new virus, I'm reminded just how deadly and relentless the battle for survival is.

And the New Year is a time to remind ourselves of the great battle of memes going on in our culture, the constant evolution of ideas, the "survival of the fittest" that pits science and rationality against faith.

One of the most subtle lessons of evolution is the incredible flexibility it provides. The Earth has experienced an astonishing amount of change over the last four billion years, causing almost every species that once lived to become extinct. Yet somehow, at every turn, something adapts and survives. Life is everywhere, from deep in the rocks to high in the stratosphere.

And so it is with religion. Its memeplexes have been evolving for somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 years, and during that time, most religions have become extinct. Human culture has changed, grown, been destroyed, rebuilt, and has taken just about every shape imaginable. Where once religion was needed to explain just about everything, now science fills that role. And yet ... irrational religious beliefs continue to survive. As each advance in human knowledge is made, religion adapts to accommodate it. It is a survivor, because that's what evolution does.

The problem with biological life is that good an evil are irrelevant. Nature has no feelings. Tapeworms survive and adapt just as readily as koala bears. One is (from our viewpoint) horrifying and ugly while the other is cute, but to evolution, both are equally successful.

And so it is with religion. Truth is only relevant if the average person can understand it. Any science that's beyond a high-school education is irrelevant. The Earth is flat? OK, that one's out because it's obvious. The Earth is 6,000 year old? That takes some serious understanding of physics, chemistry and geology, and so the religious memes evolve and adapt, truth goes out the window, and millions believe that Genesis is a true story.

So as we go forward in this new decade, let's remember that however brilliant science is, whatever new discoveries are made, and however carefully we try to explain them, the religion memeplexes won't go away quietly. Science has made tremendous progress, but harmful religious ideas will continue to thrive for centuries.

Evolution's power makes its own victory against irrationality a very distant hope.


  1. While religions has evolved and adapted, they have only competed with other religions. However, atheism has evolved and adapted as well to become a viable competitor.

    Will religion be like the dinosaur or will it be more like cockroaches or rats? I really hope it's the former, that this memeplex becomes extinct.

    We'll see what happens...


  2. Hi Anon - Good points. You're right that religions have been competing with each other ... but just like living species, they're affected by the environment (other memes). The obvious example of this has been the way religious memes have evolved to accomodate scientific memes, such as abandoning the geocentric view.

    Atheism is, to a large extent, an extension of science. That is, the ecological niche that religions filled is growing smaller and smaller. Many of the great mysteries that religion explained are no longer mysterious at all.

    The ecosphere in which religion lives is getting more and more hostile.


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