Festivals and memes

We don’t normally celebrate festivals. We don’t particularly enjoy them. The only festival we celebrate to some degree is Dasara, when we set up dolls and invite people home to view the dolls. Of course, the last couple of years it’s been similar arrangements and there hasn’t been much innovation in what we do, but we enjoy it as a process and hence take forward the festival. Last year, we even got some fireworks during Deepavali and burst them. Again – it was a fun element. We aren’t too enthused by rituals and since most other festivals are little more than rituals we don’t celebrate them.

The wife, however, sometimes have existential doubts. “There must be a reason that our ancestors celebrated these festivals”, she pops up from time to time, “so it may not be correct on our part to simply stop celebrating. We should take forward the tradition”. This is question that comes up each time we don’t celebrate a festival (which you might guess is fairly often). Before today I hadn’t been able to give a convincing reply either way – whether it makes sense to follow our instinct or if it’s a cultural duty to take forward the tradition.

Towards the end of his classic book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins introduces the concept of the meme.  In fact it was Dawkins who “invented” the concept of the meme. It is meant to be a cultural analogy to the gene, and it’s a “cultural’ concept that propagates like biological concepts are taken forward through the generations via genes. Given the multitude of so-called memes that keep popping up every other day, I’m sure all of you know what meme means. I’m just providing the context here since my argument depends on the original Dawkinsian definition of the meme.

Let us say that there is a genetic attribute I inherited from my father, let’s say it’s my height (my father was 5 feet 10 inches, and I’m an inch taller than that). Now, it is not necessary that this particular gene is passed on to my progeny. It is not even necessary that the corresponding gene from my wife gets passed on – there might be a mutation there and despite the wife and I being fairly tall (by Indian standards) we cannot rule out producing a short child. The point I’m trying to make is that while genes propagate, not every trait needs to pass on from you to your offspring. Only a few traits (chosen more or less at random when your and your gene-propagating partner’s genes undergo meiosis) get passed on. Yet, through the network of you and your siblings and cousins and extended family, the family’s genetic code gets passed on.

Now, festivals and other cultural practices can be described as memes. We in the Indian society have a set of memes, which are called “Ganesh Chaturthi”, “Deepavali”, etc. That these memes have survived through the generations shows their strength – who knows about festivals that had been invented but didn’t survive. Now, the fact that we have inherited this meme doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to propagate it. Unlike genetics, the choice here is not random combination – it is our personal choice (we can’t decide what genes our offspring inherits from either of us or through a mutation).

So, just like every genetic trait doesn’t need to be propagated from a parent to an offspring, not every cultural trait needs to be passed on. If I were to pass on every cultural trait I inherit irrespective of whether it is desirable, even when circumstances change, undesirable cultural traits continue to exist. This is not efficient. As a society, we have bandwidth only for a certain number of cultural traits, and if traits are passed on without much thought, the bad ones won’t die. And will crowd out the good ones.

So if you were to look at it in terms of responsibility to society, you need to propagate only those cultural traits that you deem to be relevant and important. “So what if everyone stops celebrating Ganesh Chaturthi?” you may ask. If that would happen that would simply mean a vote of no confidence for the festival and an indication that the festival needs to be phased out. If everyone were to propagate only those cultural traits they find useful, traits that a significant proportion of society finds significant will continue to survive and thrive. For Ganesh Chaturthi to exist 30 years hence, it isn’t necessary for ALL families that have inherited it to celebrate it now. As long as a critical mass of families celebrate it, the festival will survive. If not, it probably doesn’t need to exist.

(the choice of Ganesh Chaturthi for illustration is purely driven by the fact that the festival is today).