On occasion I have ideas that have nothing to do with Software Development, but that I think still merit being written down. This morning while riding the train reading “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins I had just such an idea.
I was reading the final chapter of the original version, which introduces the “Meme” meme. This got me thinking about the tension between genes and memes. This tension exists because an individual can be “infected” by a meme that entirely subverts gene-driven behaviour, e.g. celibacy. A meme can ostensibly override a gene or gene-complex that has been millions of years in the making. This begs the question; if memes are potentially such a significant threat to genes then why have genes not evolved one or multiple defenses against them?
And then I had an idea; perhaps Consciousness itself arose as a genetic evolutionary response to the infectious, self-replicating and potentially destructive nature of memes.
I would assume that a brain able to replicate memes arose by random mutation, or for some other evolutionary purpose, but as soon as memes were able to replicate from individual to individual with some degree of fidelity, the game was afoot. And possibly this happened before consciousness evolved. A meme is after all just a tool, and there are species besides Homo Sapiens that are tool makers and users. Once memes became a reality the possibility existed that memes could override gene-driven behaviour. And one would have to imagine that, through simple Darwinian evolutionary processes, those same genes would then start to evolve countermeasures to those memes, since the genes of an individual infected with a given “toxic” meme would not survive into subsequent generations. So perhaps instead of evolving specialised adaptations to specific memes, they evolved a handful of generalised ones. And perhaps Consciousness was one of those adaptations.
But surely consciousness actually increases our susceptibility to meme infection? I would assert not. The ability to pass ideas from one individual to another does not seem to require consciousness; meme’s do not seem to need self-awareness to replicate, as is demonstrated by other species who pass epigenetic “knowledge” from generation to generation.
I assert that Consciousness actually helps prevent meme infection because it gives an individual the ability to filter and analyse memes, and then if necessary immunize themselves against that and similar memes. It also gives the individual the ability to root out destructive memes which they have already been infected by, and similarly immunize themselves against future infections. This would mean that there are genes that are evolving to make us more self-aware, and generally smarter.
Perhaps the development of Consciousness was not the only response to the potentially destructive nature of memes; one would assume that genes would also evolve that hinder the ability to process and transfer memes. Perhaps there are also retrograde genes in us that are evolving to turn us back into wild beasts, incapable of self-reflection, poetry, art, science, philosophy and Sudoku.
So there may be two genetic responses to the Meme Threat in the human gene pool; one that is making us smarter and one that is turning us into soulless meat puppets.
I think I finally understand the difference between Democrats and Republicans. I kid, the Republicans!