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Thought for the Night: Crop Circles as an Illustration of Memetic Selection and the Spread of Religion

A funny thing happened to me the other day: I went looking for the truth, and had one hell of a time finding it.

And I even knew the title of the book wherein it lay.

The book in question was Round in Circles by one Jim Schnabel. The occasion of my looking was the surfacing of media stories of crop circles in a California wheat field, just a few days ago (as I’m writing this, in the summer of 2003).

The stories evoked some puzzlement on my part. They described “true believers, visionaries, psychics and people in purple robes” lying down in the circles, convinced there was some confluence of healing energies emanating from the flattened stems. (See “Crop circles of Solano County,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 3, 2003).

This puzzled me principally because, in my innocence, I didn’t see how anyone (or, at least, anyone not heavily medicated) could believe such a thing in 2003. A card-carrying skeptic, I knew of the Schnabel work–an apparently delightfully funny 1994 work in which Schnabel, a reporter who has written for the Washington Post and the Economist, among others, does affectionate portraits of the cult of circle-believers, and, critically, interviews the two British gentlemen–Doug Bower and Dave Chorley–who almost certainly started the whole deal in the late 1970s, when, after a few pints in the local pub, they took it into their heads to make it look like a flying saucer had landed in a nearby wheat field, using boards and lengths of rope.

After a few years of growing interest in the circles from UFO and new-age types, and the media, and copycat circles cropping up (if you’ll pardon the pun) all around the globe, Bower and Chorley, fearing they’d created a monster, and tiring of the sustained nocturnal activity, went public. Schnabel wrote a book, and you’d think (or I suppose I would have thought in my innocence of the work of certain sociologists who have seen this sort of thing before) that would have been the end of it. Sure, you’d get the odd tinfoil-hat case who was convinced Bower and Chorley confessed as some part of a vast conspiracy, but otherwise shouldn’t most of the crazies have gone home about then, maybe moved on to posing in white robes down the mountain from Palomar or something?

Apparently not, or not particularly. Flash forward to 2003. I read the California story, and, bemusedly, go looking for the Schnabel book. I type “Crop circles” and “Round in Circles” into a search engine…

And here we fall into madness. Even knowing what I’m looking for, I can’t easily find it.

There are so many, many pages by the folk convinced that the circles are made by invisible aliens, mysterious healing energy vortices, and so on, that Schnabel’s little gem of a work is lost in the noise. I find it, eventually. But interestingly, the review, though positive, doesn’t even mention Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, nor the reasonable conclusion to which Schnabel came: that these were hoaxes, conceived, actually, innocently (and humorously) enough, but hoaxes all the same. And the review is mixed in amongst pages and pages of considerably more credulous works: the circles as messages from aliens, the divine geometry of the circles, and so on.

Stop for a moment. Imagine what this means. Suppose you’re an innocent in the world of crop circles, that you have never really heard about them. Someone mentions them, and what a fascinating mystery they are. You go to the Internet (yeah, okay, probably your first mistake), and do a search. You find the following paragraph prominently featured:

Although there are many theories as to their creation, none have been able to explain satisfactorily exactly how the circles are made. But, perhaps some of the most persuasive evidence comes in the form of video taped footage showing small bright balls of white light in and around the crop circles. Many of these lights have been filmed in broad daylight and the objects seem to move with purpose and intelligence, could this hint at a possible link between these balls of light and the formation of crop circles? (Introduction, The Crop Circle Connector.)

None have been able to explain. Indeed. Boards (and, occasionally, lawn rollers) and rope, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley, and a small tribe of bemused and mischievous imitators, aren’t ripe for mention on the first page. Or, possibly, the authors of this site have never actually read nor heard of Schnabel. (To be fair, I didn’t exhaustively work through their pages to determine this, but it’s not as if it’s unlikely they missed it, given the glut of everything else out there). In any case, the innocent in the world of crop circles may well assume: “Well, there is no explanation yet. How fascinating. What a mystery. Aliens, maybe. Sure seems to need some kind of miraculous explanation.”

Now you might, if you’re a skeptical and pessimistic sort given to dwelling on the endless gullibility of the human species, take this as a somewhat depressing commentary. And on a level, I suppose I do. But I also really have to say, as a dimension to another problem altogether, I think this phenomenon is actually entirely fascinating–and quite illuminating.

Here’s the thing: I think we’re looking here at a rather unusually clear-cut case of what can reasonably be called memetic selection, and one probably not unlike what you might see near the birth of a miraculous religion.

Meme theory is a bit of a new idea itself, but broadly speaking (I’ll keep this short; most of you have probably already heard this.) A meme is a self-replicating entity that lives in the human brain–an idea, a snatch of a melody, anything that can be passed on. Religions, scientific theories, cults, and superstitions are all either memes or meme complexes, sets of memes that function together and frequently travel as a group because they tend to reinforce each other.

Memes and meme complexes undergo natural selection and evolution, like all self-reproducing entities with mutability and inheritance. Features of the meme either do or do not work well with features of its environment, and a given meme reproduces at a better or worse rate than its competitors, accordingly.

(Okay. Thus endeth the meme lesson. I’m assuming most of you have heard all this before anyway.)

This is interesting, I’d say, in this case, (as I keep foreshadowing), because it seems to me, in my innocent Google search, I may have just witnessed a phenomenon that shines some light on the birth of the various flavors of religious belief that trade in the miraculous.

In this particular case of memetic selection, it would appear that the fantastical, for whatever reason, confers selective advantage. This may or may not generally be the case. There may be more-skeptical ages, and questions on which people are more inclined to be skeptical. (A note is perhaps in order, here, that artistic designs in wheat may inspire less skepticism, since believing fantastical explanations for their cause doesn’t seem to have any immediate and pressing consequences; the “cereal artists” who design the circles aren’t actually asking for money, for one thing.) It would appear, however, that this is the case here. The folk interested in this stuff tend not to notice, nor to be interested in, the clearly more parsimonious “hoax” explanation. So, the less-fantastical explanation is at a disadvantage. It doesn’t get passed on. The book doesn’t get bought, doesn’t get reviewed, and doesn’t get reprinted.

Yes, you may have heard of, or even noticed, this phenomenon before. Dawkins mentioned it (if memory serves) in the passage in which he coined the term ‘meme.’ I thought I would bring this instance to your attention, however, as my recent experience brought it to mine.

Getting to the birth of religions: consider, of course, the historical possibilities and the evolution in ideas that can occur with time, particularly in oral traditions where the “genetic drift” in the form of a meme is probably somewhat accelerated, and prior to the printing press where multiple copies of a work contain multiple errors, and in scholastic cultures where the mass of believers do not read (or are not allowed to read) the canonical texts and interpretation occurs within almost allopatrically isolated ecclesiastic branches.

With regard to the birth of religions, let’s consider a prominent example (and I hope the Christians will forgive me for picking on them in particular, but I know their stories better than most of the others, and I believe I can reasonably expect that those stories will act as a common reference among most readers). So it’s around two thousand years ago. The followers of a probably basically decent street preacher/Essene/rabble-rouser who’s just managed to get himself done-in by the military empire currently knocking heads (apparently at the behest of the local clergy, who were finding he was hurting their box office) are consoling themselves over some warm red wine. It becomes fashionable among them to comment that really, old Jesu is still with us, in spirit; he’s not dead, really.

A few years later, followers of the surviving movement are not so much repeating that his presence is one “in spirit” anymore. “He’s not dead” then shifts to “he didn’t die–it didn’t quite take, not that those Romans didn’t give it a try.”

They’re thinking it’s a bit more concrete than before. Inward, emotional, and fondly remembered perceptions, of the absent preacher’s presence become understood as being a bit more physical. Again, it’s probably still a mix of alleles, meme-wise; there are still people around saying, no, he wasn’t actually here here, but we felt like he was. But as their story is a bit less interesting in another environment where the fantastical, for whatever reason, travels well, it doesn’t get passed along as frequently as the other story.

There are reasons other than just that it’s fantastical which might promote the spread of the more-interesting versions of the story as well. Comparative religion types have previously noted the correspondences between many of the major religions, borrowed elements, and so on. The Christian story does bear some interesting resemblances, or at least apparently so, to the Isis/Osiris myths. Gods that sacrifice themselves and return from the dead would seem to have been something of a tradition. (As this is idle musing, not so much a scholarly article, I’m not going to go looking for footnotes right now). Again, you can imagine reasons, mechanisms that would have fused the tradition with the younger, growing story–adherents of both systems unconcerned to keep them particularly separate. (we still often hear the “it’s all the same god” ecumenism stuff attempting to bridge traditions even today.) And leaning on its now archetypical, familiar quality, its tendency to spread grows yet again.

Note also that some such apparent shifts in interpretation are rather unambiguously recorded even in the now-canonical versions of the texts in use at present. Scholars have previously commented on the rather strong suggestions in the text that the alleged messiah was talking about a rather imminent set of events when he talked about the coming paradise. Exactly when, according to the textual-analysis people, this might have worked its way into the stories, I’m not sure, but note that interpretation-wise, regardless of when it got written down, what it is popularly supposed to have meant has rather clearly changed since. Again, quite plausibly, the interpretation evolved. The promise has some currency if it’s still an open offer, offers something to look forward to, adds an attraction to this particular meme complex. Those who treat it this way get repeated. Those who don’t aren’t quite so likely to have their comment passed along.

Wild conjecture, of course. But just this evening’s odd thought. Take it as my two cents worth.

See also:

Crop circles as guerilla art

Excerpt from The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore; foreward by Richard Dawkins (Oxford, 2000)

The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins (Oxford, 1990)

Round in Circles, by Jim Schnabel (Prometheus, 1994)

Bored teens try to claim crop circles, San Francisco Chronicle, July 12, 2003