The trouble with genes is that genes are trouble. Not all of them, of course, but a sufficient number to cause havoc in our little world, eventually leading us to disaster. A preposterous statement? Perhaps, but let me see if I can support that statement before you make up your mind.
The species residing on this earth are different from each other. All of them have some virtues, but none of them even approaches perfection. Roses are pretty and smell nice, but they cannot walk or talk. Dolphins can swim, but cannot walk or fly. Humans can walk and invent things, but cannot successfully wrestle a tiger, give off a pleasant aroma, or swim many miles underwater. All species are subject to disorders and diseases, including some that can kill their hosts. Humanity is one of these species.
There are also significant differences within species. Lettuce plants may have a large spherical head, a tall elongated head, a small soft head, or no head at all, just a bunch of leaves. Roses may grow into a shrub or a climbing vine. Pansies, carnations, and other flowering species, produce flowers in different colors. Most members of one species of dolphin sport white sides and a neat black stripe on the sides, but some are all black.
Two forces have been at work causing the differences and imperfections among individual organisms. The collection of genes in the body of each living thing initiates the development of the traits that define the plant or animal or micro-organism. Evolution has been the primary driving force over time, selecting among those genes and creating millions of species.
Neither genetics nor evolution seeks perfection, because these forces are mindless and have no idea what they are doing. Genes change, through a process called mutation, in a random non-directed manner, producing forms with varying characteristics. Evolutionary selection among the various forms is simply based on their relative fitness to survive in a given environment. Evolution has no goals. In particular, humans should not think of themselves as the end product of a long-term drive towards biological perfection, the top of the tree of life, supreme over all other forms on the earth. We are simply the last twig on one branch out of millions on the same tree of life.
However, we are the most intelligent, adaptable, and innovative species on earth and therefore the most dominant. Evolution has bequeathed us the genes in our cells that control our intelligence, our actions, our personalities, and our needs. We should pay attention to the consequences of our existence and our abilities to do things well or badly. We are the beneficiaries of our genes, but unfortunately also their victims.
How does this happen?
Genes get around, especially human genes. They travel through human populations in two ways: vertically, from generation to generation through mating, and horizontally, through migration and mating among different, widely dispersed populations. Consider the fact that Genghis Khan and his rampaging Mongol armies left their genes all over Western Asia and Eastern Europe. Each person has thousands of genes, which mutate and change their functions and the traits affected. These phenomena create enormous variation among humans, over time and across borders around the world. As a result, no two people have the same genetic makeup and same trait expression, with the exception of identical twins. Furthermore, there is no predicting when and where particular genetic combinations will show up. Let’s explore the consequences of this situation.
Human genes do four types of jobs: a) control physical attributes, such as eye color, arm length, running speed, and skin color; b) control reaction to disease organisms and disorders; c) control intelligence; and d) control behavior traits. Because intelligence and behavior traits define each person’s inclination and ability to find a place in the world and to impact on local, national, and world affairs, let’s examine what they do.
Intelligence genes control our ability to learn, solve problems, create new things, explore the unknown, and continually expand our knowledge and accomplishments. Various environmental forces (learning opportunities, peer pressure, illness, etc.) contribute to intelligence level also. The relative influence of genetic and environmental contributions has been determined in studies of twins and family histories. The genetic contribution to intelligence is substantial, stable, and real.
Behavior genes affect the actions of people. These actions may influence small or large segments of the population, and the effects can be good or bad. Some of the traits that influence a person’s behavior are: avaricious/generous, selfish/unselfish, arrogant/modest, ambitious/laid back, aggressive/retiring, superstitious/skeptical, intolerant/tolerant, irrational/rational, and cruel/kindly. These and other characteristics influence a basic desire existing in the human species: the desire for power.
Many people have little need for power and may shy away from leadership. For others, a combination of alleles for higher intelligence and altruistic behavior may direct a person to become outstanding in science, education, and other positions of benevolent leadership. For those that actively desire to have and use power, there is a wide range of need, from a modest ambition to be president of a local club or foreman of a shop to a consuming hunger to acquire great riches, run a corporation big enough to swallow competitors whole, become the absolute ruler of a country, or conquer the world.
The direction a person takes in the search for power is dependent first upon the distribution of genes that fuel his, or her, needs. Such persons must also have sufficient intelligence, exist in a succession of environments that support the needs, and be able to take advantage of opportunities that arise. For people with great hunger, the lesser opportunities are only stepping-stones to positions of enormous power, which offer chances to do things that affect large numbers of people over the entire world. Leaders of countries and global corporations affect the lives of thousands, millions, or even billions of people. Benevolent leaders view this kind of power as a great responsibility, an opportunity to enhance the lives of large numbers of people. For leaders who worship power, the opportunity usually means personal gratification, often with disregard for the effects on everybody else. Extreme expression of aggressiveness, avarice, cruelty, violence, destructiveness, and irrationality will create a person capable of unleashing disaster. Combined with sufficient intelligence, these traits may produce a world-class monster. Three people of that description emerged in the twentieth century alone: Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and Mao Zedong. What havoc could have been visited upon the world if the great conquerors of the past, such as Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, or Napoleon had the technological tools available now? And what will be available to future leaders of this ilk?
Bad leaders are either immoral and deliberately injure people, or amoral and are indifferent to suffering, even when it exists beneath their noses. It is difficult to decide which type of non-morality is worse.
Power! The hunger for it guides leaders at all levels: the prison guard who beats up prisoners; the political leaders who sell their services; the business and financial leaders who steal from clients, customers, and employees; the tyrants who conquer and destroy millions of people and the trappings of their civilizations. All of them work under the thrall of the genes that fuel the need for more power, more money, more slaves, or all of these. The bad genes also fuel the plunder of the planet’s resources. Bad genes have been around as long as the human species, and they are not going away. They cannot be excised, even by the horrible eugenic methods that have been perpetrated on great numbers of powerless people by segregation and forced sterilization. They have and will pop up continually in succeeding generations, often where least expected: Hitler was the son of a minor public official in Austria; Mao was a farmer’s son; Stalin’s father was a cobbler from Georgia; Alexander was the son of the king of Macedon; Genghis Khan was the son of a tribal chieftain.
I find it difficult to be optimistic about the future. In this globalized world, it is becoming easier to accumulate great wealth and power. The more wealth and power that flow to or are aggressively acquired by the few, the greater the chances of global disaster. The greedy political and corporate leaders who pursue those goals are concerned only with themselves and the now. The future doesn’t yet exist and doesn’t count. Other people also don’t count. They are the “common folks” of the world, existing only to be used by their betters.
Sooner or later, disaster will come, through war, utter degradation of the planet, economic collapse, or more likely, all three. As our resources diminish, especially petroleum, land, and water, there will be no better incentive for countries to go to war, frequently, to protect their resources or acquire new ones.
In the United States, we are plunging headlong, eyes and ears shut, toward unbridled capitalism, on our way towards creating a country with two classes: a small one consisting of the very rich, and an enormous one consisting of people considerably poorer even if they’re not defined as poor by statistics. There will be no unions to protect workers’ interests and very little necessary government regulation to protect employees, customers, and the general public. We will have successfully transported ourselves back to the late nineteenth century. Hello, Gilded Age.