The Greed of Genes

This is an excerpt from The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History by Howard Bloom (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997). Reprinted by permission from the author.

The Greed of Genes

According to current cosmological theory, the universe was born in an explosion that goes by the quaint name of the big bang. In its first second of existence, the newborn cosmos began a habit it has never overcome: it started evolving higher forms. What began as powerful, inchoate energies soon coalesced into elementary particles. Those particles were attracted to each other and banded together in tight microsystems called atoms. From nothingness and energy, matter in its simplest form had been born. Obeying the rules of a magnetic square dance, some atoms linked arms and do-si-doed into the void as molecules. The universe had taken another quantum leap up the stairway of complexity.

Molecules spinning through the emptiness were drawn together by gravity into suns and planets.[58] Voilà—the universe lunged once more up the ladder of intricacy. In its beautifully mindless way, nature was disgorging whole fresh batches of inventions.

Then on the face of at least one of the new planets, an assembly mechanism that used something even more wondrous than the power of gravitational or electromagnetic attraction arose for the first time.

***

In the beginning, says Oxford University zoologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, the face of the earth was washed by primitive seas.[59] On the surface of those waters, lightning and sunlight knit together molecules of ammonia, water, carbon dioxide, and methane to form the first organic substances. These substances sloshed inertly beneath the waves, a slowly accumulating, murky sludge. One day a miracle occurred. Some accident twisted a few of the organic clumps of atoms together into a new shape, giving them a property the universe had never seen. The molecular pretzel could make copies of itself. It mindlessly attracted scraps of muck to its surface and—quite accidentally—snapped the molecules it was embracing together like pop-em beads. When the pretzel let the finished product go again, it had unwittingly made a mirror image of itself.

The replica had the same property as its pretzel-like parent. Molecules of sludge were attracted to its surface. Each segment of surface would pull toward it a very specific atomic shape, so the replica’s exterior acted like a paint-by-numbers canvas, drawing precisely the correct component to exactly the right spot. Once all the new molecules were lined up in order, they’d snap together. The result was yet another spanking new copy, ready to unpeel from its parent and drift away. The fresh-born copy, in its turn, would attract other wandering molecules to its face, where they would line up, pop together, then uncouple to be carried off by the currents of the sludge-filled early seas. The molecules with the peculiar ability to make copies of themselves are called replicators.[60] These replicators, like the innovations that had preceded them, would move the universe one more step up the ladder of complexity.

For eons, replicators drifted through the chemical soup of the early earth, casually copying themselves. But eventually, the population of molecular Xerox machines grew overwhelming, and the supplies of untouched organic sludge began to run short. That’s when the replicator that could do more than merely reproduce itself had an edge. The replicators that could do more, says Dawkins, were those that “learned” to make copies from more than just raw sludge. They could take apart their competitors and reassemble the components for their own purposes. Other replicators arose that could defend themselves. The first defense was probably a simple chemical armored shell, like those that protect some bacteria. But over time, the armored suits became more intricate, developing muscular whips to provide speed, movable fins for steering, and, far into the future, hands, feet, and brains. The descendants of the early replicators are the genes of today. And the latest versions of those first primitive protective suits are you and me.

There’s another aspect to Dawkins replicators that helps explain some of nature’s more reprehensible habits. Imagine a day in the future when some clever engineer invents an entirely new industrial process, a manufacturing technique that makes factories and workers obsolete. Under the new system, management committees that sit around anxiously pondering the next profitable move are as useless as last week’s donuts. The enormous stamping machines, pressing devices, and even welding robots are unnecessary artifacts to be tossed into museums and gawked at from time to time. What has replaced them?

An ultraminiaturized factory complete with a built-in blueprint for its finished product. The device is so small that you can fit millions of them on a flyspeck and so inexpensive that a penny will buy you more than you can count. These little wonders have another advantage. You can scatter them at random. They take care of the rest. There’s no more need to spend billions digging metals out of the earth or cracking chemicals from oil and turning them into plastics. The automated minifactories find what they need without help, sensing the presence of unprocessed industrial materials in a pile of garbage, a whiff of air, or a lump of dirt. If they run across the necessary substances, they immediately go to work assembling the finished goods. If they don’t discover what they need, the mechanisms simply fail to activate. A deactivated minifactory is no great loss. After all, millions of the microconstruction units can be turned out for the price of a stick of gum.

When the new system becomes popular, however, it turns out to have a glitch. The scheme is too successful. Each product is cranked out in a world overrun with other gizmos stamped out by the same system. What’s more, each product of the minifactories is programmed to go out and gather the raw materials to make more copies of itself. Suddenly the fields, streets, kitchens, and garbage heaps are awash in bright new contraptions stumbling over each other in an effort to grab the stuff mort; contraptions are made of, and there simply isn’t enough raw material to go around.

It doesn’t take long before some bright designer endows his gadgets with a clever twist. The improved models speed up the raw-material gathering process by pouncing on finished products from rival micro plants, stripping them to pieces, and using the parts as prepackaged parcels of raw industrial stuff. The insidious new models spread fast, stalking unwary gizmos left and right, strewing the planet with discarded components that others snatch in seconds. Then the updated models increase their efficiency even further by working in packs. Sometimes millions of complex final products are lost at a time. But in the grand scheme of the new economy, the loss is not that great. Gadgets abducted for scrap can be replaced at a price that even the Koreans would find hard to believe. This autoconstruction technique, based on Dawkins’s replicators, is analogous to the genetic system. The genetic method’s sheer efficiency is one of the primary reasons Mother Nature isn’t nice. She doesn’t have to be.

For over three billion years, raw materials have grown so scarce and finished goods so numerous that gizmos have scrambled through a mad dash to grab and disassemble each other; but that doesn’t disturb Mother Nature at all. In fact, she’s discovered that research and development is aided by the finished products’ competition. Just toss them out there and watch them try to outwit each other. Keep the clever and flip the unsuccessful into the circular file. From a million failures will spring the breakthroughs of tomorrow.

The generative power of the genetic process helps explain why we are so appallingly expendable in the eyes of an indifferent cosmos. Our prehistoric cousin the Neanderthal was a clever contraption. Numerous anthropologists believe the Neanderthal was capable of philosophy, religion, and language. Unfortunately, once Homo sapiens evolved, Neanderthal became an obsolete scrap on the garbage pile of history.

In human terms, obsolescence means suffering and mass death. Each individual product of the minifactory system is built with a vast array of sensory devices designed to protect it from damage. It’s regrettable that those sensory mechanisms happen to be quick and efficient, because they produce what we humans call pain. But, then, no product is perfect. The Neanderthal woman who had lost her children and mate was probably plunged into emotional agony.[61] She may well have lost her family to rampaging Homo sapiens tribes, glorying in their victories, gloating over their superiority, and reveling in their conquests.[62]

The ability to give speeches on glory, conquest, superiority, and nobility may well have been one of the features built into the latest model, our “heroic” ancestor Homo sapiens. The new Homo sapiens concepts of nobility and heroism would have been great leaps forward. Why? They suited the hunger of genes.

Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene rearranged the way many of those who deal with animal and human behavior see the world around them. Dawkins said that we tend to see ourselves as masters of our genetic endowment, but in reality we are merely servants. We are not using genes to achieve our own ends. Our genes are using us. (The idea had been anticipated by the seventeenth-century English poet and satirist Samuel Butler , who quipped, “A hen is just an egg’s way of making more eggs.”)

If Dawkins is right, humans and their social groups originated as mere puppets, complex tools of tiny molecules. You and I were fashioned as if we were cranes, dump trucks, and tanks, designed to be driven by a set of replicators. We are gatherers of raw materials, operating at the be best of microscopic minifactories seated at the center of our cells. For genes are infected with an overweening ambition: their ultimate goal is to reproduce, and in the process, to overrun this world.

Despite the opinions of Montaigne, Rousseau, and their contemporary followers, modern civilization is not the generator of violence. Nor is brutality limited to the “patriarchal” male. The creator of human savagery is Nature, who works her ways through brain segments bequeathed! to both men and women by our animal ancestors. Ironically, it is female aggression that gives the greatest clue as to why nature has found conflict so indispensable. Creatures of every species fight for the privilege of procreation. They battle to immortalize the replicators at their core.

No wonder the wives of ancient emperors and high-ranking ladies of the gorilla clan have been out to corner the world for their children. No wonder Greek heroes, Yanomamo warriors, and rampaging Romans have risked their lives in the hunt for new wombs to sow. Every time a sperm and egg spew a fresh creature into the world, the victor is a gene.

Excerpted from The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom. Copyright © Howard Bloom, 1997. All rights reserved.


[58] Steven Frautschi, “Entropy in an Expanding Universe,” in Entropy, Information and Evolution: New Perspectives on Physical and Biological Evolution, ed. Bruce H. Weber, David J. Depew, and James D. Smith (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, Bradford Book, 1988), 11; and George Gamow, One, Two, Three—Infinity (New York: Dover Publications, 1988), 298–313.

[59] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 13–22.

[60] For a vision of the rise of replicators that differs in interesting ways from Dawkins’s, see Jeffrey S. Wicken, “Thermodynamics, Evolution and Emergence: Ingredients for a New Synthesis,” in Weber, Depew, and J. D. Smith, Entropy, Information and Evolution, 160–63.

[61] Don’t console yourself with the notion that Neanderthals were too primitive to mark the loss. Neanderthals had an aesthetic sensibility: they buried their dead with flowers and used ocher dyes (Leakey and Lewin, People of the Lake, 154). They carried out elaborate rituals, crafted tools and weapons, cooked their food, and made fur clothing with bone needles (J. B. Birdsell, Human Evolution: An Introduction to the New Physical Anthropology [Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1972], 282–83). Archaeologists in China have even found the remains of Neanderthal houses (E. N. Anderson, The Food of China, [New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988], 9).

[62] Lest you think that man in the paradisal state that preceded civilization would never have stooped to the barbarity of massacring a near cousin, consider the case of the chimpanzee. When a hungry chimp is looking for meat, he is quite likely to satisfy his craving by murdering another primate. Jane Goodall describes in great detail how one carnivorous chimp managed to supply himself with cold cuts by creeping up on a group of baboons, grabbing a juvenile, swinging the victim over his head, then thwacking its skull on the rocks until it was dead. This particular killer chimpanzee was not the only one who enjoyed a bit of baboon flesh. His troop-mates crowded around him all day begging for a taste. They even avidly licked the leaves on which tiny drops of blood had fallen. Goodall’s chimps, in fact, feasted fairly frequently on slaughtered baboons and colobus monkeys (Goodall, In the Shadow of Man, 200). Groups of chimpanzees also hunt colobus monkeys (see Christophe Boesch and Hedwige Boesch-Acherman, “Dim Forest, Bright Chimps,” Natural History, September 1991, 50). For similar behavior among baboons, see S. L. Washburn and D. A. Hamburg, “Aggressive Behavior in Old World Monkeys and Apes,” in Jay, Primates, 469. For the relationship between early humans and Neanderthal, see Jared Diamond, “The Great Leap Forward,” Discover, May 1989, 58.

Howard Bloom has been called “next in a lineage of seminal thinkers that includes Newton, Darwin, Einstein, [and] Freud” by Britain’s Channel4 TV, “the next Stephen Hawking” by Gear Magazine, and “The Buckminster Fuller and Arthur C. Clarke of the new millennium” by Buckminster Fuller’s archivist. Bloom is the author of The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History (“mesmerizing” – The Washington Post), Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century (“reassuring and sobering” – The New Yorker), The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism (“Impressive, stimulating, and tremendously enjoyable.” James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic), The God Problem: How A Godless Cosmos Creates (“Bloom’s argument will rock your world.” Barbara Ehrenreich), How I Accidentally Started the Sixties (“a monumental, epic, glorious literary achievement.” Timothy Leary), and The Muhammad Code: How a Desert Prophet Gave You ISIS, al Qaeda, and Boko Haram – or How Muhammad Invented Jihad (“a terrifying book… the best book I’ve read on Islam,” David Swindle, PJ Media).

Bloom explains that his field is “mass behaviour, from the mass behaviour of quarks to the mass behaviour of human beings.” That specialisation gives him a wide scope. His scientific work has been published in: arxiv.org, the leading pre-print site in advanced theoretical physics and mathematics; PhysicaPlus, another physics journal; Across Species Comparisons and Psychopathology; New Ideas in Psychology; The Journal of Space Philosophy; and in the book series: Research in Biopolitics. In 2005, Bloom lectured an international conference of quantum physicists in Moscow – Quantum Informatics 2006 – on why everything they know about Schrodinger’s Equation is wrong, and the concepts Bloom introduced were later used in a book proposing a new approach to quantum physics, Constructive Physics, by Moscow University’s Yuri Ozhigov.

Bloom’s second book Global Brain was the subject of an Office of the Secretary of Defense symposium in 2010, with participants from the State Department, the Energy Department, DARPA, IBM, and MIT. Bloom is founder and head of the Space Development Steering Committee, a group that includes astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Edgar Mitchell (the sixth man on the moon), and members from the National Science Foundation and NASA. He has debated one-on-one with senior officials from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Gaza’s Hamas on Iran’s global Arab-language Alalam TV News Network. He has also dissected headline issues on Saudi Arabia’s KSA2-TV and on Iran’s global English language Press-TV. And he has probed the untold story of the Syrian Civil War with Nancy Kissinger.

In addition, Bloom’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Wired, Knight-Ridder Financial News Service, the Village Voice, and Cosmopolitan Magazine. He has appeared 199 times for up to five hours on 500 radio stations on the highest-rated overnight talk radio station in North America, Clear Channel’s Coast to Coast AM, discussing everything from the biome in the gut and the evolution of the stars to the mechanism of the Great Recession of 2008 and North Korea’s rocket programme.

Bloom has his own YouTube series, Howard the Humongous, which gets up to 790,000 views per installment. His website, howardbloom.net, has had between four and five million hits. Follow him on Twitter at @HowardxBloom.

The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History
By Howard Bloom
Atlantic Monthly Press (March 13, 1997)
ISBN-10: 0871136643
ISBN-13: 978-0871136640
$11.34

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