Our genes are the central beings of Nature – the powers that be. We, like all species, are merely vessels for their containment. Our human behaviours are governed by our genes. We live, we procreate and we raise our off-spring on the basis of what is good for our genes. We act on their commands.
Early in our evolution, our genes identified a problem – the human form was not a great structure for ensuring survival. Although the human species had developed a high level of intelligence there were no guarantees for its long term prospects. It needed some additional adaptation in order to ensure its survival in a harsh natural environment.
In marketing terms, humanity needed a USP – a unique selling proposition, something to give it an edge.
Without any game-changing, physical endowments, humanity, directed by our genes, used its intelligence to pursue an alternative course. It identified that, by cooperating together, it could be a much more potent force and so it evolved the genetic essentials required to form societal relationships. By living and working together humanity could thereby acquire the means to ensure its genetic survival.
Society is our support structure. It has provided us with food, shelter, protection – all the things a species needs for its survival. In fact, society has been humanity’s great saviour. By communal living we have been able to overcome the environmental forces that would have put such a strain on our continued existence. It has given us strength over Nature. Without it, we would be weak and impotent and our survival would have been in jeopardy.
Society has undoubtedly saved us from the tyranny of Nature.
However, just as with any life choices, there are always implications in the decisions that are made. Not only does the selection of one path mean other paths are forsaken; but more significantly, we should also realise that there will be longer term consequences of our chosen action.
The development of societal living exposes us to four vulnerabilities that could potentially threaten our future:
1. Society has become our prevailing environment – an environment that is in direct conflict with the rule of Nature. This leads to a genetic dilemma – which environment should our genes be adapting to.
Society’s influence and pervasiveness means it is now an environmental force in its own right. Most of us now live more in a societal world then we do in a natural world. This means that our genes are coming under competing pressures in terms of identifying and nurturing those genetic adaptations which would be advantageous.
This is because certain genetic qualities are more desirable in a societal environment whereas in a natural environment other qualities would be more preferable.
In society we value sociability, communication skills, compassion, empathy; in nature we value strength, speed, good health.
As society has grown in stature and significance, the pressure on our genes to conform to those attributes that thrive in a societal structure has increased. Hence the genetic dilemma – to which environmental force – that of society or that of Nature – should they be directing themselves? Which is in their best interests?
Do they prioritise one environment over the other or, as they seem to be doing, should they strive to pursue a delicate genetic balancing act? Caught between two powerful competing forces, our genes walk a tightrope with both society and Nature actively courting them.
Of course, in choosing the most beneficial adaptations, our genes must consider not only the environment that is prevailing at the moment but also the one which will be there in the longer term.
How confident are our genes in society as being a mechanism to ensure their continued human survival? How fearful are they that Nature might initiate an onslaught that humanity with its societal protection could not withstand (a virus perhaps)?
Our genes are reluctant to give up too many of Nature’s genetic characteristics for fear that, one day, they may need them again.
So, although society may seek to challenge Nature’s hegemony, Nature probably has the upper hand and can be confident that it will always triumph, that it can regain its dominance should it wish. Nature has a proven record. Whenever and wherever humanity is displaced, Nature quickly regains a foothold and re-establishes its dominance – for example, the Chernobyl site.
Nature has also bounced back from mass-extinctions in the past. It is an adjustment that Nature is more than capable of making.
2. Society has to work ever-harder to stay ahead of the evolutionary process.
There is a stark contrast between living in a natural world compared with one of living in society.
In Nature, the emphasis is on the individual. We act separately, in our own best interests. Certain conditions proliferate, namely, freedom, self-governance and solitariness. The future is secured through the survival and procreation of those most adapted to their environment, usually the fittest and strongest. In Nature’s world, the best of the species can command the best reproductive partners and can therefore genetically prosper. The less desirable are filtered out of the reproductive process. Ultimately, this is beneficial for the entire species.
In society, we challenge Nature’s superiority. We set our own rules and behaviours. We endeavour to be free from Nature’s dictates. In a societal existence, we live together, we support one another. We seek safety and protection. The emphasis is on reducing conflict, inequality and injustice. In terms of reproduction, in society, it is an averaging process – by lifting up the base of society we seek to improve the overall condition of the species.
Society shields us from the forces of Nature. The weak amongst us can survive. They can even reproduce. Less advantageous genes are allowed to proliferate. These inferior genes are a burden, a dilution and a distraction.
The more we support second-rate genes the more we weaken ourselves in relation to the wider world. These weaker genes place an ever-growing pressure on the structure required to sustain them. This means that society has to work ever harder to support the population and fend off Nature’s constant, lurking threat. It has to increase its strength, its reach and its activities in order to protect our species.
This is not to necessarily argue that we should not support weak, defective or non-viable genes it merely suggests that we need to be aware of the consequences of doing so.
3. Society is a man-made construct. We are therefore adapting to something of our own making.
In creating and developing our society we make decisions on the nature of that society. What form does it take? How involved in the lives of its members is it? What is its reach? What is its purpose? How does it decide where to involve itself?
It’s a powerful institution. The problem is though that society is made to our design, for our choice of purpose. It’s down to us as to what it looks like, what it does and how it operates. As a man-made device it can be weak and ineffectual, used and abused. It can be structured to achieve misguided, mistaken goals; it can function with prejudice and irrationality; it can be governed to favour certain interests.
Society is of humanity’s design and construction, a man-made artefact that is or is becoming our prevailing environment. As a consequence, it takes over from Nature as the under-lying force and guide for genetic change.
It means that our evolution is no longer so much governed by Nature but by ourselves. We are becoming objects of our own making. We make society; society makes us – our attitudes, our behaviour, even, given time, our physicality. We are, in fact, feeding off our own architectural creation. It is a form of inbreeding.
Even worse, when humanity fully embraces genetic manipulation – which it inevitably will – we will be taking away the power of our genes to choose their direction of travel and making those decisions ourselves.
Do we really know what is best? Do we really know what is right? Do we really know what is good for us?
4. Society diverts us from our genetic responsibility.
As society has progressed, as we have become increasingly integrated into societal living, we have also become increasingly diverted from our genetic purpose, as established by Nature. In many ways we have or are losing our Genetic Priority.
Society has given us the freedom to have more control over our personal lives. Consequently, we now believe we should be more able to live as we choose to live rather than as Nature requires. This means we are drawn towards the appeal of personal fulfilment rather than towards our genetic responsibility.
We want to get more out of life, more for ourselves. We want job satisfaction; we want fancy holidays, we want sexual satisfaction; we want to live in well-furnished houses; we want to eat and drink pleasurable foods; we want to make full use of the gains we are making in our development.
As such, doing our best for our genes becomes secondary. We are challenging the right of our genes to rule over us. We are losing our Genetic Priority, the very purpose of our being. In so doing, we may well weaken our genetic strength, the very essence of what has enabled us to survive for as long as we have.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to gauge how far down these routes of vulnerability we are and the extent to which they represent a threat to our human existence. Nor is it possible to assess whether these vulnerabilities are singular threats or whether they can be compounded and thereby become even more onerous.
The one thing that we can be sure of though is that societal living has and will continue to impact on our existence as a species. There are genetic consequences for the way we choose to live our lives. We need to be fully aware of this and recognise it as a potential danger to our continued survival as a species.
Perhaps the time has come when we do need to ask some fundamental questions: Society – What is driving it? Is it doing its best for us as a species? What is it ultimately hoping to achieve? Where is it taking us?
It’s that most disliked and awkward of job interview questions, “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” Can we ask the same of us as a species? “Where will the human species be in fifty, a hundred, a thousand years’ time?”