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Who’s making the decisions here, the genes of the masses, or great men of history?

29 Jan

What I hear about in the news and see going on, like war and xenophobia and altruism, and love, and all of it, really could be seen as biologically driven phenomena, and I want more of us to admit it. I’m all for a spiritual or humanistic interpretation too, but it’s also the biology, stupid. There are undeniably biological, biochemical, and fundamentally genetic and epigenetic roots of behavior, and I’d like to see that aspect to be addressed along with the socio-political, ethical, and economic. Should we let Syrian refugees in, mitigate the chaos that’s over straining their homeland resources so that it can recover? Or should we slam the door shut on those displaced by cultural influences they cannot overcome, that lead to civil war and murder and environmental abuse? Should we protect for ourselves and our offspring these finite habitat resources, favor the genetic variations most closely akin to us, and maintain social stability? Or should we welcome these fleeing young families who have survived, who had the strength and intelligence to migrate all the way here, and so will seed our stock with strong genes? Both altruism and xenophobia can be argued to have biological, or genetic, root causes, that’s what I think. Same with race relations, gender identity, sexuality, resource politics, and so much more. Acknowledging evolutionary roots does not mean caving in to determinism, but provides balance to the wishful thinking that education and the exertion of individual and collective will can make all our “problems” go away. A simplistic social Darwinist perspective certainly acknowledges the influence of evolutionary biology, but equates evolutionary weakness with lower class, while contradicting itself with the complaint that the “weak” are multiplying too much (which should be considered a characteristic of the strong or fit, by Darwinian thought).

Now that I’m almost done with Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, I’m even more convinced, except that I accept his argument that it’s not fundamentally the individual or group that is the root of selective pressures, but the genes themselves. It must be so, or the same genes wouldn’t still be around. The same individuals never occur again, after all. Not sure how that would pan out at the socio-political level, this apparent drive by genes themselves (really just random natural selection of those able to successfully replicate). Maybe just a manifestation of a healthy variety of social views resulting in various social trends and cultures, all derived from a hodgepodge of gene-driven influences at the cellular level.

This point of view is influencing what I tell my high school students, too. When we were on the topic of plants that germinate in the dark and then grow for the life of them, or die trying, I told them that the plants do that because they are descendants of plants that survived because they did that too, and the rest, apparently, didn’t succeed.

Apparently no one response to mass migration or economic policy or social views on self governance has proven to be significantly effective for the propagation of genes, or we would have ended up with mainly one point of view. All the points of view that were disastrous all the time are gone. Or maybe the environment has fluctuated so much, we’re still in that cycle, letting it all play out, and haven’t yet reached an evolutionarily stable strategy–an kind of Age of Aquarius many hope for, and Imagine. A good number of folks have carried forward genes that manifest as a drive to change things, sure, campaigning and writing and preaching and teaching. Others have successfully populated the Earth with conservative human minds, with people who wish to be led, who don’t want change, and so that must be an important part of the genetic survival strategy, too. At least up until now.

Because now, the most educated and affluent have rebelled against their genes, choosing to have few children or none at all. Dawkins believes we are capable of rebelling against our genes because of consciousness. I’m not so sure. I think maybe our genes have responded to the tendency of affluent people to destroy their own resources by cutting down on their reproductive rate. Pro-Choice, indeed. Sure, overpopulation is a problem in India and so on, but just watch what happens when the “standard of living” rises there. It will be like rabbits reabsorbing their fetuses, combined with lemmings running over a cliff. In the West, the Plague wiped out a third of Europeans, then a bit of European pathogen DNA killed most of North American residents early in the Age of Discovery, so it seemed for quite a while that colonization, expansion, economic growth and Industrial Revolution might be a good thing, maybe even the best thing, for the human race. All those suffering from its effects in Europe either died or escaped to America, but not before featuring as at least a minor character type in a good nineteenth century novel, asking for alms for the poor or being told to eat cake. Though they were never required to dress for dinner.

 
1 Comment

Posted by on January 29, 2016 in Culture & Society, Ideas

 

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One response to “Who’s making the decisions here, the genes of the masses, or great men of history?

  1. jdawgsrunningblog

    January 31, 2016 at 6:34 am

    impressive reach—stirring and provocative—worthy of contemplation–gets us to look closer at our identity–just having it out there–makes me question and re-examine my motivations and decisions–and makes me want to wrest them from the paradigms of acculturation–as much as possible. Interesting. Thank you for doing the work required to write this–and then caring enough to do it. Humbling.

     

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