Here I present a series of notes that were difficult to fit into the text above, yet all add to an understanding of the evolutionary process.
Cultural belief systems address existing genetic belief systems so the cultural systems that arise are heavily dependent on what genetic systems already exist. But sometimes this relationship can go further with the cultural belief system influencing the direction of evolution of future genetic systems. One of the main ideas in chapter two was that species evolve to know genetically the environments in which they live. It should follow then, that if a species’ environment contains a particular cultural belief system, offspring born with new genetic ideas to accommodate that cultural belief system should have a greater chance of survival. Over time the species should learn genetically of this cultural belief system. I will look at two examples in detail to see if and how this happens. The first is the domestication of plants and animals, where organisms have had in the past, and still have, human cultural belief systems as part of their environment. The second example is medical, where humans have medical cultural belief systems as part of their environment.
Humans have learnt culturally to domesticate various organisms, this being a major advance in terms of human survival. Domesticated grasses, such as wheat and rice, have much larger grain sizes than their wild cousins and these grains can be stored against lean times. Cattle, sheep, pigs, goats, camels, fowl, and various other animals, have all helped provide a year-round source of food. They have also provided other products like milk, wool and hides. Animals such as horses provided transport and dogs were employed in hunting. Domestication allowed humans to move away from the direct hunting of wild animals and the collecting of wild plants. It gave a more reliable source of food that could be stored to cover lean seasons and, because of this, a greater village size was possible and so more extensive socialisation.
Part of the environment of these organisms contains humans. If, over time, species learn genetically about their environment then domestic organisms should also learn genetically about humans. In order to increase quality and quantity, farmers have been selective in their breeding. Wheat plants with new genetic ideas on how to produce a large, high-protein grain will have a greater chance of being re-sown. Cows with new genetic ideas for a greater volume or quality of milk will also increase their chance of breeding. Or in beef cattle, the fatter or better-behaved animals will be retained with lean and unruly ones eaten. Cultural perceptions of what are desirable characteristics become, over time, genetic ideas in domestic organisms. In this process of domestication, there is a knowledge transfer from one species to another. Many domesticated species could not now survive in the wild, so reliant have they become on the presence of humans in their environments.
While domestic organisms learn genetically about human cultural knowledge, is there any co-evolution? Do we change either genetically or culturally to accommodate domestic organisms? This is certainly true for cultural knowledge. Wheat farmers learn all they can about the nature of wheat. They will know the seasons to plant it, what moisture conditions it likes, how to fertilise it, and so on. A scientist might actually study the plant in detail, including its genes. All this is cultural knowledge and it exists only because a wild wheat plant was there in the first place. Therefore the genetic knowledge of the wheat plant and the cultural knowledge of humans have certainly co-evolved. The relationship between the wheat and humans appears mutualistic with each benefiting from the existence of the other. The number of wheat plants is now much greater than could have been possible had competition with other plants not been biased by a human component within their environment. The same mutualistic relationship exists between humans and the domestic cow with the cow also increasing considerably in numbers.
But the most interesting question here is whether humans have gained any genetic knowledge of wheat or cows. Is there a genetic co-evolution as there was between the termites and fungi in chapter two? Say a village existed some thousands of years ago whose main diet consists of wheat products such as bread. The genetic ideas of children born in this village will, of course, vary. As one of the main activities of the village is growing wheat, offspring with improved genetic ideas for cultivating wheat could be expected to have an increased chance of survival. If so, then over time through a succession of offspring, one would expect genetic ideas for wheat growing to evolve to know this wheat environment. There could arise a genetic talent for farming. These ideas might not be specific but rather be a general longing to cultivate the soil and sow and care for plants, just as there is in humans a general hunting talent, yet not to hunt any particular species or use any particular hunting style.
The same argument could be made for a child born in a village of pastoralists whose main activity is caring for cows, such as the Samburu of Kenya. The lives of these people depend on an intricate relationship with their cattle, with their blood and milk making up a part of their diet. For a young man, each cow is a prize possession. His wealth is measured by the number of cows he has and it is often only possible to marry by buying a wife through a gift of cows to her parents. It is in his interest to have an intricate knowledge of the habits of cows. Most of this cow knowledge would be cultural and learnt from other members of the tribe. Even so, a child born with greater cow-caring genetic ideas should be advantaged as genetic ideas for keeping cows would be directly related to reproductive success. It is hard to imagine that over tens of thousands of years some sort of genetic domestication talent, some genetic love for non-human animals, could not evolve.
For new genetic domestication ideas to have come into existence there would be a number of conditions. Firstly, there would need to have been new gene mutations or new shuffling of existing genes to create new domestication ideas. Secondly, humans must have been involved in the domestication process long enough for it to have had some genetic effect.
For the first point, the advantage of any new ideas need not be very great, with an advantage of just a few percent probably sufficient. Strong genetic ideas for nurturing have already arisen. As well, humans have evolved genetic ideas for socialisation. Maybe it is a small genetic step from nurturing children to nurturing plants and cows. It may also be a small genetic step from socialising with fellow humans to socialising with animals and plants. These two types of existing genetic ideas, could be modified, broadened or redirected to include other organisms. Any new genetic ideas to redirect some of this care, attention and socialisation could be called genetic domestication knowledge.
For the second point, there are records of agricultural practices in Mesopotamian cuneiform texts that date to 3200 BC. There are also references to products of grain such as bread, and flocks of animals kept by shepherds, in the Old Testament. How long it has been practised in Africa is hard to say. It seems likely that large villages containing hundreds of families would need the regular supply of food that was only possible with domestication. If domestication ideas were crucial to survival, then they would be genetically learnt very rapidly. If the advantage to survival were negligible, then they could take a long time to learn genetically, if learnt at all.
I believe that a genetic domestication talent exists and is variable in offspring, just as we vary in our other talents such as those for sport, music, mathematics and spirituality. Those who have inherited strong domestication are more likely to become involved with plants and animals, probably preferring the outdoor life. If, by necessity, they find themselves working in a city office block, they might dream of a country block with a duck pond and vegetable patch. Our past association with farming has left a genetic legacy, a yearning for the rural life.
The next case I will look at is that of medicine. Here it is not domestic animals that have had human belief systems as part of their environments, but humans themselves who have a human cultural belief system as part of their environment. The interaction is between genetic and cultural ideas of the same species.
Animals, including humans, have various medical genetic ideas for healing themselves: they know to lick cuts for the antiseptic properties of saliva, they will rest if muscles are strained or bones are broken, blood clots will seal cuts, and an infection from a wound will be fought by antibodies or phagocytes. The temperature of the body can be raised to defeat viruses and shivering can warm a cold body. The body has numerous genetic cures to help keep itself alive.
Humans will also learn genetically of new diseases. The black-death, influenza, smallpox and syphilis have all caused countless deaths. Genetic ideas vary in offspring and so a plague will leave alive those with the best genetic ideas for defeating the disease. Over time, to varying extents, Europeans have learnt genetically of these diseases and many have become resistant. But when Europeans colonised new countries, the indigenous inhabitants often had no genetic idea of these diseases and so whole populations were wiped out. Similarly, Europeans had greater susceptibility to diseases, such as malaria, as they had no genetic knowledge of this disease. For example, for some Africans, the genetic idea of sickle cell anaemia was a way of defeating malaria.
As the volume of human cultural ideas increased over the last few thousand years, cultural medical cures crept in to supplement genetic cures. The first cultural cures were not really cures at all but were more or less sorcery. A cure could involve performing a ritual including sacrificing some animal, having certain foods as taboo, making a fetish, or praying. Often the contraction of disease was associated with wrongdoing. Or else one person’s illness was because another had bewitched him or her. People still pray today for cures to diseases for which there are no genetic or cultural cures.
The next stage in the evolution of cultural medicine could be called ‘folk’ medicine. Different populations, such as the Chinese, developed many weird and wonderful concoctions for various illnesses. A lot of these cures took advantage of the wide variety of chemicals in plants. Cures were largely found by trial and error. Here people would notice that a herb has a particular effect. Later two herbs would be mixed to produce a greater effect, and so on. Mixtures of plants and their methods of application would improve over time. All these new cultural ideas would align with the genetic will-to-live in their struggle for prominence in the mind and so be willingly taken.
Science followed folk medicine and the first applications were mainly involved in extracting the active components of folk cures. Such was the case with quinine that came from the bark of the South American cinchona tree which the Indians used against malaria. Scientists were able to produce this alkaloid artificially and its use allowed extensive colonisation of Africa and South America. Aspirin was made from the bark of the willow tree. Similarly, science has refined and mixed countless other herbal medicines.
Over the last hundred years or so, there has been a systematic study of the human body. This scientific approach has added vast amounts of cultural knowledge for fighting disease. While most folk and scientific ideas work in healing the body, there will always be a few treatments that will have no effect or even a detrimental effect. Despite these failures, the net result has been an improvement of health and, with this, a longer life span and so an increase in population.
Like human cultural ideas being part of a domestic cow’s environment, cultural medical ideas are now part of a human’s environment and, over time, these ideas could influence the direction of the evolution of human genetic knowledge. Is this directional change good for humans? For example, say a mother’s birth is becoming difficult and so the doctor decides to give the child a caesarean birth. Many of these types of births are unnecessary and are done more for the mother to escape pain than for any danger to her life. But there are some that save the mother’s life, a life that would otherwise have been lost. If this operation is needed due to insufficient or poor genetic ideas for natural birth, say by the mother having too narrow a pelvis, then any offspring that now survive could well carry these narrow-pelvis genetic ideas. The ability for a natural birth has been reduced. Julius Caesar is said to have had this type of birth so this operation is not new. Cultural medical knowledge has allowed errant genetic ideas to survive where they would normally have been eliminated. If this practice is continued for long enough then genetic ideas allowing unaided births could decline to the extent that, in a thousand years or so, caesarean births will be the norm, not the exception. Like the wild wheat where human cultural knowledge led to the grain becoming plump, medical knowledge may lead to the pelvis becoming narrow. If so, cultural medical knowledge is changing genetic knowledge.
This same logic could be applied to countless other cultural medical practices. Poor medical genetic ideas might lead to health problems such as asthma, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, haemophilia, and so on. In primitive times many of these people would have had a reduced or no chance of survival. Medical cultural knowledge can now keep alive many who would have otherwise died. However, despite their cure they still retain the original genetic ideas and it is these that will be passed to offspring. (To counter this genetic decline there has recently been some attempt to screen foetuses by genetic testing of parents with known hereditary diseases.) The result will be a decline in the proportion of good genetic ideas in the population. In tandem, the number of cultural medical ideas will increase to compensate for this genetic decline. The net effect is that over time the responsibility for health passes from the genetic to the cultural.
Despite this trend to genetic decline, there has been a general improvement in health of the population from medical cultural ideas. People are living longer. However, this movement from genetic to cultural cures has led to an acceleration of the use of medical services. The ratio of doctors (agents of medical cultural knowledge) to members of the public has been steadily increasing, as have the resources consumed by medical cultural ideas. In the long term, if a good part of human endeavour is spent keeping alive a genetically weakened population, then our medical cultural ideas will be a burden rather than an asset.
Another problem with medical cultural knowledge includes its concentration within the minds of a few. If people are able to substantially provide their own cures (through genetic knowledge and some folk medicine), they retain some control over their lives. Where people have to rely on medical cultural knowledge in order just to survive then they have lost control to outside agents. This might result in people feeling as if they were controlled by others, particularly as they get older and more dependent on complex modern drugs. They have not been taught any folk medicine when young and so they are completely in the hands of medical agents. Many doctors are scornful of alternative or folk medicine and actively discourage people from taking an interest in these medicines and so taking some responsibility for their own health.
Rules for the application of medical knowledge can be made by a medical elite who end up exploiting the patient. In some places it is actually illegal to have a home birth or a birth without medical supervision. Here a law has managed to invade the minds of an elite (such as a medical board advising a hospital which may have a financial interest in increasing hospital use), so enforcing the acceptance of the law by the general public. The ideas that make up the law need only reach prominence in the minds of the people of the board and may not have survived had they been tested in other minds. One of the interests of doctors is to have plenty of patients; after all, they have to make a living. Genetic ideas for the accumulation of materials (profits) might therefore influence the direction of mental struggles. If so, this factor of self-interest will bias their decisions. The doctors might argue that it is safer for a mother in a hospital. Ironically, this will almost certainly be true in the future due to the gradual dilution of medical genetic ideas.
These two examples demonstrate that while the genetic and cultural belief systems exist at two distinct levels, and, while cultural systems address genetic systems, cultural systems can, in some cases, change the direction of evolution of genetic systems.
Evolution in its broader sense means an unfolding and so the process applies to both geology and biology. In the sun there is an evolution of atoms from lighter to heavier as matter is ‘burnt’ in a nuclear sense to produce energy, some of which we experience as sunlight. On Earth there is also a geological unfolding in the form of volcanic eruptions, erosion and sedimentation all which cause landscapes to evolve. For biology, evolution is taken as the differential survival of chemical patterns (DNA) in offspring where some of these patterns may vary from parental patterns. The presence of this process separates the biological from the geological and I believe it is the only process (or law) that exists in addition to other physical laws (gravity, nuclear, etc). This process is not present in the evolution of such things as crystals. While they can grow in infinite patterns (for example, snow crystals) and sometimes affect the growth of other crystals around them, new patterns do not survive differentially. There is no progressive line of change through which something significantly different from the original crystal can arise in time. The differential survival of offspring applies to both genetic and cultural ideas; there is a single process operating.
Some evolutionists may think that that I have made ‘group selection errors’ with my use of words. For example, by saying ‘otters learnt to use fur for protection from the cold’ appears to imply that the species as a group evolved. What I am really saying is that the differential survival of offspring results in those otters that best know their cold environment having the greatest chance of survival. The idea of fur then becomes widespread throughout the species. For convenience I have referred to a species learning this or that characteristic genetically, but I really mean learning via the differential survival of individuals. Evolution is at the level of the individual, not at the level of the species.
Is evolution teleological? That is, is evolution end-directed and so does it have similarities with the idea of destiny or fate? Maynard Smith (1968) in his book Mathematical Ideas in Biology outlines how the physical characteristics or the Earth determine to a large extent the evolution of organisms. For example, the strength of bone is proportional to the area of its cross-section while the weight of an animal is proportional to its volume. Therefore, as animals increase in size their weight increases faster than their bone strength and so limits the size they can grow. The larger the animal the more stress is placed on its bones. Gravitational strength is part of the destiny of shape for animals. Should gravity be half or twice its current strength, different animals would have evolved. Other conditions influencing biological evolution could be the makeup of the Earth’s atmosphere, the chemicals in the soil, the availability of water, the cycle of evaporation and rainfall, and so on. The physical form of the Earth is the End that directs, to a large extent, the forms which animals can take.
Within this band of physical possibilities there is a random element. Earlier I gave examples of animals that by chance developed different genetic ideas to solve the same environmental problem. Otters learnt genetically to use fur for warmth and whales learnt to use blubber. Similarly with desert plants, while they must evolve water conserving features in order to survive, they can do so in many different ways. So within the constraints imposed by the Earth’s characteristics, considerable variability is possible.
The same can be said for the evolution of cultural ideas. Physical conditions, availability of materials, the size of humans, existing genetic ideas, and so on, all constrain the cultural ideas that will come to exist in the mind. Houses address the genetic idea of shelter but their forms are still constrained by the wood, soil, and rocks necessary for their construction. Cooking styles also vary considerably, but the dishes produced are still constrained by the types of plants and animals that exist. Yet within these constraints there is an element of chance resulting in many different styles of building and cooking. Similarly with religions, while they are constrained by genetic ideas such as fear and hope, there is a random element in their formation that gives them considerable variety. End-directedness and randomness go together.
I have avoided the use of ‘altruism’ in the text above because of its controversial nature. Altruism is often confused with genetic or cultural mutualisms (see chapter 4) but it is neither of these if we take a strict sense of altruism of a person acting solely for the well being of another, making no gain for him/herself. Its existence has been hotly debated by philosophers. Many have concluded that all actions are selfish, denying that altruism exists. But it has certainly existed as there must have been occasional genetic aberrations in offspring for altruistic behaviour. These offspring would have been disadvantaged in terms of resources and so one would not expect new genetic ideas for altruism to flourish for more than a few generations.
If it is not genetic, can altruism be created by cultural ideas? Ideas such as ‘love your neighbour’ seem to be directing a person to act altruistically. Here one helps others simply for the sake of helping, rather than for any personal gain. A philosopher might reply that the altruistic person gets satisfaction from seeing the helped person happy. The evolutionist would call this altruistic help a redirected genetic idea for nurturing or socialising, with the reward being the same or similar as if one had helped kin. In both cases the action is still selfish from the eye-view of the helper as he is acting to maximise his happiness. But from the eye-view of the helped person, the helper appears to be acting altruistically.
In note one I argued that current medical practices could be producing a genetically weakened population. In a similar way, maybe our cultural beliefs are changing so that genetic aberrations for altruism are no longer detrimental. While a person born with a genetic tendency to altruism would be doomed to failure in primitive times, would this person be so disadvantaged in today’s world? Changed cultural ideas such as ‘love your neighbour’ may make a person with genetic altruism more attractive as a partner and so increase his/her chance of reproduction. If so, genuine genetic altruism could increase in frequency.
Chance seems important in shaping the belief systems of societies. Imagine that Christ, Mohammad or Buddha were born in modern times and studied science, geography and history at school. Imagine them looking down microscopes and travelling to foreign countries on their holidays. Do you think that their ideas would be different? Certainly, their whole outlook on life would have changed. They no doubt would have excelled but probably in different ways. Their ideas were products of their time. Similarly, Darwin born a hundred years later would not have needed to make the discoveries that he did.
Biological evolution, the differential survival of offspring, appears to occur in levels. The first level consisted of patterns of chemicals in the form of genes in cells and the second, patterns of chemicals in the form of ideas in minds. The second level emerged from the first and was only possible after the first level had become established. A third level could now be emerging from the second level in the form of patterns of zeros and ones in computers. Current computer programs are still products of human minds and so are still cultural ideas. But should these patterns become self-generating at sometime in the future, and where new patterns (offspring) become subject to differential survival in an electronic environment, new electronic ideas could emerge.
These layers of patterns are linked in the sense that each layer needs the layer below to exist. Mental ideas need a genetic body to reside in and electronic ideas need a human produced computer and a supply of electricity. One might speculate that the nature of the evolutionary process is to generate a succession of levels of chemical patterns with each pattern emerging from the level below. As the world has thousands of millions of years left in its evolution, a number of new levels might still be possible.
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