IHVHGHBH9HGZ8LBZ0LAZSLGZSLBZ5LJH5LPZ4H1HQL8ZSLAH7HOHWHZR5LWZ4LJHILVZ5LAZXLBZ0LTHGHHRGHEZ5HFrom theoretical genetics comes the idea of a “green beard” gene, which a) gives you some clear physical sign of its presence (canonically, a green beard), and b) modifies your behavior so that you’re nice to people with that physical trait. And by “nice”, we’re talking about altruism: you do things to benefit them even when there’s no benefit to yourself.

The trouble is that such a gene would have an Achilles heel: genetic freeloaders. Suppose a mutation appeared that gave you a green beard but DIDN’T affect your behavior. You’d gain the benefits of the green beard gene (green bearders would be nice to you), but wouldn’t have to pay any costs. Such a mutation would theoretically outcompete the legitimate green beard gene until the value of green beards was destroyed.

Or would it? Did cubic zirconia destroy the value of diamonds? The presence of fakers doesn’t seem to render authentic items worthless – or if it does, it does so in an arbitrary and unclear way. Certain moths have evolved the yellow and black banding of wasps (freeloading off the wasps’ “I am poisonous” heraldry)…but flying insects with yellow and black banding are still scary. It seems that there’s a delicate equilibrium between reals and fakes that can exist without tipping one way or another. After all, it benefits the fake green beard gene for there still to be some social cachet to a green beard.

None of these genes are known to exist. But there are cultural, information-based green beards.

Gang tattoos, for one. Items of religious faith (such as a cross, or a hijab), for another. These are props that signal to other gang members or believers “I am part of the in-group. Favour me.” According to the fake green beard principle, you’d expect to see lots of “fake green memes” – people who wear a cross and reap the benefits, but don’t bother going to church or paying any other price for their faith. And sure, you could put guys like Tim Lambesis in that category.

But at the same time, fake Christians aren’t wildly outcompeting true Christians. Generally people who wear crosses do go to church, and do believe. Obviously, there are limits to how far this sort of memetic fakery can reach.

Maybe this is why so many religions insist on public, costly shows of faith – to help keep the flock pure of non-altruistic green beard fakes. And maybe this explains why so many religious rites seem bizarre and strange to outsiders – they’re that way by design. Why would you insist someone do something sensible to show his faith? It’d be like a college fraternity where joining requires that you change your car’s oil, brush your teeth, and call your mom every week.

This could explain things like the Grishneshwar Temple Baby Toss, where newborns are flung from a tower to a canopy 50 feet below. No way would a fake green beard do that. Rituals like this are sieves, meant to separate the sheep from the goats, and the costlier and more dangerous, the better. Remember, fake believers water down the purity of the religion. You cannot allow freeloaders to benefit from the in-group’s altruism. And it’s ironic that this green beard memetic behavior is actually damaging its subjects at the genetic level.

This is probably Dickie Dawkins’ big contribution to the philosophy of biology: recognising that humans aren’t just a canvas for recombinant DNA, but also a canvas for information-based replicators of all kinds. DNA isn’t the only way to play this game, we have other things trying to spread themselves via our bodies – and sometimes they can even override the power of genes.

Catholic priests are celibate – a drastic act of faith that takes your reproductive fitness down to a number closely resembling “zero”. Why? To prove the seriousness of their beliefs. That seems odd to outsiders: killing off your genetic strain for the sake of making a point. But I wonder what sorts of green beard memes are currently infesting your mind.

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