Prolegomena to the Social Engineering of Secular Diaspora Judaism: Lessons from Zionism
Dennis Geller, Ph. D.
Summer 2002

Section 2


The field of memetics is an attempt to apply Darwinian principles to the space of (cultural) ideas. Dawkins (Dawkins, 1989) was the first to note that the characteristics for evolutionary growth — (1) a class of objects capable of replicating themselves (called replicators), (2) that the objects themselves be fecund, and (3) high (but still imperfect) fidelity of the replicating process — might be satisfied by some objects other than genes. In particular, he suggested that there is another class of replicator that fits the bill — "a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation." These he called memes. As Blackmore elucidates the concept "Everything that is passed from person to person [by imitation] is a meme. This includes all the words in your vocabulary, the stories you know, the skills and habits you have picked up from others and the games you like to play… Each of these memes has evolved in its own unique way with its own history, but each of them is using your behavior to get itself copied."

Whether the study of memes — called memetics — will prove to be a consistent science is far from certain. It has no theorems yet, although there are some tantalizing predictions, particularly in Blackmore’s book. However, even though the evaluation of the theory may require decades, memetics provides at least a potentially useful model for understanding the success and failure of aspects of culture (Aunger, 2001).

Alternate Definition After Dennett, (Brodie. 1996)
A meme is an idea, the kind of complex idea that forms itself into a distinct memorable unit. It is spread by vehicles that are physical manifestations of the meme.

Just as bodies are the vehicles (a technical term) for genes, minds/brains are the vehicles for memes. Memetics seeks to understand what makes some memes successful — i.e., allows them to replicate to many minds. Just as the gene succeeds when its vehicle survives to pass on copies of the gene, but otherwise is not directed in some way to act "for" the body, survival of the mind is helpful for the meme only to spread the meme, and not for any intrinsic reason. Consider how the meme of suicide sometimes catches hold in adolescent populations. One student suicides, destroying that mind. However, the meme spreads quickly in the population; many others talk or think about it, and some may make the attempt. A similar example, is martyrdom:. When this meme associates with a meme carrying an idea ("liberty", "God", "hatred") the elimination of the vehicle serves as a spur for copying of the linked meme; of course that meme had best spread beyond the martyrdom meme, or else the joined pair fails to survive. In both cases the meme survives the vehicle; this is the memetic analog of the well-accepted biological notion of the "selfish" gene.

Like genes (Holland, 1995), memes almost inevitably exist as part of meme complexes (memeplexes) — a group of memes that tend to be replicated together. A complex idea, it is hypothesized, might be analyzed as a combination of simpler memes which have become associated and replicate together.

Note that while fidelity of the replication process is essentially for any replicator, absolute fidelity is unlikely to lead to a dynamic evolutionary history. A slow rate of mutation is necessary both to preserve diversity in the replicator pool and to allow for new "solutions" to evolutionary disasters.

Memetics and Judaism

Among the favorite examples of memeticists as a candidate memeplex is religion. Dawkins coined the phrase "virus of the mind" specifically for religions or cults, although popular writers Brodie, 1996, in particular) have appropriated it for the entire concept of meme.

Many writers particularly use Judaism as an example for explicating the relationship between religion and memes; these include (Dawkins, 1989, P 194) and (Lynch, 1996). Although other religions and cults are not ignored, the attention to Judaism is hardly surprising. The survival of Judaism — specifically Rabbinic Judaism — is a phenomenon nearly unparalleled in history. As Dawkins notes (Dawkins, 1989; p. 194), "Some memes … do not last long in the meme pool. Popular songs and stiletto heels are examples. Others, such as the Jewish religious laws, may continue to propagate themselves for thousands of years…"

Religion Memes (Brodie, 1996. p. 192ff)
  • Tradition
  • Heresy
  • Evangelism
  • Making Sense
  • Repetition
  • Security
  • Crisis
  • Food
  • Sex
  • Mysterious knowledge
  • Dominance
  • Belonging

What might be the memetic characteristics of Rabbinic Judaism that have allowed it to be so stable? Most probably, as Dawkins noted, one is the fact that it is written down. Many religions have writings, of course. These writings are typically (said to be) derived, perhaps through an intermediary, from the word of God. In most religions, though, the writings end up — at least after a century or two — as guidelines or pointers, and not as literal checklists for the godly life. This is, in fact, the role probably taken by Tanakh before the Diaspora. But the Rabbinic writings solidified the religion, paradoxically, by seeking to make it more adaptable. Through complex linkages of reasoning that adapted the priestly writings to the new situation, the Rabbis created a very tightly bound memeplex.

In genetics, groups of genes become closely linked through physical proximity on the same chromosome or through coincidental chemical interactions. The results are both that the individual genes are inherited together and that the survival of each is enhanced by the presence of the other. We can see the Rabbinic writings as constituting a similarly tightly linked memeplex. Among the characteristics of this memeplex are some that are based on content, some on method of transmission, and some on structural integrity.

Content characteristics (i.e., memes or smaller memeplexes) are those that made the collection of ideas useful to the population4 . Many of the ideas of Judaism had this characteristic: They answered such questions for the population as "when should I plant crops" or "how should I ensure that rain falls during the growing season?"

Transmission characteristics are those ensuring that the memeplex would be passed on (copied). This was most typically vertical — parent to child — rather than horizontal — initiate to stranger. The story of the four children, from the Pesach Haggadah is an explicit command to transmit the story.

Structural characteristics are those that provide linkage between, and superstructure for, the others. One such much be seen in the laws about preselytes. It is interesting that in Jewish history it has frequently been the case that horizontal transmission has been discouraged. Talmud is full of discussions that ultimately make conversion difficult or make it difficult for a proselyte to become fully accepted in the community5. This would have had the effect of ensuring that horizontal transmission was of high fidelity, which was otherwise uncommon in the (polytheistic and Christian) surroundings.

Finklestein’s System of Symbols

Although our interest here in memetics is only for insights it might provide, rather than in any attempt to validate it, it seems useful to provide justification from within the Judaic literature for believing it might have applicability. For this purpose we will look a monograph by Louis Finkelstein (Finkelstein, undated). Finklestein’s topic is a comparison of the differing worldviews of Judaism implicit in the schools of Shammai and Hillel. He focuses largely on Hillel’s famous teaching to the pagan that "the whole of the Torah is … do to no one what is distasteful to thee." He argues for interpreting it as meaning "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself (Lev. 19:19)," (Finklestein, p. 6, footnote). The [presumed] alternative philosophy of Shammai would express the primary commandment as "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God" (Finklestein, p. 13). Finkelstein suggests that Hillel’s teaching expresses "the belief that all of Judaism is either a symbolic way of expressing that commandment, or a validation of it" (Finklestein, p. 8)

From this starting point he goes on to describe Hillel’s teaching and what follows from it in language highly reminiscent of memetics. For example, he could be describing a memeplex when he says

"The belief that all men are deserving of respect… is an abstraction, appealing to the mind, but it achieves powerful influence over the whole person, when associated with the emotionally satisfying concept that all men are children of God… from the point of view of ethical conduct, it is a symbol, a means of communicating the duty of love for human kind, and at the same time inculcating that love, and making it easier to accept" (Finklestein, p. 8)

Later he says, "Whatever its basic theme, Judaism expresses it most naturally not in propositions but in gesture; its ideas are formulated in a series of forms which must be acted out…" (Finklestein, p. 15).

This is not quite a full-fledged statement within memetics (as of course it was not intended to be) because it speaks only of "acting out" and not of imitation. However, imitation is not only implicit in the religion, but as noted by Finkelstein elsewhere (p. 10): "The student of Torah discovers … a supreme delight which, in his affection for mankind, he wishes to be shared by the rest of it."

Finkelstein shows other indications of prescient appreciation that ideas and laws of Judaism might be described in the later language of memetics. He discusses, in his own terms, the transmission of memes "The positive commandments … have the greater virtue of emphatic declaration of the truths inculcated in the whole Torah… [they] make men especially mindful of the meaning of life and the Torah" (Finklestein, p. 15; italics ours). He also offers this elegantly apposite phrase: "The moral commandments differ from the ritualistic ones in being, so to say, onomatopoeic … thus the possibility of murder suggests the sanctity of life." (Finklestein, p. 16) Just as onomatopoeia is a mechanism to transmit meaning, it can be a powerful mechanism for aiding the transmission of memes.

Again, the point is not to convert Finkelstein into a prophet of memetics, but to validate our use of memetics by showing that it would be a compatible language for expressing his notions of a "system of symbols."6

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