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Genetic and Memetic Substrates

Recently, as in the past half year or so, I read that early on in the development of life, a long long time ago when we were all just primitive, one-cell organisms, with only the most basic cellular structures, or maybe we were only basic cellular structures, but way back then, we exchanged genetic programming like people exchange ideas today — we just passed the DNA right from one organism to another.

It worked pretty well, of course, because we were mostly very similar. I think I read that some of the most basic life forms extant today still do this . . . at the viral level, or so, they can just pop off a bit of DNA and another organism will pick it up and try it out.

This blew my mind, because it compared philosophically with memesis. That, a long time later, we develop language, and when we have enough organisms that share the same lingual code, we can form ideas into coded chains of syllables and pop them off to try and influence the function of other organisms.

Contrast with how genetic information is transferred today . . . after the development of cell walls and nuclei, organisms couldn’t just share information. In the linguistic sense, they had gone mute, their “gentellect” imprisoned in their ever more complex bodies. Since genetic transfer and innovation is such an advantage, we eventually developed the elaborate ritual of sex, where genetically, and later, culturally compatible organisms could transfer genetic information, once, while reproducing. A far more conservative approach to genetic innovation.

And, you see where we are today, with language? Knowledge has entered into speciation, or jargon, with specialized fields of human knowledge only transferred with ease among minds that have developed the appropriate intellectual machinery to decode and process them. I can chatter on, as you see here, at length about computer stuff, and the other geeks can understand what I’m talking about, but I’m easily lost in medical or mathematic terminology. Different species.

Or, in darker times and places, the memetic information is contained by walls, and censorship, and cultural or religious taboos. Fortunately, the social collectives that tolerate and function better with freedom of expression tend to outcompete those incapable of tolerating free expression.

Another interesting aspect to genetic transfer, is that while our cells have DNA, our mitochondria, which are energy processors within our cells, also have their own DNA. The relationship is kind of like an office where most of the employees are part of the company that pays rent in the office, and the mitochondria come through, as outside subcontractors, to keep the physical plant and the electricity running. Permanant subcontractors with their own construction trailer, if you’ll pardon my wanton abuse of similes.

Anyway, you get your mitochondria from your mother’s blood, and so each of our mitochondrial DNA is inherited from our mothers. There are, as I read elsewhere, five main families of mitochondria serving the cells of our species, that are distributed in different amounts in different cultures and races, and geographies. Similarly, since every male inherits his Y chromosome from his father, you can trace paternal lineages in a similar way. There’s a story that in Judaism, the kohanim are descendants of a particular biblical figure, Aaron, and they thus inherit a certain claim to being rabbis, or whatever, from their fathers, and so, through the ages. And genetic testing confirms that in fact about half of the Jews named Cohen, share extremely similar Y chromosomes, probably from the dude in the Bible. (Yeah, my Judeochristian knowledge is even worse than my understanding of biology.)

Ah, if the predecing information drew your curiosity and you’d like to read a more comprehensible, engaging source, you want to read Mapping Human History : Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins by Steve Olson. You can even search online at Amazon.com and read about the “Cohen Modal Haplotype.”

Anyway, I’ll admit I’m not really going anywhere with this, except that Kim Stanley Robinson tripped me onto this just now, in his fiction The Years of Rice and Salt:

“What’s interesting, I think, beyond all the theories we discuss, is what never gets written down. Just the ordinary, you know, daily existence. The work of raising children and feeding families and keeping a home together, as an oral culture passed along generation to generation. Uterine culture . . . has no obvious dynasties, or wars, or new continents to discover, and so historians have never tried to account for it–for what it is, how it is transmitted, how it changes over time, according to material and social conditions.”

And my warped little brain parses that and says “ah, mitochonrial DNA! The stuff we never think to look at!” But you also have to consider that the broad wave of human history is flowing on so many levels, and we can sniff more and more of them out with our technology. Mitochondria, Y chromosomes, languages, religions, families, tribes, underclasses, sub-cultures, mainstream cultures, academic cultures, professional cultures, media cultures, the ruling class. And these days, plenty of free radicals, spewing ideas in ways that are tricky to pin down . . .

A parting thought. Another thing I have read is that our teeth are in bad shape. Since we started cooking things about 200,000 years ago, we have not depended on rows of straight, sharp teeth, and large molars in the back, to cut and grind our food for basic survival. Those who cut corners by growing cheaper, smaller jaws, had some competive edge over our more orally capable ancestors, and that is why these days we grow up wearing braces and having our wisdom teeth extracted by dentists. Same thing with our poor eyesight . . . hapless mutants like me live to reproduce, even though our bow-and-arrow hunting would be severely impaired without corrective lenses. The revelation that way way way back, we traded DNA between organisms as we do today with ideas, leaves me a little more open-minded to the concept of genetic manipulation. It makes sense, in a way, to adapt the old approach of injecting new information directly into the genotype. After all, it is our technology that has let some of our genetics fall apart in the first place, it is not so bad to use technology to try and clean up some of those problems.

Actually, I think the genetic age is inevitable, and it will open up a giant can of philosophical whoop-ass not merely about the genetic haves and have-nots, but about what it means to be “human.” Fortunately, our ethicists and Science Fiction subcultures are already kicking these ideas around, so we shouldn’t be caught too off-guard . . .

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