Humans (and others including ants) have domesticated other species, altering them to become better servants. But is it possible that another species could have domesticated humans for its own benefit?

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Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has given us the concept of memes—items of information that replicate themselves by being copied from one human brain to another. They evolve in a manner similar to genetic life and sometimes combine in a coordinated group known as a memeplex just as genes do in complex animals.

We (our genetic selves) imagine that we have the memes under our control, but it is clear that sometimes they are controlling us to their advantage and not ours. Is it possible that a memeplex has even domesticated us, by selectively altering our genes, as we have domesticated other species?

I believe the evidence is clear that it has. And we must ask, can those of us who have managed to become “feral” humans ever break free completely?

Is it possible that a memeplex has even domesticated us, by selectively altering our genes, as we have domesticated other species?

It is mostly true that the symbiosis of genes and memes is of great advantage to humans. Most memes benefit our genetic selves and have made humans the dominant species on earth. We cultivate our memes like farmers. We seek the “seeds” and “breeding-stock” and we put a great deal of effort toward installing memes in our children. Education brings great advantages.

But not everything in the garden is lovely. There are weeds and pests. Certain false beliefs and even fake news can harm us and, although we have certain powers of skepticism, these are far from perfect at eliminating bad memes.

Many of the current writers advocating atheism see religion as a bad meme analogous to a virus. Like a virus, it uses pre-existing aspects of our make-up and hijacks them. We have evolved many mental characteristics which make us vulnerable.

We identify patterns and identify things as implying active agents; we sometimes see a face in the clouds. We accept authority to an extent. We love to hear narratives from each other. We accept facts from each other, even when it is impractical to fully check them. All of these have been adaptive in the past.

The religion virus is said to have exploited these pre-existing weaknesses rapidly changing and adapting itself to allow it to spread with greater virulence. It is evolving, not for the benefit of its human hosts, but for its own benefit in terms of survival and reproduction.

Dawkins describes religion as a burden that consumes time and wealth, creates hatreds and is absurd in its claims and that it is a parasite infesting the human brain.

There is certainly some truth in the virus analogy, but Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion has pointed out that mutations and adaptations cannot have happened entirely within the religious meme.

Courtesy of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics, Novosibirsk, Russia

When we see the genetic change that can happen to Belyaev’s foxes in thirty years, it is difficult to believe that human genes have not adapted to the religious memes in the time that they have been around. If religion is such a parasite as Dawkins and others claim, how could we have failed to evolve a defense against it?

As Haidt says:

How could the genetic partner in the ‘swirling waltz’ of gene-culture coevolution not take a single step as the cultural partner began dancing to religious music. Fifty thousand years may not be enough time to evolve a complex new module…from scratch. But how could there be no optimising, no fine tuning …?

He believes that religion must be doing us good.

Ronald Inglehart in Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It, and What Comes Next? shares this belief that human acceptance of religion over a vast stretch of time must have evolved because it brought a benefit. Yet we observe that we remain vulnerable to certain pathogens (which evolve faster than we do) although they bring us no benefit.

Of course we do not know how long religious beliefs have been around. It seems likely that they would have become more organized after the invention of agriculture which led to people staying in settled communities, but supernatural beliefs must have been around long before that. Such beliefs seem to be present among all peoples, even those who have not practiced agriculture. Fifty thousand years is probably a low estimate.

Haidt’s conclusion is that we have not developed a genetic resistance to religion because it has brought benefits that he sees as a means of creating social cohesion. In a group-selection mechanism, tribes and communities with a strong religious belief would do better than those with none. Although group selection has its limitations, it is not completely impossible but I believe he is mistaken. Mechanisms exist which could explain our failure to adapt.

To look in a little more detail, it would be good to give some thought to the selection pressures which are likely to have occurred. We can observe these directly in mature religions, but in the early stages, we can make reasonable conjectures.

When, as a child, you are told that stepping on the joints between the paving stones brings bad luck, you perhaps might not fully believe it, but rather after the manner of Pascal’s wager, you may try to avoid it for a while. In a primitive society, a belief could begin in this way and the human tendency to see an agency, where there may not be one, could take effect.

If it is suggested that certain actions could offend the spirit of the mountain or the thunderstorm and could cause a loss of crops or some other disaster, it is easy to imagine that those who carelessly flouted the beliefs would be blamed.

Could this kind of blame affect gene frequencies? Anyone who doubts the human capacity for cruelty and believing nonsense need only think of the well-documented witchcraft trials. Clearly becoming socially condemned could affect gene frequencies in favor of those who were more compliant.

But for mature religions, we have historical records and current news. If we consider the conditions in Europe up to 1700CE and in many parts of the world even today, dissent could carry penalties often fatal and certainly a risk of social exclusion.

In some countries today, blasphemers are executed; the last time this happened in the UK was 1697. But, even as late as 1950 in the UK, it was very inadvisable to declare oneself an atheist. Survival and reproduction could be severely curtailed. This strong genetic selection pressure on behaviour has existed for thousands of years.

So what behavioral characteristics would we expect to have been selected? Here are a few:

Sanctity: A willingness to accept that certain places, people and beliefs have to be treated with respect and are off-limits for criticism.

Faith: A willingness to believe supernatural claims and to be immune to counter-evidence. Total credulousness would not be selected as that could have led to disadvantage. The result seems to be a partition of the mind to accept miraculous religious beliefs without evidence, while retaining skepticism on other matters such as dishonest traders.

Evangelism: A commitment to transmit the entire memeplex to others.Enforcement: A belief in a duty to enforce the religion on others, in some cases with violence that would be otherwise unusual.

Duty: A feeling of duty toward the religion and the need to attend and contribute.

So we have an example of a memeplex that has had the effect of altering the human genome in a way that makes its own survival and reproduction more successful and is not necessarily beneficial to its human hosts. This is precisely the process of domestication.

But the growth of science and scholarship of the history of religion has made a change. It has exposed in embarrassing clarity the falsehood and the arbitrary origin of so many religious claims.

The scientific approach, careful history and liberal values are themselves memes which are competing with the religious memes for space in human brains. This has enabled some of us to break free from captivity. Do we “feral” humans have a duty to help our fellows to escape, even though their minds have been, not only indoctrinated, but genetically domesticated to remain captives?

Whether the analogy of meme-domestication is accepted, it is certain that there have been centuries of powerful religious dominance which were enough to affect survival and reproduction. It would be extraordinary if our genes had not adapted to it by producing a greater tendency to conform. It is also clear why religion could have survived for so long without bringing any advantage to its human hosts.

• Donald Cameron is Convenor of Philosophy at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution.

Blackmore, Susan, The Meme Machine
Cameron, Donald, Scientific Philosophy
Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion
Dawkins, Richard, The Selfish Gene
Haidt, Jonathan, The Righteous Mind
Ronald Inglehart, Religion’s Sudden Decline
James, Craig A, The Religion Virus: Why we Believe in God
Kurtz, Paul, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?

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Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....