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.