THE SELFISH TEXT:
THE BIBLE AND MEMETICS
The Bible into Culture Colloquium, Sheffield 9-12 April 1997
Hugh S. Pyper
Dept of Theology and Religious Studies University of Leeds
Simply in terms of the number of copies currently in existence, the Bible represents one of the most successful texts ever produced. Whereas other great texts of the ancient world have either been lost or else exist only in a relatively small number of copies, the Bible is ubiquitous. It exists in over two thousand different languages and in many of those languages it exists in multiple translations. Something identifiable with the Bible in its present form has existed for nearly two millennia. If 'survival of the fittest' has any validity as a slogan, then the Bible seems a fair candidate for the accolade of the fittest of texts.
According to the collective authors of The Postmodern Bible, it is a 'truism' that the bible has exerted more influence on Western culture than any other book (The Bible and Culture Collective 1995: 1). In art, literature, politics and religion, biblical thought-forms, narratives and quotations are all-pervasive. As Western culture becomes globalised, so too does the bible. It is said that between a quarter and a third of all Japanese households possess a bible, in a country where only one or two percent of the population have any Christian adherence. This is because it is regarded as essential background for a proper understanding of Western culture. One effect of the spread of western culture through trade, conquest as well as missionary activity has been the spread of a collection of ancient Hebrew and Greek texts to every corner of the globe. Where Western culture goes, the bible goes too.
The purpose of this paper is to explore more fully how the biblical texts have achieved this remarkable success. It will be obvious that the model by which I intend to do this is a Darwinian one. Indeed, I propose to turn to one of the fiercest contemporary critics of the biblical world view, Richard Dawkins. His book The Selfish Gene (1976/1989), itself a runaway best-seller, has popularised the admittedly controversial idea that human beings, indeed all living organisms, can be construed as the 'survival vehicles' for their genetic material.
This claim is a variant on Samuel Butler's well-known description of a hen as 'an egg's way of making another egg'. An organism is a gene's way of making another gene. More pertinent to our purposes is Dawkins' further claim that there is a strict analogy between the processes of biological evolution and the development of human culture. This idea has been taken up by Daniel Dennett who adapts Butler's epigram to read 'A scholar is just a library's way of making more libraries.' (1991: 202). It is the following further adaptation of this slogan that forms the proposition that this paper will discuss: western culture is the bible's way of making more bibles. In an attempt to see if and how far this rather bold assertion can be defended, we will analyse in more depth the nature of the analogy that can be drawn between biological and culture evolution and in particular the usefulness of Dawkins' concept of the 'meme' in this context.
In The Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins contends that just as biological evolution can be studied at various levels—the gene, the genome, the individual, the gene-pool or the species—so cultural evolution can be looked at in multiple levels, from the spread of the simplest catch-phrase to the rise and dominance of the great civilisations of China or the Islamic world. In terms of evolutionary biology, the main point he argues in the book is that the clearest way to think about evolution is to work from the point of view of the smallest replicating entities, in the case of genetics, the gene. By analogy, studies of cultural evolution in Darwinian terms will proceed best by examining the smallest replicating units in culture. It is these that he designates as 'memes'.
He illustrates the concept as follows:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes-fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which in the broad sense, be called imitation (1976:206).Later, however, Dawkins becomes concerned to distinguish between a meme as a unit of information lodged in a brain and the phenotypic effects of that meme, such manifestations as the tune or the idea (1982:109).
Definitions are difficult, to say the least, in these areas. What exactly constitutes a meme or a culture defies classification and the recent literature on memes is bedevilled by shifting definitions and unsupportable generalisations and comparisons. Extravagant claims for the explanatory power of this concept have been made, including claims that the key to human self-understanding is in the new 'science' of memetics.
As the originator of the term, Dawkins has been far more modest in his assessment of the value of the concept. Dennett, who as a philosopher has written with more rigour on the subject than most, elaborates the concept of the meme in Chapter 12 of his Darwin's Dangerous Idea where he defines memes as 'self-replicating complex ideas which form distinct memorable units'. Even so, the concept remains notoriously fluid and therefore liable to abuse. How could it be applied to the bible? The bible if anything seems more like a repository of memes than a meme itself or even a 'meme complex'. In the ensuing argument, we will be using the term 'meme' for its convenience and its heuristic power in applying Darwinian insights to cultural developments but with a weather eye on its slippery nature.
At this point, however, I want to turn to a more fruitful line of enquiry provided by Dawkins' later, more rigorous discussion of the concept of the replicator. This he defines as follows: 'A replicator is anything in the universe of which copies are made'. (Dawkins 1982:83). At a banal level, that is a claim that can undeniably be made for the bible and so it may be of interest to explore the ramifications of this analogy.
Note, first of all, that Dawkins carefully does not say that the replicator must be self-replicating. There is a fundamental point here which has often been missed. DNA is sometimes described as a 'self-replicating' molecule. In one sense this is true. Given the right environment, a molecule of DNA is capable of acting as a template so that an exact copy of itself is produced. The important point is that it needs the right environment. DNA on its own cannot reproduce itself; it needs a complex of enzymes which will guide and manage the process. In fact, it is only at the level of the cell that we find a replicating structure which can produce copies of all its parts from raw materials in a simple environment.
In that sense, the bible is no different from DNA. Shut a bible, or even two, in a cupboard and you will certainly not find more bibles when you come back. Leave a jar of DNA on a shelf, however, and it will not increase either. Only in the context of a cell, of a 'survival machine', will we find DNA reproducing. Likewise, Bibles can only reproduce through the agency of a human reader who then takes steps to ensure that more copies are produced.
The crucial point which lifts all this from the level of a truism is the way in which Dawkins then refines the concept of the replicator. He distinguishes between an active replicator, the nature of which has some influence over the probability of its being copied, and a passive replicator, the nature of which is immaterial. DNA, the replicating molecule which encodes genetic information in cells is an example of the first, in that it exerts phenotypic effects on the environment through the protein synthesis it enables, which in turn influence whether it will be copied.
Active replicators modify their environment in such a way as to enhance their own reproductive capacity. Dawkins makes a particular study of the interactions between parasites and hosts. For example at a simple level, a gall wasp larva will carry genes that encode for the synthesis of chemicals that mimic the growth hormones of an oak tree, inducing the tree to grow an unusual structure which serves to protect and feed the wasp larva. Here the wasp genes are acting on the phenotype of the oak tree, not the wasp, in a way that enhances the wasp's reproduction but which may have a deleterious effect on the tree. The relevance of this parasite/host model for the consideration of the bible will become clearer as our discussion develops.
Unfortunately for our purposes, Dawkins' example of a passive regulator is a sheet of paper which is Xeroxed. On the face of it, this undercuts any analogy between the genetic material and the bible. He goes on, however, to concede that some pieces of paper are much more likely to be copied than others because of what is written on them. They then become active replicators as they convey information which acts on the reader and her environment is such a way as to induce her to copy the text. The argument we will pursue is that in this sense, the bible is indeed an active replicator, one which alters its environment so as to increase its chances of being copied. The intriguing questions then become how the bible alters its environment to increase the likelihood of its being replicated and why it has been so conspicuously successful in this.
Dawkins goes on to discuss other aspects of active replicators. It is a fundamental point in his argument that no process of replication is infallible. Strikingly, a favoured metaphor to explain this in popular genetic texts is the variability of the biblical text in different translations or through processes of copying. Robert Pollack in his Signs of Life for instance, sets out six English versions of James 4:5 to illustrate the phenomenon of alleles, the existence of variant forms of the same gene within a population or indeed an individual genome (1994:38). Dawkins himself uses the 'mistranslation' of the Hebrew for 'young woman' as 'virgin' in the Septuagint version of Isaac 53 as an example of the potentially enormous phenotypic effects of a small change in DNA. He also provides a footnote explaining the Hebrew and Greek texts complete with citations in Hebrew, remarking that 'I suppose the scholars of the Septuagint could at least be said to have started something big' by this (1989: 16). This infiltration of biblical examples into the texts of popular genetics is an intriguing phenomenon to which we will return.
The crucial consequence of this variation is that when it occurs, some replicators may turn out to be less efficient than others at replication and so will tend to be replaced by the more successful replicators. For active replicators, whose nature affects their success in achieving replication, such variation may have a remarkable effect on their reproductive ability. Those which replicate most efficiently will, if all else is equal, come to predominate in the population.
Yet variability in itself is not enough; it must be coupled with stability. If 'successful' variants are to survive and out-compete the others, they must be conserved over time. Dawkins sets out the conditions for a successful replicator in the following slogan: longevity , fecundity and fidelity. The replicator must last long enough to reproduce, it must be capable of producing a sufficient number of copies, and these copies must be accurate. To ensure accuracy, the genetic material has a whole complex of 'editor enzymes' which repair and correct copying errors in DNA. So too the biblical text has become sacrosanct with a premium put on its accurate reproduction. The great complexes of the Masoretic apparatus and the libraries of biblical criticism which have sought to preserve the text in its 'original' form are the evidences of this.
The stability of a particular text or a particular DNA sequence, what Dawkins calls its 'longevity' is an important factor. The replicator must maintain its identity over time. Equally important, however, is its capacity to throw up variants which, when conditions change, may confer an advantage on the organisms which bear them. It is this balance between the ability to reproduce faithfully a particular variant but also to be able to produce variation if the circumstances favour it that confers reproductive success on any replicating system.
The bible then operates as a replicator in a way analogous to DNA. Like DNA, it stores information which can be read and translated and which contributes to its own reproduction. This, however requires the action of another level of agency. In the case of DNA, this agent is the cell where the information contained in DNA is translated into proteins which both structure and control the host of chemical processes which are necessary to sustain the life of the cell, and therefore the reproduction of DNA. In the case of the bible, the agency is a human community which will recopy and disseminate the text.
The crucial question then becomes how the active effect of the cellular DNA on the constitution of the cell or organism which is its 'survival vehicle' is paralleled in the case of the bible. That a case can be made is evident from the fact that the analogy has been pursued in the opposite direction, notably by Robert Pollack. In his book Signs of Life he explicitly embraces the analogy of DNA as text.
... I have organised this book around the notion of DNA as a work of literature, a great historical text. But the metaphor of the chemical text is more than a vision: DNA is a long skinny assembly of atoms similar in function, if not form, to the letters of a book, strung out in one long line. The cells of our bodies do extract a multiplicity of meanings from the DNA text inside them, and we have indeed begun to read a cell's DNA in ways even more subtle than a cell can do (1994: 5)Molecular biology is shot through with metaphors of reading: translation, transcription, reading enzymes and the like. Pollack extends this metaphor by suggesting that the genome is like an encyclopaedia, where the volumes are represented by the chromosomes, the articles by the sets of genes encoding for a particular character, the sentences by the genes themselves. Words are domains and letters are base pairs (1994: 21).
Nor is he alone in this. Dawkins himself speaks of the tempting analogy of seeing DNA as a 'family bible' (1995: 39), a record of our ancestry, slightly different for each one of us although he quickly goes on to point out flaws in this metaphor. Dennett makes the point that the strict analogy between genes and memes can be maintained on the ground that they are both 'semantic entities', by which he means that they constitute information which can be variously encoded. A gene is not simply a piece of DNA, although to be effective it has to be expressed as such. It could equally be said to be encoded in a sequence of letters on a page, just as a meme may be contained in the pages of a book.
But as texts, both DNA and the bible have to be read. In the case of DNA this is a matter of the synthesis of RNA and through it of particular amino acid sequences in cellular proteins. In the case of a text such as the bible, the analogous process, in Dennett's view, is that its memes influence a human mind and so influence a common meme-pool as to ensure the physical survival of the text. Dennett expresses this as follows: '...memes still depend at least indirectly on one or more of their vehicles spending at least a brief pupal stage in a remarkable sort of meme nest,; the human mind.' (1995: 349)
Mere reproduction of a text as a physical artefact is not enough to ensure its continued survival as Dennett makes explicit. Copies of books will only endure so long and the relative youth of even the earliest complete manuscripts of the bible bears this out. He quotes an analogy from Manfred Eigen who points out that a Mozart symphony cannot be said to survive as a living cultural entity unless it is played and replayed and checked for continuing value against other compositions. The bible must be read and must make itself read if there is to be reproduced. Its success in achieving this is what makes it an example of a highly adaptive active replicator.
In this view the biblical reader, then, acts as the site of transfer of the information contained in the text to the meme-pool in which he or she operates. The book itself encodes memes which once active in the mind lead the human agents of that meme-pool to produce more examples of the text. But like all memes, in Dennett's view, they encounter competition. People have a lot of other things to do with their time and energy besides copying bibles, indeed a lot of other texts to read. What has lead to the particular success of the bible in this competition for mental space?
Controversially, this can best be looked at under the rubric of its 'infectivity'. In a paper entitled 'Viruses of the Mind', Dawkins gives an account of the propagating power of what he calls a mind virus (Dawkins 1993). By this term he means a piece of information which ensures its own duplication without regard to the survival of the system its exploits. Viruses are propagated differently from the genes of their hosts. For instance, influenza viruses spread by coughs and sneezes rather than by being incorporated into a viable embryo for the next generation. This means that, unlike host cells whose genes will only be propagated by the reproduction of the organism of which they are part, viral genes and viruses have no vested interest in the reproductive success of their host.
So, how would a successful 'mind-virus' operate? The problem for a virus is that it must be incorporated into the replicative machinery of its host. What is the parallel mechanism among viruses of the mind? Such a meme will have to instil in the host a mechanism of conserving the meme, and a mechanism of for propagating it. It would ideally act like the gall wasp to divert the host's energies to its own reproduction. It would also, however, be well advised to have a mechanism of conserving its variability so that any changes in the environment, including the intrusion of other foreign memes, and in particular any developments in the host's own immune system can be either countermanded or else outflanked. My tentative suggestion is that the bible instils a meme in its readers which aligns its own survival with that of the reader and his or her community. 'Your survival depends on mine' is the message that the bible gives. If the primary evolutionary drive is for survival, then a virus or a meme that 'persuades' its host that it is necessary to the host's own survival and therefore conveys a reproductive advantage will have an instant welcome into the replicatory machine. The virus becomes a symbiont, an organism which co-operates to mutual benefit with its host, rather than a parasite.
Of course, it is only in hindsight that the nature of the association can be known with certainty. It is quite possible that an organism will live quietly as a symbiont and then suddenly turn on its host at a later stage. Images of John Hurt and the parasitic alien busting out through his body wall are only too apt in this connection, but the process may be a much quieter one. It may be that a false offer of reward to the host is never cashed out. From the invader's point of view, this matters little as long as it achieves its goal of its own reproduction.
What the bible has to offer the communities it needs to reproduce is the unique variety of powerful strategies of survival it enshrines. Dawkins and other writers on memetics frequently cite the example of the 'God-meme' as a meme which has a powerful record of propagation across time and space. From a theological point of view, of course, the reduction of the complexity of human accounts of God to a single meme is a gross oversimplification. What seems to underlie their reading is rather a meme which predicates human survival on something other than purely biological grounds, which offers a space, not only for bodily survival but for memetic survival.
This has resonances with the account that Zygmunt Bauman offers of the whole enterprise of human culture. Culture, he claims, is a human construct designed to fend off the threat of death. It is a survival mechanism, which finds a way of promising a form of survival in the face of the inevitability of individual death. For Bauman, the Jewish tradition is the clearest case of the subsuming of individual death in communal survival. The individual may die, but his or her genes and memes will carry on. The duty of the individual then, in the sense of his or her best survival strategy becomes one of ensuring the survival of the group, not simply his or her own prolonged life. Christianity has adopted the alternative strategy of a promise of immortality, in that the believer's death is caught up in the context of the resurrection of Jesus. Both genetically and memetically, the afterlife of the believer is strictly irrelevant except in so far as belief in personal immortality act to sustain the continuity of the meme pool.
Both of these strategies are offered to the reader of the biblical text, together with stern warnings of the likely outcome of failing to abide by the word of the text. This is also aligned to a particular set of strategies which reinforce the integrity of the biblical text. In order to maintain continuity and identity, any organism or any gene-pool has to be able to filter out undesirable interlopers.
Again, a cunning usurper will both penetrate these defences but also quickly turn them to its own advantage, keeping out competitive genes and installing itself as the object of the host's attention. On an organismic scale, the efforts of a baby cuckoo to throw the host species' own eggs and chicks out of the nest but also its success in subverting the host's nurturing instincts to its own development are a classic case. The cuckoo succeeds in side-tracking the mechanisms of rearing the young which have evolved for the vital task of reproducing the host species.
The bible contains powerful instructions as to its own unique worth and the limits to be placed on the infiltration of foreign information or texts into the communities which propagate it. The whole process of canonisation, for instance, reveals a complex interaction between text and community which serves, for example, to oust the fledgling apocrypha and turn the community's attention to the ever-growing task of copying and commentating on the biblical text with an increased sense of its importance and of the need for its conservation.
The propagation of the text, and the founding of new communities are also linked to the survival of the reader and his or her community, or meme-pool. The Hebrew bible is full of admonitions about the duty to hand down its teaching, and by implication the text, to the next generation. Secondly the text contains a strong message of evangelisation. The survival of the reader's community depends on the production of new texts and new communities. This complex of memes and of strategies forms a powerful ensemble to ensure the accurate transmission of the text.
What then of biblical variability? Superficially, of course, bibles show variation. The physical appearance of the bibles on our shelves is very different from that of the scrolls found at Qumran, an evolution that has something to do with ease of reading, portability and changes in the mechanics of reproduction. In another obvious sense, the bible has evolved out of its component parts which themselves have undergone a long process of development. It now exists in a number of forms: the Tanakh, and the various canons of the Christian churches. Despite this variation it might be argued that within each community it has on the whole developed a fixed form.
However, that form itself preserves a great variety of strategies of survival. There is an analogy here perhaps in the way in which variant genes can be maintained in a population even if they have no particular advantage, or are perhaps deleterious. In many organisms, chromosomes and the genes they contain are carried in pairs. This means that an individual may carry two different variants of any gene, such variants being termed alleles. In most cases, one of alleles is dominant, so that in an individual which carries two copies of the gene, only the dominant characteristics are expressed. The consequence of this is that the individual may carry without any disadvantage another allele which could if expressed have a deleterious effect, but might also, in changed circumstances, turn out to confer an advantage. The sexual process leads to the constant reassortment of alleles which means that the population will be able both to express the alleles of the gene but also to carry them under the cloak of the dominant phenotype.
It is tempting to speculate whether some of the redundancies and doublings in the biblical text may have a similar function in that they can preserve maverick readings. These can be ignored by the mainstream interpreters, especially if an interpretative parallel to the dominance mechanism is in play, where by that verse or passage can be 'corrected' by appeal to other verses in scripture or the perceived overall theological thrust of the material. One day, however, the alternative reading may prove of interest or use to a particular interpretative community which then propagates the bible on the basis of that alternative reading.
Furthermore, even in its canonical form the bible can still generate variety. The information contained between the covers of any given edition the bible varies and develops, especially in terms of marginalia and commentary, which may, at times, have outweighed the biblical text in terms of importance. It is only necessary to count the number of editions of the bible currently available to realise how in adapting to the needs of different communities, cultures and age groups, the contents of the physical entity called the bible can vary widely. These variations serve to widen its appeal, or in other words to enable it to gain entry to and propagate itself in a whole variety of new environments.
In this connection, one of the most obvious sources of variation and adaptive strategies that the bible is its translatability. Translation is a good trick for increasing the number of bibles—I certainly possess at least 17 versions of the scriptures and I suspect that most regular biblical readers, let alone scholars, possess more than one version, something which would be unlikely for many other books in their libraries. From the blindly functional point of view, there is paradoxical advantage for a text in being written in a dead language once it has achieved a cultural dominance in another language group. It can potentially always be re-translated because the precision of the match between the words and the meanings cannot be guaranteed in the way that the text itself insists is important. It is more open to revision than a text inscribed in the native language of a culture, except in rare instances where a text preserves an older form of the evolving tongue. It is possible, for instance to find modern language paraphrases of Shakespeare, but there is a great resistance to producing new English versions of his works, whereas once the interesting conservatism over the Authorised Version was broken, the floodgates of new biblical translations opened. Additionally, there is implicit permission for the text to be translated into the vernacular language of any community which uses the book, again increasing both its diversity and adaptability but also the sheer numbers of copies in existence.
This is by no means a one way process. The success of the bible in reforming the communities into which it moves through translation is also striking. As Carroll and Prickett observe in their introduction to the World Classics edition of the Authorised Version
What we can observe is that it was not just the Bible that was transformed in the course of successive reinterpretations. The Vulgate, a single, authoritative, monolingual instrument for the entire Western Church, was the instrument of the new imperial power of the Roman Church. Luther's Reformation translation of the Bible was to change the German language for ever; his commentary on Romans to set the agenda of theological debate for centuries. Tyndale's translation of the New Testament, on which the Authorised Version was to be so closely modelled, did the same if not more for English. (Carroll and Prickett 1997: xiv-xv)Communities based on the bible may have a strong interest in conserving it unchanged. From the point of view of the bible, however, its ability to adapt to new communities is an essential part of its success. The fact that much human ingenuity has been expended on ensuring that the bible does not change and that such mutations have at times been physically rooted out merely goes to show the strong pressure on the text to mutate and its potential for evolution. As we noted before, the interests of the text and those of its nurturing community may not coincide.
This leads to the conclusion that when another champion of scientific realism, the astronomer Carl Sagan, lays into the Bible in his attack on what he conceives of as superstition in his recent book The Demon-haunted World he in fact reveals one source of its reproductive success. Contrasting the love of one's enemy enjoined in the Gospels with the celebration of holy war of Joshua, he writes 'The Bible is full of so many stories of contradictory moral purpose that every generation can find scriptural justification for nearly any action it proposes, from incest, slavery and mass murder to the most refined love, courage and self-sacrifice' (1996: 275). Indeed, and this has surely contributed to its survival. A book to which both the Apartheid regime in South Africa and its most fervent opponents can turn to justify their position may not offer simple moral precepts, but does ensure that both sides will own their own copies. For the survival of the book, its amazing capacity to sustain opposing camps is a very successful strategy. Part of its success is its very diversity, but also the fact that diversity can be differently enacted. As is well known, every cell in the human body contains the same genome, but this is differently expressed in different tissues to give cells which vary radically in form and function. The difference is the particular portions of the genome which are read. So too the bible contains more information than any one community can readily assimilate, especially as it may seem mutually contradictory or impossible to apply in a given situation. What then happens so often is the formation of a canon within the canon, where the community opts to read and follow a particular smaller set of instructions, read with a particular interpretative slant. this may change over time, giving a flexibility and yet continuity to the community. Biblical communities themselves show a capacity for survival which consists in a knack of maintaining continuity through change.
It was allegedly the physician to Frederick the Great who when asked by that monarch to give a proof of the existence of God replied 'The continued existence of the Jews'; an existence bound up with the identity, adaptability and continuity that the bible confers. In a more theoretical vein Sir Peter Medawar attributes the biological success of human beings as a whole to a new form of inheritance; exogenetic or exosomatic heredity. 'In this form of heredity, information is transmitted from one generation to the next through non-genetic channels–by word of mouth, for example , and by other forms of indoctrination; in general by the entire apparatus of culture' (1977: 14; quoted in Dennett 1995:342). Henry Plotkin in his Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge cites the Bible and the Koran as just such devices of exosomatic storage. He speculates on the selective advantage of such texts to the cultures which retain them by drawing on Bartlett's work on the degradation of oral narratives which implies that over time any group will retell a tale in such a way as to bring it into line with accepted norms. Plotkin argues that the 'exosomatic storage of memes' in the bible may have preserved 'richness subtlety and beauty' in cultures which possess the book (1994: 220).
That continuity is bound up with the continued existence of the bible. The community of readers sees it as its duty to ensure the survival of the book. More than this, it sees the book as the guarantor of its own continuity and survival. The book itself contains a whole plethora of strategies for survival, and in particular, is the record of an amazing feat of cultural continuity as the diaspora communities of Jews manage to retain a sense of themselves as Israel, as members of one 'meme-pool' of cultural exchange, protected by firm filters from external memetic contamination. The fact that historians might take leave to differ over the actual continuity of the community and its immunity to outside infection is surely a proof of the power of the meme complex in question. Despite the available evidence of all that might have led to its dissolution and disappearance, the community is maintained, and the text is preserved.
Even more amazing is the development of communities of those supposedly excluded by the text, the Gentiles, who find ways of identifying themselves as Israel and arrogating to themselves both the promises and the duties imposed by the text, chief among which is the duty to ensure the connivance and dispersal of the text. Here the 'gene-pool' of Judaism, with its claim of descent from Abraham, is replaced by a meme-pool, a claim of descent from Abraham's faith, a line of argument already presaged in the Old Testament itself.
This is an astonishing success and one of crucial importance to the propagation of the text. The consequence of its incorporation into the canon of the Christian bible is an exponential leap in the number of copies produced. However, it may also be true that the text turns against the communities that have sustained it if that is to its advantage.
The horrid record of Christian antisemitism shows the consequences of the reappropriation of the filter mechanisms for memetic purity being turned against the original host community as the bible takes on a new existence as Christian Scripture. A prime exemplar of the selfishness of the text might be seen in the reformation where the text operates to cause a major breach and disruption in the community which sustained it in order to take advantage of the new technology of printing through the propagation of a meme that removed the authority of interpretation from the institution to the individual and to the possibilities of reproduction within vernacular language communities. The peril of too close an association with the host community may be that the text will fall with the community that guards it. The success of the bible has been predicated on its ability to 'jump ship' when necessary.
Again, this is a slightly self-parodic example of the prevalence of the intentionalist fallacy in the discussion of Darwinian replicants. It is patently a fallacy to argue that the bible provoked the Reformation in order to increase its own population, but the facts remain. Whatever damage the Reformation did to the church and to the victims of the religious wars that accompanied it , it was certainly good for the bible.
What then of the bible in late twentieth century society where the traditional communities of interest in the bible may be thought to be in danger of collapse? Selection is a cruel business as many species and their DNA find every day. Surviving intact for a hundred million years is no defence when your habitat is suddenly filled with industrial pollutants. The best that can be said for any replicator is that it has survived so far. Tomorrow is another day and will perhaps bring an insurmountable challenge.
Even if the worst comes to the worst in terms of a diminishing community of biblical readers, the important thing for the text in a memetic view is not that it be read but that it be copied. By achieving an iconic status within a culture, the text can relieve itself of the pressure of seducing readers. The baptismal bible or wedding bible may be a gift that is never read, and no-one is likely to open the pages of the court room bible on which oaths are sworn, but they must be complete as the community is well endowed with reverence for the canon that says 'all or nothing': an incomplete bible is not a bible. This may work more powerfully for the New Testament than the Old , as the New circulates independently, but it nonetheless still allows for the reproduction of redundant, unread material within the New Testament. This in turn will which allows for the introduction for the sake of iconic completeness of the even less appealing Old Testament. So the bible can survive in some sense on the vestiges of a culture which valued it.
However, the situation is by no means as gloomy as that. As I was finishing this paper, by coincidence two documents arrived together in my pigeonhole. One was a copy of a review of several modern popular debunking biographies of Jesus, including that by A.N. Wilson, which finished with the comment from an eminent critic, 'At least he sends us scurrying back to the gospels'. The second was a leaflet from the National Bible Society urging donations for the despatch of bibles to the displaced and starving population of Zaire.
Whatever one thinks of the anti-biblical polemics of an A.N. Wilson and the response of the Bible Society to the disasters of war, there is a common feature to these documents; both seem to serve to increase the sale and distribution of the bible. The Bible Society can still launch an appeal to increase the number of bibles in the belief that the bible will contribute uniquely to the survival of the people of Zaire. A.N. Wilson, who seeks to debunk it and would no doubt pour scorn on the Bible Society's work finds himself both propagating biblical memes in his own texts and sending his readers back to consult the original text. The biblical text is not affected by the fact that the person who reads it is only doing so to refute it as long as there is a sufficient cultural community or meme- pool to maintain the argument and therefore sustain the need for the text.
Yet the bible has always shown an astonishing facility in generating communities that will see it as worth transmitting. What memetic pull is it that brings together a group of scholars of diverse backgrounds and beliefs to Sheffield to discuss the bible and culture, for instance? Has the bible 'succeeded' in making a bid beyond its native environment of the religious community, one which may be severely threatened in a new memetic ecology. Is it now able to persuade communities of readers to consider it as a cultural artefact, using the same memetic appeal as Homer and Plato? If so, what a tribute to the extraordinary staying power of the particular combination of memes which the text and the communities it builds around itself enshrine. Having formed communities about itself for two thousand years, often by coopting its enemies, is the bible proving able to do this again by infiltrating not religious but cultural discussion?
A telling example of this ability of the biblical text to infiltrate the most unlikely communities is the very genre of popular genetic writing of which Dawkins is the most celebrated practitioner. For someone who evinces such a suspicion of the influence of the bible, he makes a surprising number of references to it. His main rival, both as a best-selling writer of popular genetics and as advocate of what to Dawkins seems a 'heretical' view of Darwinism is Stephen Jay Gould, whose books are shot through with biblical allusions. Another populist geneticist, Stephen Jones', recent book, In the Blood: God, Genes and Destiny, a companion to a television series, is an interesting case in point. In it he covers such topics as the Lost Tribes of Israel and the concept of Armageddon, in the process alluding to a large number of biblical texts and outlining many biblical stories. It would be ironic, would it not, if we were to conclude that Dawkins himself has become a 'survival machine' for the bible, a 'meme nest' for its dispersed memes which may induce readers who would otherwise leave their bibles unread to go back to the text.
Dawkins, however, is merely one articulate representative of a much wider conversation in a global gene pool which could loosely be designated as 'western culture'. Insofar as we have seen that the survival of the bible seems to be predicated on the persistence of its peculiarly effective set of memes which induce reading communities to propagate it, it is Dawkins inescapable cultural environment which is in evidence here.
But are we then simply the victims of the bible? Dawkins ends The Selfish Gene with a rallying cry 'We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators' (1976; 215). Is he actually a witness that we may think we can rebel against biblical memes but that such replicators have an uncanny power to survive all our efforts? The telling passage in his River out of Eden (the title itself needs no comment) on the 'ravishing' poetry of the Authorised Version of the Song of Songs, and the 'lifetime's repetition' which has given it its own haunting appeal despite the possible inaccuracy in translation (1995:40) argues that aspects at least of the bible have succeeded in inserting themselves into the 'meme nest' of Dawkin's mind in such a way that thay are tranmitted, if not replicated.
Dennett comments on Dawkin's challenge to the power of the memes, 'This "we" that transcends not only its genetic creators but also its memetic creators is ..a myth.' (1995:366). Dennett himself ends his 1995 book with an ambivalent plea for the preservation of meme complexes such as religions for their cultural enrichment. 'I love the King James Bible', he declares. 'My own spirit recoils from a God Who is He or She in the same way in which my heart shrinks when I see a lion pacing neurotically back and forth in a small zoo cage. I know, I know, the lion is beautiful but dangerous; if you let the lion roam free it would kill me; safety demands that it be put in a cage' (1995: 515). This is a rather extraordinary paragraph which is somewhat baffling in its implications. What is it that distresses Dennett so much? It seems to be the use of gendered language of God, not the idea of God. Is the King James Bible the cage, in which case what is the love he bears it, or does it need to be in the cage with the lion because of its dangers?
My own view, and no doubt I here manifest symptoms of my own freight of memetic viruses, is that the bible has so firmly entrenched a place in our culture that it is ineradicable. It is not a parasite but a constituent part of the great complex of meme complexes that can be designated 'western culture', part of the exosomatic genome of that culture's members. More than that, I see it in Plotkin's terms as an indispensable source of what might be called 'memetic diversity.' In agricultural genetics, one of the most worrying trends has been the loss of diversity from the appellations of food plants and animals. There are obvious superficial gains, not least to seed companies and fertiliser manufacturers in growing vast tracts of pure stands of the 'best' varieties, the judgement of 'best' depending on the particular values of the grower or the market. Ease of marketing may well win out against nutrition. However, there is a potential disaster looming if the super variety is suddenly attacked by a pathogen or if there is a major climatic shift. A variety may be fit for the purpose and the conditions of the moment, but what if conditions change?
Here it becomes vitally important to maintain a 'gene pool' of wild relatives of the crop plants which may themselves have all sorts of drawbacks from the point of view of the technology of farming, but which have shown themselves able to fend for themselves in this competitive world over time. Such wild populations contain a huge diversity of genetic material maintained over time and a vast potential for diversity and for change. Can we view the Bible as a sort of cultural 'memetic reserve'? Parts of it may seem irrelevant, redundant, even detrimental to our survival, but it has kept going. As Medawar and Plotkin indicate, it may serve to maintain a memetic richness and complexity, a inexhaustible source of variety which may contain the unexpected counter to forces that threaten to impoverish our cultural lives.
But Dennett's rather inarticulate declaration of love for the bible suggests other possibilities. This paper has, of course taken a slightly wry look at a provocative re-reading of the dynamics of cultural development. Nothing in the theory of memetics can help us to establish the truth or falsity of a meme, it can only deal with its frequency and prevalence. Questions of reference are not raised. Indeed, the practitioners of memetics have erected some pretty formidable filters to debar any such questions. Methodologically, this may be necessary to prevent muddled thinking, but methodology is not truth despite its strong tendency to become so. The easiest way to filter out a proposition is to declare it to be either meaningless or false. A very different account could have been given on the premise that the bible reflects the encounter of God with the complex web of human culture and individuality, a premise which methodologically Darwinism cannot entertain. The attempt, however, to follow through such a methodology is a discipline which I hope has brought to light intriguing connections which any account of the relations of the bible and culture might need to take on board.
More radically, however, is survival, as Darwinism must have it, really the primary value, or is it in turn a methodology which has become a truth? The lion may be dangerous, and human culture as Bauman argued may well have be a device to keep it caged and to ensure survival, just as the wild lion has been confined practically to game reserves. The beauty of the cage, then, is in some sense engendered by the lion. Letting the lion out would have distruning implications for culture as well as for scientific method. But is there no other mode of co- existence betwen human and beast, between human beings, the bible, and the God shich its cages and displays? Here I want simply to recall that Isak Dinesen has a wonderful account of the mutual respect between the hunter and the lion which grows from the fact that each knows that the other is hunter as well as prey. Somewhere in this may be a dynamic that can lift us beyond the mechanisms of the meme and into true encounter.