I was lying in bed, again, thinking... Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene brought to my attention the idea of "memes" (rhymes with beams). A meme is anything that is learned (as opposed to things like genes which are "hard wired"). Dawkins talks about the evolution and survival of memes the same way biologists talk about evolution and survival of genes. Very interesting stuff. As I lay in bed, I was thinking about how human beings survive as a species; how human survival, like many other animals, relies on learned behavior.
For example, I turned 50 this year. And though it is unlikely that I will be making any further direct contributions to the gene pool, several of my children (aged from 22 to 13) are still garnishing benefit from having me alive (at least I think so). I am helping them in ways that will contribute to the success of their continuing my gene pattern. So in some ways, I am still affecting the selection process and providing protection to my genes.
But I am much more active protecting and passing on my memes. Every day I am telling people that are unrelated to my gene pattern how I think they can better survive, thereby increasing the likelihood of the survival of their genes and my memes.
I don't know, but I would guess that I spend more of my life energy on fighting for the survival of my memes than I do on fighting for the survival of my genes. And I would guess that I am not that different from other human beings in that regard. And if, as a species, we are spending more of our collective life energy in perpetrating our memes, when did that happen? When did we start worrying more about making sure that our memes survive more than our genes?
And, it seems, that we aren't done spending more and more time on protecting our memes. As we move towards living longer past child bearing age, and we spend more time on education, "personal development", etc., it seems we focus a greater percentage of our attention on meme survival. Maybe so long as the genes are taken care of, and we have all this extra time on our hands, meme survival is the natural next step.
What is interesting is that if some physical characteristic is very valuable, but isn't visible or known until someone is past child-bearing age, then the hard wired legacy is lost, since it doesn't contribute to the success of the passing on the genetic characteristic. Take old age, for example: people who have gene patterns that contribute to their living beyond child-bearing age do not pass on their gene pattern with any more likelihood than people who don't have such gene patterns.
Now what happens when we take into consideration that men can pass on their gene patterns much longer than women? What characteristics of old men are we passing on through our genes? And what characteristics of old women are we not passing on?
Oops, thin ice, I'm falling in, I'm toast...
August 25, 2004
August 25, 2004