Genes and Memes

...Collectively, genes contain the instructions for building the bodies that carry them. Collectively, memes build the culture that transmits them...

Keith E. Stanovich, The Robot's Rebellion

It may be that genes and memes are alternate terms for nature and nurture, however, in this section I will try to discuss what is meant by a selfish gene, and what memes are and how they affect us and our lives, or more specifically, how genes and memes may have affected my life.

In 2009, I read Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene for the first time. I have decided to address here what I can that I find relevant to psychology and psychoanalysis, and to my particular circumstances.

Memes are also 'selfish'. Genes and memes seek to replicate themselves. Those with greater copying ability and longevity are the more 'successful'. When we speak of the 'aims' of genes and memes, it is not about conscious aims. Genes and memes do not have conscious intent.

At present, when we think of terms like 'survival of the fittest', we think in terms of passing on our genes. (Actually, I think many people believe that it is about personal survival only, without the idea of reproduction.) But what about memes? In his A Short History of the World, HG Wells pointed out that the religions we remember most have the best systems of teachers and books.

A 'happy' human being may be one whose genes' and memes' goals are in line with his/her own personal goals.

Have our brains really evolved separately enough from these influences that we can truly identify our individuality? Or must we accept that the best we can do is to act as if we are individuals with the capacity for rational self-determination? How can we be sure it is really 'you' and 'me' making decisions which are not influenced by genes, effects of genes, memes and effects of memes that we have not identified? Would it be a lifetime's work to sort this out?

I would like to have my DNA analyzed comprehensively, but have read that in Australia this is not possible, although I could probably find out my genetic info related to ichthyosis.


...A body doesn't look like the product of a loose and temporary federation of warring genetic agents who hardly have time to get acquainted before embarking in sperm or egg for the next leg of the great genetic diaspora. It has one single-minded brain which coordinates a cooperative of limbs and sense organs to achieve one end. The body looks and behaves like a pretty impressive agent it its own right...

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Individual consciousness isn't easily recognized as a collective composed of many different and possibly contradictory interests. We don't often think about all the diverse factors which affect every aspect of our existence, our 'choices', our thoughts, our desires, our actions.

...In the fierce competition for scarce resources, in the relentless struggle to eat other survival machines, and to avoid being eaten, there must have been a premium on central coordination rather than anarchy within the communal body...

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

When a human child fails to thrive, is it possible that the genes are not getting along well within their communal body? Genes that cooperate well with other genes in the gene pool, in each of the bodies that they will belong to, have an advantage. Is it possible that my particular combination of genes is a bad combination, contains too many bad genes, or contains genes which do not get along well with the other genes which make up my body?

In some individual bodies, perhaps there really is an intense internal war with no viable solution, no compromise acceptable enough for all of the genes to be 'happy'. Perhaps this results in erratic moods or behaviours, or a constant struggle to achieve a kind of balance which is never maintained for long.

All genes exert their effect at a particular stage. Most affect the foetal stage, while others take effect in childhood, puberty, adulthood, middleage, etc. Lethal genes that are late acting are more likely to be passed on, as the body will have had time to reproduce before the gene has had its effects.

...A gene that makes its possessor die is called a lethal gene. A semilethal gene has some debilitating effect, such that it makes death from other causes more probable...

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

If there is a biological basis for suicide, a suicide gene or a combination of genes that frequently results in suicide, I suppose that that gene would be called a lethal gene. If it doesn't kick in until after reproductive ability has disappeared or diminished considerably, there is greater likelihood that it will be passed on.

...Sometimes a gene has one effect in the presence of a particular other gene, and a completely different effect in the presence of another set of companion genes. The whole set of genes in a body constitutes a kind of genetic climate or background, modifying and influencing the effects of any particular gene...

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Genes that produce favourable results in many different combinations are 'good' genes. Those that are continually 'unlucky' are 'bad' genes. Again, survival is the measure of 'good' or 'bad', and survival = reproduction.

To what extent have my genes contributed to the development of disordered eating? If I had been born in a different time or place, would I have developed disordered eating patterns? Do my genes exert pressure such that the survival machine which is my body complies with their demands to maintain a certain weight, even though current cultural standards suggest that I'd have had greater reproductive possibilities if I could have maintained at a lower weight?

If I had had a less tumultuous upbringing, how would that have impacted the preprogrammed strategies of my genes? How would my life have turned out? Is it the genes themselves that are 'bad' or that would have found some way to express their incompatibility, no matter what my circumstances had been?

These are questions I can't answer with certainty, but I do think that they are an important part of the whole, which it is necessary to consider.

...Desdemona had no idea what was happening. She didn't envision her insides as a vast computer code, all 1s and 0s, an infinity of sequences, any one of which might contain a bug. Now we know we carry this map of ourselves around. Even as we stand on a street corner, it dictates our destiny...

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex

Richard Dawkins has referred to the genes as 'master programmers' who are programming for their own survival. Our bodies are their 'survival machines'. The genes create programs designed to handle the various twists and turns involved with living. They can't foresee all circumstances, and the adaptability of their programs is important. Success is measured in terms of survival.

What happens if there is a 'bug' in the code, and a survival machine turns out not have reproductive capability, or the ability to attract a mate? In such cases is there always the feeling of difference, non-acceptance or unhappiness? And even if a person decides to be happy, won't they have to face an enormous burden which includes the prejudice and mixed messages of others?

...Sexual reproduction has the effect of mixing and shuffling genes ...any one individual body is just a temporary vehicle for a short-lived combination of genes. The combination of genes that is any one individual may be short-lived, but the genes themselves are potentially very long-lived. Their paths constantly cross and recross down the generations. One gene may be regarded as a unit that survives through a large number of individual bodies...

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

We may possess visible markers that help genes to 'recognize' themselves in other individuals (not just families). The 'selfish gene' is all copies of a particular gene in the gene pool, throughout the world. The 'selfish gene' wants to create as many copies of itself as it can.

...The argument of this book is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes... our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world. This entitles us to expect certain qualities in our genes. I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals... Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense... Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature... Let us try to understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to...

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

If I apply this idea to the concept of psychology, it calls into question how 'natural' it is to help other human beings with their problems. To get a degree and a job entitles you to monetary compensation, so there is then a financial incentive to help others. To choose such a profession may signal a more developed awareness of the need to choose to cooperate towards a common good, but it may also represent more complicated and hidden motives. It may actually be natural (unconscious) to try to keep those who seek help down, to enact power struggles and dominance issues under the acceptability or validation of 'helping' others. I think that this may be one of the important issues in psychology and psychiatry that is overlooked.

A good track record may lead to more clients, but defining a good track record may be part of the complication. For example, getting clients to accept that they are sick or abnormal, that there are medications that can help, and that there are acceptable behaviours to aim for that will signify mental health may actually help to perpetuate a dominance/control over others to one's own benefit under the guise of altruism or helping others. Convincing the public that there are recognizable signs of mental disorder, that noncompliance with accepting meds or treatment is one of these signs, can for some be a way of covering up their own personal agenda. It may be tricky to pin down or work out who is actually committed to helping, and who is not, but gives the appearance of caring - for personal gain - and there may be many shades of grey between extremes.

Phenotypic Effects of Genes

Phenotype denotes the bodily manifestation of a gene, the effect of the gene in comparison to its alleles, its effect on the body and development, and extends to its effects in the world at large.

Most genes have more than one phenotypic effect (examples of phenotypic effects are hair or eye colour). I have brown hair and brown eyes, straight, fine hair, grew to be 5'4", with acne in adolescence and lifelong ichthyosis - to mention a few phenotypic effects. That doesn't really tell anyone very much about me.

When people either decide to have a family, or find out that they have accidentally become pregnant, isn't it natural to speculate as to what their children will look like or achieve in life? 'I hope she gets your nose but my height', 'your mathematical ability but with my sociability'. Unfortunately, I think in my case I ended up with combinations that reminded my parents of the features and abilities/lacks of their own and of the other's that they liked least, and that all along, but especially after they separated on very poor terms, my appearance might have constantly stirred up unpleasant feelings for both of them. This is not the kind of thing it is easy to admit about one's child to anyone - including oneself. My unconscious response was to try to tone down the unpleasant effect by being as agreeable a person as possible. Was this adaptation also a phenotypic effect of my genes that was elicited by circumstance?

Phenotypic effects extend to the environment and to other living beings. E.g., beavers build dams. When it comes to human beings, the extent of phenotypic effects could be quite complex. The work that a human being is suited to do (itself a phenotypic effect) may be a seen as a result of a combination of phenotypic effects.

Natural selection favours some genes not because of the nature of the genes themselves, but because of their consequences - their phenotypic effects.

When it comes to body shape and the weight my body is programmed to prefer or try to maintain, there are several factors to consider:

1. My setpoint weight is higher than I'd like or that is currently considered culturally ideal. In the distant past, my body type might have been selected for ability to do physical work and endure physical hardship and times of famine.

2. There are a lot of memes involved with or which currently influence everyone's, including my, ideas about what is healthy and what is attractive when it comes to one's body.

3. My attempts to maintain my weight at a considerably lower weight than predetermined by my genes is an ongoing struggle, and has never been successful for long, despite my attempts to keep track of all food and exercise, to analyze emotional eating and to devise logical strategies to combat any bad habits or ineffectual coping mechanisms.

It could be that I lack sufficient insight, that for whatever reasons I am choosing to cling to the safety and security involved with never facing up to what I want. There could be unconscious psychological factors involved with my survival instinct, which I continue to make efforts to work out. It seems to me that I can either accept that I lack traits that would make me more successful in this area, and that in this I am far from alone, or I could come to the conclusion that the degree of difficulty cannot be adequately measured, and I may not be able to combat the problem because I am not sufficiently aware of what I am up against when it comes to my genes, their phenotypic effects, and how those interact with my environment and previous experience. In fact, all people who believe their eating is emotional may be underestimating complex effects of genes (and memes), and placing the blame in the wrong areas. That's not to say that reason cannot ultimately solve this issue, but just because some are able to achieve success in this area does not mean that the struggle and degree of difficulty are equal for all.

What effect does my website have on the world? This is something I do not know. I no longer receive any response. I don't think it's a good idea to assume anything, but I have to conclude that it's possible that I have negative effects: that is, that what I express makes people feel uncomfortable, bores them, annoys them or that it is discussed or even ridiculed behind my back. I could be dismissed as a trainwreck, or as someone so troubled and needy that it would be a mistake to try to talk to me. Possible positive effects: I have articulated feelings or ideas that others haven't been able to express themselves, and possibly through examining my mistakes and what I have aimed at and tried, they will gain insight or inspiration that leads them to try something that will change their own situations.

See also: Why I Am Not an Organ Donor















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