2. Genetic Knowledge
Genetic knowledge is knowledge we have at birth. We inherit these ideas (genes) from our parents with this type of knowledge having been referred to as that which is ‘deep within’, innate, inborn or instinctive. Freud referred to such as knowledge as the Id. A ‘gifted’ child is born with certain genetic ideas significantly different from other children. Genetic knowledge is present before experience. Cultural knowledge, the subject of the next chapter, is acquired after birth, by experience.
All organisms have genetic knowledge. When a tree seed (an embryo) grows it acts on its environment in a particular way. It inherits a set of genetic ideas on what to do in life. The tree knows what to do. Part of this knowing includes being able to interact with any changes of environment, not only on a day-to-day basis, but also second by second, depending on environmental cues as well as its genetic goals. For example, a tree will not open its leaf pores fully on a hot day and so suffer from a loss of water. The tree has a leaf pore opening and closing belief system (with the belief system being various inherited genes that are patterns of chemicals stored in the form of DNA in plant cells, just as human cultural beliefs are patterns of chemicals stored in the neurons of the brain). Environmental conditions, such as humidity, are measured by leaf cells and the tree reacts according to its genetic beliefs. Communication between cells is via chemical messengers such as hormones. The tree’s chance of survival, and so reproduction, will be related to how well it performs these actions.
New ideas in a seed can come through genetic mutation. New ideas can also come through sexual mating where the genes of each parent are shuffled when the amino acid sequences of DNA are unravelled and recombined. Seeds are therefore likely to vary from their parents as well as from each other in their genetic ideas, even if only very slightly. For a seed, any changes are new ideas on how it can approach its environment. All these ideas make up the seed’s knowledge. It believes through chemical patterns how to grow, produce a trunk and branches and use its leaves to collect sunlight.
There is a chance component to life. Some seeds might fall on fertile ground with their survival almost assured, others might fall on rocks or in water and so have little chance of survival, and still others might be eaten by animals. While at first the seed appears to have no control over its luck, it may have by chance a new idea that reduces the likelihood of unlucky things happening. New ideas for a bitter taste might deter animals from eating it. Wings, hard coverings, hooks and so on may all reduce its chance of falling on bare rock, or if it does so fall, help it to move to another more suitable spot. The seed grows into a tree that, in turn, produces new seeds, and those new seeds which best know their environment through any new ideas will be those most likely to survive. That is, species (see note 3) learn about their environments.
The tree is not conscious of its acts in the same way that we understand human mental consciousness. Rather there is a ‘chemical awareness’ of what it needs to do in order to survive. This chemical awareness, or consciousness, might not be great but is still considerably more than an object such as a rock but also considerably less than the consciousness we enjoy as humans. We must remember that some of our earliest ancestors were single celled organisms and our brains are collections of cells that originate from these early ancestors. Consciousness must have evolved along the line of ancestors.
If evolution is the process of the ‘differential survival of offspring’ then over time successive offspring will learn of new environments. This rate of genetic learning in a species can range from slow to fast as it follows the rate of environmental change. For example, slow environmental change such as sunspot activity can initiate ice ages and so cause migration and extinction. The movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates also redistributes the landmasses available for life. Faster changes could be volcanic eruptions, droughts, floods, disease, migration and predation, all of which can affect the direction in which organisms evolve.
Environments may be stable for millions of years and here it is likely that all the good genetic ideas on how to act have already arisen and been well tested. Offspring with new ideas are now at a disadvantage as these new ideas are not as good as existing ideas. For example, a stable estuarine environment has allowed the saltwater crocodile to become finely tuned in its form and behaviour so that there is little else for it to learn genetically of its environment. All the good ideas for knowing the environment well have already been come into existence and long since retained. Here new ideas from mutations or shuffling are unlikely to be better than those that already exist. New ideas in crocodile offspring will decrease rather than increase their chance of survival. The crocodile’s current genetic ideas are at an optimum and so it has remained unchanged for millions of years. Of course, should the environment change, offspring with new ideas for this changed environment will have an improved chance of survival. When environmental conditions again stabilise, new optimums will evolve. The rate at which organisms learn of their environments is related to the rate of environmental change.
Changes need not only be from changes in the physical environment and can be through the actions of other species. An example of a very fast change of environment could be a poisonous mist that a farmer sprays upon a population of insects. Here the behaviour of a human changes the environment in which the insect lives. If it has no knowledge of this new environment, it will die. However, there always seem to be a few insects that have a resistance to the spray. These insects have inherited genetic ideas on how to survive the spray’s effects such as a gene that produces a protein that reacts with the poison rendering it less effective. Here a short reproductive cycle is an advantage as new ideas can be passed quickly from parent to offspring. Those insects that inherit spray-resistance ideas will have the greatest chance of survival. Over time, through a succession of offspring, the species will learn of the spray. But if the spray is not used for many generations, the idea of the spray might be forgotten, and the species would need to relearn spray ideas if it is used again.
Sometimes the same genetic ideas can be learnt independently. For example, fish and squid have both learnt to see in their watery environment with the same idea of sight evolving independently. On other occasions the same environmental problem can be solved in different genetic ways. Otters have learnt to use fur for protection from cold seawater, while whales have learnt to use blubber. Each has evolved different ideas on how to defeat the same problem of coldness.
Genetic beliefs that could be beneficial in one environment might be detrimental in another. A bird’s large colourful tail plumage may make it more obvious to predators as well as increase its difficulty of flying. However, the colourful plumage might be of great advantage in attracting a mate. We can see that the idea of a large colourful plumage will only survive if its benefit in one area outweighs its detriment in another. Here the idea stays part of the bird’s genetic belief system as it has a net positive reproductive value.
Not all genetic ideas need be employed in a lifetime. Some ideas can be neutral. For example, a tree might know how to extrude sap to prevent a wood-boring insect, but not be attacked in its lifetime. If the insect disappears due to some other reason, the tree’s sap-extruding knowledge would be superfluous. It could be neutral knowledge that is neither detrimental nor helpful, or it could even be detrimental as energy is wasted making sap that is never used. If insects come back and attack in later generations of trees, those that still have sap-extruding knowledge will be advantaged. An intermittent need for sap extruding might keep this knowledge within the species. Ideas that appear neutral might really be beneficial in environments that occur infrequently. Many genes in humans seem to have no specific function but may have played some role in the survival of our ancestors.
Successive organisms, by learning of their environments, can in turn change those environments. They must then relearn the changes they have caused. One of the most extensive examples is the removal of carbon dioxide from the primitive atmosphere. The carbon was combined with calcium by various sea organisms to make their corals, shells, and internal calcareous skeletons. This insoluble calcium carbonate forms the limestone and chalk deposits of today. Other carbon deposits from past organisms include the gas, oil and coal deposits. Many species had then to relearn about this new carbon-depleted atmosphere. The end result was a co-evolution between organisms and their physical environments.
Co-evolution also occurs among organisms. The types of interactions can be grouped as either beneficial (mutualistic) or detrimental (predator/prey, host/parasite or competitive) interactions. Mutualistic interactions may involve sharing genetic ideas with the learning being beneficial not antagonistic. For example, some species of termites have not learnt to digest wood cellulose directly, yet this is their main diet. They have learnt genetically to farm cellulose-digesting fungi, which they feed with leaf material they collect. The termites then digest the products of these fungi. The fungi have also learnt to expect termites to bring them the exact leaf material they favour most in their diet. This interaction is mutualistic in that both organisms gain from their communal living. Each species learns of the other and their genetic knowledge has co-evolved.
Predator-prey relationships include the interactions of rabbits and foxes or sharks and fish. New ideas in prey offspring to better avoid predators, or new ideas in predator offspring that improve their ability to catch prey, will, on average, increase their chances of survival. A knowledge race occurs between the hunter and the hunted and, while they run neck and neck, both can exist. Each learns genetically of the other. However, should one get too far ahead in this race, one or both may go to extinction.
Learning is not always in both directions. In mimicry, a non-poisonous caterpillar might learn of the red stripes of a poisonous caterpillar that is avoided by birds. Over time, it gains red stripes itself thereby getting some of the protection afforded to the poisonous caterpillar. Here the learning is only in one direction. The poisonous caterpillar learns nothing of the non-poisonous one.