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Genes don’t care
Random thoughts on evolution

By George A. Ricker

Let me lay my cards on the table.

I’m a reductionist. I think everything that exists can be broken down to constituents of matter/energy and the rules governing its operation. Rules, I must add, that are simply inherent in the nature of matter/energy. Divine rule-makers need not apply.

Now reductionism has a number of implications. For example, while human beings are obviously conscious (i.e., self-aware), the reductionist does not believe in some sort of overarching “consciousness” if by that you mean a kind of internal ghost that is the embodiment of personality, etc. To the extent we humans have “consciousness,” it appears to be very much a jury-rigged affair, a patchwork of loosely connected and overlapping processes that have evolved as we have evolved.

Put another way, there is no “mind” that exists apart from the brain, no personality independent of the physiological processes of which it is an expression. At least, that seems to be what science is beginning to tell us. The more we look into things like “consciousness” and “personality,” the more we see they are simply expressions of our own biology. There is no ghost in the machine after all. It’s just that the nature of the biological organism sometimes makes it appear so.

A natural progression

Just as we see organisms increasing in complexity over time. Just as we see brains evolving from very rudimentary affairs that do little more than regulate primitive bodily functions into increasingly sophisticated structures culminating, on this planet at least, in human brains that develop higher mathematics and conceive great works of art. So do we see simple awareness of surroundings evolve into awareness of self and finally awareness of abstractions like personality and consciousness.

There seems to be a natural progression at work. It’s not at all obvious, however, that the progression is planned. It seems far more likely to be a happy accident, the natural result of a natural process called “natural selection.” The process through which evolution appears to work is mindless and did not intend to produce us or, for that matter, anything else.

However the process does appear to lead, generally, to increased complexity. As reproducing populations produce variations and some variations confer advantages over other variations, increased complexity seems to be a natural byproduct of the process—at least, most of the time. It’s a development that is as unavoidable as it is unintentional.

So there does seem to be a kind of progress at work. What is lacking is a specific direction or intentionality. At least, that’s my understanding of what many in the scientific community are saying.

Only animals after all

For some folks, this idea is a real downer. “There must be more to it than that,” they insist. But if you try to probe just why that should be so, the answer seems to be a word salad that ends up sounding like “…just because.” The truth is there is no good reason why there should be more to it than that, and that’s probably the best reason to think there isn’t.

Now it’s not difficult to understand why people get hung up on the notion there must be more at work than a natural process that is essentially automatic and ultimately directionless. After all, we are still in our infancy as a species and for most of the time we have had sufficient brain power to begin to speculate about these things, we have lacked anything like scientific knowledge or even science itself. Our primitive ancestors sought the answers in dreams and myths, in the stories they told themselves to explain themselves to themselves. It’s not surprising they thought they were especially important in the scheme of things.

Even now, at the beginning of the 21st century, there are people who think the statement “well, you think people are just animals” is some sort of argument. They get angry if you suggest that, yes, when all is said and done, we are only animals.

Think about that for a minute. Then consider that in all the known universe, ours is the only planet we know about that has animals on it. The only one. We may suspect there are others. We may even hope it. But right now this planet is the only one we know contains animals. So animals are unique, as far as we can tell. Being an animal is a rare thing. Being a human animal is even rarer, because we have these oversized brains and can think about things like art and science and philosophy.

We can even think about what it means to be a human being. It seems that saying we are “just animals” isn’t an insult at all, or at least it shouldn’t be. Saying we are “just animals” is saying we are something that is wonderful.

There seems to be lots of resistance to that idea on the part of many people. The word “animal” itself takes on pejorative connotations. It’s a bad thing to be just an animal. People who behave badly are said to be acting like animals or giving in to their animalistic natures and so on. Those who are so labeled are usually indulging in behavior that involves violence or sex, sometimes both. What gets lost in such characterizations is that people who display kindness or affection, people who feel hope and sorrow, people who strive to improve their own lives and the lives of others also are acting like animals. Human animals.

Genes don’t care

Some of the most far-reaching and profound scientific discoveries of the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have been in the area of genetic research. According to modern biology, genes are the replicators who drive the process of evolution. Of course, the word “drive” shouldn’t be taken to suggest any sort of intentionality or purpose. Genes simply replicate themselves. Most of the time the copying process is accurate. Once in a while it is not. The variation that occurs when it is not is often harmful, sometimes neutral and occasionally useful. It’s the accumulation of useful variations over time that allows evolution to take place.

This is an important point, one most of us miss when thinking about evolution. The process of natural selection does not produce variation. The process of natural selection acts on variations that already are present.

Evolution really is just another word for change. Biological evolution is the change in living organisms that is responsible for the development of the tremendous variety of organisms we see all around us. All biological evolution requires is a reproducing population that contains variations, some of which confer advantages that enhance the ability of organisms to survive and reproduce themselves. Those organisms possessing genetic variation that confer some sort of advantage in a given environment will prosper relative to those less advantaged. That’s really all natural selection means. It’s a process that is brutally simple. However, hidden in that brutal simplicity is tremendous power.

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett describes natural selection as an algorithmic process, borrowing a term more familiar to mathematicians and computer programmers.

Dennett explains, “An algorithm is a certain sort of formal process that can be counted on—logically—to yield a certain sort of result whenever it is ‘run’ or instantiated.” (Dennett, p. 50)

Algorithmic processes, according to Dennett, are mindless and always work when the necessary conditions of the algorithm are met. In the case of natural selection, those conditions are: a reproducing population that contains variations which include, at least, some that confer an advantage in a given environment. Through natural selection those organisms that possess favorable adaptations in a given environment will succeed—i.e. will reproduce in greater numbers—than those which do not. Over time, the changes thus produced can lead to quite remarkable designs that are, when all is said and done, simply the products of a process that is mindless and automatic.

(I must pause to note that I have greatly oversimplified Dennett’s argument, and you really should read his book if you are at all interested in evolutionary biology or in the implications of natural selection for other fields. It is a delightful and thought-provoking piece of work.)


We have grown accustomed to thinking of natural selection as a process that is directional or aimed at producing a result, and it really isn’t. Genes don’t care about the organisms that carry them. Genes don’t care about the past or future. Genes don’t care about their own success or failure. Genes don’t care about anything at all. While it may be useful to think of “the selfish gene” (as Richard Dawkins did in his marvelous book of the same name) as a way to understand what genes do and how they work, genes really have no capacity for selfishness or selflessness.

Of course, this bleak assessment evokes a considerable amount of caterwauling on the part of those who simply cannot let go of the notion human beings are the intended consequences of a directed process. Faced with such reality, they wail we might as well throw up our hands at the futility of it all because, in the long run, nothing really matters.

I don’t share that view. We are not bound or limited by our constituent parts to meaningless lives in a meaningless universe. We are, after all, animals of great beauty and tremendous capacity. We have it in our power to ask questions and seek answers. We make our lives meaningful by the manner in which we live them, by the things we accomplish, the joy we share, the wonder we find in soaring feats of intellect and imagination and the ability to comprehend the awesome majesty of a universe we have only now begun to explore.

Although genes don’t care, there is every reason why we should. As the late Dr. Carl Sagan reminded us years ago, “We are star stuff.” We are, in a very real sense, the universe become aware of itself.

So while we really are only animals, it’s also true that we are animals who call themselves human beings, animals who have invented language, art, music, literature, science and much, much more.

And that, dear reader, is a marvelous kind of animal to be.

© 2007 by George A. Ricker

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.

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