Memes compete against each for the attention necessary to replicate

In what sense then are memes competing with each other? Should we expect them to be ‘selfish’ or ‘ruthless’, if they have no alleles?

The answer is that we might, because there is a sense in which they must indulge in a kind of competition with each other.

Any user of a digital computer knows how precious computer time and memory storage space are. At many large computer centres they are literally costed in money; or each user may be allotted a ration of time, measured in seconds, and a ration of space, measured in ‘words’. The computers in which memes live are human brains.

Time is possibly a more important limiting factor than storage space, and it is the subject of heavy competition. The human brain, and the body that it controls, cannot do more than one or a few things at once. If a meme is to dominate the attention of a human brain, it must do so at the expense of ‘rival’ memes.

Other commodities for which memes compete are radio and television time, billboard space, newspaper column-inches, and library shelf-space.

In the case of genes, we saw in Chapter 3 that co-adapted gene complexes may arise in the gene pool. A large set of genes concerned with mimicry in butterflies became tightly linked together on the same chromosome, so tightly that they can be treated as one gene.

In Chapter 5 we met the more sophisticated idea of the evolutionarily stable set of genes. Mutually suitable teeth, claws, guts, and sense organs evolved in carnivore gene pools, while a different stable set of characteristics emerged from herbivore gene pools.

Does anything analogous occur in meme pools? Has the god meme, say, become associated with any other particular memes, and does this association assist the survival of each of the participating memes?

Perhaps we could regard an organized church, with its architecture, rituals, laws, music, art, and written tradition, as a co-adapted stable set of mutually-assisting memes.

To take a particular example, an aspect of doctrine that has been very effective in enforcing religious observance is the threat of hell fire. Many children and even some adults believe that they will suffer ghastly torments after death if they do not obey the priestly rules.

This is a peculiarly nasty technique of persuasion, causing great psychological anguish throughout the Middle Ages and even today. But it is highly effective. It might almost have been planned deliberately by a Machiavellian priesthood trained in deep psychological indoctrination techniques. However, I doubt if the priests were that clever.
Much more probably, unconscious memes have ensured their own survival by virtue of those same qualities of pseudo-ruthlessness that successful genes display.

The idea of hell fire is, quite simply, self perpetuating, because of its own deep psychological impact. It has become linked with the god meme because the two reinforce each other, and assist each other’s survival in the meme pool.