response:re.evolutionary coherence

Brown, Alex (
Thu, 7 Aug 1997 15:40:16 +0800

From: "Brown, Alex" <>
To: "'memetics list'" <>
Subject: response:re.evolutionary coherence
Date: Thu, 7 Aug 1997 15:40:16 +0800

Date: 6ht July 1997

Thanks to Aaron Lynch for his comments on my posting. Here are some of
my responses:

HISTORY, by Rodney Stark (Princeton University Press, 1996). There you
will find considerable evidence of how the Roman Empire became
predominantly monotheistic because of a monotheism that OUT-POPULATED
polytheism. It did so by growing at 40% per decade, compounded over
several hundred years. The extra babies and extra proselytizing of the
Christians accounts for this growth. A monotheistic god allowed the
faith to coherently command these retransmission behaviors in the
service of just the one god-meme. (It would be nice if Stark had also
been able to analyze the differential propagation of monotheism in
pre-Christian Semites.)......"

AB: I haven't read this book but I have had to read several others on
the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire and the foundation and
explosive growth of Islam from the 7th century. In the year 313, the
emperor, Constantine, trying to save a disintegrating empire, MADE
Christianity the state religion of the (polytheistic) Roman Empire. To
show just how bad things were at the time, eleven years later he moved
the capital of the Roman empire to Constantinople. As I understand it,
he had two alternative possible religions which could possibly have done
the same job of ideologically unifying the empire: Mithras (Persian)
and/or Osiris (Egypt). All three religions were very popular in the
empire of the time. He had to make a politically pragmatic choice. The
obscurities and complexities of the Osiris option probably ruled it out.
How do you make a state and public religion out of some rather esoteric
practices, popular or not? Mithras, which had a lot of mythology in
common with Christianity and at the time was equally popular had one
problem, it was Persian and Persia and Rome were not the best of
friends. Roman emperors were not noted for their consensus approach to
politics, so all things considered, in the end Christianity got the job.
What this meant of course was no persecution of Christians, state
finance to build churches and the PR value of being recognized as the
imperial religion. What it also meant was a very rapid growth in
popularity, probably as per your quoted figures.

So what does this little potted version of history tell us about
monotheisms per se or their relationship with polytheisms? The answer is
very very little. According to the memetic reproduction theory, it could
equally well have been a poytheistic religion which replaced a
monotheism at that or any other time. It could even have been a
pantheism. It apparently doesn't matter, nor apparently does the
cultural context of the time. Babies and proselytising would seem to
explain everything. The possibly interesting fact that Mithras, Osiris,
Christianity, Judaism and Islam - all monotheisms have sprung up in
roughly the same geographic area, while Buddhism, Hinduism and Daoism -
non-monotheistic religions have arisen in Asia. Two different social and
political environment - CONTEXTS - producing radically different types
of religious philosophies. Or the interesting fact that Judaism,
Mithras, Christianity and Islam are based on a seemingly common set of
religious mythologies which go right back into the early religious
beliefs of the Middle East. They are versions/variations or
recombinations of a common set of religious forms. In other words, they
are ideologically and mythologically related.

Take the fact that chronologically, monotheisms seem to occur AFTER the
development of a polytheistic religion. Why? This might suggest to me
that there was a developmental relationship between the evolution of
pantheisms and their seeming historical transformation into monotheisms.
(From many answers to one as in the development of scientific theories
and artistic styles). In other words it would seem to suggest an
evolutionary or developmental THEORY which does not rely on individual
heros or villains or number of babies born within the philosophy. It
suggests a theory which is generalizable across different cultures and
which driven by the dynamic of social interaction - the dynamic of the

Thus, even with the growth statistics mentioned above, I have a problem
with a statement like this: ".....the Roman Empire became predominantly
monotheistic because of a monotheism that OUT-POPULATED polytheism....."
At one level, this may well be a DESCRIPTION of what happened, but
descriptions are not explanations. What exactly does it tell us that we
can use as a general rule about the evolution of cultural forms? What
does it explain? Monotheism? No. That success can be defined as that
which succeeds? Was monotheism constructed or invented just like the
lightbulb or the steam engine and marketed accordingly? Was the Theory
of Evolution constructed in a similar manner? The answer is no. It was
an evolutionary SYNTHESIS of theories circulating around at the time
including that of Malthus and Adam Smith. What was Darwin's
contribution? In my view the same as that of any avant-garde, including
religious leaders: the brilliant synthesis of prevailing tendencies. Yet
even that is not enough to assure the emergence (or numerically-defined
success) of a religious (or any other) meta-system because one could ask
why then and not before or after? The answer is of course the (cultural)
environmental conditions which constrain (but do not dictate) the
occurence of events. Cultural forms are not made and marketed. They
evolve/emerge from prevailing forms and their development is constrained
by the cumulative state of other cultural systems.

Just to conclude this part of the reply: lets take a hypothetical
situation where a society has a polytheistic religious system. Given the
inevitable continuous (collective) interpretation and development of
that religious state, what are the historical options? There are three:
1. It can remain polytheistic forever. 2. It can revert to a pantheistic
state, or 3. It can evolve to a monotheistic state. In other words,
given its current state, where can it go from there? What is the most
likely option?


Alex Brown

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