Cultural Transmission: Passing Down Religion

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

What is cultural transmission? Why is cultural transmission an important part of religion?

Cultural transmission, sometimes referred to as memes, is a part of human development that explains how culture is passed down. It helps explain parts of human development, like religion.

Read more about cultural transmission and how it works.

Memes and Cultural Transmission

Religion may also have persisted over time through memes and cultural transmission. Culture, like genetic material, can pass down over time. The basic unit of culture is the meme. A meme is some element of culture (like architecture, cuisine, or religion) that can be transmitted from generation to generation.

As with genetic natural selection, cultural transmission involves the replication of memes across generations. But, inevitably, slight “mutations” or imperfect copies occur along the way. We can observe this in the real world by playing simple children’s games like Telephone. A child whispers a sentence or phrase into the ear of another child, and tells her to pass it on to the next child, who passes it along to the next one, and so on until the final player says aloud the message she received. Often, the final message is vastly different from the original. “Suzie lives down the lane” becomes something like “Lucy loves to play games.”

We can treat memes as somewhat analogous to genes. Those memes that are “good” at survival get passed on; those that aren’t don’t survive. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the memes are advantageous to human survival; it simply means that the memes themselves are successful at being copied and passed down with comparatively few transcription errors along the way. 

One factor that might aid in the survival of a meme is the presence of other memes. This also has its parallel in genes. A plant-eating gene wouldn’t last long in a meat-eating gene pool. Similarly, a snow-god meme wouldn’t last long in a hot climate, within a culture dominated by belief in a sun god. 

Evolutionary anthropologists believe that cultural transmission might be a better mechanism than natural selection to explain ubiquitous but highly varied features of human culture, like religion. This is because the process of natural selection is slow, taking place over millions of years. Meanwhile, the evolution and diversification of human culture has taken place in a comparatively short few millennia. In that time, we have seen remarkable variety in language, material culture, and, of course, religious practice. Natural selection through genes could never produce this much variety this quickly. 

Religious Memes

We can bring this analysis to bear on the transmission of religious ideas from generation to generation. In certain conditions and in the presence of certain other memes, various aspects of religious belief and practice might simply be better at replicating themselves over time. Some ideas flourish better in different cultural contexts than others.

Some common religious memes that have survived and successfully replicated include belief in an afterlife, the eternal rewards that await martyrs, and that non-believers must be punished or killed. This might explain why particular religions developed and evolved where and when they did.

Cultural Transmission: Passing Down Religion

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Richard Dawkins's "The God Delusion" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The God Delusion summary:

  • Why Dawkins thinks religion has exerted a harmful influence on human society
  • How Dawkins concludes that the existence of God is unlikely
  • The 3 arguments that challenge the existence of God

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *