Friday, October 01, 2004

"A Theory of Power", Chapter 3

Chapter 3: The Interplay of Genetics and Culture

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Roughly 4 billion years ago, the beginnings of what we call “life” appeared on Earth. Self-replication and natural selection facilitated the evolution of increasingly complex molecular patterns, eventually allowing simple organisms to develop and pass on information encoded in molecular patterns such as the DNA molecule. These genetic patterns formed the basis for all biological life on our planet. The standard evolutionary story continues that, over time, patterns coalesced into discrete genes—tools used by each species to effectively combine and reproduce. This story now appears incorrect: genes do not behave as servants to their respective species, as they are so often represented. As Richard Dawkins explained in his 1979 book The Selfish Gene, the organism does not use the gene to reproduce itself. The gene, rather, uses the organism as a host for reproduction. This creates a subtle, yet critical difference—the gene exerts control over the organism in this power-relationship. Many people experience this as a startling realization that our genes use us as tools—the gene controls us!

Our genes exercise power over us through a variety of methods. We are genetically programmed to act in ways that have proven beneficial to the gene, if not necessarily beneficial to us, the hosts. At the most basic level, the gene exercises power by carefully programming our instincts, via the structure of our brain chemistry, to ensure its survival. Sexual desire, for example, serves as a tool of our genes. Physical pleasure from the act of procreation increases its occurrence, improving the rate of reproduction, thereby ensuring propagation of the associated genes. This theory views sexual pleasure as a method that passed the test of natural selection—it exists and prospers because it works so well. Similarly, the fight-or-flight responses, hard-wired into the human nervous system, exist because they have proven their ability to prolong life. The response increases the chance of an individual reaching reproductive age, which leads to propagation and the survival of the host’s genes.

Genes do not consciously plan out their survival strategies. Their development follows the basic mechanics of natural selection: if a random mutation in a gene makes an individual more likely to survive and reproduce, then the associated gene will more likely increase its frequency in the gene pool. Environmental constraints and the competition for scarce resources limit the number of individuals that can survive to reproduce. Over time, those individuals who demonstrate greater capacity for survival due to changes in their genes will replace those with less genetic fitness.

As mental capacity increased with the evolution of higher order animals, new types of power-relationships evolved. Many animals do not live in isolation; they live in small groups or communities on which they depend for survival, or the opportunity to mate. Developing in a group setting, genes proved more likely to prosper if they evolved mechanisms to ensure the survival of the group, even if the mechanisms occasionally acted at the expense of the individual. This represents a critical juncture in the evolution of power: the combination of increased mental capacity and a need for group survival facilitated the evolution of culture as a mechanism to ensure the survival of the group’s genetic code. Evolutionary adaptations that improved communication, planning and coordinated activity soon surfaced and increased the survivability of the group.

Evolutionary developments in the individual accompanied cultural evolution. Many of the features that evolved improved the ability of the group to control the individual, creating a positive feedback loop in the co-development of the gene and group culture. Better group control of the individual facilitated developments that strengthened the group’s probability of survival, in turn improving the probability of survival for the individual’s genes. The genetic development of more advanced emotions in individuals proved especially beneficial to the group.[1] Individuals experience feelings like loyalty, affection, territoriality, group identity, security in numbers, etc. These emotions simply act as power-relationships: methods developed in the genes to ensure group integrity and survival by control of neurochemicals. They directly resulted in the survival of the genetic lineage. Here, the gene is no longer dependent on the survival of a single individual—as long as the group survived, the gene prospered.

This group-entity, or culture, is in effect a meta-individual, and is subject to similar internal evolutionary structures as an individual human. Richard Dawkins suggests the name for a component building block in the structure of culture: the meme.[2] The meme is the cultural equivalent of the gene, but unlike the gene we cannot reduce the meme to a tangible particle. It exists only as a pattern of power-relationships—but it acts as one of the most powerful patterns in existence. As meme-based culture developed, especially in more advanced primates, it became more and more independent of the gene, eventually taking on a life of its own. The line between benefiting the gene and benefiting the cultural meme began to blur. Witness the development of the Selfish Meme!

Memes drove individuals to act just as genes could: for the benefit of the survival of the meme, even if the meme’s survival came at the expense of the individual. Unlike the gene, however, the meme resides in the group as a whole. It more readily sacrifices a component individual in order to enhance the survivability of the group. Flocks of Seychelles Warblers provide an excellent example of memetic self-sacrifice. Some warblers who have failed as individuals to nest and reproduce will sacrifice an entire mating season acting as tender and assistant to the nest of another warbler in the group. In the process, they deny their own genetic instinct to procreate. Such adaptive altruism ensures propagation of the group’s genetic—and memetic—code.[3] The warbler’s self-sacrificing behavior exists only in some groups of the same species, suggesting the learned nature of the behavior, and therefore that it has cultural (memetic) roots, not those of a genetically coded instinct. This behavior exists because it improves the odds of group survival, along with both the genes and memes carried by that group. Sociobiologists David Sloan Wilson and Eliot Sober have demonstrated that this form of group, or multi-level selection translates directly to humans: “at the behavioral level, it is likely that much of what people have evolved to do is for the benefit of the group” (their emphasis).[4]

Such powerful use of altruism to benefit group survival develops readily through the mechanics of the group meme, but would have had an exceedingly difficult time developing through the mechanics of the gene. Had a genetic mutation that predisposed an individual to self-sacrifice sprung up in a single warbler, it would decrease the probability of that individual surviving to propagate the gene. Memetic mutations, however, survive in a host group, not in a single individual, thus enabling memes to develop a strategy of altruism—sacrificing an individual for the good of the meme’s group host. The flexibility of a group host opens a world of new possible strategies. Stratification and specialization of individuals provides one example of a far-reaching possibility validated by the demands of group survival. Biologically, the ability to create different types of cells for different purposes enabled the development of all higher-order life. Similarly, the memetic ability to create and control the stratification of individuals within a group facilitated the intensification and institutionalization of hierarchy and complex-culture. The meme’s ability to deal with stratified structures led to the economic specialization of individuals within a group, making possible tremendous innovations in political and social structure. New memetic patterns, with access to such powerful adaptations, spread quickly.

Genes and memes initially enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. A change in either that improved a group’s prospects benefited both parties. However, memes and genes operate in a fundamentally different manner from one another. While genes directly control the structure of an individual’s neurochemistry, and through that the behavior of their host, memes have no direct means to control the individual. A meme, without hardwired access to biological mechanisms, cannot directly affect neurochemical release. Memes must instead operate by co-opting the biological control mechanisms of genes. Genetic functions have proven slow to adapt, providing predictable, stable platforms for the meme. The rapid adaptability and flexibility of the meme enabled it to evolve the ability to trigger genetic functions for its own purposes. This provided memes with the ability to indirectly control neurochemical levels. Simply invoke the required stimuli—genetically hardwired for recognition as an instinct or emotion—and presto: chemical influence over individual behavior.

As meme-complexes, or culture, became increasingly effective at improving the odds of group survival, our ancestors experienced parallel genetic developments facilitating the ever-greater influence of memes over the behavior of the individual. The development of language and reasoning among primates serves as an excellent example of the symbiotic evolution between gene and meme. Increasing intelligence and genetically determined capacity for language led to increasingly effective group coordination in procuring food, making decisions about defense, etc. Groups with the most effective coordination and decision-making had the greatest odds of survival and propagation, creating pressure to select individuals with superior capacity for those skills. Groups that provided internal selection pressures emphasizing the primacy of language skills and intellect prospered and out-competed other groups for territory and scarce resources. This process led to the continual increase of intellect, vocal communication and sociability among primates. The symbiotic development of meme and gene resulted in genetic functions specifically selected for their ability to work with cultural—memetic—power-relationships.

Memes continually refined power-relationships over individuals to the point where they could kill-off individuals who negatively impacted group survivability. Howard Bloom described this power-relationship in his concept of the Inner Judge, the ability of the human brain to recognize certain sets of cultural stimuli as a signal to remove itself from the population.[5] The Inner Judge function causes the release of neurochemicals with effects ranging from depression to apoptosis—biologically initiated suicide. The extreme rate of suicide among the aboriginal populations of Australia, Oceania and North America shows one example of this Inner Judge at work, where a widespread sense of hopelessness or lack of purpose drives suicide rates to as much as 500 times greater than that of non-aboriginals.[6]

Early cooperation between genes and memes improved the probability of the survival of each. Genetic evolution, however, still progressed at a rate limited by reproductive age; in humans, a mutation had to wait years until its host reached sexual maturity to achieve propagation. Memetic evolution works far faster. Even in small, isolated groups memetic advances could develop in time-spans as short as a few days. As the rapid pace of memetic evolution increasingly facilitated the meme’s ability to use genetic programs as tools to ensure its own survival, the gene gradually became slave to the meme. The advance of memetic control mechanisms pushed quickly past the era of the Selfish Gene to the era of Selfish Culture.

With genes and memes manipulating us, using neurochemical releases and emotional states to ensure their survival, we find ourselves faced with difficult, penetrating questions about our identity. What does it mean to experience a feeling if we can rationally understand that the emotion stems from nothing more than a chemical response evolved to ensure that we act as efficient hosts and vectors to genes and memes? What of our hopes and goals? Do these hopes truly belong to us, or do they serve as nothing more than effective strategies to propagate bits of cultural code? Would we still love our children if the resulting nurturing didn’t increase the chance of our genes’ survival? What of our egos versus the reality of genetic and memetic power-relationships: do we exist as nothing more than vectors for power-complexes? Do we have free will and an individual identity, or should we see our individuality as merely a construct of how our genes and memes use us to propagate themselves through the unconscious mechanism of natural selection? These represent difficult questions. The scope of their impact on our lives serves as an indication that we stand to uncover fundamental relationships governing our existence. At this point the ego and rational understanding come into direct conflict—will we retreat back to a comfortable but now conscious delusion, or continue this exploration?[7] Can our ego survive if it learns the form of its own inner workings? Inside the psychological maze of self-knowledge stands the unknown; the path out may lead to fulfillment or misery. We will come to appreciate the concept of blissful ignorance as we press our inquiry.


[1] For an analysis of the development of the human emotional set, see “Prometheus Rising” by R. A. Wilson.
[2] “The Selfish Gene”, Richard Dawkins.
[3] “The Triumph of Sociobiology” by John Alcock, pgs 196-197.
[4] “Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior” by Eliot Sober and David Wilson, pg 194.
[5] The Global Brain, by Howard Bloom.
[6] See for a report on aboriginal suicide from the Australian Institute of Criminology.
[7] R. A. Wilson, in Cosmic Trigger, explores in depth the concept of rationality in conflict with ego, epitomized by his concept (drawing from Kafka) of “Chapel Perilous”, the maze of self-doubt, fear and revelation that tends to accompany the dissolution of the self-serving ego complex.


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