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20 December 1999updated 09 Sep 2021 8:34am

Is Christmas shopping just a nasty virus?

New Statesman Christmas - Andrew Brownconsiders the theory that odd behaviour is down to in

By Andrew Brown

Look around you at the hurrying crowds. Rain whips like shrapnel past shop doorways; the shoppers hunch into the approaching Christmas as if it were shellfire stamping over the horizon. Each one of them knows that they are buying things that are not much wanted or appreciated for prices much higher than they need pay in a fortnight’s time.

Surely these people are possessed, or perhaps victims of some terrible and contagious infection of the mind? Looking at people as puppets of alien desires is easy and may be natural. Once, when I was giving up smoking, I saw cigarettes as things consuming the smokers, so that the smoke would pop out of their lungs for a look around the world and then return like a submarine to the controlling depths.

Talk of possession is common in all sorts of religious language and folk psychology. Often it makes a lot of sense: anyone who has spent time with an alcoholic will have felt often that they were dealing with an intelligent and self-willed drug and not a human being. Some fundamentalist Christians talk about not just the demon drink but the demons of oral sex, or intellectualism. This may be great fun, but it’s hardly scientific. So why do some scientists believe in similar ideas?

The idea that religions themselves are “viruses of the mind” has been widely propagated (has propagated itself widely?) ever since The Selfish Gene appeared in 1976. It’s a tremendously catchy idea and in many ways illuminating. Unfortunately the catchiest part of it – the idea of “viruses” – is also the most misleading.

There does seem to be something like an ecology of ideas, in the sense that any idea, to flourish, needs to be embedded in a whole system of others. But talking about viruses of the mind, or about memes, goes rather further than this. It assumes that the important likeness between biology and culture is that selection operates in both, on things that are like genes, and that these control us without our knowledge.

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This comes from an exalted view of the importance of genes, a perspective from which the individual matters hardly at all. The selfish gene is, among other things, a manifesto of confidence among theoretical biologists that they had the mathematical foundations of a theory that would explain many complexities in animal behaviour. The theory worked by asking what it did for the genes involved, rather than for the animals themselves. At the same time it’s obvious that human beings do all sorts of things that are not specified by their genes, and that different human societies have found very different ways of satisfying and expressing desires. There’s nothing genetic about Father Christmas as opposed to the Christmas Troll or even the Lord of Misrule. So if our bodies and emotions were the products of genes, perhaps our minds were the products of something else, whether “memes” or “viruses”.

If you believe that things such as genes must be responsible for all the complexity of the world, then imagining things such as cultural genes at least lets you admit that humans are cultural creatures. Thus, the complexities of the worlds we make cannot be read off our genes.

There are some cultural selection processes going on that are very like the “arms races” observed in biology, whereby one dinosaur acquires sharp teeth and another then gets armour-plating: arms races among humans, for instance; or the development of advertising techniques against the development of advertising-evasion techniques by their prospective targets. The trouble is that this language of memes or viruses is used as if the real problem facing a theory of culture was to explain why people sometimes do things apparently against their own interests, such as Christmas shopping or getting martyred.

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This is, I think, because the architects of the selfish gene theory thought the most serious problem they faced was what they called altruism: the tendency (most obvious among bees and ants) for an animal to suffer or die for its fellows when Darwinian theory seemed to demand that an animal look after its own interests at all times.

By analysing what was happening at the level of genes, rather than ants or humans, they were able to show that this behaviour would spread even at the cost of some of the ants who carried it out, provided it benefited relatives enough. The existence of unselfish ants is explained by the existence of selfish ant genes, the existence of heroic human soldiers by selfish human genes.

The point is, surely, that you don’t need another explanation on top of that for why people deliberately do things that will damage them – and if they’re not done deliberately, then stupidity will explain this, as much else. You don’t need to invent malevolent mind-viruses that will make people do crazy things. I’ve just spent some time in Belfast, where a memeticist would no doubt see all sorts of memes at work, driving people to paint huge murals on the sides of their houses or hang flags on the lamp-posts. Since there is no gene for painting murals of King William of Orange, the people who do it must the victims of wicked memes, which must be driven out of them.

Put like that, the falsity of the argument should be obvious. Calling religions or anything else you disagree with “viruses of the mind” simply dehumanises their possessors. You end up viewing Protestants with the same cold hostility as Catholics view them. The people who paint murals do so for their own good reasons, not because the memes told them to do it. They want to frighten their enemies and hearten their friends. These, unlike memes, are motives that we can all share, and whose expression one can discuss and modify.

Similarly, the Christmas shopper is not mad, but buying presents when they will be most appreciated. The memes that make them do it no more exist than Santa Claus.

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