“Religions are sets of ideas, statements and prescriptions of whose validity and applicability individual humans can become convinced,” say Michael Doebeli and Iaroslav Ispolatov at the University of Vancouver.
In other words, religions are memes, units of cultural inheritance just like songs, languages or political beliefs. Richard Dawkins proposed the idea that memes spread much in the same way that viruses do, using humans as hosts. Some get passed from person to person and can survive for many generations. Others die away and become rapidly extinct. The most successful adapt and thrive. Evolution acts on memes in the same way it acts on our genes.
That has given Doebeli and Ispolatov an idea: “We propose to model cultural diversification in religion using techniques from evolutionary theory to describe scenarios in which the reproducing units are religious memes.”
The model they use is relatively simple, including factors such as the rates of transmission of religious memes as well as the rate of loss, but it generate some interesting results.
It predicts, for example, that new distinct religions should emerge as descendants of a single ancestor. Exactly this process has been observed many times in various religions such as the Catholic-Protestant split in the 16th century, and the ongoing fragmentation of a religious organisation in Papua New Guinea, which anthropologists are currently observing with interest.
This is an interesting piece of work and one that could lead to new detail in our study of memes. Religious meme transmission rates are relatively easy to measure and change more quickly than other widespread memes such as languages. So there is plenty of data to play with.
But if ever an idea was likely to ruffle a few feathers, this is it. They’ll be spluttering over their coffee and donuts tomorrow morning in Dover, Pennsylvania.
Ref: arxiv.org/abs/0810.0296: A Model for the Evolutionary Diversification of Religions