Idea: Humans Reproduce through Genetic and Non-Genetic Information

A word to the wise:  This is an incomplete set of ideas, and I welcome criticism and discussion.  After conversing with several individuals, I realized that my ideas were extremely similar to Memetics (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme).  Instead of focusing on the Memes themselves, I would like to instead incorporate them in a discussion of the human behavior that lead me to independently believe in Memes.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins published the idea of memes in The Selfish Gene. Essentially, memes are units of information that exist within a culture, such as religion, music, political ideologies, and of course Internet memes.  They function similarly to DNA, in that these ideas reproduce, replicate, mutate, and compete amongst one another.

 

I believe that humans are unique among species because of their intense desire to propagate memes, often to the point of sacrificing their own genetic offspring.

Among eukaryotic species that are not eusocial, life cycles follow a similar pattern.   First, an organism develops into an adult and focuses on its own survival.  It consumes, grows, rests, finds shelter, and spends its energy exclusively on selfishly helping itself survive. By “itself”, I mean its own DNA and closely related DNA.  Once it has sufficiently matured, this selfish behavior only changes when it is time to reproduce.  At this time, an organism will expend massive amounts of energy finding and attracting a mate, producing gametes/offspring, and possibly raising an offspring.

Take for example a bear.  For the entire life cycle of a bear, it behaves selfishly, primarily focusing on the wellbeing of its own body.  A bear would never arbitrarily spend time in one place, partially starving itself, and deliberately paying attention to a non-beneficial task in lieu of finding new food.  The only time the bear changes its behavior to stop focusing on its own body is when a female reproduces.  At this point, she will endanger her own survival, strain her fat reserves, and expend tremendous amounts of energy on caring for new cubs. 

In all species, organisms exclusively expend energy on tasks that in some way maintain their own DNA, help maintain the DNA of their brethren, and propagate the species’ DNA further.  Except for humans. 

Humans assign meaning to tasks, ideas, organizations, projects, and other activities that do not directly aid in the survival of their own DNA.  Religious celibacy, “This company is my baby right now,” and “Brain-child” are all examples of situations/phrases that exemplify this phenomena.  Many humans forego entirely or for a period of time neglect genetic reproduction in their quest to nurture and propagate non-genetic information.  Most still choose to genetically reproduce- but this phenomena of non-genetic reproduction is worth exploring.

Why is that humans will neglect sleep, forget to eat, and even give up on relationships in order to work on projects? 

In many cases, I think actually it comes back to genetic reproduction.  Many people physically abuse their bodies in order to gain knowledge, which can be applied to a career, which leads to wealth, which leads to being a more fit mate and caretaker of offspring.  In that case, focusing on non-DNA information comes back around to help DNA propagate. Others neglect their own family for the sake of the human population as a whole, dedicating their lives to social equality, environmentalism, global health, politics, and other species-beneficial endeavors.  Again, this helps the species continue.

And yet there are individuals who recognize the transient nature of their DNA’s existence, and choose to propagate their information not through genetics, but through memes.  For example, the genetic lineage of a Pope ends with him, but his family’s legacy arguably lives on for ages longer because of his highly regarded position and actions, which “go down in history”. This desire to “go down in history”- that is, to do something memorable, create something for posterity, or otherwise “make a difference”- is certainly unique among humans.  It seems to be a new type of information reproduction, outside of the physical bounds of DNA.

I think this type of meme-obsession occurred as a natural mechanism to help the species- scientists, theologians, world leaders, engineers, philosophers- all of these positions and the work they produced benefitted the propagation the species.  But I think that now this meme-obsession may have reached an evolutionary stage where it no longer serves the genetic information of our species in all cases, but instead serves a type of non-genetic information within the species.  These memes have become almost a shadow gene pool, but instead of genes, this pool is filled with intangible cultural information- a common knowledge base among humans.  Rather than focusing their resources on adding to the gene pool, some humans instead focus their resources on adding to the meme pool.

I know this is kind of out there, and I welcome criticism and discussion.

Also, to be clear, just because an individual adds to the meme pool does not mean they are are not also adding to the gene pool.  Many humans throughout history who significantly added to the common human knowledge base have also been attentive and excellent parents.  The fact remains, however, that no other organism would have ever spent time or energy working towards "thoughts" and "discoveries" to distribute amongst their species- their energy would have only been on themselves and their genetic offspring.

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Comment by Kelly C. Smith on May 2, 2016 at 10:03am

I think you may have identified a basic truth here, though I might quibble with how you express it.  If we adopt an essentially evolutionary account of life, then it's certainly possible to argue that things which evolve better are more alive (perhaps even have higher moral value).  My own definition of life is any system with the capacity to to create adaptive complexity (more or less - still working on this) and I argue that life is thus something that comes in degrees.  The emergence of the first autocatalytic set of molecules marks the beginning of life, but the potential at first was quite limited.  Once you have modern cell membranes and then a stable heritable molecule and then population structures in place, evolution can take off.  But by the same token, once you have true sociality (which I think comes hand in hand with intelligence and culture) then it's really off to the races.  So there is a sense in which social, cultural and intelligent beings are more alive.  If anyone wants to read more of my work on this stuff, check out my "Manifest Complexity" paper in Space Policy last year...

Comment by Cole Mathis on April 28, 2016 at 11:57am

I really like this idea, do you think there is selection on this non-genetic information? Dawkins certainly thought that memes constituted a Darwinian system, but should we expect that non-genetic information will evolve in the same way as genetic information? Do you think that this non-genetic information will take on a life of its own? Or do you think it will just be another feature of some human societies? There’s a lot of different cultures which historically have never practiced a written history. This means that a lot of cultures never keep track of the types of big “history making” people you’re talking about. Do you think that these cultures don’t reproduce their non-genetic information or are they just doing it in a way that we have a hard time recognizing?


Expert
Comment by Harrison on April 28, 2016 at 10:48am

I like your idea of the selfish 'meme' instead of/in addition to the selfish gene. That people can be more committed to the idea of helping an idea, or a skill, or interest 'survive and evolve' than doing the same with physical offspring. It's also a consequence of the fact that as a species (but more specifically as a culture or group of people) we haven't had to put as much time and resources into surviving, which affords us the time and resources to put into developing other less explicitly essential things. These things, like building a company or becoming an influential leader might have reproductive advantages down the road, as you pointed out. But I think that's also a consequence of this idea that "there will be a down the road", which is something that only exists when our basic needs are so easily met. I don't think as many people would commit their lives to their career, or science, or what have you if their future existence wasn't as certain (look at the number of people having kids in the US vs a less stable country in Africa for example). Still, I agree with you that this is a uniquely human thing, and needs to be given more thought. 

Comment by Tucker Ely on April 28, 2016 at 9:53am

To compare for a moment your bear with your human; it should not be forgotten that the structure of human societies is the result of high degrees of specialization, which affords individual intellects the time to explore beyond survival.

I feel that humans are unique in the amount of intelligence they posses, and the amount of time they ‘potentially’ have to apply that intellect to tasks other than hunting/gathering and reproduction.

Without such specialization, days could not be spent doing much beyond searching for food. Instead, our division of labor and specialization results in careers as bizarre as “Astobiologist.” Fed of course by myriad others which provide that astrobiologist with everything needed for survival.

I think that a lot of the memes you speak of are enabled by this dynamic (intellect + free-time).

Regarding the pope, I think this falls squarely on group selection. Groups out compete individuals. Institutions like the catholic church provide their followers with a group identity which far surpasses the scale and scope of what is achievable within the life times of individual followers. Propagation of the rituals and standards of such a group can take on prime importance, and result in a need to “go down in history.”

I believe such group selection is independent of the validity of any glue holding them together (dogma). Hence, the persistence of all of the lunacy generated in the wake of religion is ultimately insufficient to counter the benefits of group selection

Comment by Alan Filipski on April 26, 2016 at 10:36am
I wrote comments on this blog as part of this week's assignment, so I'll also leave a copy of what I wrote here:

Here Brooke wrote that many humans spend an inordinate amount of time and other resources, even at apparent detriment to their own inclusive genetic fitness, creating and propagating memes (essentially, ideas, styles or behaviors). Why do we do this? Brooke posits that it is a “natural mechanism to help the species.”
Our actions may, in some (but not all) cases, indeed help the species, but I would wonder how we came to behave this way. Is it an extension of an evolved tendency to altruism or maybe to dominate and lead others? Is it a symptom of our hyper-developed, neotenic brain with not enough to do? A conscious calculation? Some form of group selection? Is it (the meme that we should spend time and energy on memes) a meme itself? Is a meme a brain-parasite that sucks away our fitness? Or all of these?
I thought that this was a good entry because it raises many questions like this.
Comment by Alan Filipski on April 23, 2016 at 12:34pm
I think it's a useful and interesting way of looking at ideas and human behaviors. It is difficult to otherwise explain many apparent maladaptive behaviors that humans have. Maybe one can think of a meme as a parasite (or sometimes symbiont) that sucks some genetic fitness from an individual in return for... what?

> I think this type of meme-obsession occurred as a natural mechanism to help > the species- scientists, theologians, world leaders, engineers,
> philosophers- all of these positions and the work they produced benefitted the
> propagation the species.

But certainly you wouldn't argue that ALL if the memes these people produced were beneficial. Many promote violence and destruction and just contradict each other. Or are you saying that their INTENT is to benefit the species?

Interesting, thought-provoking stuff.

Alan

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