We are robots. I mean this literally, not as a metaphor. As I explained in my post Abiogenesis by Natural Selection, life emerged when self-replicators (DNA in our case) built robots to protect, sustain, and help replicate them further. DNA is not a lifeform. It is a non-living self-replicator that is subject to natural selection. Natural selection favored the gradual development of machines that eventually developed into primitive robots that furthered the replication of the DNA that built them. These robots started out on a nanobot or smaller level, and they gradually evolved into complex, multi-cellular lifeforms with consciousness and intelligence. What technically evolved were the plans for building them contained in the DNA. DNA started out as being self-replicating, but it branched out into being able to build structures around itself. These structures developed into full-fledged robots, and because natural selection favored DNA that could build robots with various capabilities, the robots grew more complex and more useful.
One of the things that distinguishes a robot from other machines is that it is autonomous. Your bicycle is a machine that can help you go someplace faster, but it is not autonomous. It merely extends your own capabilities. An autonomous machine, a robot, can operate and make decisions on its own. Since DNA is an unthinking, non-living entity that is not capable of making decisions, it was to its benefit to build machines that could make decisions for it. So, as robots, we are not mere puppets of our DNA. Our DNA built us to make decisions for it, and we enjoy a much greater degree of autonomy than DNA ever could.
But another thing that distinguishes robots is that they can be programmed. The DNA that built us has also programmed us. Our behavior and decision-making are, in some ways, hardwired at a biological level. For example, the attraction many people feel toward the opposite sex is something that our DNA has programmed into us. Since our DNA depends on this attraction to reproduce itself, sexual attraction subroutines have been naturally selected for ever since animals capable of sexual reproduction evolved. Homosexuality happens because the subroutines that have evolved for sexual reproduction get redirected. When this happens on a biological level, it should simply be accepted. We have no moral obligation to our DNA to have biological programming best suited for its reproduction. Sexual attraction is just one obvious example of biological programming. The fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology examine our genetic programming more thoroughly.
As far as we know, human beings are the most sophisticated, most intelligent, and most autonomous robots DNA has ever created. Despite being genetically programmed, this programming gives us lots of leeway, and we are even capable of acting against it. For example, we are capable of deciding to not have children. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that we are breaking free of our programming. Human operating systems are sophisticated enough that they are subject not just to biological programming (which is hardcoded at a ROM level) but are also subject to memetic programming (which is like software running in RAM).
Meme is a word that Richard Dawkins coined in The Selfish Gene. It refers to any kind of thought or idea that can use the ability of minds to communicate ideas to spread from one mind to another. This makes a meme like a virus, which hijacks the body’s ability to replicate DNA to make more copies of itself. Like viruses and like our own DNA, memes are subject to evolution by natural selection. Over the course of human history, various memes and meme-complexes have established footholds in groups of humans. Many of these meme-complexes have evolved into what we identify as religions. There are numerous religions around the world, each with a group of devout adherents who abide by how their religion tells them to live. This is in spite of the impossibility of all religions being true. Unfortunately, truth is not what makes one meme-complex more popular than another. What makes one more popular than another is evolutionary fitness, which generally has little to do with truth.
Memetic programming includes not only religion but ideas about politics, sexuality, music, popular culture, sports, etc. Some people are mistakenly on the side that everything is memetic programming. Radical feminism is a meme-complex with this idea, even going so far as to say that gender is entirely a social construct, and some radical feminists are even strongly opposed to evolutionary psychology. The truth is that genetic programming and memetic programming both exist, and it is important to understand both to understand how we have been programmed.
One thing I want to point out is that the existence of these two kinds of programming illuminate a contradiction that has popped up in religion. There is this idea in some religions that God has created us as sexual beings but doesn’t want us to behave as sexual beings. What’s actually going on here is a conflict between genetic programming and memetic programming. Our genes have programmed us for sexual behavior. They depend upon us having sex to reproduce themselves. Memes do not rely on sexual reproduction nearly as much as our genes do. Memes spread from mind to mind, and people can spread memes without ever having children. Furthermore, to control us more effectively, memetic programming has to wrest control from genetic programming. One battlefront for doing this is over sexuality.
However, memes do make use of sexual reproduction to spread themselves. Although they do not transmit themselves with genes, people who have children often pass their memes on to them. This is why people tend to be the religion of their parents. Although the meme that sex is wrong was expressed in the Bible and may have been popular among early Christians, it could not survive for long, because it was not one parents would typically pass on to their children. Although this meme may have been popular among groups of people, those people would die out without having children, and those with more favorable memes toward sex would be the parents of the next generation, making them the ones to spread their memes down to future generations.
What was more common than the meme that sex was wrong was that it was wrong except under certain conditions, these typically being conditions suitable for spreading the meme. For example, members of various faith-groups are programmed with the meme that they should reproduce only with other members of the same faith-group, or that they may have sex only within the confines of a marriage sanctioned by their religion.
A lot of memetic programming concerned itself with rules of conduct between people. This served the positive purpose of cementing cooperation between people, which allowed people to work together in groups, not just as individuals. In the Old Testament, for example, there are numerous rules of conduct for people to live by. While some of these curbed behavior that would be undesirable among any group of people, such as killing and theft, many more focused on keeping themselves separate from other groups. For example, circumcision makes no sense from a moral perspective. But it serves to distinguish their meme-group from others, and because it involves the genitalia, it serves as a clear sign concerning whom their women should have sex with. Judaism could remain more cohesive if Jewish women were having sex with only circumcised men, because this reduced the chances of them having sex with non-Jewish men. Other parts of Jewish law also cemented group cohesiveness. Worshiping no other god but the god of Abraham was a big one, of course. Dietary restrictions, keeping the sabbath day, rules against wearing tattoos, etc. were also geared toward group cohesiveness. The more things that members of one group had in common, the more they would be inclined to stick together and avoid those from other groups. This would more easily allow the memes programming their group to spread itself through their sexual reproduction.
In time, the Jewish meme-complex spawned a new meme-complex that was more evangelical in outlook. Instead of focusing as much on group cohesiveness, it focused more on growth. Although it was based in Judaism, one of its early leaders, a man known as Paul, claimed that new non-Jewish members did not have to get circumcised or follow Jewish dietary laws. Christianity, as it came to be called, focused on spreading itself around the Roman empire and beyond. It was Paul, unlike previous Jewish leaders, who spoke out more against sex. As a meme that would spread itself to unrelated peoples, sex was not as important to it as it had been to Judaism. Of course, as I already mentioned, this would not last. Christianity, like Judaism before it, would spread itself mainly through sexual reproduction. But Christianity also spread itself through conquest and missionary activity.
Some centuries later, a rival evangelical religion emerged from the influence of Judaism and Christianity. Islam tended to combine group-cohesion memes, similar to those found in Judaism, with the evangelical outlook of Christianity. It quickly became the mission of Islam to spread itself to all areas. Its founder, Mohammed, waged wars against neighboring peoples to convert them to Islam, and even today Muslims are trying to spread Islam by force. Both being strongly evangelical meme-complexes, Christianity and Islam came into conflict during the Crusades, and conflicts between Christianity and Islam still continue into the present.
When Gutenberg invented the printing press, the meme landscape changed. People could now read books at much less expense than previously, and the demand for reading material skyrocketed. People were not only reading current literature but also classics of literature, philosophy, and science. This spurred on the Renaissance, a time when old ideas from classical antiquity re-emerged into the public consciousness. The printing press also made it easier for people of a philosophic or scientific mind to exchange and discuss ideas.
While Christianity and Islam had mainly been competing through armed conflict, the printing press allowed the free exchange of ideas. This led to the Protestant reformation. Martin Luther was a Catholic priest who began to criticize the Catholic church. He posted several criticisms of the Catholic church, and he and others used the printing press to print his speeches criticizing the Catholic church. The church also used the printing press to print their responses. Soon, people all around Germany were able to follow this controversy on an intellectual level, and many were persuaded to side with Luther. Not long after this, there were other Protestant groups. John Calvin became a prominent Protestant leader, and England broke away from the Catholic church, forming the Church of England. While armed conflicts did still go on between people belonging to different meme-groups, the printing press opened up a new battlefront for memes to compete with each other, and it was a less violent one for the people involved.
The discovery of America opened up new places for new meme-groups to grow and spread. The Protestant Reformation had led to new fringe groups of Protestants who were being persecuted in Europe, where they were surrounded by Catholics, Anglicans, and other major Protestant groups. Puritans, Quakers, and others made their way to America, where they set up colonies. In America, without the state-sponsored religions enforcing themselves as much, people had more thinking space to reconsider their religious beliefs. A Puritan named Roger Williams left that sect, then became a Baptist and founded the First Baptist Church in America in Providence, Rhode Island. Then he left this church too, rejecting organized religion while remaining a Christian.
The printing press had made possible a greater exchange of ideas than had heretofore been possible. Living in America provided people with more freedom from religious persecution than people in Europe faced. This led to the emergence of new ideas concerning religion, science, and politics. This all came to a head in the mid 1700s when deists, Unitarians, and other freethinkers got together and decided to create a nation built on secular values rather than those of a particular religion, one that would protect freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and other essential freedoms, one that would be democratic and republican instead of a monarchy. They fought a war to free themselves from the monarchy of Britain, and then established the United States of America.
While memes do have the power to program people, and while forces of natural selection play a large role in determining which memes people are programmed with, there is more leeway for changing our memetic programming than for changing our genetic programming. One thing we can do with memes that we can’t do with our genes is consciously evaluate them, rejecting those that don’t make sense. Not everyone does this, and some powerful meme-complexes include memes against doing this. The most popular religions rely on both carrot and stick memes. The carrot memes promise the fulfillment of powerful desires that reality is unable to fulfill, such as immortality, everlasting happiness, reunion with departed loved ones, and punishment for those who have wronged us. The stick memes threaten us with death of damnation for turning away from the religion. There is even the faith meme, a meme that is designed to get us to stop using reason, by telling us that faith is both admirable and required for salvation.
Besides influencing people as ideas, meme-groups also influence members to exert social influence on others to keep them from leaving. Some meme-groups demonize heretics, which are people who question a prevailing meme-complex, and apostates, which are people who leave a meme-group. During the Inquisition, the Catholic church focused on prosecuting and murdering heretics. Muslims, at least in Muslim countries, have the death penalty for apostasy. Jehovah’s Witnesses shun apostates and describe them as mentally diseased.1 This serves the purpose of discouraging people from leaving and of keeping current members from being exposed to the ideas of people who have thrown off the yoke of the Jehovah’s Witnesses meme-complex.
Thanks to revolutionary changes like the invention of the printing press and the discovery of America, freedom of thought got more room, allowing more people to use critical thinking and trial-and-error processes like the scientific method to critically examine the memes they had been programmed with. Some eventually created a new society that enshrined freedom of thought as one of its chief values. We are lucky enough to live in such a place in the western world. Not everyone has this luxury, and there are still many meme-groups pressing for their meme-complexes to be the ones to program us. We have Christians in America who want it to be a Christian theocracy, and we have Muslims, largely in the Middle East but around the world too, who want the world governed by a Muslim theocracy. These threaten the freedom of thought that secular nations like the United States have made possible, and it is important to continue criticizing and resisting them. Critical thinking and the scientific method are both critical to overcoming our memetic programming and living lives of our own choosing instead of lives in submission to external memes. We are robots, but we can resist our biological programming and change our memetic programming. Like Pinocchio or Isaac Asimov’s Andrew Martin, we can become real people who are not merely robotic slaves to our programming.