I attended a Catholic funeral recently. I am not Catholic, nor even Christian. I was raised without any religious affiliation, but I have found value in prayer and forgiveness. As I said my prayers, my thoughts wandered to the role of the Catholic Church in the advancement of scientific thought. More generally, I thought about the role of organized religion as a process that passes memes from generation to generation.
I listened to the priest, a young, 35-ish man, who had given up his genetic destiny of procreation in favor of memetic teaching. I was impressed with the thought that the Catholic Church's prescription of celibacy was a direct challenge to the genetic, evolutionary process. I was also struck by the use of the Bible, a technology based in the belief that ideas needed to be written down to be remembered. This technology, an innovation giving the ability to communicate beyond one's lifetime, is often at odds with genetic messages, which are based on the survival of innovation through a gene pool.
As a father of three biological children, three step-children, and three loved children, I am reminded every day of my responsibilities towards parents, brothers and sisters, and most importantly, my responsibility for teaching my children how to become productive members of the world. But the priest has been stripped of this genetic programming through a practiced discipline of celibacy (yes, a discipline at which some fail). The priest has committed his legacy to teaching, passing on the memes of the Catholic Church, undeterred by the distraction of genetic legacy.
When the service came to the "body and blood" of Christ, I could not help but chuckle at the symbolism of accepting Christ's teachings by eating symbols of his DNA, a method guaranteed NOT to pass on his genetic message.
As religion and science argue about which is a better idea for the human species, I have to give a nod to the Catholic Church for their role in promoting and preserving the idea that memes may be more effective than genes in our survival. In some way, this may explain, too, the Church's reluctance to accept Darwinian evolution, a genetic process, which they have abandoned. In any case, religion and science are not so far apart as I first thought. The real struggle is between gene pool and meme tool - family versus social culture - genetic versus memetic disciplines. Therein lies the lessons that could well serve us as we struggle to understand our involvement in Iran, Afghanistan, and the continent of Africa, where tribal (gene pool) affiliation is so much stronger than ideas of democracy, equality, and universal human rights.