Minimum Viable Theology: Superorganisms
This is part of a series on a Minimum Viable Theology. The idea is to see if we can construct a minimal theological starter kit, using only reasonable assumptions. The first entry is about why good wins. You should start there.
One of the most controversial features of traditional religion is the belief in creatures outside the bounds of normal organic life.
I’ve already written about why we should probably assume that we are not alone, that there are superhuman beings out there. But religion usually assumes more than just beings out there—it also assumes that there are significant beings right here, engaged in our world and in human life.
Where we normally categorize the organic world into humans, animals, plants, and so on, religions often regale us with menageries of angels, demons, gods, goddesses, ghosts, spirits, souls, and more.
This is one of the factors that makes many people consider religion a form of superstition.
It may surprise you to know that the first person who showed me this religious perspective was true is Richard Dawkins.
What is a Meme?
In his seminal 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme”. Although “meme” is now used as a term for photos with funny captions, the original concept was far broader, referring to any idea, term, or sound that can be spread from person to person. Dawkins was making the point that genes weren’t the only things which could spread virally and organically and selfishly—anything capable of being replicated, and influencing its own replication, would behave in the same way.
Dawkins’ idea was both insightful and prophetic. The term “meme” itself spread from person to person, evolving and adapting as it did so, until it came to be a label for the whole genre of photos mentioned above. In a sense, Dawkins’ term had taken on a life of its own, leaping the fence of academic literature, and finding its way into the much more lucrative ecological niche of social media.
As someone once said, “Life finds a way”.
These days, the concept of an idea or an image going “viral”, or a tune becoming an “earworm”, is commonplace. We increasingly use organic language to talk about the contents of human communication. But when Dawkins first proposed the idea, it probably seemed pretty counter-intuitive.
Dawkins’ key insight was that ideas are shaped by the same evolutionary forces that shape infectious viruses. Just as the viruses that spread best are the ones which manipulate their hosts into coughing or sneezing (so as to infect other people in the vicinity), the ideas that spread best are the ones which convince their hosts to spread them to others.
Old-fashioned chain letters are a great example of this. They use fear, coercion and a promised reward to convince you to make a copy and send them on. The chain letters which do the best job manipulating their recipients get passed on more often.
The examples needn’t be negative. “Science” and “rationality” are also memes, which spread from person to person. They spread because they seem compelling and truthful to us, and because they also work to spread lots of evidence about how effective they are.
The key thing is that ideas don’t spread purely because they are better ideas. Their effectiveness and truthfulness may help them spread—but ultimately those factors are part of a bigger picture. The ideas that spread best, are the ones that do the best job convincing their hosts to spread them.
The Hidden Ecosystem
Dawkins hadn’t simply coined a clever term. In showing us the organic behavior of ideas, he had thrown open the door to a whole new ecosystem. Just as our bodies play host to billions of tiny creatures living in symbiotic (and sometimes parasitic) union with us, our minds play host to billions of tiny creatures as well. And those creatures are the base layer of an entire ecosystem which stretches far beyond the individual human mind.
One of the first things people realized in grappling with this new science of “memetics” was that memes can work together symbiotically, creating larger entities called “memeplexes”.
As an example, the concept of “rationality” is made more convincing and easier to transmit by the partner concept of “superstition”. Contemplating the negative connotations of “superstition” makes you want to look for a positive alternative, and identifying the positives of “rationality” makes you want to warn people of the negatives of “superstition”. These two terms can do better together, working to reinforce each other—and in fact, a whole host of related terms often travel along with them, as you’ve seen in this post already: science, truth, evidence, effectiveness, etc.
Memeplexes don’t stop there. Perhaps the most controversial topic in memetics is the study of religion. Religions are memeplexes par excellence, vast ecosystems of cooperating and symbiotic memes, containing ideas, stories, philosophies, songs, art, and literature—all working together to perpetuate themselves and each other, as these memeplexes keeps growing and evolving over time.
Some religious people may find it troubling to look at things this way. But memetics tells us nothing about truth or falsehood—it shows us how things grow. Just as it is useful to consider how science and rationality spread from person to person, it is illuminating to consider how religions are passed on.
Memeplexes don’t simply spread themselves as ideas. They also tend to generate effects in the physical world. Religious memeplexes build temples, scientific memeplexes create technologies, technological and aesthetic memeplexes build cars, clothes, iPhones, and factories.
Kevin Kelly calls this the technium, the entire ecosystem of art and technology and cultural products. Kevin sees this as a seventh kingdom of life, whose genes consists of our ideas, and whose bodies consists of our tools. Just as the biological creatures we’re familiar with start as genes that produce bodies, and those bodies help spread their genes—creatures of the technium start as ideas that produce artifacts, and those artifacts help spread the ideas.
But there is more to the technium than just products and artwork and artifacts. There are other systems that grow up from the seeds of memeplexes, and become vast organisms that live in and among human societies.
Corporations, for instance. They are born, they grow, they die. They breath in and out, they consume and excrete. They’ve even convinced us to legally classify them as persons, possessing rights normally only associated with human beings. Charlie Stross has recently called them the first AI.
Where did they come from? The seed of an idea—a meme—that mutated and spread until it attracted other memes, and became a memeplex. That memeplex allowed the creation of systems of human order and operation, organizing us around the processing of money and materials.
These organisms have their own impulses and needs. Even in a legal sense, the operators of a corporation are not free to make their own decisions—they are legally bound to make money, to feed and grow the corporation to the best of their ability.
Corporations are only one example. In reality, all organizations are some species of this kind. Next time you curse at a bureaucracy, remember that you’re really cursing at a non-human species that is using human faces to communicate.
Of course, corporations and institutions and organizations can only exist because there are legal and political systems in which they live and move and have their being. These legal and political systems are themselves creatures, born of memeplexes, grown into widespread systems of human behavior, occupying vast space in human minds and homes, consuming huge quantities of energy and upkeep, exclusively operating and possessing large amounts of the real estate on this planet.
We’re still only scratching the surface of the organisms that live among us and in us. Riots are a kind of viral contagion that break out, then quickly dissipate, leaving many people feeling like their minds have been possessed. They act as mental infections spread from person to person, leading to emergent behaviors in concert with other infected individuals.
Sometimes the contagion is intentional. This is the concept of the “Egregore”—an autonomous entity made up of, and influencing, the thoughts of a group of people. Thus, a group of people may consciously or unconsciously come together to incarnate a god or a demon. If that is what some people play at in party games and seances, it may be what others accomplish in a more substantial way, given more concerted efforts.
All of these things—mobs, markets, political systems, cities, bureaucracies, institutions—are creatures which spread themselves across multiple human hosts, and which sustain themselves by drawing on and controlling human attention and effort. Walter Wink called them the powers.
I call them Superorganisms.
These superorganisms are mostly invisible, and yet exert incredible power and influence in human life. They can possess people, changing them dramatically—sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. They can war with each other, they can be killed, they can be cast out. They can be healthy or diseased, benevolent or destructive.
Struggling with these superorganisms is not like fighting other human beings. Just as trying to contain a meme usually makes it spread faster, trying to destroy diseased and destructive superorganisms through conventional means almost always backfires. To fight these entities, we need new and different approaches. One of these approaches might be to sustain and grow benevolent superorganisms, which can fight destructive superorganisms on their own turf.
At least one religion has the explicit aim of forming such a superorganism, grown from the voluntary efforts and sacrifices of large numbers of humans, across numerous generations. We Christians call this The Body of Christ.
Superorganisms Among Us
That we live in a world of superorganisms is not a new realization. It is perhaps one of the oldest ones—a realization that must have dawned as early humanity grappled with the forces unleashed through emerging self-awareness.
Like the birth of the internet, it suddenly seemed as if viruses were everywhere.
The idea that a human could be possessed by some rogue entity was not hypothetical, it was obvious. The idea that tribes and kingdoms were driven by a non-material dimension of life, was the height of practicality.
The concept that healthy human life required some kind of “anti-virus”, and meant engaging in some kind of non-material warfare, erecting non-material defenses, using non-material weapons, made all the sense in the world.
If early human societies had clumsy ideas about how to go about this, that does not invalidate their realizations. The fact that we’re still struggling with these problems in the age of social media, demonstrates just how difficult they are to solve.
These issues aren’t going away. If anything, they’re likely to become more pressing, and more dramatic over time. To deal with them, we’re going to have to embrace the fact that we live in a world haunted by non-human forces, an ecosystem of invisible beings that shape every aspect of our lives.
We’re going to have to accept that there are superorganisms among us.
- For more on the basics of super-organisms, see Kevin Simler’s Minimum Viable Superorganism.
- For more on Egregores, see Sarah Perry’s A Pseudoethnography of Egregores.
- For an in-depth exploration of these subjects in a Christian theological context, and their practical application for social change, see Walter Wink’s The Powers That Be, and his complete Powers Trilogy.