I sometimes think your man Darwin was onto something.
Suppose I take a picture of Spider-Man and I make a hundred photocopies of it. And then I pick one of the copies, and make a hundred copies of that.
But my photocopier has a fault, and it distorts the colours, very slightly. A few of the copies look a bit yellowy.
And suppose I have a liking for the colour yellow, so when I pick the picture to re-copy, I am very slightly more likely to pick the ones where the white shading on Spider-Man’s eyes has come out a bit yellowish.
And suppose I do nothing for a week but make a hundred photo-copies, pick one and discard the rest, and make another hundred copies.
By the end of the week, I’ll be left with about twelve thousand reams of discarded paper, and one picture of Spider-Man with bright yellow eyes.
That, as I understand it, is the theory of evolution by natural selection Once you’ve understood it, it can’t not be true.
We only found about natural selection in the 1870s, a few years before my Granny was born; and we only found out about DNA in the 1950s, a few years before I was born. For the whole of the rest of human history, we weren’t quite sure how life got started. I don’t think that many informed people in 1870 literally believed in the Garden of Eden. Christian fundamentalism is a reaction against Darwin, not the thing Darwinism was a reaction against. But lots of Victorians definitely thought that God was involved somewhere along the line.
Darwin didn’t think that evolution abolished God. He stopped believing in God himself, but that wasn’t why. He directed annoyed Christians who wrote to him to clergymen who thought evolution and religion were compatible. Which has always been most of them.
Natural selection—stuff copies itself, and stuff which is more likely to get copied is more likely to get copied—is not so much a theory as a logical axiom. There’s no other way things could work. That which survives survives.
I think that the theory makes it preposterously unlikely that there are creatures suffering from this “consciousness” thing anywhere else in the universe; although I recognise that other people think it makes it a near certainty.
The first time I heard Richard Dawkins talking about Memes, he was talking about baseball caps.
There is no reason to wear your baseball cap back-to-front. One person flips his cap round, and someone else copies him, and before you know it, everyone has got their cap on back to front. And then the fashion dies out and reversed baseball caps are left as a symbol of the 1990s.
If the first person to start playing with a yo-yo lives on an island miles away from anywhere, then there is little chance of anyone else copying him. If he lives in a big city and takes a walk in the park every day, then there’s a very good chance that they will. And if he’s cool and good looking and related to the Queen, the chance increases exponentially. Once you’ve got the internet and TV and carrier pigeons its even easier to spread ideas. And some people, such as yo-yo manufacturers might have a vested interest in spreading the craze. So maybe there will be posters insinuating that if you learn to yo-yo you’ll be more virile and all the girls will swoon over you.
That which survives survives. That which is memorable gets remembered. Evolution is blind. Life forms mutate into forms which are good at surviving. Ideas mutate into memorable forms. Thoughts get passed on, not because they are true or beautiful or useful but because they are the kind of thoughts which get passed on.
Ideas, said the great man, spread like viruses.
The idea of computer viruses was relatively new and novel and sounded quite cutting edge. A lot of people probably thought that they were literal viruses; in the same way that some people thought that the millennium bug was actually an insect.
One very successful idea, argued the Prof, is, boo-hiss, Religion. Religion isn’t successful (he argued) because it is true or helpful or useful or pretty. It is successful because it tells people not to use birth control, to have huge families and to pass on their religious ideas to their children. And to found schools and go on missionary expeditions. And because they have memorable logos; the kinds of signs under which emperors want to conquer things. There are churches and synagogues in every village because churches and synagogues are very good at disseminating the idea that you should build churches and synagogues.
So far so axiomatic.
But then comes the fatal leap.
Ideas spread like viruses.
So we can talk about people being infected with an idea.
Religion is a very successful idea.
So we can visualise religion as a particularly virulent virus.
So we can say that a religious person is infected with the idea of religion.
So we can say that a person who has a religious belief has a diseased mind.
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