In 1976 Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘the selfish gene’.  It proposed that evolution was not geared exclusively to the survival of the species but to the survival of the gene as the essential component of life.  Evolution preserves life and genes are the basic units of life.  As evidence for his hypothesis, Dawkins argues that ageing and death clears the way for replication of genes.  He also recruits the biological imperative to replicate the genes despite the risks of reproduction to the individual, quoting as an example how certain arthropods such as  the female cannabalistic spider and the praying mantis eat the male even as he is impregnating her.  He suggests how the concept might operate in altruism, when humans and other species put their own lives at risk to preserve the genetic inheritance through the survival of their children.  Seen from this perspective, his book might be more accurately termed the unselfish being since genes cannot exhibit conscious motivation.  Species, the obvious manifestations of evolution, adapt and change as the environment alters and when opportunities for symbiosis occur, but like the Bible, the Talmud, or the Koran, the genetic code – the meaning of life survives.  Indeed, we might argue that evolution would be a much slower process if it were just centred around the survival of species.  Australopithecines, Neanderthals and    have all been sacrificed to ensure the survival of the human genetic code by developing carrier more attuned to the changing environment. Indeed the constant cycles of replication and the requirement for sexual reproduction ensures a healthy genetic mix that can accommodate a changing environment by allowing an infinite variety of genetic opportunities.         

 

Dawkins concept does not exactly revolutionise our thinking.  The biologist, George C. Williams developed much the same notion in his book ‘Adaptation and Natural Selection’.  But it does capture the imagination and alter our perspective.  Species are not the basic unit of evolution, but like runners in a never ending relay race, they are the carriers of the baton that contains the word, AGCT.    

 

This perspective on life and on human life in particular is the latest in a series of assaults on our anthropocentric perceptions.  The earth is not the centre of the universe; it is a minor planet circling around one of billions of stars.  Man is not that special; he is just an upright, naked ape with  opposable thumbs and a big brain.  And now, it seems, our life only exists in order to pass on our genetic code to the next generation. 

 

But there is more to human life than biology.  We have our culture and that, like biological evolution, is subject to constant adaptation and development in response to changes in the environment.  Dawkins wrote about this in his book, coining another term, the meme, as the basic unit of cultural inheritance.  Memes might be seen as knowledge: concepts or ideas.  We not only carry and pass on our genes to the next generation, we pass on our memes as well.  But there are differences.  Memetic inheritance is much quicker; we can add to it in our lifetime.  Our ideas can be passed on through our works to the next generation but they need to fuse together and resonate with the collective notions of a critical mass of people to achieve ‘currency’.  So memetic inheritance is a social concept.  It’s the colony and society that incorporates and develops the idea.  The same could be argued for the genetic inheritance of social species like ants, honeybees and humans.  The colony has to function for the change in code to be transmitted.    

 

Psychoanalysts are very familiar with the idea that whatever happens to us can cause us to adapt and change,  growing to encompass a new understanding or shrinking to prevent the recurrence of a particular trauma.  But this also happens culturally and across generations.  Our culture is the product of what has happened, it carries it as a narrative and a way of being and passes it on albeit in an altered form, to the next generation.  At a fundamental level, this explains the character of different cultures.  The Americans still embody their pioneering edge.  The Australians, one might suggest, have not entirely shaken off the bullish competitiveness; the chip on the shoulder of their convict heritage.  The British still retain the arrogance of Empire, the isolationist mentality of an island race.  It explains our resistance to European federation, our suspicion of the Americans, and the paranoia about all things German.  I well remember Sheffield Wednesday’s brief foray into European competition against Kaiserslautern; the bangs and fireworks that were thrown and the deafening anthem, The Dam Busters March, sung with arms outstretched by three quarters of the stadium.  We are our history.  It is a crucial part of our cultural identity.  The Scots see themselves as fiercely different to the English, a cultural tradition going back to the middle ages and beyond.  And the Irish – well, let’s not mention the Irish!  I have talked to patients who claim to trace the origin of their psychopathology back to death of their ancestor at Waterloo.  The reaction of the children to deprivation, spread down, influencing the choice of partners and how succeeding generations were brought up.  This is the subject of a fascinating book called ‘The Ancestor Syndrome.’ 

 

Children copy their parents, mimic their friends, and so come to adopt a cultural norm which they pass on to their children.  Some things adapt and change.  ‘Yo’ and high fives were not an acceptable form of greeting in my youth.  The more culturally segregated a person is, the more they express the past.  I once heard how the inhabitants of Tristan da Cunha spoke a Shakespearian kind of English, a legacy of refuelling visits by sailing ships.  Our own Queen has embodied a dedication to duty, a class consciousness and a way of speaking that seems quaintly outmoded, but was de rigeur in the nineteen thirties when she was growing up.  Her cultural inheritance has frozen, ossified.  She has passed a lot of it down to her son, but her grandsons have had a different cultural inoculation. The mediaeval culture of Tibet survived on the roof until very recently. And when I visited the remote highlands of Ethiopia in 1966, I found an intact culture of iron age hill farmers.  The aboriginal peoples of central Australia, the bushmen of the Kalahari, the jungle tribes of Papua New Guinea were until very recently living as paleolithic hunter gatherers.  That was their cultural inheritance.  They are as much an evolutionary experiment as Darwin’s finches.         

 

Memetic inheritance takes many forms; attitudes, customs, behaviour (greeting, eating, sexual, negotiation), language, religion, song, narrative, laws and ethics.  It is refined and developed through accretion, each generation modifying, enriching and developing it.  One of the best examples of the way memetic inheritance works is through narrative.  The New Testament has survived for 2000 years. It probably bears scant relationship to what actually happened since every generation would have modified it. The Old Testament goes back further and is more myth and legend and fact.  But they’re good stories and meaningful.  Folk lore was always embellished.  Songs, sagas were constructed to celebrate the exploits of powerful leaders, tyrants were denigrated.  Stories, like television and film do not present a balanced viewpoint, that would not make good drama.  Shakespeare’s version of history is wonderful drama but although written down and therefore less amenable to modification, was heavily influence by the narrative tradition and political correctness of the time.  It’s rather like the message that was passed down the line from company commander to battalion headquarters during the first world war,  ‘I’m going to advance, please send reinforcements.’  By the time it got to its intended destination, it was transmuted into, ‘I’m going to a dance, please send three and fourpence’.  Just as a story becomes better by repetition and nuance, so the culture itself develops a deeper and richer sense of identity.       

 

The things that happen in our world are never lost, they change the lives of those affected by them and are incorporated into legend, influencing influences subsequent generations and becoming incorporated into the cultural history and identity.  So we are not only containers for passing on our genes,  we are also carriers for experience.   

 

The difference between genetic and memetic inheritance is that genetic is Mendelian in nature while memetic is Lamarkian – the inheritance of acquired characteristics. But biological science is never as straightforward as all that. It’s always a messy business.  There is increasing evidence that certain conditions and events that occur during a person’s lifetime can cause persistant alterations in the genetic code.  Viruses penetrate the cell and take over its genetic machinery for their own evolutionary prerogative, but sometimes those changes can affect germ cells and persist.  The new science of epigenetics demonstrates how environmental influences, nutrition, stress, environmental and natural chemicals can modify the genetic code, activating histones, methylating DNA, silencing genes, so that the next generation and perhaps even future generations is changed.  Think of how feeding royal jelly creates a queen bee.  The queen contains exactly the same genetic code as the workers but it is modified in response to the environment and resultant ‘strain’ is very different.  Exposing the water flea, daphnia to predators causes large defensive spines to develop on their backs and this modification is passed on to their offspring even when there are no predators around.  There is even some evidence to support the suggestion that the present epidemic of obesity is caused by dietary induced modification of ‘the thrifty gene’, but perhaps our avaricious and acquisitive culture has something to contribute to that.  . 

 

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