We are in throes of two strains of virus – one is the virus of lungs, called coronavirus and the other is the virus of the brain, called meme (similar to gene in biological speak). I would deal with these two viruses sequentially below and show that there are many commonalities, despite the fact that one is biological virus and the other is cultural virus.
Despite this dissimilarity, there are a lot of common traits – they both replicate, colonise or parasitize the respective organs of the human body; they both propagate through air from human body to human body and incubate within the host body for a while before they express themselves; when they express themselves, they destroy the host body and transmit the virus to other adjacent bodies; they cause tremendous damage to the society, economy, education system and all other branches of civilised society. Worst of all, there are no known cures against them at the moment. They are so vicious that either humanity will manage to eliminate them or they will eliminate humanity.
So, what is this vicious coronavirus – also called COVID-19 as a particular strain? It is a virus, which means that it is a microscopic parasite that infects living organisms. It consists of nucleic acid molecule – typically RNA but it can also be DNA – with a protein coat. It can replicate itself, like genes, within the living cells. When it invades the specific organ – the lungs – of a host body it spikes through the cells’ membranes and gets inside the cell and start replicating. It is speculated that this coronavirus jumped from animals to human species.
Obviously, the host cells do not like this invasion and their defence mechanism (generally called the immune system) is called on and put into action and a battle ensues. While this battle is raging on cellular levels in a specific organ, other organs are functioning normally and the host body is completely unaware of the vicious battle taking place within his or her body. This may take a few days, which in coronavirus case is called incubation or dormant period. After three or four days of the battle, if not won by the body’s defence mechanism, it goes into all-out war against the invading parasites. That is when the host body starts showing some symptoms, like high temperature, coughing and breathlessness etc. The fight goes on and depending on the outcome, the patient can start recovering or go progressively worse.
At the moment there is no reinforcement or vaccination that can be given to the defence mechanism. It is assumed that any vaccine that can be developed is at least 12 months away. Only assistance that is suggested is not to weaken the defence forces by allowing further incursion of parasites and hence the advice is to wash hands regularly, stay away from other infected people etc. – the so-called isolation period.
In the worst case, if the invading army is in the verge of victory and occupies the lungs creating pus in the alveoli sacs and impeding breathing, then ventilation units can be used to artificially supply oxygen to the body and keep the defence system going to fight to the last. Quite often body’s defence mechanism can beat off the invaders even at this stage and recover. This is the do or die stage. Altogether it is anticipated that it will take 14 days from initial invasion to full recovery.
The other virus – the virus of the brain which Richard Dawkins, Professor Emeritus of the University of Oxford and an evolutionary biologist, calls it a meme to resonate with gene – is equally, if not more, vicious and malicious as coronavirus. Meme is not a biological virus in the strict sense as coronavirus is. But it is a cultural virus behaving exactly like any other biological virus – replicating, propagating, colonising and eventually destroying the host body.
Memes carry a remarkable resemblance to gene. As genes propagate in the gene pool from body to body through sperm cells or egg cells, so do memes in the meme pool jumping from brain to brain of human beings through cultural imitation or peer pressure. It could sometimes be benign or not too intrusive, when there is just the cultural imitation. A new designer dress or the latest mobile phone can take a ‘must have’ label to a group of people and that may take on obsessive space in the brain. The other example can be a catchy song or rhyme or a social media movement like “Me Too” etc, which may become obsessive mimicry. These are benign memes with hardly any damaging aspect.
But the real meme with uncanny resemblance to gene or virus is the parasite that colonise the brain obsessively. It can easily propagate from brain to brain, jump over cultural barriers, jump over national barriers and last for a long period of time. Take, for example, the “belief in life after death”: it is a meme that can easily parasitize brains and propagate across all social, political, educational and cultural boundaries and there is no antidote to it. No rational argument or concrete evidence (similar to remedies against viruses) can be produced to counter the belief that there is no life after death and hence this meme would flourish almost unhindered, even without any evidence supporting that there is life after death!
Then there are other more gripping memes: the idea of God or Yahweh or Allah. This meme had been digging in human brains for almost 4,000 years through various religions, cultures, art and literature, music and social encounters. The existence of God is now taken as absolute, without any shred of evidence supporting it. This is the most durable primary meme supporting other subsidiary memes like “life after death” or “heaven and hell” or “hell-fire for the sinners” etc. Each of these memes supports the other meme and together they stand strong, invincible, absolute and incontrovertible.
When a meme gets a strong foothold in the brain through continuous reinforcement, it comes as vivid as a gene or even stronger. In Islam, the first sound a newly born child in any culture is supposed to get is the prayer call for Allah. Admittedly, it is symbolic, but it is the symbol that will become real throughout the whole life. The first lesson a child gets is how to read Arabic and Quran. A practicing Muslim is supposed to have prayers five times a day in a mosque and each time he is reminded of the existence of God and his supreme power with the rhetorical question, “Who created the Earth”? With such persistent messages and unquestionable submission to God’s authority by fellow Muslims, it is quite normal that God and his divine messages become as vivid a meme in the brain as gene is in the cell.
Although memes are cultural imitation and analogues of biological genes, they are no less real and damaging than other viruses. In fact, when fanatic Muslims happily sacrifice their lives (i.e. their gene pool) for the messages carried through their memes (i.e. guaranteed place in heaven who give up lives on Earth for God), then one must wonder what is more vivid and real: gene or meme?
Cure for coronavirus in the form of vaccines can possibly be found in 12 to 18 months, but it is highly unlikely that any cure against religious memes can be found in 10 or even 100 years. One can call an embedded religious meme a prejudice, but to the man who holds that prejudice, it is as real as the Sun and the Moon in the sky. No wonder, even Albert Einstein had to say nearly a century ago, “What a sad era, when it is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.”
Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist