Trying to Achieve Immortality Through Genes and Memes

How does one gain immortality?  There seems to be two ways: genes and Memes.

In terms of genes, Richard Dawkins brings up some really interesting ideas about how genes work in his book The Selfish Gene.

At some point in the beginning of the primordial soup, a certain molecule was formed: a Replicator.  One of the most interesting features about this replicator is that it has the ability to create copies of itself.  Now, could there have been mistakes when there is copying?  Sure.  There are always going to be typos and such in any copying.  So in this primordial soup, there would be different variants, a population of different replicas but they call came from the same “ancestor.”  Could there have been more replicant B’s than C’s?  Sure, perhaps B is more stable than C.  Through this, perhaps replicant B would have a higher longevity, which means it would be more numerous in the population, which means it would start off on the evolutionary trend.  But time is also going to effect it too: if replicant B makes a copy once per week, while replicant C makes a copy once per hour, obviously there are going to be far more replicant C’s.  So it seems that replication at a faster rate is going to have a higher evolutionary trend too.

But there’s another factor: competition.  The primordial soup isn’t infinite space.  Eventually, all of these replicators are taking so much space, and if the building blocks are going to be used up, there’s going to be some competition to fight for these building blocks.  Over time, stability was highly prized and the more stable you are, the better you can defend yourself or compete against others.  Perhaps one knew how to break up the competing replicator (a first proto-carnivore).  Maybe others learned how to build up a defense mechanism or some sort of wall (this could have been how cells were produced).  Eventually, these replicators learned how to build some sort of container so that they could continue to exist.  These containers are called survival machines.  The first survival machine was probably nothing but a protective coat.  As competition became more powerful, these survival machines had to become more elaborate and bigger.

So where are these replicators?  They are called GENES.  And what are these big elaborate survival machines that they’ve learned to build so that they will be protected by the outside world?  THE HUMAN BODY.  So now, natural selection doesn’t just favor replicators, but replicators that are good at making survival machines and can have embryonic development.  Now we don’t even have to apply the word “living” or “alive” to these replicators.  They don’t plan out, they don’t see the future.  They just are.  They just replicate.  Over time, the replicators have made incredible survival machines: the heart, the muscles, and the eyes.  A survival machine is a great vehicle.  But it doesn’t just carry one replicator (gene) but thousands, millions even.  These genes are dependent upon one another and they all refer to one another.

But eventually, these genes can only replicate so much (mainly because the survival machines (the body) has all of its space used up).  So how can these genes replicate?  Which is the quickest?  SEX.  Sexual reproduction is the most efficient way to mixing and shuffling genes.  Your body is just a temporary vehicle for your genes.  But when you die, your genes will die too.  So there must be a way to make sure these genes survive.  It’s through sex.  These genes are so particular and so steady.  It leaps from body to body through generations without a scratch.

So the only thing that’s a part of us that’s immortal is our genes.  This is one way of gaining immortality: spreading our genes.  What are we?  We are the survival machines which carries these genes.  In other words, we are the hosts and the genes invade us so make sure that they survive.  When the host body is used up, they find another body to invade.  Inside us is a colony of genes.

Eventually over time, these survival machines learned to have a purpose.  They did things to achieve some end.  What did this purposefulness evolve into?  CONSCIOUSNESS.  We, the survival machines, have been programmed by these genes and the genes just passively sit by.  Why can’t they take charge?  Time-lag reasons.  They control protein synthesis.  It’s extremely slow.  It takes months.  Thus, these genes built a brain.  Predicting the future is also a great survival tool.  Thus, those who can imagine what will happen in the future are one jump ahead instead of the survival machines who can only live based on trial and error.  Trial and error takes time, and it could be fatal.  Simulation (imagination), on the other hand, is both safer and faster.  Perhaps, it gained something: self-awareness.  The genes are the policy-makers and the brains give those orders out.  There is one basic order that the genes (through the brain) has told us: do whatever you think best to keep us alive.  That is the goal of genes, and this is how we (in other words, our genes) can gain immortality: our children.

Dawkins also brings forth another idea: the meme.  I’ve talked about memes in a previous blog, but I’ll give a quick recap.

There is another primordial soup: the soup of human culture.  And in this soup is another replicator.  It’s also a self-replicating bit of information.  But instead of information for life, it’s information about culture.  In other words, an idea.  We shall call it a meme.  Examples are: songs, ideas, catch-phrases, fashions, ways of making things.  Anything that can replicate itself wants to survive and proliferate.  Well, ideas do replicate.  Notice that when you hear a song, all the sudden that song is stuck in your head.  Now just as genes replicate by jumping from body to body (via sex, mainly), memes replicate by leaping from brain to brain (via imitation).  If a scientist hears or reads about a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students.  If the idea catches on, it replicates itself and it spreads from brain to brain.  You’re reading this blog, for example.  If these ideas are good ideas, you will teach these to others and this meme that I just taught you will replicate as well.

Memes, and genes, are in a sense parasites.  The genes control the body; the memes control the brain in order to spread and replicate this information.  It’s the same sense that a virus may take over a host cell.  We are merely host bodies for genes and memes.

Now genes only survive if they can take advantage of what’s going on.  Do memes do that?  Yes.  The ideas you have are all memes and through natural selection, you survive because the memes you have help you survive.  So this meme “Don’t play with guns” helps you survive.  This meme: “carrots are good” helps you survive.  This meme: “exterminate all Jews” doesn’t help you survive.

But just like genes, memes are also selfish.  Their whole function is to replicate themselves.  They are things “infecting” our minds “like viruses.”  When I hear a catchy tune, it “parasitizes” my brain and then spreads to the brains of others when I sing it.  But some genes may not good for the host: cancer.  Are there any memes that doesn’t help you survive?  “Killing Jews is good.”  Why is terrorism so popular?  That meme catches on and other people say it’s a good idea.  Indeed, memes could easily account for racism.  There are other memes that we also “believe in.”  After all, don’t we die for ideas like Truth, Democracy, and Freedom?  And just like genes, all memes compete for survival.  You have all of these different ideas and they want your attention.  Memes try to convince you that that idea is a good one.  And once you have this idea, it’s very hard to get it out of your head.

Thus, Genes: self-replicating information for proteins.  Memes: self-replicating information for carrying out behavior.  The most successful memes (like genes) are those that survive.

This is the second way of gaining immortality.  When we die, we leave something behind: genes and memes.  However, you will be forgotten by about three generations and your resemblance to your ancestors is so negligible that there won’t be any notice.  If, however, you have a good idea that would contribute to the culture: a song, an invention, discovery, a poem, it will live on long after your genes have dissolved into the common pool.  There may be no more genes from Socrates, but his memes, as well as Leonardo, Copernicus, and others are still living on.

Now that we’ve gone through the what genes and memes are, and how one can achieve immortality.  My next claim is an interesting thought process.  I don’t have any evidence for this except my own personal experience, but there may be something to this.

There are two types of people: those who want children, marriages and families (immortality through genes); and those who are creative by writing stories, producing ideas, creating art, or anything that brings forth new ideas (immortality through memes).  There are some people that don’t want children or families.  Now through the idea of evolution, the assumption is that these people are evolutionary dead-ends.  These people won’t help reproduce and so their genetic lineage will die out.  Thus, these are aberrations to survival.  But what if these people have good ideas?  These ideas take up so much energy and effort, that they don’t time to have a family or even get married.  Their creative juices are so full, that they can’t even consider getting their genetic juices boiled up.  Think about this: why do the most creative people in history not have families or children?  Plato, John Locke, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Benedict Spinoza, St. Thomas Aquinas, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, etc.  Or think of really smart people in history that were horrible family people: Bertrand Russell, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Schopenhauer, Descartes, Socrates, etc.  At the same time (and I don’t mean to stereotype), homosexuals can’t reproduce naturally, but have you noticed that homosexuals are the most creative people imaginable?

So here’s the controversial part: it seems that the more you want children and a family, the less creative you are.  In a simple form, wanting children is inversely proportional to being creative.  I can’t think of anyone in history that was really successful in having a good family and also good at producing an idea that has influenced society.

Now if my claim is true, then I would say that we should stop disparaging those who don’t want kids.  Maybe it’s those people who have good, creative ideas that still furthers society.  In that sense, immortality is obtained either way.

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
This entry was posted in Culture, Evolution, Immortality, Memes, Paper Topic. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Trying to Achieve Immortality Through Genes and Memes

  1. thekillerj says:

    This post is awesome! I’m not really sure I have a constructive comment other than the meme you presented will surely work its way in to one of my postings. I love stuff like this.

    Well, if I have to add something it’s that your conclusion is a bit shaky. The idea that “wanting children is inversely proportional to being creative” seems like a stretch.

    • shaunmiller says:

      True. I don’t have any empirical stuff to back it up. Although I do recall there was a study that revealed that the more children one has, it revealed that less educated the parents were.

      Now, you could obviously say that there’s some factors there:

      1. They were probably not that smart to begin with, which is why they had that many children. But not being smart is an indicative aspect of having children. In other words, not being smart isn’t a necessary condition of having children.

      2. But suppose the study is correct. Well, that only shows that people with less education want more children. But it doesn’t say anything about people who don’t have children. Maybe there are some people who don’t have children (and who don’t want them either) but they’re dumb as fuck. Who knows?

      I have a sneaky suspicion, however, that wanting children is inversely proportional to being creative, but I can’t prove it. Again, it’s just based on my experiences of people who are really smart and people who have children. Rarely, if ever, do I find people who are really incredibly intelligent but at the same time, want children.

  2. thekillerj says:

    What about people that are incredibly intelligent, but end up HAVING kids? haha j/k I’m being stubborn. You’re probably right. It seems it’s the 28 year old, chain smoking single mom on welfare with no high school diploma popping out a kid a year since she was 18.

    Why, though, would creative or intelligent people not want kids?

    • shaunmiller says:

      It all comes down to genes or memes. So someone has a meme of “Don’t have kids” and that meme controls his life. Thus, he lives his life through other things, like creative aspects or intellectual work.

      A study was also released recently suggesting that the more creative a person is, the more likely they’ll have sexual partners. Think of all the poets and musicians in the past. Thus, having multiple sexual partners may make up for the wanting to settle down and have a family.

      I guess the practical answer is that people are too busy or preoccupied with their work that they don’t have time for kids. However, with the genes and memes, there’s a reason for it.

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