Monday, June 22, 2015
Genes, Memes, Dreams--Who IS in Charge?
I claim to be more tough-minded than tender-minded. That is I try to face the facts—reality-as-it-is over reality-as-I-would-like-it-to-be. 1) I accept that I, we, and the whole universe are matter, which means that there is no spirit without matter. 2) I accept the laws of thermodynamics including the second law of entropy, which means that I, we, and the universe will disintegrate. 3) I accept evolution through natural selection, which means that often homo homini lupus (though I don’t like to make wolves so bad). 4) I accept general relativity, which means there may be constants but no absolutes. 5) I accept quantum mechanics and that randomness accompanies the determinism of classical science.
My tough mind acknowledges that there are no spirits beyond matter, no immortal souls, no ghosts, goblins, or gods; that there is no entity of self or mind with free will and that consciousness is but that “strange loop” of transparency of the act by which my embrained body comes to terms with its environment by perceiving and using objects through constructed media or symbols.
My mind when tough acknowledges that there is no divine plan, no absolute, no immortality, and no ultimate solution. However, my tough-minded materialistic naturalism and random determinism also supports my tender-minded desire for the spirit of transcendence, freedom, and love. By accepting reality as it is, I believe we can co-create reality as we would like it to be.
Richard Dawkin’s theory of the “selfish gene” argues that the evolution of species, including the human kind, is driven by genes’ drive to perpetuate themselves through survival and reproduction. The function of the body or genome is to be instrument for the genes’ survival and reproduction and can be dismissed when that function has been carried out. That means that all the genes, which determine the drives and behaviors and capacities of the species, are selected as the organism adapts to its environment in order to protect and further that genetic perpetuation. (I realize that we are speaking metaphorically when we describe the genes or nature as though they are making decisions. And yet, let’s come back to that later.)
The ability to create a culture, including the ability to speak words and think ideas (i.e. construct memes), was prepared for over millions of years of natural selection. There would be no culture or memotype without the evolved human embrained body or genotype. Culture transforms the environment to which the organism is adapting giving the human species a great advantage in its competition to survive. In other words, homo sapiens through its ability to construct memes and think symbolically, can foresee, plan, and actually modify the environment in order to make it more suitable for its survival and the survival of its genes.
In Wired for Culture, Mark Pagel suggests that just as genes behave to perpetuate themselves through organisms, so do memes perpetuate themselves through culture. Culture is a meme-carrier to support the body as gene-carrier. He demonstrates by the history of ideas in culture how the rules, the concepts, and the forms of culture are suitable for the development of a species that can compete favorably with other species even within its own genus. Religion, art, music, morality are cultural enhancers through which good survivor memes are retained in so far as they support the survival and reproduction of human kind and its genes.
Other species alter the environment by digging into the earth, invading trees, damming rivers, flying seeds over great distances, using tools, and expelling carbon and oxygen into the air. But only humankind with the ability to fashion and communicate symbols can shape an environment that we control and carry with us into whatever space and time we choose. This poses both tremendous risks but also provides great opportunities for our species. The emergence of culture was a game changer for the planet and perhaps for the universe. It led to what many geologists call the anthropocene age of planet earth.
There are three main moments--cultural, civilizational, and scientific revolutions--in the anthropocene age: 1) the genetic ability of modern homo sapiens to think symbolically in hunting and gathering and create culture, 2) the use of symbols to acquire land and its resources to develop agriculture and civilization, 3) the development of civilization towards science and technology and enhance human intelligence. Clearly none of these are sudden moments but in the making over millions of years and each with roots in the earlier ages. In the first, (2.8m to 160k years ago) homo becomes sapiens; we know the world. In the second (160K to 10k years ago to present) homo becomes sapiens sapiens; we know that we know. In the third, (1543 CE to present) we know how we know that we know, homo sapiens sapientis.
In other words, genes in the body for the sake of survival and reproduction led to memes in culture through the ability to think including a sense of self in a world which in turn led to dreams in the mind through the ability to intend and shape a future. Each moment has its crisis. The crisis in culture is between mind and matter or spirit and world. The crisis in civilization is between self and society or individual person and social order. The crisis in science is between past and future or nature’s random determinism and human interpersonal freedom. The crisis in all is between ideal and real or virtual and actual. But let me try to explain that later.
Genes and natural selection took a risk when they allowed for memes and culture. Memes and culture took a risk when they allowed for dreaming, by which I mean the ability to imagine a better self, society, and world through civilization and science. The risk of making memes and dreams to take advantage for genetic survival is genetic extinction. The conflicts of civilizations with their destructive potential of science and industrialization could produce a nuclear winter, a global warming, and a mechanized transhumanity. Utopian thought and behavior could lead to complete dystopia. Unthinking progress could lead to the loss of the ability to think and act at all—the removal of the sapiens from homo, the return of the planet of the apes.
And I believe it is at this point of crisis that freedom, love, and transcendence are possible. Even acknowledging that self and other persons, spirit and the world, space and time are constructs of peculiar organisms that come to terms with their environment through symbolic media, we discover that these constructs, useful insofar as they help us survive and thrive, become obstacles when they become fixed and separate entities. As fixed and separate entities or objective realities, the spirit and the world, the self and the other, the past and the future, the ideal and the real are illusions. But when we use these terms as the terminals of a polarity or tension between the embrained organism and the encultured environment, they take on the meaning of humanity and the universe.
It is in the symbolic act of being present that the organism perceives the environment as a world and the body as a self in space, time, and community. It is in the act of being here, now, and with other selves facing things in the world that the body perceives its unique individual subjectivity in tune with other subjects having a past and intending a future. It is in the act of intending a future that we experience our humanity passing beyond the concepts and things of self and world in time, space, and community.
The act of being present in and to the world through symbolic media perceives itself with others innovating, co-creating, transcending or in other words as free, intersubjective, and transcendent. Freedom, love, and transcendence are not something that I have or prove, but what we are and act as embrained bodies in the encultured world. They are the dreams of memes by genes which themselves are constructs or thoughts of communicating organisms coming to terms with their environment through symbolic thinking. Moreover, they are not sudden characteristics, but progressive achievements.
The ability to dream is my ability to transcend materialistic randomness and determinism. Instead of simply reacting to others and our environment, I can take responsibility with others for our environment. And by modifying our environment we can modify our genetic constitution. This is the ultimate risk of freedom.