18 Apr 2021

Complex High-Level Genes

Posted by jofr

Religious texts are full of analogies and metaphors. Why? First of all because it is the way the mind works. Metaphors are the way the mind works, like combustion is the way a combustion engine works. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson describe in “Metaphors we live by” [1] metaphors are a fundamental mechanism of the mind, because they are essential to understand abstract ideas. Whenever we want to understand an abstract idea we need to use metaphors or analogies, and religious texts are almost exclusively about abstract entities and topics.

Analogies are essential for the understanding of parables, fables & fairy tales too. Fairy tales are an important part of secular and national culture. People always wanted to be rich and famous, and in medieval times this meant to be like the king and his queen in his castle. We used to learn the fairy tales in school or from our parents and now in modern times by TV. In all these channels they are transmitted with high fidelity, as Kevin Llaland argues in his book “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony” [2]. Stories like these remain constant for centuries. For instance in Germany there is an age-old fairy tale of the brothers Grimm named Frau Holle which is a parable that hard work is rewarded and laziness is punished. Fairy tales are similar to the parables in the Bible. A parable is a story based on an analogy or metaphor which is used to teach a moral lesson. This means it tells people what to do in an abstract situation.

We can consider fairy tales and parables not only as nice little stories, but as complex high level genes for abstract guidelines of behavior. Low-level genes such as “Thou shall not kill” or “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” give direct, simple commands. High-level genes are encoded in longer stories and parables. They give like oracles in ancient Greece hints and recommendations about behavior in complex situations. The parable of the Good Samaritan for instance explains the importance of compassion and charity even towards people which we hate.

Religious texts are full of analogies and metaphors because they deal with abstract topics. And they contain plenty of parables. In this sense analogies indeed help to enable cumulative cultural evolution in the first place, as Charlotte Brand et al. argue in a new paper. Brand, Mesoudi and Smaldino argue that “analogy-building served a critical role in the evolution of cumulative culture by allowing humans to learn and transmit complex behavioural sequences that would otherwise be too cognitively demanding or opaque to acquire” [3].

The story of our evolution from ape-like ancestors to modern humans is long [4], but in my opionion analogies alone are not the essential step from primitive culture to cumulative cultural evolution though, as Brand et al. argue. The first higher civilizations in ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egpyt started after the invention of writing systems, whether cuneiform or hieroglyphs, what mattered was the language was written down. The invention of writing systems was the crucial step for the transition to a new evolutionary system. Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd are right if they argue that we are not made by biological genes alone [5]. We are made by multiple genes in multiple dimensions. A new writing system for a language offers the possibility to count people, grains and cattle, but it can also store completely genes of a new system.

If spoken language is persisted by writing systems, then culture cam turn into cumulative cultural evolution, because written language can be used to create new systems, including new evolutionary systems. It can contain recipes and instructions which can be copied, replicated and extended. It can be used to specify genes, from short and simple genes to long and complex genes.

[1] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “Metaphors we live by”, University of Chicago Press, 1980
[2] Kevin Laland, “Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony: How Culture Made the Human Mind”, Princeton University Press, 2017
[3] Charlotte O. Brand, Alex Mesoudi, Paul Smaldino, “Analogy as a Catalyst for Cumulative Cultural Evolution”, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Mar 23 (2021)
[4] Lesley Newson and Peter Richerson, “A Story of Us – A New Look at Human Evolution”, Oxford University Press, 2021
[5] Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd, “Not by genes alone”, University of Chicago Press, 2005

Image references:
Unsplash image of religious book from Aaron Burden
Unsplash image of Eltz castle from Dan Asaki

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