Genes, Memes, and Beating Nature

Photo: Duncan Hull (

Genes and Memes

You’ve probably heard of both the terms ‘gene’ and ‘meme’. A gene is a small section of your DNA that affects a certain characteristic—you have genes that determine your eye colour, hair colour, and several that partially influence your height and weight. Almost everything about you is either influenced or completely controlled by one or more of your genes. These genes sometimes change in new offspring, thereby altering something about the organism in which they reside. If this change is favourable, then that organism is more likely to survive and pass on the very gene that helped it to survive. This is the basis of evolution; a prime example would be the genes controlling the growth of our thumbs, which allowed for greater dexterity and control via the ‘opposable thumb’. This development allowed for a much more intricate handling of objects, and proved particularly helpful in our use of primitive tools.

Genes exist in every organism on earth, but memes do not. You probably know memes as pictures, videos or widely understood references that become viral, especially on the Internet. In fact, ‘meme’ is a term originating in genetic science, first coined by Professor Richard Dawkins. The meaning is not dissimilar in this field and refers to an idea that spreads throughout a society. This is the definition I refer to from here on in. Memes are found in social species. They are rife in humans—we learn from each other every day and that information, passed from human to human, is memetic (as opposed to genetic). Memes are prevalent in other species of ape also, but in this article I focus on humans.

It's a Two Horse Race, and Memes are Winning

It is clear from the complexities of modern society and our vast ability to construct, calculate and create that memes play a vital role in human life. But memes excel at the detriment to genes—the quicker memes evolve, the slower genes evolve. This is because while poorer genes are less likely to be passed on (as their host organism is more likely to die), this so-called “selection pressure” does not directly apply to memes. For example, take any treatable disease. In the wild, those susceptible to the disease would be more likely to die and those with a resistance would survive, passing on the genes that grant the resistance. Nowadays, our memetic development presents us with vaccines and cures for such diseases, meaning that even those susceptible to the disease will survive. Our memetic advancement is at the expense of our genetic advancement, and this is why humans are barely evolving at the moment. This fact presents us with a very big problem.

Genes Give Themselves an Achilles' Heel

Memes are easily spread through conversation and media, and are highly adaptable. Because of this, your genes have weaknesses that memes can exploit. Because genes in humans are evolving so slowly, if at all, we still have some genetic features that would have been beneficial in the wild but are no longer useful—and therein lies a memetic opportunity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way that young children learn new concepts. Biologically, at a young age children are built to unquestioningly accept everything that anyone they recognise as being of authority tells them. The benefit of this thousands of years ago would be so that parents could tell their children life-saving information such as “don’t breathe underwater, you’ll drown.” Imagine a child being skeptical to this kind of information! A child who decides to test this theory by attempting to breathe underwater will not pass on their skeptical genes. Children who were, for all intents and purposes, gullible were more likely to survive and pass on those genes later. Even if skepticism was later developed and gullibility reduced, it would be beneficial to be highly gullible for the first few years of life. This trait is still present in children, and still has it’s benefits for much the same reasons, but in this age of memetic dominance, it is easy for people to use memes to manipulate others because of their genes. Who better to instill your memes into than a highly gullible child? This is indoctrination, and this is why it works so efficiently.

Indocrination and Religion

Religions are memetic - their scriptures, stories and ideals are passed down from mind to mind, generation to generation. Thus, religion has the capacity (as does anything else, of course) to command unquestioning belief in children. Any meme can exploit the impressionability of a child, and religion does so exceptionally well by teaching of the direst of consequences of failure to have faith, and instilling the idea that faith is a wonderful thing to have, and the more evidence held against your faith, the stronger it is. When this ideology becomes so rooted in the brain after years of incessant preaching, it is easily demonstrable why religions continue to retain such mass belief and power over the millennia.

Careful consideration should be taken before teaching a child about any obviously controversial issue so as not to throw bias one way or another. For the reasons above, you cannot expect to give your opinion of a topic like religion and have the child make an informed, thought out decision. In most cases, if the child views you as a clear figure of authority (a parent or school teacher, for example) then they will simply take your statement as given, whether you intended to present it as fact or not. This reality does not have to lead to unfortunate memetic strains, however. Children can be just as easily taught about the benefits of maintaining a healthy skepticism (and the related benefits of objectively viewing available evidence to help guide their beliefs). Such skills are truly valuable to pass on.

I leave you with a final thought. Of their incredible capacity to learn, it is often said that “children are like sponges.” Indeed they are – drop a sponge into water and its ability to soak up the water will allow it to survive. That said, drop a sponge into acid and that very ability will kill it.

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