Tyranny of the Gene Tempered by Junk DNA

The analogies between the genetic evolution of biological species and the cultural evolution of human societies have been brilliantly explored by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. The book is mainly concerned with biological evolution; the cultural analogies are only pursued in the last chapter. Dawkins's main theme is the tyranny which the rigid demands of the replication apparatus have imposed upon all biological species throughout evolutionary history. Every species is the prisoner of its genes and is compelled to develop and to behave in such a way as to maximize their chances of survival. Only the genes are free to experiment with new patterns of behavior. Individual organisms must do what their genes dictate. This tyranny of the genes has lasted for 3 billion years and has only been precariously overthrown in the last hundred thousand years by a single species, Homo sapiens. {94} We have overthrown the tyranny by inventing symbolic language and culture. Our behavior patterns are now to a great extent culturally rather than genetically determined. We can choose to keep a defective gene in circulation because our culture tells us not to let hemophiliac children die. We have stolen back from our genes the freedom to make choices and to make mistakes.

In his last chapter Dawkins describes a new tyrant which has arisen within human culture to take the place of the old. The new tyrant is the "meme," the cultural analogue of the gene. A meme is a behavioral pattern which replicates itself by cultural transfer from individual to individual instead of by biological inheritance. Examples of memes are religious beliefs, linguistic idioms, fashions in art and science, in food and in clothes. Almost all the phenomena of evolutionary genetics and speciation have their analogues in cultural history, with the meme taking over the functions of the gene. The meme is a self-replicating unit of behavior, like the gene. The meme and the gene are equally selfish. The history of human culture shows us to be as subject to the tyranny of our memes as other species are to the tyranny of genes. But Dawkins ends his discussion with a call for liberation. Our capacity for foresight gives us the power to transcend our memes, just as our culture gave us the power to transcend our genes. We, he says, alone on Earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

Dawkins's vision of the human situation as a Promethean struggle against the tyranny of the replicators contains important elements of truth. We are indeed rebels by nature, and his vision explains many aspects of our culture which would otherwise be mysterious. But his account leaves out half of the story. He describes the history of life as the history of replication. Like Eigen, he believes that the beginning of life was a self-replicating molecule. Throughout his history, the replicators are in control. In the beginning, he says, was simplicity. The point of view which I am expounding in this book is precisely opposite. In the beginning, I am saying, was complexity. {95} The essence of life from the beginning was homeostasis based on a complicated web of molecular structures. Life by its very nature is resistant to simplification, whether on the level of single cells or ecological systems or human societies. Life could tolerate a precisely replicating molecular apparatus only by incorporating it into a translation system which allowed the complexity of the molecular web to be expressed in the form of software. After the transfer of complication from hardware to software, life continued to be a complicated interlocking web in which the replicators were only one component.

The replicators were never as firmly in control as Dawkins imagined. In my version the history of life is counterpoint music, a two-part invention with two voices, the voice of the replicators attempting to impose their selfish purposes upon the whole network, and the voice of homeostasis tending to maximize diversity of structure and flexibility of function. The tyranny of the replicators was always mitigated by the more ancient cooperative structure of homeostasis inherent in every organism. The rule of the genes was like the government of the old Hapsburg Empire, "Despotismus gemildert durch Schlamperei" ("Despotism tempered by sloppiness").

One of the most interesting developments in modern genetics is the discovery of "Junk DNA," a substantial component of our cellular inheritance which appears to have no biological function. Junk DNA is nucleic acid which does us no good and no harm, merely taking a free ride in our cells and taking advantage of our efficient replicative apparatus. It is difficult to measure the fraction of our DNA that is functional. Several lines of evidence indicate that as much as half of it may be junk. The prevalence of Junk DNA is a striking example of the sloppiness which life has always embodied in one form or another. It is easy to find in human culture the analogue of Junk DNA. Junk culture is replicated together with memes, just as Junk DNA is replicated together with genes. Junk culture is the rubbish of civilization, television commercials and astrology and jukeboxes and political propaganda. {96} Tolerance of junk is one of life's most essential characteristics. In every sphere of life, whether cultural, economic, ecological or cellular, the systems which survive best are those which are not too fine-tuned to carry a large load of junk. And so, I believe, it must have been at the beginning. I would be surprised if the first living cell were not at least 25 percent junk.


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Gene (0.957796): dbpedia | freebase
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 Infinite in All Directions
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Dyson , Freeman J. (2004-07-22), Infinite in All Directions, Harper Perennial, Retrieved on 2012-04-25
  • Source Material [books.google.com]
  • Folksonomies: religion