Your body is home to uncounted beneficial bacterial species, from the ones in your gut that carry out digestion to those in your mouth that help fight fungal and viral infections. In fact, most of the species living in your body are good for you. They are symbionts. They help form the complex ecosystem that is your body.
Unfortunately, our culture has tended to cultivate an irrational fear of germs. Only a very small percentage are harmful, and by simply sterilizing our food, our body, and our homes, we can throw natural ecosystems out of whack and allow for pathological bacteria to spread more easily. To help our own kids develop a healthy immune system, my wife and I have let them play outside in the dirt since they were babies. To help them develop a healthy attitude toward germs, we talk about “good germs” in yogurt and garden vegetables. When they ask us what makes someone sick, we like to say “bad germs” to make it clear that not all germs make you ill.
Your body has many complex mechanisms evolved to fight bad germs. Skin oil, saliva, and tears contain enzymes specially-designed to slice up incoming bacteria, like razor-wire. Your immune system learns to distinguish good from bad and places specially-designed markers called “antibodies” to help remove the bad. These systems aren’t perfect. Sometimes your immune system will incorrectly label harmless substances as bad, and when this happens it’s called an “allergy.”
Among good germs, some of the most interesting are your mitochondria. Billions of years ago these were independently-living single-celled organisms. At some point they invaded the cells of our ancestors. But instead of causing problems they actually provided benefits. Though they still have their own DNA sequence separate from ours (which can be used to traced maternal lineage), they exist in every one of our cells, producing a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that is burned as fuel elsewhere in the cell to provide energy. If your mitochrondria died, you would die, and vice versa. It’s a very close symbiotic relationship.
A symbiont is usually defined as an organism that benefits another, and is given benefits in return. But let’s be a little more precise. Natural selection is unyielding about what survives: it is whatever produces the most surviving offspring on average. So, to be more specific, a symbiont helps another organism reproduce and is rewarded by being able to reproduce more successfully itself. In evolutionary theory, “reproductive success” is considered a mouthful and you normally use the term “fitness.”
By this definition, all the good germs that form the ecosystem of your body are symbionts. They make you healthier, fitter, and in return they come along for the ride when you have children and thus spread them to the next generation. If you’re not used to thinking of it this way, it may sound a little creepy, but it’s life. Every successful ecosystem is like this—as it spreads it benefits its members by giving them an expanding environment to fill.
A parasite, on the other hand, is best defined as an organism that reduces the fitness of another, and in return enhances its own fitness. Invasive species are like this. Bacterial infections are like this.
Brain parasites are a particularly weird example. Toxoplasma gondi, for example, leaves eggs in cat feces. There the eggs lay dormant until eaten, frequently by rats. Once inside a rat, they will mature and often infect the brain. Eventually, sometimes years later, they alter the rat’s brain chemistry, causing it to become sexually aroused by the smell of cats. This is the parasites working hard to be eaten, so they can spread to a new feline host. The fitness of the rat is thus lowered, and the fitness of the parasite enhanced.
Viruses are likewise a bit weird in how they work. Their spores are often shaped like little moon-landers, ready to attach to your cells and inject their own DNA, reprogramming the cell to become a zombie-like producer of more viral spores. Again, this is parasitic behavior. The virus benefits; the host is harmed and often destroyed.
Richard Dawkins claims that religious faith is a special kind of virus, spread not by spores filled with alien DNA, but by priests filled with unscientific convictions. Once infected,
The patient typically finds himself impelled by some deep, inner conviction that something is true, or right, or virtuous: a conviction that doesn't seem to owe anything to evidence or reason, but which, nevertheless, he feels as totally compelling and convincing. We doctors refer to such a belief as “faith.”
It’s an intriguing idea. But is it sound? Dawkins has received plenty of criticism for it. The two most common objections:
(a) Ideas (or as Dawkins calls them “memes,” as analogues to genes) don’t spread mechanically by natural selection, like viruses, but are consciously adopted by reasoning individuals. But this objection falls right into Dawkins’s trap. His point is that religion is not consciously adopted at all, but the result of mystification, indoctrination, and anti-scientific thinking. He goes further and admits that,
Scientific ideas, like all memes, are subject to a kind of natural selection, and this might look superficially virus-like. But the selective forces that scrutinize scientific ideas are not arbitrary and capricious.
In other words, it’s not that religion is a meme and science is not. Dawkins’s point is that science is a good meme, while religion is a viral one. Reason is a symbiont and faith is a parasite. But if symbiont/parasite is the important distinction, why does Dawkins spend so much time arguing that faith is an unscientific meme? (“Patients typically make a positive virtue of faith’s being strong and unshakable, in spite of not being based on evidence.” // “A related symptom ... is the conviction that ‘mystery,’ per se, is a good thing.” // “It is as though the faithful gain prestige through managing to believe even more impossible things than their rivals succeed in believing.” // etc. etc.) He commits a non sequitur here. The conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises. His argument runs like this: Science is beneficial. Religion is not science. Therefore religion is not beneficial. Therefore it is a parasite. But the fact that religion is not science does not immediately imply that religion is not beneficial.
(b) This brings us to the other common objection, namely, that Dawkins focuses on the virus-like aspects of religion and ignores the positive. To properly assess it, we need to be absolutely precise: Is religion a symbiont or a parasite, by the best definitions we have of these terms? Does religion increase or decrease one’s reproductive fitness? For a thorough answer to this question, see this article. If you prefer a summary, see the following table, which uses data from the article linked to:
Religion : Fertility Rate
Islam : 3.1
Christianity : 2.7
AVERAGE : 2.5
Hinduism : 2.4
Judaism : 2.3
Folk : 1.8
Other : 1.7
Buddhist : 1.6
Both Christians and Muslims have a higher fertility rate than average. People unaffiliated with any religion are expected to decline, from 16.4% of the population in 2010 to 13.2% in 2050. Islam is the fastest growing religion and will grow from 23.2% to 29.7% of the world population during the same period. And what about the U.S. in particular? Let’s take a look at another set of data:
Religion Fertility Rate
Mormonism : 3.4
Black Protestant : 2.5
Evangelical Protestant : 2.3
Catholics : 2.3
Jews : 2.0
Mainline Protestants : 1.9
Atheists : 1.6
Agnostics : 1.3
Converting from atheism to Mormonism, therefore, will more than double your reproductive fitness. The two lowest-fertility groups are the non-religious ones.
Religion increases fitness. It’s not a parasite, it’s a symbiont. If you want to get scientific about it, look at the numbers.
The line between symbiont and parasite can often shift or prove illusory. E. coli is essential to a working digestive system. It keeps bad germs out and harmlessly inhabits us almost immediately from birth to death. Once in while, a mutant or foreign variant can cause infectious diarrhea and even death. Even mutations of cells with human DNA can cause them to replicate out of control, to become pathogenic—a process called cancer.
In the realm of ideas, there are a number of such symbionts gone parasitic. The one I find most interesting, being the most pervasive in the modern West, is the notion of Progress.
There is a certain kind of progress that is most often a good germ, and this goes by the term “civic responsibility.” This is the idea that you should get involved in your local community and help make it better and more prosperous. Unfortunately, this good idea as too often mutated, by stages, into such less-good and eventually harmful ones from state reform, to nation-wide reform, and finally to Global Progress, which I capitalize because it is the deity of modern progressivism, whose ultimate goal, it seems clear, is the elimination of all poverty worldwide and forever.
In my upcoming book, Progress Debunked, I will argue that this goal is not only practically unfeasible, but logically impossible. The elimination of suffering, if we analyze the idea in terms of what it means biologically and psychologically, also means the elimination of joy and with it the elimination of life itself. In biological terms, the elimination of natural selection means decay by mutation. In cultural terms, perfect freedom of thought and of morality means decay by cultural mutation.
If you want an overview see these posts: Preface, Introduction, Chapter 1 Excerpt, Chapter 2 Excerpt. Suffice it to say that at present I’ll be reasoning from the assumption that World Progress (or simply Progress with a capital P) is impossible.
The ideal of Progress is a rather new strain, not much more than three centuries old. It became popular largely as a result of the Marquis de Condorcet’s 1794 book, Progress of the Human Mind. Admittedly, two hundred years is old enough that it throws some doubt on how harmful a meme it might be. That is, Progress can’t be a deadly pathogen because otherwise it would have killed off all its hosts. Still, it is relatively young as religions go and it seems likely that it lacks long-term evolutionary viability.
It has nevertheless succeeded in spreading widely, and most liberals in the West now believe in something like it. Human ingenuity, most believe, will continue to create new technology that will continue to make life better and better. The past is past and the future will either become perfect, or will keep getting more easy-going and fun. Fewer wars, less back-breaking work. We’ll help the rest of the world improve too. This is all part of the complex of ideas that is Progress. In fact it is such a popular belief now that most of us in the West believe it without realizing that we believe it, having grown up around no respectable alternatives.
The idea of Progress does often coexist more-or-less peacefully, even in the same person, alongside various religions, including Christianity. But even then it does have a tendency to reduce fertility. Progressivism teaches that unless you have fewer children, the world will become “overpopulated” (a term, I’ve pointed out, that Malthus himself never used).
This teaching is logically inconsistent. By reducing human reproduction we reduce the suffering caused by having to support children. But this ignores the joy inherent in raising a family. Rather than merely decreasing suffering, birth control also reduces joy, and thus reduces the total quantity of life. This way of doing things will, on the whole, shrink and give way to more flourishing ways of living, such as traditional Catholicism and other ideologies that teach the biologically-sound view that reproduction is the essential function of sex. The suicide of the ideal of Progress is already happening as the native population of the secular West declines, giving way to Islam and more family-centered forms of Christianity.
This is why, on the whole, I think that the myth of Progress should be discarded. Population growth and resource limitations have always given rise to equal amounts of suffering and joy. Looking for some magical formula whereby you can have all the good of life with none of the bad is an opium-dream. Unfortunately, this dream of Progress has become almost inextricably integrated into our Western ideological ecosystem. It is not easy to discard. It’s in fact developed its own adaptations over the last two centuries of its quasi-symbiosis, including its own kind of immune system, comprising ideas like relativism and political correctness. As we’ll see, unless you can replace these defense mechanisms with something more effective, those excommunicated from the Cult of Progress are prone to all kinds of ugly ideological germs.
Might it not be better just to let this benign parasite, Progress, alone? Is it really doing all that much harm? If the worst it can do is reduce the number of white people lording over the world, isn’t that sort of a good thing? What’s wrong with welcoming immigrants and letting them take over the genetic legacy of the West?
I like to think of my challenges to Progress as an FYI. It’s a warning more than anything. What I’m saying is, look, you are free to believe in it if you’d like. We don’t need to outlaw the idea. But people should be aware of what it is, especially its disadvantages, because it’s so taken over our intellectual culture that we’ve left critique of Progress almost entirely to certain ugly fringe elements. Things could get even uglier if these fringe elements start to win the wider philosophical and cultural war.
Because Progressivism is seen as a constant overcoming of the past, it tends to forget tradition, seeing anything old-fashioned as outdated. As a result, it tends to mutate fast, latching on to any new cause it can champion to unite Progressive voters. As it’s mutated it’s given rise not only to political correctness, but all the increasingly sensitive forms it comes in today. Originally, being PC served the useful function of fighting Nazi, fascist, and KKK-style racist ideologies. But today many universities require professors to abstain from mentioning anything that suggests that DNA can make any difference to success, or even that ethnicity can make any difference to economic or political behavior. Many require that lecturers give “trigger warnings” anytime they even discuss the possibility of non-equitable relations among different sexes or cultures.
These are allergic reactions, an immune system gone haywire. It’s the sort of over-sensitive perception that led Hillary Clinton to call most of Trump’s supporters “deplorables,” thus demeaning almost a quarter of the U.S. population. This is too much. Out of self-defense these “deplorables” are starting to become aggressive and allergic themselves. The Alt-Right, a group of anti-democratic libertarian monarchists, is growing in influence. It regularly uses the term “cuckservative” to refer to Republicans or any conservative that they see as selling-out to liberalism. In this way they have made themselves equally allergic, and the divide deepens.
It makes me think of HIV. We’ve got viruses attacking the very immune system that keeps us safe from viruses. The break-down in dialogue between Left and Right is like organ-donation gone bad, the body and the organ reacting with mutual allergies. This sort of thing is deadly.
The cycle of reaction and counter-reaction is halting dialogue. It’s destroying the rational benefits of freedom of speech. It gives rise to viral propaganda with similarities to the sort that created Communism and Fascism.
Freedom of speech is an essential immunological function in our culture. It gives every idea a fighting chance in the ecosystem. It creates a jungle of ideas. Freedom of speech is the Law of the Jungle. Just as your body needs a healthy balance of germs, just as your body in fact destroys fewer germs than it lets be, freedom of speech must tolerate all but those few ideas that cannot be tolerated. It may seem to permit too much from the likes of white supremacists, but if we do not allow them a voice they will find more violent and virulent ways to make themselves heard. The last thing we want to do is make them martyrs to the cause of truth—but this is very nearly what is happening.
The Law of the Jungle is not kind. It means survival of the fittest. And Christianity in particular has survived such jungles before, most especially the late Roman Empire. It is no fossil species. Its numbers have grown to 2.2 billion. If you want to talk about fossil species, I should mention that Paganism and Druidism, popular only among certain pockets of hipsters today, are your prototypical fossil species when it comes to culture, gaining curious converts precisely because they are so small and unique. Nazism is younger but no less a fossil.
I’ve heard Christianity criticized as non-adapting because it retains the same canon of scripture it did millennia ago. But this is to ignore the fact that in the early church there were many competing canons. It was popular choice and debate that eventually led to the scriptures adopted by Catholics. And even then there are differences in canon among Orthodox, Protestant, Mormon, and many other sects of Christianity. And there are differences in translation, interpretation, and application. Just compare the Amish to the Anglicans. In fact, Christianity is part of an even bigger family tree that has diversified from its original Semitic roots millennia ago into Islam and Judaism as well. These churches have gradually accepted and absorbed insights from science, including Greek philosophy, a heliocentric solar system, Newtonian physics, and in some cases Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Christianity is an old symbiont and it’s been with us for several ages, both dark and golden. I’d be very surprised indeed if suddenly a viral argument from a theologically-naive atheist (e.g. Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris) annihilated this entire tradition overnight. I know physicists, philosophers, biologists, successful businessmen, and public intellectuals who are all Christian. I am a Christian. It does not preclude intelligence or rationality—in fact it strengthens the intellect by giving it firm ideological ground in long-standing moral values. And faith is not incompatible with science. Almost every pre-20th century Western scientist, including Newton, believed in God.
If anything’s a virus, it’s those notions that come and go in short-lived epidemics from age-to-age. Fascism, authoritarianism, utopian socialism, materialism, and militant atheism come to mind. These ideas are simple, seductive, spread quickly among the impressionable, mutate fast, and tend to burn themselves out.
Next week, in Part 2 of 3, we’ll discuss this new far-right movement, the Alt-Right, in these terms—parasite or symbiont?