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Sunday, January 3, 2010

Memes, Genes and You

I once had an anthropology professor who told me “when you want to know someone, get to know his or her family.” Who is your family? They’re more than the people who raised you, more than the people who raised them; they are more than your friends and co-workers. They are the millions of years of evolutionary history that have shaped your genetics. You’re predispositions, your fears, your likes; you favorite foods all come from a history, which manifests itself in your neurobiology. How you see and react to the world is dependant on the biology that aided your ancestor’s pursuit to survive and reproduce. A pursuit grounded in 50 million years of trial and error, progression, regression, and trial by fire.

Your brain is you. Everything you think, taste, hear, touch, smell, and see, define who you are. Each of your senses is designed to attract your attention to the most important and relevant things to be aware of in terms of these survival and reproduction triggers. These “important” attention grabbers have been well known to the marketing companies for years. One can only imagine how much money bright colors, stimulating music, and provocative females have made companies over the years.

These pre-wired mental attributes come from millions of years of natural selection. Traits and behaviors that were beneficial to primates 10 million years ago exist today, nowhere near as relevant as they were. Primates used to exist in roaming bands of hunter-gatherers in populations no larger than a couple hundred. Now we exist in a society where millions co-exist in a single city. In the current state of affairs, it is possible to interact on a daily basis with more different people in a week than we would have seen in a lifetime.

With the knowledge of agriculture and farming under 15 thousand years ago, (practically nothing with consideration to the millions and millions of years of primate neuro-evolution) humanoids transferred from roaming bands and scavengers to stationary, farmers. Millions of years of roaming band behaviors, mental schemata, and survival archetypes all took a large shift, a shift towards the domestic. With this shift came artificial selection, Humans began to change their environment to suit their tastes. Crops yielded more and more usable energy, livestock genetics shifted to suit the needs of their masters, and both began a new cycle of inter-dependence. Livestock could no longer survive in the wild, having been artificially selected for their submissive natures and ease of domestication would make them easy pickings for natural predators. Plants without humans to pollinate and maintain them would wither and die independently.

What happened to all of these hunter and gatherer genes? Did they just disappear? No. They exist and are as active as they ever were. The conflict between a culture’s speed of informational evolution, and an incredibly slow moving genetic guide has only begun to yield a noticeable behavioral shift recently with the advances in technology that came with this cultural advance.

Culture propagates and communicates in units of information called “memes”. Every time someone speaks, makes an art piece, writes a song, and someone else is able to interpret the information, that can pretty much qualify itself as a meme. New memes grow like fire when given the right catalyst. Nazism in Germany is a perfect example, so is laughter at a comedy club. Genes however behave much differently. Genes act as behavioral and biological blueprints. There is not much variety in genetics. There is approximately a 98% similarity in genetics between a chimpanzee and a human. Genetics are slow moving, slowly evolving, and slowly mutating and require a massive amount of energy to change. There is a new genetic mutation once in about every 500 generations. Memes however, can shift behavior in an instant. This may give you an indicator into the huge gap between ones ease in which behaviors can be manipulated through memes versus genes. How has this large behavioral gap changed in the last hundred years of informational boom? In a word? Marketing.

The mechanism of artificial selection is being used today. Your “sweet tooth” began as a tool to create a motivation in an individual to look for a rare naturally occurring substance. Companies have taken advantage of this fact. Candies and sugars now invade almost every facet of a modern life-style; High-fructose corn syrup has permeated everything from beverages, to breads. Obesity and diabetes is at an all time high. The average individual is conditioned to almost 30 hours of a week of television that takes advantage of your attention wiring, pulling the strings of your attention to Victoria secret models, Honda, US Military propaganda ads, Mc Donald’s. ADHD is at near epidemic proportions.

Corporations and culture have created a feedback loop of mental manipulation and profit. An example, you see an advertisement for a vacation spot. Tropical music elicits a mood state of calmness and serenity. A man with a thick Jamaican accent explains to you in visually stunning terms the wonders of Jamaica. Smiling scantily clad men and women enjoy themselves at bars and beautiful beaches. The imagery elicits a sense of fun and sexual arousal. These mental states now become linked with the corporate message. Jamaica is sex, fun and relaxation. The next time you try to think of something to do, Jamaica sneaks its way into your consciousness whispering, “how about a trip to Jamaica?”

Culture has revolutionized the world in the last hundred or so years, there is no doubt. This is the information age. Diseases have been cured which were once a death sentence; life expectancy is going up and is only increasing. How else this information will be used is another pertinent question, whether this information revolution will be beneficial or detrimental to you is ultimately in the hands of the individual. Will the strings of a predisposed populace be plucked for purely monetary gains ad infinitum, or will an increase of information and awareness free a populace from a dependence on the corporations by a increased knowledge of self, and history? I believe an awareness of your evolutionary inclinations can only serve to aid you in a grounded pursuit of happiness.

You have a predisposition happy state. A state determined by your cultural conditioning and biology. A state set in the proverbial genetic stone of who you are. The “switches” that make you happy are flicked on at a mind-boggling level through media, desensitizing us to true happiness, personal satisfaction.

An increased ability to recognize the temporary and ultimately fleeting satiation of your evolutionary desires perpetuated by cultural capitalism, versus satisfaction through the utilization of the mental tools you have had your whole life, can only perpetuate a healthier, happier brain. You are genetically designed to achieve happiness through the flicking of these “happiness switches”.

What are these switches? What are the mental tools that can be used to increase the quality of life? Stay tuned until next week ;)

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