May 17, 2016

Our rebellion against our genes

In 1859 Charles Darwin published his book The Origin of species in which he described a mechanism for the process of evolution of species for the first time. At its core the idea of evolution boils down to: the unity of life (all life is connected), the diversity of life, and the match between organisms and their environment can be explained by descent with modification through natural selection (Vermeij, 2015).

The discovery of the process of evolution has, on the one hand, led to much resistance because it led to ideas and conclusions which are dramatically at odds with some wide spread traditional ways of thinking. This resistance still exists today. On the other hand, the theory of evolution has been utterly victorious. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence for the correctness of the theory of evolution and many areas of science have been influenced by it. Also, it has created bridges between scientific disciplines that had been separated before (Buskes, 2006).

One of the great popularizers of the theory of evolution is Richard Dawkins. He has written a series of bestsellers about the topic among which, The Selfish gene, probably the best known. In this book he launches a rather large number of fascinating ideas. One of these ideas is that genes are not here for us but we are here for them. Dawkins explains that genes contain the building instructions for bodies who have to transport them. The gene is the replicator (that which replicates itself) and the body (the organism) is the vehicle, the means of transportation. One might also call the body the interactor, that which enables genes to interact with the environment.  The organism exists so that genes can replicate themselves.

There are at least two ways of thinking wrongly about the influence of evolution on our behavior. The first is by denying that evolution is relevant for who we are and how we think and behave. There is no credible reason to think that humans are animals on which evolution does not operate. Evidence shows it does. The second is by thinking that evolutionary process and effects are somehow sacred and that we should blindly accept all that evolution has caused. In fact, it is often in our interest to resist our evolutionary shaped tendencies.

This latter point was explained by Dawkins in The selfish gene and elaborated by Keith Stanovich in his book The robot’s rebellion. The basic idea is as follows: humans are the first and only animal to have become aware of the process of evolution and its influence on our bodies and behavior. It is also the only species which has discovered that what is in the interest of genes is not always in the interest of the organism.

Most animals are on a short leash of genes. The organism cannot think of anything else than to do what is in the interest of its genes. The behavior of the organism follows specific and unambiguous rules which have been established by building instructions by genes. In the theory of evolution these behaviors are referred to as fixed action patterns. The rule is that most organisms do things which are in the interest of their genes and seldom or never deliberately do things which go against the interest of their genes. Many organisms do do things which go against the interest of the organism itself. For example, many species do things that cause them to die directly after mating: the reproduction of the genes has been taken care of, the organism has done its duty and is no longer needed. The organism is like a robot which uncritically executes its genes' commands.

The case of humans is different. Humans are like robots which have become aware of their own situation and who have started to resist it. Human beings are the most complex type of vehicle ever to have been built and the complexity of humans and their interaction with their environment has impelled genes to make their leash longer. Humans and their interactions with their environments have become so complex that specific, unambiguous instructions have been more and more replaced by generic strategies and heuristics.

Due to this, more degrees of freedom emerged for humans to reflect on their own behaviors and their consequences and to make more autonomous decisions. Humans, to some extend, liberated themselves from genetic influence. They acquired the choice to behave in ways which were in the interest of themselves (the organism) but not in the interest of their genes. One example of this is having sex with contraceptives which does not benefit genes at all.

According to Stanovich, following Dawkins, there is thus a competition between two types of goals: goals of genes and goals of organisms. We can liberate ourselves from the coercion of our genes. We were once slaves of our genes but we can free ourselves. To accomplish this we have to think about our own interest carefully and develop rational strategies to serve these interests. An important aspect of this will be to gain clear insights into our inborn cognitive and behavioral tendencies and to override them whenever they are not in our own interest.

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