Are We Really Free From Our Genes?

One of the foibles of humanity is this:

The overwhelming majority of people think the same way about themselves (and, by natural extension, their species):

Animals are (mostly) slaves to instinct, but humans are ENTIRELY free from all the genetic imperatives we observe in other species; our intellect negates instinct.

This sort of thing will crop up regardless of who the person is.  It isn’t just Christian creationists who believe this (in appropriate accordance with their worldview), but, amazingly enough, complete atheists who claim they understand and accept evolutionary theories.

The thing is, how would one know whether or not the way they think, the way they  act, their preferences, etc are NOT ultimately controlled by their genes?

Consider xenophobia and the territorial imperative.

Both of these things are considered anathema in human society.  Yet these are dead common in pretty much every other natural species (that is, wild animals, not domestics, or GM creatures like the triploid trout I fish for in a semi-private, isolated pond.)

Why are they so ubiquitous?  Because they are essential to species success.

The territorial imperative simply drives an individual to ensure that it has enough resources for itself and its family.  In societies that don’t use money (or circulate very little of it, because barter is the most common form of trade, as in the Middle Ages and before), that means controlling a certain minimum amount of land for you and yourself, and defending it and the resources it produces against others of your own kind, who wouldn’t mind having more land (and thus, more resources) for them and theirs.

Enter xenophobia.

Xenophobia means, quite literally, “fear of the strange(r).”  Oh, I can hear any Lefties who happen to find this starting to squirt.  Why would fearing the different be essential to evolution, or species survival?

Well, it isn’t that it’s important to species survival, per se – anything that is truly its own species cannot cross-breed with other species anyway (there’s no such damn thing as a cabbit or a jackalope, OK?!) – it’s that xenophobia is the very engine of species creation.

Oh, but how can that be?!

Isn’t it obvious?

Ok, you have a large population of a rather homogeneous population.  Let our example animal be, say, a small theropod dinosaur that I just made up that we’ll call _Reptilopithicus commonalis_.  This creature is a rather unassuming thing.  It’s a carnivore, like all theropods.  It is small, standing about 2ft from the top of its head to the ground, and, say, 3 1/2 feet long from nose to tail (that proportion might be screwed, but it’s not going to be important).  At this point in their evolution, their tough, scaly hide displays one colour – a kind of muddy brown.  They all mate in late February, and lay their eggs the beginning of April.  They all display certain stereotyped behaviours: for example, they greet each other in a friendly manner by swaying back and forth; agression is signified by up-and-down bobbing of the entire torso.

With me so far?

Ok.  Now, say that migration, spreading, and geological upheaval have, over time, caused the population to splinter.  We’ll keep it simple – two populations, separated by a barrier – say, a wide oceanic strait similar to the English Channel.  Uh-oh.

Both populations are still fairly large, but smaller than before, and now can no longer interbreed.  However, they still would and could, if they could get across the water.

The thing about Nature is this:  She ain’t perfect.  She makes copying errors.

From time to time, in both Population A in the west and Population B in the east, produce freaks.

Most of these freaks die even before they are born, because the copying error was that bad.  Some of them, however, live long enough to pass on their genes to the next generation.

Some of these genes will be fairly neutral: a different way of encoding the same enzyme, or a code for a different enzyme that does the exact same job as the original.

A very, very small number of these will have a mutation that gives them just the slightest edge over the rest of their population.

Genetic drift produces a successful freak in both populations, though not necessarily at the same time.  Population A has evolved a penchant for manipulating objects, coupled with the genes for a darker hide.  Population B produced an individual whose metabolism was a little more efficient than his fellows, coupled with a gene that mutated the scales somewhat, making them more jagged.

Over time (and separation) the two populations keep changing on the paths given them by the new, more successful genesets.  Population A becomes darker and darker but still remains scaly; however, it has learned to manipulate objects to the point where object-manipulators are most successful in life and in mating.  Non-manipulating throwbacks are scorned.  Population B is favouring warm-bloodedness coupled with the body covering (feathers) that helps keep warmth in.  To them, naked individuals are undesirable.  Of course, it is natural selection that is favouring the traits; the individuals sexually select for mates with the best show of the favoured traits.

As you can see, it will be inevitable for these two to meet once again.  Either Population A is going to hit on the concept of the boat eventually, or someone from Population B is going to fly over that channel to see what’s there.

Either way, you have at least two races where there was once only one, or two completely different species.  The difference is in the question “can they breed and produce offspring that are both viable and capable of reproducing?”.

Let’s assume they are still capable of interbreeding.  Xenophobia will try to make sure that that the two races keep proceeding to becoming different species.

Now, several things can occur at this point.

Either the respective races obey their xenophobic traits – “I don’t like those P. c. avians, they look weird”, or “Son, you can do business with and maybe even be friends with, those P. c. sapiens, but for our god’s sake, don’t breed with them!” and eventually the middle c. will be removed, leaving two different species instead of subspecies  …. or …

There is some interbreeding, but neither parent population accepts the half-breeds, and the half-breeds form their own, self-perpetuating society and eventually race and eventually species (P. metis).  (The red wolf, Canis rufus, is apparently a self-perpetuating population originating in coyote-wolf crosses.  All North American canids, however, can still interbreed freely, and can’t really be considered different species at all.  That includes the domestic dog.)  Or, the hybrids are accepted, and melt back into their parent populations;


Rampant interbreeding mixes them all back into one species, that either can’t fly or doesn’t care about making things.

So, xenophobia does have a real function, if the game of life is diversification.

So if you don’t like someone, it might just be your genes talking – and guess what, they might actually be right.

To illustrate this better, I’d like to call the reader’s attention to a short story that appeared in a collection called “The Future I”, edited by Isaac Asmiov and two other people I’ve never heard of.

The story is called “Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death”, by James Tiptree Jr.  It’s written in the first person, from the perspective of a spider-like creature that is bound and determined to break the behavioural cycle of his species.  Every single decision he makes is designed to go against “The Plan” – the way his species plays out its life cycle (they’re very much like Black Widows) .. but every clever, intelligent, and oh, so independent decision he makes leads him inexorably to his own fate (being eaten by his beloved.)  He thought he was brilliant.  He thought he was a ground-breaking rebel.  He thought he defied The Plan with every step he took.  Yet he still played out his life just like every other member of his species did.  I wonder how many others thought they were free of their genes, too?

How free are WE from our genes?  How clever are we _really_?

It’s a case of not being able to see the forest because your nose is touching the trunk of a giant redwood.



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