Circumcision as a Memeplex

- talk by Hugh Young at the Eighth International Symposium
on Circumcision and Human Rights,
Padova, Italy, September 3, 2004

Paper published in "Bodily Integrity and the Politics of Circumcision:
Culture, Controversy, and Change
eds Denniston GC, Grassivaro Gallo P, Hodges FM, Milos MF and Viviani, F.
Springer 2006


A meme is "a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation"

- Richard Dawkins

Common examples of memes are

  • tunes, like "Happy Birthday to You" or your national anthem (four notes is thought to be the minimum)
  • catchphrases, like "Like father, like son" or "blood, sweat and tears"
  • myths, like George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, or the tooth fairy
  • folk beliefs, like "We only use 10% of our brains" and
  • customs, like tossing spilt salt over your left shoulder and genital mutilation.

(Dawkins cites “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches”.)

A cluster of related memes is a memeplex. (Dawkins called it a “co-adapted meme-complex”, but the name of the meme has evolved.)

Examples of memeplexes are

  • languages, and subsystems of languages such as alphabets, fonts, dialects and regional accents
  • clusters of customs, such as Christmas celebrations
  • systems of thought, such as philosophies and religions [except our own, of course]

Memes, like genes, are replicators - they copy themselves - an amazing property, when you think about it, the basis of life itself.

Like genes, memes endure and copy themselves with variations, which are naturally selected, and thereby evolve. Like genes, they are "selfish" - or rather, their function is the promotion of their own survival.

...all that counts in the life of a meme is whether or not it survives and replicates. ... we must remember that [saying that memes 'want', 'need', or 'try to do' something] is only shorthand for saying that the 'something' will improve the chances of the meme's being copied. Memes do not have conscious intentions; nor do they actually strive to do anything at all. They are simply (by definition) capable of being copied, and all their apparent striving and intentionality comes from this.

- The Meme Machine, p 162

Unlike genes, only human (and possibly some primate, and electronic) brains carry memes.

A good analogy for a meme today is a computer virus. In fact, a computer virus, being merely information stored in, and transmitted between, information processsing systems, is more like a meme than it is like a biological virus (which is a self-contained physical entity that actually moves between organisms, carrying genetic information with it).

Richard Dawkins says that as with genes, we track memes through populations by their phenotypes [ways of being physically expressed]. And he cites circumcision as a rare example of a meme phenotype that is part of a living body, like most gene phenotypes. He says a Martian geneticist ... … would have to work quite hard to discover that no genes are involved in the genesis of the "roundhead" (circumcised) phenotype.

Susan Blackmore suggests that the taboo on masturbation, and circumcision, both have the evolutionary function of increasing the amount of vaginal sex, and hence the number of offspring to whom the taboo can be taught. Enter evolutionary biology. But there is no evidence that circumcision significantly increases the birthrate, and many circumcised men claim circumcision does not make masturbation more difficult.

But the belief that it did was sufficient to establish it in the UK and then the US, late in the 19th century, and once established, it sustained (and sustains) itself by associated memes that had (and have) nothing to do with masturbation or sex. In fact, for most of the 20th century, any role of the foreskin in sex has been ignored or denied in circumcising cultures.

While Dawkins and Blackmore consider circumcision a meme, the central idea - cutting part of a baby's or child's penis off - is always embedded in culture, tradition, religion and/or medicine. (Nobody could reasonably consider that cutting part of a baby's genitals off, without some supposed benefits or context, was a good idea in and of itself.)

The genesis of this website was the list of reasons to circumcise. There seemed just too many, maybe 30. There are now more than 450. Fortunately, the reasons fall into some general classes: :

A mindmap of the context of circumcision
The Circumcision Memeplex

This diagram does not include circumfetishism - circumcising or being circumcised for sexual pleasure, though there is reason to suspect it's often hiding not far under the surface.

Ritual circumcision and Routine Infant Circumcision [that is, without immediate medical reason] might almost be considered different memes that happen to share the same phenotype:

  • Muslim ritual circumcision, done in childhood, is associated with ideas of ritual cleanliness, conformity, and as a rite of passage to manhood, as well as the belief that it is required by Islam. Customs vary across the huge Islamic world, but it is usually associated with celebration, feasting and treating the boy as "Prince for a day" - all parts of the Muslim memeplex that cement it into that culture. We have one report that Muslim circumcision is surgically much milder than western “medical” circumcision, and this could explain how it can be done to boys old enough to speak.
  • Jewish ritual circumcision takes place at a social occasion for adults (where the emphasis is on food - the baby and what is done to him become almost irrelevant. and it is common for a meal celebrating a symbolic act to take centre-stage and eventually replace the act, so it would be a good idea for Brisot Shalom to have better than average catering). It is much later that he is explicitly taught about its significance (the meme is transmitted very deliberately) - though that significance itself is a whole complex of ideas, some unrelated:
    • To keep a bargain Abraham made with G-d
    • As a badge of Jewish identity. / To make him look different from outsiders
    • To remind him of anti-Semitic persecution / To bond him with his community / To educate him in his parent's faith
    • "... because Jewish men should be able to feel the pain of others more easily."
    • To symbolise humanity's unique essence as more than animal
    • To offer our children to a higher spiritual life / To ensure a share for him in the world to come
    • To draw down the Divine light, bring down the soul of holiness into the body, reveal the Jew's inherent connection to G-d / To signify the union of body and spirit
    • Because "[t]his paring away of the superfluous skin allows for Shechinah energy (the 'essence' of the Universal Deity) to permeate the seed of Israel."
    • Because the foreskin concentrates negative energy / To "spiritually remov[e] and eliminat[e] undesirable character traits... / ...depressive tendencies and so on...
    • ...[To] eliminate from the body of the child, forces which might try to cultivate overindulgence in physical pleasures, etc."
    • For "its positive effects on the generations to come."

These may be summarised as

  1. identity (yet it is generally agreed that circumcision is not what makes a boy Jewish) and
  2. supposed spiritual benefits; and we can't deny the good feeling some Jewish men claim from being circumcised, of continuity with their age-old tradition.

but ritual cleanliness is the invisible guest at the feast. Jewish defenders of circumcision frequently cite cleanliness and express horror at the supposed uncleanliness of the foreskin.

"Opening the draw string of his pants, he allowed the filth of his uncircumcised penis to unsheathe into the air."

- "The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon" by Richrd Zimler

In the USA, Routine Infant Circumcision is perpetuated by a stealth akin to that of the stealth bomber. It makes itself invisible to our radar.

  • It is usually done out the parents' sight and hearing - and they were once not even told it was to be done. Two parents might agree to circumcise their son for reasons that have nothing in common - might even be contradictory - and never share their reasons.
  • Its victims are discouraged from discussing it or even thinking about it. This silence has one component that is peculiar to circumcision and another that arises from the taboo on sex. Thus the transmission of the meme is often done indirectly, through euphemism ("a little snip") and with a kind of desperate jocularity. (“I'm just taking him away for his circy.”)

The ostensible reasons are

  • medical, and hygiene and cleanliness
  • supposed psychological benefits of looking like the father
  • coupled with tradition and custom
  • sexual, coupled with women's supposed preference
  • fear of difference, projected into the child's future locker-room experiences

Each of these is a cluster of ostensible reasons, sometimes contradictory - for example both to increase and to decrease penile size or sensitivity.

The constituent memes of Jewish circumcision and Routine Infant Circumcision in the US are like the two members of a double star orbiting each other, influencing each other while keeping their distance - with Jewish circumcision the shining star, Routine Infant Circumcision a black hole, sucking parents and babies in. The interaction can be seen in many TV sitcoms - Seinfeld is a good example - where the circumcision being discussed is ostensibly Jewish, but stripped of any religious connotations, and many of the other "reasons" are invoked. A large but unknown number of US Jewish babies are reportedly circumcised in hospital without ceremony before the eighth day, nullifying any covanental value, but satisfying other memes of the memeplex.

The most effective memes are simple and couple the behaviour with something universally agreed to be good:

God said we must circumcise
All the nicest people are circumcised / Circumcision is American
Circumcised penises are cleaner
Circumcision protects against AIDS (or cancer or UTIS or STDs
or whatever is the most feared disease of the day)

And these associations make them hard to argue with.

Good advice to a potential meme is: if you want lots of rehearsals (replications), try to look important!

- Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell, p121

Circumcision is presented as "an important decision parents must make for their children" - yet any opposition to doing it may be dismissed because "it's no big deal".


The Altruism meme

Altruism is a powerful way of spreading memes - and hence many memes spread by linking themselves to altruism.

People are nice to each other to get kindness in return, and their emotions are designed appropriately. ... Kind and generous behaviours will spread by imitation, .. behaviours that look like kind and generous ones, or are prevalent in kind and generous people, will also be spread by imitation.

...if you are in a community that uses reciprocal altruism, you are likely to gain most by being with people who are known to be generous. So the generous people will have more contact with others and therefore more opportunities for spreading their memes.

- The Meme Machine, p156

Memes which have nothing to do with altruism can benefit from "copy-the-altruist" by just tagging along for free. ... we can expect memes to have devised strategies for getting into altruistic people without actually being altruism memes themselves (or more accurately, memes that happen to have such strategies should have survived better than those without, and we should be able to observe them around us). Are there such examples?

Yes. They range from little groups of co-memes to very complicated memeplexes. ... the essence of any memeplex is that the memes inside it can replicate better as part of the group than they can on their own.

ibid. p 168

Circumcision is an excellent example of such a memeplex - the cluster of ostensible reasons for doing it is hydra-headed and ever-changing. The silly ones are carried on with it, as well as those with any validity at all.

The ostensible reasons for infant circumcision always have an altruistic component. Even the reason “to punish him for masturbation” was only prevalent when that was believed to be for his ultimate betterment, including the salvation of his immortal soul.

Certain memes, like wearing a turban or abstaining from certain foods are carried along as markers of other religious memes, so that those who share them will be altruistic toward each other.

Unlike those so-called “beneficent norms”, religious, ritual and "medical" circumcision (and FGM) are forced on infants and children by adults who have already undergone it themselves. The ones who perform it are not those who suffer (now). Their culture or religion has taught them that it is "inevitable" and "necessary" and “beneficial” so that they are able to suppress their natural revulsion, and even wallow in their own empathy with the child's pain. If they remember the pain, they may consider that it, too, is valuable, as Nelson Mandela does. So by a variety of dodges, the circumcision meme can pass itself off as altruistic. Or rather, people infected with it can.

Or circumcision may seem to benefit someone else, and two important memes of this kind are complementary, but not exactly so:

"A boy should look like his father"

"Women prefer circumcised men"

This seems to be spread mainly by women (for a man to say it makes it too clear that it is about his insecurities, not the boy's). There is certainly no clamour from boys demanding to be circumcised for this reason.

This seems to be spread mainly by men (it may be believed by women, whatever they themselves prefer - but women who do themselves prefer circumcised penises are more likely to believe it).

This links to the more general "looking like his father" that assures paternity.

After all, women don't need to be told what women prefer.

It may be that the meme "a boy should look like his father" has a basis in biology:

  • Species that survive, do so because they behave in ways that promote the survival of their own genes
  • Individuals promote the survival of their own offspring and (in the wild) have no interest in the offspring of others (or even a negative interest, as where an incoming alpha male kills the offspring of his predecessor)
  • Appearance is one of the ways individuals recognise their own offspring.
  • A male may be less likely to bond with his son if the appearance of his son's genitals is markedly different from his own. (This fails to explain how he bonds with his daughters, but that may have a quite different mechanism, as the bond is different)
  • The boy's mother may fear that the father will not bond if their appearance is not similar, and collude with making them match.

The question arises, how could circumcision get established if intact fathers risked failing to bond to their circumcised sons?
Answer: In both the mythical (and probably the actual) origins of the religious rite, and the historical origins of the surgical rite, boys out of infancy were circumcised for a generation or more before infants were, so intact fathers had intact sons, who grew up, were circumcised, and became circumcised fathers of sons they then had circumcised. So there was no time when many intact fathers had circumcised sons.

How, then, did circumcision come to an end in Britain and New Zealand without demur from the circumcised fathers of intact sons?
A partial answer is that fathers (and mothers) were not consulted. The meme was never given the opportunity to be invoked.

Pirate father - eyepatch, hook, wooden leg - with matching son

The meme "Women prefer circumcised penises" is likely to spread among men wherever a majority of men are circumcised, whether there is any truth to it or not. Women are more likely to say, "I prefer intact/circumcised penises" than to claim to speak for all women - but more likely than either to have no preference, but rather, to judge each man on his personal qualities.

The meme is extremely strong where circumcision is tribal, and hence universal within the tribe, taking the extreme form "No woman will look at a[n intact] man." Women in bars in Samoa are said to check European men out manually before agreeing to go with them.

If women hear the meme, they are likely to assume that men are speaking from experience, not just wishful thinking. If they are smart, they will not hurt circumcised men's vanity by telling them that they have no preference (or actually prefer intact penises). So men's belief in the meme is reinforced and not challenged.

It seems like another reason to circumcise babies, so more babies are likely to be circumcised where it is believed, giving rise to another generation of circumcised men to spread the meme. The Williamsons' study shows that it is widely believed where the great majority of men are circumcised - even by women who have no basis for comparison.

There is no corresponding meme "Women prefer intact penises" in communities (most of the world) where most penises are intact, not because women don't prefer them, but because intactness is spread genetically, not memetically. Intact penises don't need memes to spread, only genes. Circumcision needs memes.

"From now on, I'm thinking only of me."
Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: "But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way."
"Then," said Yossarian, "I'd be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn't I?"

- Joseph Heller, Catch-22

This is the principle of "runaway sexual selection": females prefer some characteristic, such as long tail feathers in males, even though - or even because - it puts the males at a disadvantage, so more males are born with longer and longer tail feathers, and more females prefer them more strongly. If a female lacks the preference and mates with a male with short tail feathers, her short-tailed male offspring are less preferred by the next generation and her preference dies out.

In the same way, it makes genetic sense for women to prefer the kind of man (they think) most women prefer.

Female Genital Mutilation:

The meme "A girl should look like her mother" is not greatly recorded in cultures that practise FGM. This is probably because questions of maternity (who the mother is) seldom arise. Nor is there any danger that a girl will not bond with her mother. FGM is generally committed after she has done so.

The meme "Men prefer circumcised women" is very strong in cultures that practise FGM - in fact it takes the extreme form "She must be circumcised or no man will want to marry her." This is probably spread more by women, with men collaborating, not by positively preferring circumcised women in the first instance, but by refusing to take a woman who has placed her suitability in doubt by being rejected by all other men.


When a child is born intersexed, their parents and their deliverers are thrown into a panic, because the meme "A human is male or female" is immensely strong, being built into all the memes associated with our sexuality and intimately associated with our genes. What is striking is that the surgical action that is taken in response to that panic has little or no bearing on the child's genes or their reproductive future, but almost entirely on the appearance of their genitals.

The Spanner in the Works

Meanwhile, the irrational aspect to the circumcision memeplex adds a complication. Circumcising a baby is Doing Something (at a particular time and place), so it has a definiteness about it that Leaving The Baby Alone does not. In fact US mothers who leave their babies intact are frequently accused of neglect. Circumcision leaves a vivid mark of having been done. It does not usually do sufficient harm at any one time to be genetically or socially contraindicated - unlike, say, castration. (There is some suggestion that ritual circumcision may have been introduced in Egypt as a substitute for ritual castration - of a priestly caste, rather than the whole male population, obviously.) The good that circumcision supposedly does is set in the unforeseeable future. (In this, circumcision is like those religion memes that promise infinite and eternal rewards or punishments after death.) Since the evils it is supposed to prevent are rare, it is allowed to take credit by default for their absence, something like a lucky charm, or wearing garlic to ward off vampires.

Is this concept productive?

Reviewing a book of Dawkins', Simon Blackburn argues against treating memes as having purposes or designs, which of course they do not. But while they are in people's heads, memes are subjected to those people's purposes and designs, and hence to creative, evolutionary processes. And for memes, acquired characteristics (changes to the meme phenotype between transmissions) ARE inherited, unlike those of genes. (That is, meme evolution is Larmarkian, as well as Darwinian.)

For example, secular circumcision quickly evolved from being a childhood treatment for masturbation to an infant preventative of it, largely because newborns can put up less resistance. (Jewish circumcision probably moved in the same direction in ancient times. Muslim, Korean and Philippine circumcision have yet to do so. They are also reportedly milder than the Jewish and US forms.) And when masturbation hysteria waned, people's wish to circumcise, which is the heart of the circumcision memeplex, has attached and reattached itself to successive diseases it was alleged to prevent.

Intactivism hammering protean circumstitions

The concept of a meme or memeplex is particularly productive with regard to genital mutilation, because the idea of genital mutilation has a coherence of its own that is independent of individual rationality.

Is intactness, then, also a meme?

An intact penis (or female genitalia) are not themselves memes (nor meme-phenotypes), because they are transmitted by genes, not by imitation. In the context of a strongly circumcising culture, it may require unusual determination to break the hold of the circumcision meme, but, for the most part, leaving a baby alone needs no reason.

However, Intactivism, the campaign for genital integrity (which only exists in the context of genitally mutilating cultures), may usefully be considered a memeplex. Here are some of the ideas linked to it:

Intactivism as a meme - linked ideas
The Intactivism Memeplex

Opposition to the three varieties of genital modification has been amalgamated here because most of the associated factors relate to all three, in greater or lesser degree. (The “gender equality” meme is near to male circumcision, but there is a special relationship between feminism and opposition to FGM - women's outrage that this can be done to women. We might speak of “gender solidarity”. Sadly, there seems little or no equivalent men's outrage, based on gender solidarity, that this can be done to fellow men. It seems to be overwhelmed by macho denial of pain, imposed on tiny babies.)

The Intactivism memeplex is clearly much simpler than the circumcision memeplex. The different elements also reinforce each other in ways that the parts of the circumcision memeplex do not. These are two of the strengths by which the Intactivism memeplex will ultimately prevail. Intactivism is an easy idea to transmit, and once transmitted, it is not easily lost.

These practices are memes that have thrived for thousands of years in spite of being so harmful to their carriers. Now that we have the insight and ability to prevent them continuing to replicate, we should work for their complete eradication from the memepool.

- Susan Blackmore, on signing
the Montegu Resolution to end the Genital Mutilation of Children Worldwide



Related pages:

Susan Blackmore's homepage

Back to the Intactivism index page.

Richard Dawkins, preface to The Meme Machine (p. xiii), Reprinted in "A Devil's Chaplain: reflections on hope, lies, science and love" Houghton Mifflin, 2003, (pp124-5)

As with genes, we track memes through populations by their phenotypes [ways of being physically expressed]. The 'phenotype' of the [origami] Chinese junk meme is made of paper. With the exception of 'extended phenotypes', such as beaver dams and caddis larva houses, the phenotypes of genes are normally parts of living bodies. Meme phenotypes seldom are.

But it can happen. To return to my school again, a Martian geneticist, visiting the school during the morning cold bath ritual, would have unhesitatingly diagnosed an 'obvious' genetic polymorphism. About 50 per cent of the boys were circumcised and 50 per cent were not. The boys, incidentally, were highly conscious of the polymorphism and we classified ourselves into Roundheads versus Cavaliers (I have recently read of another school in which the boys even organised themselves into two football teams along the same lines). It is, of course, not a genetic but a memetic polymorphism. But the Martian's mistake is completely understandable; the morphological discontinuity is of exactly the kind that one normally expects to find produced by genes.

In England at that time, infant circumcision was a medical whim, and the Roundhead/Cavalier polymorphism at my school probably owed less to longitudinal [between generations] transmission than to differing fashions in the various hospitals where we happened to have been born - horizontal [between peers] memetic transmission, yet again. But through most of history circumcision has been longitudinally transmitted as a badge of religion (of parents' religion I hasten to point out, for the unfortunate child is normally too young to know his own religious mind). Where circumcision is religiously or traditionally based ( the barbaric custom of female circumcision always is), the transmission will follow a longitudinal pattern of heredity, very similar to the pattern for true genetic transmission, and often persisting for many generations. Our Martian geneticist would have to work quite hard to discover that no genes are involved in the genesis of the roundhead phenotype.

[Dawkins errs in implying that only female genital mutilation is barbaric.]