Piero Scaruffi(Copyright © 2006 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
Altruism: From Endosymbiosis to Sociobiology
(These are excerpts from, or extensions to, the material published in my book "The Nature of Consciousness")
The Paradox of Altruism
Darwin popularized the paradigm that competition among living beings ("survival of the fittest") is the force that shapes evolution.
This is not what we commonly observe. Nature is certainly cruel with the weak, but the weak have a tendency to pool together and fight adversity. The whole concept of "society" stems from the biological instinct to team together.
Why would an individual help another individual of the same race, thereby violating the principle of "survival of the fittest" and lowering its own chances of survival?
In the 1960s the British biologist William Hamilton showed that, in reality, altruism too evolved by natural selection for a utilitarian reason: altruism helps genes as a global pool, even if at the expense of the survival of a specific individual. Altruism is just another step, beyond personal survival and reproduction, in the program to proliferate maximally the genes of an organism.
Traditionally, selection (and therefore evolution) had been viewed as driven by "reproductive success"; but Hamilton, armed with mathematical tools, extended that concept to the reproductive success of close relatives (or "kin"). Every individual has an investment in its own genetic pool. The investment peaks in its own body, but it is not limited to the body, it extends, albeit in lesser amounts, to all of its kin, and it is proportional to how closely they share the same genes. Hamilton captured the essence of kin selection in a simple equation that defined mathematically the concept of "inclusive fitness". The equation shows that it benefits an individual to aid kin in order to promote its "inclusive fitness". In other words, the individual is programmed to preserve not only itself but also other individuals that share a similar genetic repertory, in a manner proportional to that similarity.
Hamilton's theory provided an explanation for why parents care for their offspring and why females are "choosier" than males about their mates. Cooperation turns out to be but another aspect of competition.
Hamilton argued that selection operates at the level of the genetic pool, not at the level of the single genome.
In a sense, a family is but one organism with many organs, each member of the family being an organ. Each organ works with the others to keep the organism (the family) alive. If an organ dies but helps the others survive, it helps the organism survive. Altruism is not in contrast with Darwinism.
The USA biologist George Williams then explained how evolution extended altruism beyond kinship: an individual's chances of survival are increased by having friends and decreased by having enemies. That simple. Thus it makes sense for any individual to maximize friendship and minimize antagonism. There is no need for conscious calculation: evolution has endowed individuals with "altruistic" instincts and emotions because it helps them survive. Most of the individuals who didn't have them did not survive to make children. Williams thus explained the Darwinian value of friendship.
The USA biologist Robert Trivers noted a counter-argument, though. According to Hamilton's genetic metrics, a child should see herself twice more valuable than her siblings. The parents, on the other hand, should see all siblings as equally valuable. Thus it is not surprising that siblings compete and fight for parental resources, while parents teach them to share equally. Parents have to literally brainwash their children into thinking that it is in their (each child's) interest to care for their siblings when in fact their genes tell them (the children) the exact opposite.
Beyond family, there is in general a whole repertory of attitudes that serves the purpose of regulating altruism (gratitude, compassion, trust, guilt, even hypocrisy). Eventually, it all boils down to game theory: how to maximize the chances of success and minimize the chances of failing.
We seem to be even equipped with a repertory of skills to lie, cheat and deceive, and we use that repertory to complement the equation that maximizes our chances of success, depending on social conditions. Our conscience is malleable, which is another way to say that our altruistic strategies are flexible. In a sense the reason why children lie is that they are just practicing the art of cheating. In fact the tendency in children to lie is so strong that they will stop lying only if punished consistently and severely. Otherwise the tendency to lie will amplify. Conscience is an adaptation of one's altruistic and anti-altruistic instincts to a specific social environment.
Cooperation vs competition
At the beginning of the 20th century the Russian philosopher Petr Kropotkin first campaigned the notion that animals must be social and moral. His view was not one of individual struggle for survival, but one of the struggle for survival by masses of individuals, a struggle not against each other but a collective struggle against the common enemy, i.e. the adversities of their environment.
William Hamilton's theory of kin selection explained only why animals assist close relatives (by placing the emphasis on the genes that are shared by relatives). But not why we would help friends or even total strangers.
The USA biologist David Sloan Wilson resumed that explanation of altruism and made a case for the evolution of altruistic behavior. His studies gave credibility to the theory of "group" selection. A group is not necessarily a group of kin, but can be any community of genetically unrelated individuals and even of different species (as in the case of symbiosis). A group is just analogous to an organism. After all, an organism can be viewed as a collection of genes that work together towards maximizing their common chances of survival. The same principle applies to a group, where individual genes are replaced by organisms, by collections of genes. Groups often behave like organisms. Such is the case with beehives, ant colonies, flocks of birds, schools of fish, herds and even human clans.
Selection may operate at many different levels, but certainly for some species, especially humans, living in a group, and helping each other, has provided a tremendous evolutionary advantage. While the idea of a "group" of altruistic individuals, who accept to live in hives, herds, clans at the expense of their own fitness, may sound antithetic to Darwin's principle of competition, it does make sense, precisely from the point of view of "fitness". Being part of a group may increase the chances of being better "fit" and therefore survive.
Robert Trivers' theory of "reciprocal altruism" (published in 1971) explained altruism as founded on the idea of exchange: I help you and you will help me. He proved that individuals can benefit in the long term by trusting each other. In other words, altruism is actually selfish.
Building on Trivers' theory, the Dutch zoologist Frans de Waal argued that communities yield benefits to the individual, and that is the biological reason the individual will try to promote the community. Human morality is based on the idea of exchange.
A society always relies, to some extent, on altruism: a member must be willing to sacrifice part of her individuality in order to be part of a society, which, in turns, increases her chances to survive.
Game theory also helps explain how altruism evolved. Over the long term, non-zero sum games ("cooperative" games in which both players stand to win or lose) tend to have more positive outcomes than negative ones. In particular, one can devise strategies that will greatly enhance the playersí outlook in the long term. Thus it is not surprising that everything from ecosystems to human societies are built on altruism. (By contrast, "competitive" or "zero-sum" games represent a relatively static world).
The most famous of non-zero sum games is the "prisonerís dilemma", in which two prisoners are offered (independently) the same deal by the prosecutor. If one confesses and the other does not, the former goes free and the other one gets the maximum sentence. If they both confess, they both get a medium-length sentence. If neither confesses, they both get a minor sentence. This is a game that can be played only once. But imagine a similar game that could be played thousands of times with thousands of players, each player using a different strategy. Game theory proves that there is indeed a best strategy to play this game.
In 1981 the USA political scientist Robert Axelrod held a tournament of computers programmed to play the game each against everybody else. The "winner" (the one that did best over the long run), called "Tit for Tat" and written by Anatol Rapaport, was also the simplest one: it cooperated with the computers that had cooperated in the past, and cheated computers that had not cooperated in the past (basically, it did to others what others had done to it). "Tit for Tat" was creating an ever more cooperative society. It used the simplest algorithm, and it yielded the best outcome. Nature likes that combination. Even if individuals do not communicate, they will tend to cooperate, simply because, over the long term, it is the best strategy.
The USA zoologist Alison Jolly contends that altruism is a fundamental aspect of evolution. The very existence of sex as a means of reproduction is proof that cooperation is a crucial evolutionary force. Sex is a trade-off: a genome sacrifices part of its genes to team up with another genome and increase its chances of survival in the environment.
The emphasis in evolution has traditionally been on competition, not cooperation, although it is through cooperation, not competition, that considerable jumps in behavior can be attained.
In a sense, humans have mastered altruism the same way they mastered tools that allowed them to extend their cognitive abilities. Humans are able to deal with large groups of non-relatives. De facto, those individuals are "used" as a tool to augment the mind: instead of having to solve problems alone, the mind can use an entire group.
The British biologist Matt Ridley thinks that evolution is accelerated even by apparent enemies like parasites. Organisms adopted sexual reproduction in order to cope with invasions of parasites: parasites have a harder time adapting to the diversity generated by sexual reproduction, whereas they would have devastating effects if all individuals of a species were identical (if the children were as vulnerable to the same diseases as the parents). Co-evolving parasites help improve evolution because they force individuals to cooperate. The lesson to be drawn is that (the need to fight) competition often leads to cooperation. On a large scale, life is a symbiotic process that is triggered by competitors.
And, of course, plants reproduce with the help of insects. Biologists now believe that over 300,000 species of plants have been created by co-evolution with their pollinators.
Cooperation is pervasive, both within a species and across species.
The mechanism proposed by Darwin to explain the evolution of life on Earth is based on a delicate balance between a positive process, that of variation, and a negative process, that of selection. The inconsistencies encountered so far in the fossil record all seem to point towards a need for a stronger positive process, one that allows for a species to be born in far shorter times than the evolutionary times implied by Darwin's theory. It is true, as Michael Behe noted, that an organism is way too complex to be built by refinements, and it is true, as Stephen Jay Gould claimed, that species appear all of a sudden. Selection does account for the disappearance of variations that are not fit, but variation alone (and the set of genetic "algorithms" that would represent it) is hardly capable of accounting for the extraordinary assembly of a new organism. A more powerful force must be at work.
When we find that force, we may finally write the last chapter of "The Origin of Species", which Darwin never even tried to write: we still don't know how species originate.
That force may be hidden in the process of endosymbiosis, the process by which a new organism originates from the fusion of two existing organisms, or, more precisely, by which two independently evolved organisms become a tightly coupled system and eventually just one organism. "Endosymbiosis" is the process by which a being lives inside another being.
"Structural coupling" of organisms has been shown to be an accelerating factor in evolution both by the Chilean neurobiologist Humberto Maturana (whose "autopoiesis is precisely such a process to generate progressively more and more complex organisms) and by the USA mathematician Ben Goertzel (who argued that organisms capable of effectively coupling with other organisms are more likely to survive, and that the coupling process may account for Gould's punctuated equilibrium).
If organisms are composites rather than individuals, then Darwinian evolution can occur much faster and can exhibit sudden jumps to higher forms, and therefore explain two monumental events of life on Earth: how prokaryotes (cells without a nucleus) evolved into eukaryotes (cells that have a nucleus) and the sudden appearance of new species in the fossil record.
The symbiotic creation of species is not such a far-fetched idea. After all, humans can be thought of as collections of organs and viruses co-existing in symbiotic relationships. Generally speaking, the transformation of primitive organisms into more complex ones may be due to the incorporation of other organisms. We know, to start with, that species may also originate by hybridization between existing species, a process that is very common in plants.
Assembling organs in a functionally coherent way is a very difficult task for anybody, including Nature itself, especially if the forces working on it are random; but mixing genomes may be relatively easy. The chemical process that can dramatically alter the genetic code of an organism to incorporate the genetic code of another organism may exploit the very peculiar structure of the DNA double helix and the very peculiar behavior of sex. Both the genetic apparatus and the sexual apparatus seem to be conceived so as to facilitate the fusion of organisms.
While single-organism evolution may explain only gradual and localized changes in skills, the formation of composite structures would certainly result in higher levels of complexity which in turn would result in higher levels of organization.
Unfortunately, we have no idea of how the DNA of a new organism can be synthesized from the DNA's of two organisms, i.e. how a new species can be created by the symbiotic union of two species. The chemical process that allows for the fusion of two codes has not been discovered yet, but may turn out to be a relatively simple "algebra" of the four bases of the DNA.
The tree of life
As geneticists have been rearranging the tree of life based on the DNA or organisms, one thing has become evident: life diverged first into bacteria and archaea, eukaryotes then evolved from archaea but with a little help from bacteria. Somehow eukaryotes acquired genes from bacteria, genes that were critical for their metabolism. This implies that gene are passed not only vertically from generation to generation but also horizontally (or "laterally") from one species to another. This lateral gene transfer could turn out to be the single most important factor of evolution. The more we study their DNA, the more eukaryotes appear only distant relatives to their archaea ancestors, the more they appear the product of a large number of lateral gene transfers. There was probably a time when swapping genes among cells was an ordinary event: by swapping genes, cells would simply trade or share skills with other cells.
Research carried out, among others, by the USA biologist Carl Woese is showing that the phylogenetic tree looks more like a web than a tree. By drawing the family tree of today's genes, one should eventually find the genetic content of the common ancestor of all life. Instead, different genes yield different family trees. If they all had forebears in a common ancestor, it must have been a terribly complex being, far from the simple living cell that one expects. It is more likely that some genes were transmitted horizontally (one lineage to another) as well as vertically (one generation to the next one) in the tree. If gene exchanges were common, one can envision a colony of cells as the ancestor of all life and gene exchanges as the main form of early evolution.
A fascination with the wonders of the bacterial world led the USA biologist Lynn Margulis to believe that no other single force has shaped evolution in a more important way. Everything the Earth is today, and everything that we and other living forms do today, is due to conditions that have been created and maintained by bacteria.
Margulis' fundamental thesis is that our bodies are amalgams of several different strains of bacteria. Endosymbiosis of bacteria is responsible for the creation of complex forms of life.
Margulis follows the USA biologist Ivan Wallin, who in 1927 was the first one to propose that bacteria may represent the fundamental cause of the "origin of species" (Darwin's unsolved mystery) and that the creation of a species may occur via endosymbiosis.
Margulis noted that not all the DNA is contained in the nucleus of the cell. As originally outlined by Wallin, The "mitochondria" are organelles of the cell that function as its "power plants": they convert sugar into energy that the cell can use. Mitochondria have their own DNA, separate from the DNA of the cell. While most DNA is organized as double sets of chromosomes in the nucleus, the DNA of mitochondria stands apart. Margulis believes that the presence of "extra" DNA in the cell is a fossil of an ancient evolutionary event: it attests to the fusion of at least two different kinds of organisms that together formed a "eukaryiotic" cell.
Margulis believes that such symbiotic merger, or "symbiogenesis", has been common in the evolutionary history of life on Earth, and actually accounts for life as we know it today. The ancestors of all life are bacteria. They fused into "protists" (algae, amoebas, etc) which fused into multicellular organisms. Margulis tracks their evolution into plants, animals and fungi.
Margulis emphasizes that the Earth is still dominated by bacteria, which not only account for the vast majority of life, but also maintain the conditions for life on the planet.
All life is either bacteria or descends from bacteria. Life "is" bacteria. Bacteria are also closer to immortality than animals with bodies: cell division generates identical bacterial copies of a bacterial cell. Bacteria can be killed but they do not really die, because countless clones exist of them. The life of a multicellular creature is far more fragile.
Bacteria can also reproduce at amazing rates, compared with "higher" forms of life.
Life can even be viewed as a plan for bacteria to exist forever: bodies are desirable food sources for bacteria, so one could view the evolution of bacteria into such bodies as a plan by bacteria to create food for themselves.
The biosphere is controlled mostly by bacteria, it is, in a sense, "their" environment, not ours. Margulis emphasizes that not only the atmosphere but even the geology of our planet is due to the work of bacteria (mineral deposits have been shaped by the work of bacteria over million of years, or by the reaction with the waste gas of bacteria).
We are allowed to live in it, thanks to the work of bacteria, which maintain the proper balance of chemicals in the air. If all bacteria died, everything would die. It is their world. Every other form of life exists because they exist.
On a smaller scale, if you "fumigated" your body and destroyed all bacteria that live in it, your body would not be able to perform vital functions, such as synthesizing vitamins, and would die.
The mitochondria, which dot all cells of all living beings, are former bacteria, using oxygen to generate energy.
The property of bacteria that intrigues Margulis is that they trade genes, rapidly and easily. DNA is loose inside bacteria's "bodies". Bacteria reproduce by simply splitting their DNA in two. This yields two offspring identical to the parent (same genes). Exchange of genes occurs only when genes are traded among bacteria. Bacterial sex ("conjugation") is about making a new bacterium out of an existing bacterium by adding genes donated by another bacterium.
The new bacterium resulting from the "engrafting" can even change sex, if the "sex" gene is received from the other bacterium (the "sex" gene specifies whether a bacterium is a donor or a receiver).
This process is not really related to our "sex": sex is about two beings making a new being that partially inherits genes from each parent.
When bacteria "create" a new being, they do so by splitting (there is only one parent and the new being is identical to the parent). When bacteria trade genes, a being is changed into another being. Humans do not have either of these processes. I cannot split myself into identical copies of me, and I cannot mutate into another being by absorbing somebody else's genes. (Incidentally, bacteria can also trade genes as plasmids and viruses).
This process of "recombination" occurs even among bacteria of different species. It is as if I could absorb genes from an eagle and turn into a human with wings, and making children who will also be humans with wings. The genetic material of bacteria is extremely flexible and versatile.
Margulis thinks that this is the process that enabled life to evolve rapidly. Scale is crucial: what Margulis realized is the extent to which bacteria rule the planet. They account for a vast portion of the atmosphere and the geology of the planet.
They spread in ancient times and are still spreading today at fantastic speed. Any phenomenon that involves bacteria is involving billions of rapidly moving and mutating beings. Once life was created, once the first bacteria appeared, things happened quickly and on a massive scale. Bacteria spread quickly, thanks to their reproductive efficiency and to their ability to feed on ubiquitous organic compounds.
The first bacteria were "fermenters", feeding on the sugars available on the surface of the planet. They were followed by photosynthesizers: photosynthesis enabled these bacteria to feed on light. Then came bacteria ("cyanobacteria") that could tolerate oxygen, and could therefore feed on water (extract hydrogen atoms from water).
Each new type of bacteria was "polluting" the Earth and therefore changing the environmental conditions for future generations of bacteria. Pollution is an integral part of the evolution of life. The power of bacteria is that their "gene trading" habits made it relatively easy to adapt to whatever new conditions the climate and their own doing were producing.
The history of life is the history of a planet blanketed with rapidly reproducing and rapidly changing beings: the bacteria.
Protoctists were born about 2 billion years ago from the fusion of bacterial cells.
Eukaryotes (living beings whose cells have a nucleus and whose DNA is confined in that nucleus) evolved from those protoctists.
Mitochondria are visible remnants of this process of endosymbiosis.
Experiments by the Korean biologist Kwang Jeon showed that even virulent pathogens can become organelles. Margulis concludes that predators can become symbionts, that a deadly infection can become a bodily part.
Margulis extends this paradigm to bodies made of several organs, and suggests that those organs also were accumulated the same way, that they are also due to the fusion with independent organisms by endosymbiosis.
While Darwin was emphasizing competition as the driving process of evolution, Margulis is emphasizing cooperation.
For Margulis life has "free will", and has used it to influence its own evolution. It is not only humans who can affect their environment to direct their own evolution: the whole environment is doing the same. Living beings make decisions all the time and are thus responsible in part for their own evolution, as first speculated by Samuel Butler.
We have not found any evidence of multiple beings integrating in one being, but there is plenty of evidence that individual single-cell organisms sometimes join in creating "collective beings" which are better equipped to survive.
Single-celled bacteria form large colonies in countless ecosystems, particularly visible in seaside locations.
Soil amoebae join together in one huge organism that can react quickly to light and temperature to find food supplies.
Sponges are actually collections of single-celled organisms held together by skeletons of minerals.
These are all examples of how cells are capable of forming communities that live together and live at the same biological "pace". Whereas in a human community we all are independent and only occasionally interact, in such agglomerates of cells every unit is synchronized towards the common goal.
In 1999 the Danish biologist Sune Dano engineered a community of yeast cells that live together as a single organism, driven by collective chemical oscillations.
Among multi-cellular organisms, ants and bees exhibit such a behavior, although the individuals are physically disconnected and communication occurs at a distance through the senses (rather than through chemical contact).
The USA biologist Deborah Gordon studied ants as a superorganism (the colony as a body, the individuals as cells) and found that the way such a superorganism organizes itself is not too different from the way a brain or an immune system is organized.
After all, what is a body? We tend to think of a body as a set of organs "glued" together, but that is not the case: is blood part of my body? My body cannot exist without blood, but blood is not glued to the other organs. If I make a hole in an artery, blood will pour out. The definition of body is actually quite open. We all believe that ants are quite "intelligent", but we would be reluctant to admit that a single ant shows any intelligence in its random paths of food search and transport. What is intelligent is the colony as a whole. The colony as a whole exhibits stunning coordination and purposeful behavior. The single ant does not compare too well with a human being, but the colony as a whole does. It may be more appropriate to compare our body to the entire ant colony, in which case one notices all the relevant similarities in purposeful behavior: the movement of those ants, taken together, do mimic cognitive, sentient behavior.
A multi-cellular organism is a collection of cells that are synchronized through electrochemical activity. Sponges and amoebae may show how multi-cellular organisms were created from single-cellular organisms. Ants and bees may show that the difference between a multi-cellular organism and a society of organisms is only the type of internal communication: they both rely on constituents that are synchronized and the only difference is how those constituents communicate (the dances of the bees as opposed to the chemical reactions of the amoebas).
If this phenomenon cannot help explain evolution as a whole, it can at least shed some light on the transition from mono-cellular to multi-cellular organisms, one of the crucial steps in the evolution of life on this planet.
The USA philosopher Guy Murchie was perhaps the first to advance the notion that super-organisms are pervasive in nature.
Murchie too started out by showing that groups sometimes behave like individual organisms: who runs an ant colony? how do ants decide to move their nest somewhere else? It is the interaction among the individuals: some ants carry eggs and food to the new nest, some ants carry them back, and eventually one of the two competing population prevails (in a sense, "natural selection" decides whether and where the nest moves); bees of a beehive communicate (at least as far as directing their fellow bees to food) with a language which is made of dance steps (including sounds and smells); furthermore, honey bees fan their wings to maintain a constant temperature within the beehive, the same way an organism's parts cooperate to keep the organism within the narrow range of temperature that allows for its survival.
An ant colony or a beehive behaves like an organism with its own mind: a beehive metabolizes, has a cognitive life (makes decisions), acts (it can move, attack) and so forth.
In this scenario, language can be viewed from a different perspective, as the mechanism that allows for the organism to be one.
Murchie envisions the entire Earth as an organism which uses as food the heat of the sun, breathes, metabolizes, and its cognition is made of many tiny parts (organisms) that communicate, exchange energy, interact. All living organisms, along with all the minerals on the surface of the Earth, compose one giant integrated system that, as a whole, controls its behavior so as to survive.
And so do galaxies. After all, we are made of stardust.
Life is inherent in nature. Murchie describes sand dunes, glaciers and fires as living organisms, the life of metals and crystals.
The question is not whether there is life outside our planet, but whether it is possible to have "non-life".
Then Murchie shows that properties of mind are not exclusive to humans. Memory is ubiquitous in nature. For example, energy conservation is a form of memory (an elastic band remembers how much energy was put into stretching it and eventually goes back to the original position). The laws of Physics describe the social life of particles. Electrons obey social laws that we decided are physical laws instead of biological laws thereby granting their behavior a different status from the behavior of bees. But this is an arbitrary decision. Mind can be viewed as a universal aspect of life and energy.
Murchie believes there is one huge mind, the "thinking layer" around the Earth, which corresponds to the "noosphere", a concept introduced by Teilhard de Chardin in 1938. Individual "consciousnesses" are absorbed into the superconsciousness of a social group, which is part of a superconsciousness of the world. In Murchie's opinion, the world has a soul, an analogous of the Pythagoreans' "anima mundi" and of the Hindus' "atman".
A viral past
Studies on viruses (for example, by the USA biologist Luis Villarreal) have also hinted at the possibility that genes could be "acquired" from an external organism, without any need to wait for millions of years of natural selection. A virus is a parasite that comes alive, and replicates, only while it feeds on host cells. This process takes place at the genetic level: the genetic instructions of the virus induce the host cell to manufacture the genes that the virus needs in order to assemble a copy of itself. Thus there is "genetic" contact between the virus and the host cell. Viruses may be the lowest form of life (in fact, most biologists donít even agree that they are forms of life, because they are simpler than living cells), but their fast replication continuously creates new genes, and that process of gene manufacturing takes place inside another organism: the odds that some of those genes get "transferred" permanently to the organism are not negligible. Humans and bacteria share some genes, but those genes are not present in the organisms that should constitute the evolutionary chain from bacteria to humans: how did the intermediary species miss them? The easiest explanation is that somehow the genes of the bacteria "infected" the DNA of humans and became permanent residents of it. Villarreal suspects that the cell nucleus itself of the eukaryotes may have evolved from prokaryotes by, basically, viral infection: the eukaryotic cell might just be a permanently infected prokaryotic cell (the original cell plus its viral invader).
Gaia is an idea that originated by the joint work of the British chemist James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. Lovelock views the entire surface of the Earth, including "inanimate" matter, as a living being (which in 1979 he named "Gaia"), an idea to which the Austrian physicist Fritjof Capra also subscribes. Lovelock and Margulis argued that the rules of life work at both the organism level and at the ecosystem level, and eventually at the level of the entire planet. There is a gigantic cycle that involves the actions and structure of all matter and eventually yields "life" on this planet. The environment (volcanoes, rocks, sea water, sun, rain) is part of life. At the same time life creates the environment that it needs. Life creates the conditions for its own existence.
Capra put it in mathematical form: feedback loops link together living and nonliving matter. The entire planet is a self-organizing network, just like an ecosystem, just like a living system. Living systems are networks interacting with other networks. Organisms are networks of cells. Ecosystems are networks of organisms. Biological systems at all levels are networks. The "web of life" consists of networks.
Murchie, Margulis, Capra and Lovelock view the world as an integrated whole.
Sex and death
Bacteria reproduce by replication and mutate by conjugation. Mitosis ("the dance of chromosomes") is the process by which eukaryotic cells reproduce: the DNA of the new being is a combination of the DNA of the two parents. In eukaryotes the DNA is not just a string: genes are organized in chromosomes (a minimum of two, humans have 46).
Prokaryotes are wildly different from bacteria. But how did this striking difference between bacteria and their descendants come to be?
Mitosis is truly responsible for the origin of species. Before mitosis, bacteria were freely exchanging genes: the concept of "species" as we know them today did not exist, as any bacterium could mutate into a novel "species" at any time. Bacteria do not have true species.
On the other hand, multicellular beings cannot trade genes. Therefore they cannot mutate into anything else, and their offspring belongs to the same species (because both parents must be of the same species in order to interbreed) and such offspring inherits genes of the parents. Genes remain within the same family, the "species". Any multicellular being is a member of a species: it is an obvious fact, but a quite striking one. It is one of nature's whims. At the beginning of life on Earth, a new bacterium could be just about any combination of available DNA. Later in evolution, a new individual had to be a member of a species.
It may not be a coincidence that death was invented with multicellular sexual beings. They age and die, whereas bacteria did not.
Why did sexless and immortal bacteria evolve into beings that have sex and die?
Bacteria have only one sex, they can mutate (change their DNA), they can interbreed with any bacteria, they don't make children, and they never age or die. Animals that evolved from them have two sexes, they cannot mutate (cannot change their DNA), they can only inbreed within their species, they make children and they age and die. (Last but not least, the DNA of animals is organized and inherited in units called chromosomes, a detail that may turn out to be crucial to explain all of the above discrepancies).
Margulis argues that "death was the first sexually-transmitted disease". Once animals started aging and dying (once death had been programmed into their DNA), their offspring inherited the same disease.
Margulis' hypothesis is that, once upon a time, "eating and mating were the same". Cannibal unicellular beings may have merged into multicellular beings. The evolutionary advantages of this behavior may have led to sexual beings.
But the genders are exactly two, and each member of a gender has the same sexual organs. How did that happen?
Guy Murchie believes that death provides an evolutionary advantage: immortal beings that simply split would be immutable and easy prey to environmental changes. Death allows for regeneration of the race and for creation of new species. Death is a tool for change and progress. It is not a coincidence that the odds of immortality increases as creatures get more elementary.
Notwithstanding these cunning speculations, sexually-reproducing species are a bit of a mystery, and so is death, that came with sex.
The Origin of Selection
According to the Modern Synthesis, the genetic makeup of a population is altered through natural selection (the interaction between the individuals of the population and their environment). Darwin's approach to the problem implied that natural selection acts on the individual (precisely, it causes differences in phenotype among individuals within a population), but several biologists have argued that selection might act at a number of different levels, loosely corresponding to a hierarchy of biological organization: genes, individuals, kin, groups, populations, and species. Ultimately, what changes is species, but that is the effect of a process of natural selection that may act at any of these levels and then cause that visible effect on species.
Evolutionary theory is based upon the idea that species evolve and their evolution is driven by natural selection, but it is not clear what exactly evolves and what natural selection acts upon. Nature is organized in a hierarchy: genes are located on chromosomes, chromosomes are located in cells, cells make up organs which make up organisms which make up species which make up populations which make up ecosystems: at what level does selection act? One may view the genes as the units that must change to generate evolution. Or one may view ecosystems as made of co-evolving species that would not evolve the same way by themselves. And so forth.
Gould supports a hierarchical model that views selection as acting simultaneously at a variety of levels in a genealogical sequence of gene, organism, population and species.
David Sloan Wilson views nature organized in a structural hierarchy, and selection acting at each level of the hierarchy, but which levels matter more depend on the species. In the case of humans and other species, the group (hive, herd, clan, tribe, nation) was one of the most relevant levels.
The German biophysicist Bernd-Olaf Kuppers thinks that natural selection applies to the molecular level.
The USA biologist Richard Lewontin thinks that all entities that exhibit heritable variance in fitness (from pre-biotic molecules to whole populations) are units of selection. The USA philosopher Robert Brandon thinks that the biosphere is hierarchically arranged and, in agreement with Lewontin, natural selection applies to all levels of the hierarchy.
In 1955 the British biologist John Haldane pointed out that altruism is proportional to genetic proximity. I share genes with my brother, and therefore I am willing to help him survive. I share genes with cousins too, and therefore I am still willing to help them, but I share less genes with them than with my brother so I am less motivated to help them than my brother. It is not survival of the individual that matters: it is survival of as many genes as possible. Parental care for offspring has, therefore, a genetic explanation.
In the 1960s the British biologist William Hamilton formalized this idea in the theory of "kin selectionism": selection operates at the level of kin, of closely related individuals.
For the USA zoologist Terrell Hamilton, the individual is the unit of natural selection. He separates selection, adaptation and evolution: natural selection results in differential reproduction, therefore in adaptation of populations, therefore in evolutionary change. Correspondingly, the individual is the unit of natural selection, gene substitution is the elementary process of adaptation, and the species is the main unit of evolution.
Alfred Russell Wallace, co-inventor of evolution theory with Darwin, thought that selection acts on populations as well as individuals. Selection at the level of populations occurs when a group of individuals produces more groups than other groups.
The British biologist Richard Dawkins popularized "gene selectionism", according to which the genes compete and are responsible for evolution.
Finally, Ernst Mayr thinks that genes cannot be treated as separate, individual units, that their interaction is not negligible. The units of evolution and natural selection are not individual genes but groups of genes tied into balanced adaptive systems. Natural selection favors phenotypes, not genes or genotypes. Ultimately, species are the units of evolution. After all, speciation is the method by which evolution advances.
The USA chemist Jeffrey Wicken thinks that the most general entities subject to natural selection are neither genes nor populations but information patterns of thermodynamic flows, such as ecosystems and socioeconomic systems. Natural selection is not an external force, but an internal process such that macromolecules are accrued in proportion to their usefulness for the efficiency of the global system.
The USA biologist William Wimsatt grounds the notion of selection around the notion of "additive variance". This quantity determines the rate of evolution. Variance in fitness is totally additive when the fitness increase in a genotype is a linear function of the number of genes of a given type that are present in it. If variance in fitness at a given level is totally additive, then this is the highest level at which selection operates. The entities at that level are composed of units of selection, and there are no higher-level units of selections.
Richard Dawkins and the British philosopher Helena Cronin argue that genes rather than organisms (as Darwin held) are the primary units of natural selection.
Dawkins essentially built on the work of the USA biologist Richard Williams. Williams thought that genes encouraging altruism would quickly become extinguished, and therefore genes must be "selfish" in nature. Every trait serves some kind of self-interest. Genes that serve that self-interest are more likely to survive (because their vehicles are more likely to survive) and multiply. Thus the corresponding traits are more likely to become widespread among future generations.
Dawkins introduced whole new methods of thinking about life, behavior and evolution. Firstly, Dawkins argued that the gene is the fundamental unit of evolution: genes drive evolution and genes drive behavior. Darwin's assumption that natural selection favors those individuals best fitted to survive and reproduce can then be restated as: natural selection favors those genes that replicate through many generations. The level at which selection occurs is not that of the individual organism, but that of particular stretches of genetic material. Organisms are merely the means that genes use to perpetuate copies of themselves. The universe is dominated by stable structures, and one particular stable structure is a molecule that makes copies of itself.
A "replicator" is an entity that copies itself, such as genes. A "vehicle" is the organism that carries the replicator in its cells and whose differential survival and reproduction results in the differential spread of the replicator. Dawkins thinks that the superiority of replicators is obvious. A replicator serves as a repository of information (about the organism but also, indirectly, about the environment) that is preserved over time and spread over space. Replicators are immanent entities: they exist virtually forever. Vehicles, on the other hand, are merely "tests" of how good that information is. And, of course, vehicles are also the machine used by replicators to copy themselves.
The USA philosopher David Hull offered a slight variation on Dawkins' theme. Hull distinguishes replicators (units that reproduce their structure directly) from "interactors" (entities that interact directly with their environment). Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection thus reads: differences in the interactions of interactors with their environment result in differential reproduction of replicators. The difference between Hull's "interactors" and Dawkins' "vehicles" is not trivial: genes are both replicators and interactors (they have a physical structure that interacts with an environment), and some interactors are also replicators (the paramecium that splits in two).
However, the general scheme is the same as Dawkinsí. Natural selection is about the differential survival of replicators. Genes can be replicators whereas multicellular organisms, groups and other levels of the hierarchy can only be vehicles/interactors.
In other words, what survives is not my body but my genes. It is not bodies that replicate when children are made: it is genes that replicate in the children. Therefore, natural selection can't be about bodies, it must be about genes. Bodies are in a lose/lose situation, as they will disappear anyway. But genes do have a chance to survive (by copying themselves into a new body).
Of course, this doesn't mean that genes "are" eternal. Genes are perpetuated insofar as they yield phenotypes that have selective advantages over competing phenotypes. They have a chance of being eternal, but that depends on how good they are at creating competitive organisms.
Genes can also have phenotypic effects that extend beyond the bodies that house them: they can affect an "extended phenotype" (e.g., a bird's nest or a spider's web, parasites, symbiotic organisms). Pleiotropy (the phenotypic side effects) may sometime be caused by adaptation of the extended phenotype: a parasited organism may exhibit an "unintended" behavior which is in reality part of the parasite's adaptive process.
Dawkins downplays the importance of single organisms and, instead, emphasizes the "extended phenotype" which extends as far as the control of an organism can reach. Phenotypic effects are not limited to the individual organism, but reach out to an "extended" phenotype, consisting of the world the organism interacts with. Genes ensure their survival by means of phenotypic effects on the world.
An organism is a mere gene-transporting device: its primary function is not even to reproduce itself, albeit to reproduce genes. The mind itself is engineered to perpetuate DNA. The brain is a machine whose goal is to maximize fitness in its environment.
The organism alone does not have biological relevance. What makes sense is an open system made of the organism and its neighbors. For example, a cobweb is still part of the spider. The control of an organism is never complete inside and null outside: there is rather a continuum of degrees of control, which allows partiality of control inside (e.g., parasites operate on the nervous system of their hosts) and an extension of control outside (as in the cobweb). The genome of a cell can be viewed as a representation of the environment inside the cell. Conversely, within the boundaries of an organism there can be more than one psychology (as in the case of schizophrenics).
Cronin also argued that genes rather than organisms are primary units of natural selection.
From the point of view of a gene, any organism carrying it is an equivalent reproductive source. In many cases siblings are more closely related (genetically speaking) that parents and offsprings. Adaptation is for the good of the replicator. Therefore, it is not surprising that sometimes organisms sacrifice themselves for improving their kin's survival. Kin selection is part of a gene reproduction strategy.
"I" am not the subject: I am the object. My genes are the subject. I am but a product of my genes. Genes represent a higher force than my will, a force that has been acting for millions of years, compared to the few decades that my will be performing. Genes tell me what to will. Genes tell me how to interact with other people who are the product of other genes, i.e. they tell me which genes to interact with. Genes tell me what food I should eat and what dangers I should avoid. Whether there is a conscious entity in my genes or not, it is "them" that drive my existence. It is "them" who want me to reproduce: I will be dead soon, but they will still be somewhat alive in my relatives. My family is not going to be extinguished any time soon. I will be a mere step, soon forgotten and useless, in their process of reproduction, of survival, of progress.
Genes want to live forever.
The British biologist Mark Ridley makes a distinction between the macroscopic effects and the microscopic causes of animal behavior.
The puzzling feature of the animal world is that animals often help each other, and sometimes some individuals would sacrifice their lives to save others. This would not make any sense if the goal were merely for the body to survive.
Altruism was explained by Richard Dawkins with the idea that evolution applied to genes, not to bodies. Bodies are the vehicles that genes use to attain everlasting life. Bodies are disposable. Genes are not used by organisms, genes use organisms. I am nothing but a machine invented by a bunch of genes to maximize their chances (not mine) to survive. I will die. But if I am fit and make children, my genes will survive me. And if my children are fit, they will die but those genes will continue to exist in other bodies, generation after generation. It's the genes, not the organisms. Darwin's idea of competition among individuals for survival must be slightly modified: it is not individuals that compete, it is genes. In order to maximize its chances of survival, a gene would cause one of its bodies (one of the bodies that contain that gene) to help its "kin" (bodies with the same gene). The macroscopic effect would be cooperation among organisms, while at the microscopic level that cooperation is truly an attempt by the gene to outsmart other genes, i.e. it is competition of the most cynical kind.
You have to think like a gene, not like a body. If you are a gene, you have no problem sacrificing some of your bodies to save some others. Your ultimate goal is to survive (you are the gene) and you can use any of those bodies as the vehicles to continue your journey through time. Altruism makes as much sense as selfishness in the classical Darwinian theory, as long as you look at the micro-world, not just at the animal kingdom (the macro-world) as we (bodies) see it.
In mathematical terms, sex provides a way for a gene to participate in a lottery a number of times: each body is a participant in the lottery of survival. The more bodies, the more chances to win the lottery.
This is a special lottery, though. Winning this lottery entails some work (creating and maneuvering the organism) and this work must be done jointly with other genes. Sex is the process by which a gene is chosen to work in a body together with other genes.
In each offspring the gene is working with a different set of genes. Each offspring is a combination of genes. Some of those combinations will prevail, i.e. they will generate an organism that is capable of surviving in the environment. The gene has a vested interest in that as many as possible of those offspring survive. If you are one of those offspring, you think that it is all about you. But, in reality, it is all about the genes that are inside you, and that you share with your siblings (and some with your cousins, and some with your entire tribe, and some with the entire human kind).
If you are a gene shared by my brother and me, it makes perfect sense that I give my life to save my brother's children. I am not jeopardizing my chances of survival: I am maximizing your chances of survival.
Matt Ridley sides with Dawkins in thinking that the gene is the unit of selection and in believing that genes are selfish; but Ridley shows that it is in their interest to form alliances, because that may increase the chances of survival for their genetic pool. Cooperation is actually a recurring theme at all levels of the biological world, from cells to species. Ridley explains cooperation among organisms of different species by using game theory: whenever the mathematics of benefits outweighs the mathematics of competition, organisms tend to be cooperative. Therefore, Ridley believes that social behavior, such as cooperation, trade, religion, is a direct consequence of evolution.
In the 1970s the USA biologist Edward-Osborne Wilson popularized "Sociobiology", the discipline that studies the biological basis of social behavior. Wilsonís tenet was simply a generalization of William Hamilton's ideas: that the social behavior of animals and humans can be explained from the viewpoint of evolution, that human behavior is largely determined by our genome.
Sociobiology, for example, should be able to explain why murder is almost exclusively a male phenomenon and it peaks at the age of 25. Sociobiology aims at tracing the evolution of humans and their habits, from sex to language.
The central tenet of Sociobiology is that all aspects of human culture and behavior are coded in the genes and have been molded by natural selection. Wilson is after a biological explanation for everything: religion, ethics, and ultimately for the history of humankind. His program is to identify universals in human societies. Ultimately: define human nature. Wilson believes that universals are coded in the human genotype; and, like everything else coded there, they have been selected by evolution.
Wilson attempted a unified theory of Biology and social sciences, from genes to mind to culture. The underlying theme of his findings is a strong coupling between genetic and cultural evolution. They proceed together, in parallel and intertwined.
Wilson defines culture as the product of the interaction of all the mental and physical artifacts of a population. Culture is not unique to humans. What is unique about human culture is that it is a form of "euculture", which involves "reification" (the construction of concepts and the continuous re-categorization of the world, including the ability to symbolize), besides teaching, imitation and learning (which are present in many other animals).
On these foundations, Wilson reconstructed the genetic history of our mind.
A culture expresses itself through its "culturgens" (behaviors and artifacts). These are the equivalent of genes. These are the basic units of inheritance in cultural evolution. Each individual is genetically endowed with epigenetic rules to process culturgens. Such rules can be said to assemble the mind of the individual. They include sensory filters and cognitive faculties, all of them determined genetically. And, ultimately, these rules affect the probability of transmitting a culturgen as opposed to another.
Epigenesis is the process of interaction between genes and the environment during development. Epigenetic rules affect both primary functions such as hearing and secondary functions such as mother-infant bonding and incest avoidance.
One or more culturgens are favored by the epigenetic rules. Eucultural species such as humans evolve towards a type of cultural transmission in which a dual shift occurs in time: change in the epigenetic rules due to shifts in the genes frequency and change in culturgen frequencies due to the epigenetic (gene-culture co-evolution). The two shifts exert a mutual influence.
The epigenetic rules exhibit genetic variation, thereby contributing to the variance of cognitive traits within a population. The fitness of the individuals differs depending on their minds' behaviors. Therefore the population as a whole tends to shift towards the most efficient epigenetic rules.
The general model of Wilson is one in which the offspring learn to "socialize" from both their age peers and their parents. They evaluate the culturgens and assimilate them depending on their epigenetic rules; and then use the outcome to exploit the environment.
Wilson's ambitious program is to unify all disciplines of human knowledge (from religion to art) in one discipline ("consilience"), which would be, fundamentally, the study of how the human mind evolved. He believes that all other disciplines could be reduced to this discipline, and therefore what they study are but particular aspects of the evolution of the mind and, ultimately, of its genetic programming.
Culture is therefore a product of biology. Culture is social behavior.
Evolutionary psychology was pioneered by the USA anthropologist Tooby John and the USA psychologist Leda Cosmides. They believed that culture shapes human behavior notwithstanding biological pressures, and therefore disagreed with purely biological explanations of social behavior such as Ridley's.
Evolutionary Psychology basically investigates the origins of human behavior. For example, it studies the different patterns of behavior of males and females based on their roles in sexual reproduction (the male's only investment is in spreading his sperm as widely as possible, whereas the female's investment is much bigger and involves both bearing and nurturing the offspring). Natural selection has molded the brains of men and women in different ways as a result of their different reproductive goals.
Evolutionary Psychology rests on the seminal work of a number of biologists who dealt with the genetic foundations of high-level behavior, starting with William Hamilton ("The Genetic Evolution of Social Behavior", 1963). The British geneticist Angus Bateman had already suggested (in 1948) that natural selection had determined different male and female behaviors. The USA biologist George Williams formalized this idea in a different way: the "sacrifice" required for reproduction is different for the female and the male. In 1972 Robert Trivers replaced "sacrifice" with (parental) "investment": the investment required for reproduction (to increase the chances of survival of the offspring) is different between a male and a female, and that accounts for different attitudes towards the other sex and the offspring itself.
These biologists applied Darwinian thinking to the social behavior of animals. These studies, once applied to humans, laid the foundations for Evolutionary Psychology, basically a more scientific way to study human behavior than Psychiatry. In fact, Evolutionary Psychology is not about human behavior: it is about human nature (which determines human behavior).
Most of an organismís behavior is mechanical, instinctive, although it makes a lot of sense: all the "thinking" has already been done by natural selection and summarized in its DNA. Genes determine behavior that has been found to be rational over thousands of generations of testing. If it were not rational, those genes would not have survived, and that behavior would not exist.
Evolutionary Psychology introduced a new kind of "unconscious": the control that comes from the genes.
The amoral animal
Thus the USA historian Robert Wright replaces Freud's subconscious with Darwin's natural selection as the engine of all adult behavior.
Darwin himself had already realized that animals are subject to one kind of pressure that comes from members of their own species: sexual selection. Males have to compete in order to mate with a female. Females get to choose which male they mate with. Males seem to be indiscriminate in their sexual appetite, whereas females seem to be very discriminating. This simple asymmetry of behavior explains many traits that would not be easy to explain with standard Darwinian theory (for example, why some animals have very colored traits, and proudly display them, thus helping their predators spot them). But sexual selection often prevails: males who were not equipped to compete against other males (e.g., bulls with no horns) and to attract females (e.g., peacocks with small tails) were excluded from sex, and their traits are thus extinct.
Darwin did not explain where sexual selection comes from, though. George Williams found the answer. It comes from a simple physical fact: women can reproduce only about once a year, whereas men can reproduce every day of the year (if they find a woman willing to, of course). For a woman the main "investment" to reproduction is giving birth and nurturing the baby, a lengthy and complex consequence of a few minutes of sex. For a man the main investment is just those few minutes of sex. Thus the different sexual behavior.
Human nature does not come out looking too good. Human nature is merely a machine that has been fine-tuned over millions of years to maximize a mathematical equation (that of survival of our genes).
Wright showed that morality is simply the set of rules that increase the odds to pass one's genes to the next generation. Morality is mere convenience. To become moral animals, Wright claims, humans must first realize how thoroughly amoral they are.
The mind as a sexual organ
The USA evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller believes that natural selection per se could not account for the sophistication of the human mind. He thinks that an extra force must have been at work. That force is the combined effect of sexual choices that our ancestors made. They helped design us as we are today.
Miller views the human mind not as a problem solver, but as a "sexual ornament". Miller points to the fact that the human brain's creative intelligence must exist for a purpose, and that purpose is not obvious. Survival in the environment does not quite require the sophistication of Einstein's science or Michelangelo's paintings or Beethoven's symphonies. On the other hand, these are precisely the kind of things that the human brain does a lot better than other animal brains.
The human brain is much more powerful than it needs to be.
Miller explains the emergence of art, science and philosophy by thinking not in terms of survival benefits but in terms of reproductive benefits. Miller basically separates (as Darwin originally did) natural selection (competition for survival) and sexual selection (competition for reproduction). Then Miller argues that sexual selection is much more efficient and intelligent, because it is not driven by random environmental events but by a deliberate strategy to improve the "genetic quality of the offspring".
Sexual selection is as intelligent as we are, whereas natural selection (from the viewpoint of human self-interest) is hardly intelligent at all (it does not intentionally reward humans over other species, or one individual over other individuals).
Sexual selection is a form of positive feedback (as Ronald Fisher had already showed in 1930), the kind of process that can explain the explosive growth of the human brain.
Miller argues that a fundamental function of the human mind is to display one's fitness to the other sex. As Darwin originally proposed, sexual selection originated from two parallel and interacting processes: men compete for women, and women choose men. Thus bulls have horns (to fight other bulls) and peacocks have tails (to attract women): these are organs that serve no other function. They evolved because of sexual selection. As Ronald Fisher had already showed, sexual selection can rapidly lead to evolution of sexually-relevant traits in animals: as females get pickier, they pick more attractive males, thus making children that are more attractive and who will therefore make more children. Evolution favors both pickier females and more attractive males. Thus the ornaments of several male animals evolved. This cycle continues (spirals up) until the ornaments become counterproductive to the other selection process, natural selection.
Men had to be accepted by women in order to make children. We are the descendants of those who were "sexually selected". Miller believes that sexual selection was based on activities such as painting, singing and dancing (which, in turn, explains why humans paint, sing and dance). Miller shows that each of these activities turns out to be a good indicator of physical and mental fitness, that women recognize, evaluate and reward with sex. Birds do the same when they sing complex melodies, and fruit flies do the same when they perform complex dances. These are all activities that appear to serve no survival purpose but appear to contribute to reproductive success. Males need to advertise their genes, and this need drives innovation.
Artistic activities developed because they contributed to sexual selection. When language appeared, it allowed thought itself to be used for sexual selection. The growing importance of thought for sexual selection drove, in turn, the evolution of language. Sexual selection has slowly shifted from body to mind.
In the 1980s the USA biologist Russell Lande had already argued that sexual selection is a form of positive feedback, whereby features that attract the other sex tend to increase and, at the same time, the preference for those features in the other sex also tends to increase. The offspring of the mating caused by those preferences is likely to inherit the same preference and the loop continues at ever increasing speed. The result is an exponential increase in the "sexy" feature, whether a tail or a sound. Basically, sexual attraction is an inherited mistake.
In 1993 the USA biologist Randy Thornhill showed that several of the most common attributes of beauty could constitute a good indicator of a healthy body. What we perceive as "beautiful" in a woman or man turns out to be simply a good immune system. Evolution taught us how to tell from the outside how good a personís immune system is.
His colleague, Austrian ethologist Karl Grammer, showed that even a personís smell could be a good indicator of that personís immunological strength.
The sexual behavior of humans is relatively easy to explain. Much harder is to explain our attitude towards death. Since prehistoric times, humans bury the dead. Sometimes the deceased is buried with some of his/her belongings. Sometimes the children of the dead worship the dead. In fact, worship of the ancestors is ubiquitous in all cultures, in one form or another. What evolutionary purpose it may play is not so clear.
Also difficult to explain from an evolutionary point of view are modern trends. For example, people in rich countries (from Japan to Western Europe) tend to have fewer children than people in poor countries. The usual explanation is that poor parents need to make many children in order to maximize the chances that at least one survives. But that does not explain why rich people would not make as many: if the goal is to maximize the probabilities of the survival of oneís genes, wealthy people should make a child a year, since they can afford it. Humans are the only species that have fewer babies when they are better fed.
The British biologist Richard Dawkins pointed out that there can be life beyond life when, in 1976, he introduced the cultural analogue of a gene (or, better, the analogue of genes for cultural transmission): the "meme". A meme is the unit of cultural evolution, just like a gene is the unit of biological evolution. A meme is an idea that replicates itself from mind to mind, such as a slogan or a refrain or a proverb.
Darwinian evolution is a process in three steps: replication (copying information), variation (making mistakes) and selection (pruning mistakes). Dawkins believes that what causes evolution is the genes: the "thing" that is copied, with mistakes, and then selected is genetic information.
From this premise, it was not difficult to conclude that "ideas" satisfy the same process of evolution: an idea is a pattern of information that is copied (from one mind to another), with some mistakes (each mind gets its own version) and then selected (some minds will be better than others at surviving, thanks to that idea, and at copying their version to other minds).
Both genes and memes are replicators.
The French biologist Jacques Monod had already noted the similarity between the spreading of genes and the spreading of ideas.
The human species is unique in that it relies on cultural transmission of information, and such a process is carried out by memes, the units of cultural evolution.
A meme is an idea that reproduces itself like a parasite. When a meme enters a mind, it parasitically alters the mind's process so that a new goal of the mind is to propagate the meme to other minds. The difference between a virus and a meme is that a meme is not an aggregate of DNA molecules but a structured piece of information, a piece of information that forces the mind to help reproduce it. Memes are behind the spreading of cults, fashions, ideologies and songs. The main difference between memes and viruses is really the stuff they are made of: viruses are made of DNA, whereas memes are made of information patterns.
Actually, at this point, you, the reader of this book, might just have been infected by a meme, the meme of memes. You will tell a friend what a meme is, and he will tell someone else, and so forth. The concept of what a meme is will spread from friend to friend, and, if it is interesting to the people who absorb it, possibly evolve.
Memes can be considered forms of life, or at least they behave like forms of life. Memes behave in a very similar way to genes. Genes are biological replicators, memes are nonbiological replicators.
Memes form an ecosphere of ideas.
The mind can be viewed as a machine for copying memes, just like the body is a machine for copying genes.
The USA philosopher Daniel Dennett goes as far as to suggest that memes may have created the mind, not the other way around; that the mind was created by culture, not the other way around. Consciousness may simply be a collection of memes that is implemented in the brain as a sort of software in a machine that evolved in nature. Meaning itself would then be an emergent product of the meaningless algorithm that carries out evolution.
What makes us a superior species is not anatomy (which is roughly identical to the anatomy of a chimpanzee) but an odd plasticity of the brain that makes is more vulnerable to memes than any other species' brain. Humans are so "smart" because the human brain can be easily invaded by memes.
Just like genes use bodies as vehicles to spread and survive, so memes use minds as vehicles to spread and survive. Just like it is genes that drive evolution, it is memes that drive thought.
Memes are nonbiological replicators and they obey laws similar to the ones obeyed by biological replicators. There is one difference, though: that memes exhibit Lamarckian inheritance. Acquired characteristics can be passed on to future generations (ideas can be taught to children). This explains why ideas can evolve so much faster: Lamarckian evolutionism is "directed" and therefore much faster than Darwinian evolutionism.
A variation on memes was proposed by the USA anthropologist Gregory Bateson. The mind is an aggregate of ideas. Ideas populate the mind and continuously evolve. Ideas evolve in a Darwinian fashion, the most useful ones surviving while useless ones decay and die away. Thus Bateson views the mind as the theater of a natural selection and evolution of ideas. Our conscious life "is" that evolutionary process.
Dawkins also grounded his theory of memes in Cairns-Smithís theory that self-replication originated in clay-crystals. According Cairns-Smith, RNA came before DNA, and it was originally simply a passive element, but then eventually took over the self-replicating chore because it was more efficient than crystals. And then evolved into today's DNA. Dawkins simply abstracted this idea. A replicator needs to build a survival machine for itself (the body). Indirectly, that survival machine opens new possibilities for self-replications, just like accidentally crystals invented a more efficient kind of self-replicator, RNA. Dawkins thinks that we are now on the verge of a new genetic takeover, whereby "memes" will replace "genes" as the main self-replicating device. Memes are patterns of information. Their survival machines are brains, or, better, minds (Dawkins does not rule out that, for example, computers could act as survival machines for memes).
More than one evolution
If this theory has to be taken literally, then memes must be competing for survival, just like genes. This means that a meme does not necessarily serve the goals of a gene. A meme must be as selfish as a gene is.
The British psychologist Susan Blackmore believes that genes and memes actually "co-evolve".
She subscribes to the notion that each mind is but a meme machine ("a memeplex running on the physical machinery of a human brain"). Human action is the product of interactions between genes, memes and their environment.
A "memeplex" is a group of memes that band together for some mutual advantage. They assimilate memes that are compatible with them and reject memes that are incompatible. This way the memeplex as a whole becomes stronger and stronger and each participating meme benefits. Religions and ideologies are memeplexes.
Blackmore paints a picture of minds invaded by memes all the time, that function only as processors of memes.
Our minds are triggered by memes. We can never stop thinking. We do not think, we are thought by the memes that invade us.
As Dawkins has shown, memes are replicators. Blackmore formalizes this view in an extension of the modern synthesis: Darwinian thinking must be applied to two replicators, not just one, and the result is meme-gene co-evolution. There are phenomena that cannot be explained by genetic motivation alone (e.g., language, which does not seem to provide any genetic advantage) but are easily explained by memetic motivation. Humans evolved along not one but two axes: the genetic one and the memetic one.
Language spreads memes, therefore language evolved to better spread memes. Language does not represent an evolutionary advantage for genes, but for memes.
Both genes and memes are replicators with equal status. The evolution of the human race is driven by evolution of two replicators.
"Body design" is achieved through competition between genes, i.e. genes compete to be passed to another body and in the process the body is shaped.
"Mind design" is achieved through competition between memes: memes compete to be passed to another mind and in the process the mind is created.
Both genetic and memetic factors are needed to explain what we are. In general, genes give us some skills, then memes determine how we use them. For example, one can be genetically gifted as a writer, but then it is memes that determine what she will write.
The origin of evil
The USA psychologist Howard Bloom believes that Darwinian evolution can explain the history of humankind. However, he sees evolution as operating on a hierarchy of systems.
In Bloom's Darwinian world, it is societies, and not only individuals, that compete for survival. Societies are capable of amazing feats that seem due to an invisible mind, but are simply due to a "neural network" of individuals. Societies are super-organisms that develop their own mental lives. Memes are sort of the "thoughts" of these super-organisms. After all, isn't the human body just a society of cells that could live independently but have decided to live together? In all aspects of civilization he sees the working of a superorganism, a network of individuals, a network that takes on a life of its own, driven by Darwinian competition.
Just like organisms, societies too compete against each other. Evil is the inevitable consequence of that kind of global competition among societies. He notices that every society regards outsiders as not really human and justifies hatred as righteousness. Why does history repeat itself? Because the same evolutionary principles are at work, over and over again, in each and every society.
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