I posted yesterday on “What Does It Mean that We Are Sapiens? Reflections on Darwin Day.” And although there is a lot more to say about the history and implications of our species’s evolution, in reflecting on the implications of what it means to be Sapiens, I would like to consider not only genes, but also what are sometimes called memes. A gene is a region of DNA that is passed down biologically from parent to offspring. From a certain perspective, the more of your DNA that survives, the more you can be seen as winning at the game of evolution. In contrast to a biological gene, a meme (from the Greek word μίμημα, which also gives us the words mimic or mime) is an element of culture that is passed down not through biological genetics, but through social imitation (120).
To give an example of the difference of genes and memes, consider bee hives. If you look closely, you will see complex social structures; but what you see is instinctual, genetic behavior. “Bees don’t need lawyers, because there is no danger that they might forget or violate the hive constitution. The queen does not cheat the cleaner bees of their food, and they never go on strike demanding higher wages” (120). In contrast, for us humans, many of our laws and customs (at their best) are precisely to shape us in ways counter to what our natural, genetic selfish instincts might be. (There are also ways that our customs and laws sometimes uphold war, corruption, and division in ways that run counter to some of our natural unselfish instincts toward compassion, connection, and empathy.) And here’s a crucial point about memes versus genes: “A conscious effort has to be made to sustain laws, customs, procedures and manners, otherwise the social order would quickly collapse” (120).
Whereas genes are inherently and biologically within us, memes are “artificial instincts” that must be taught through culture (163). Consider, for example, the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Jefferson writes about these truths as “natural” laws — inherent, almost “genetic” and built into the order of things. But an evolutionary biologist might invite us to consider that if we were to be honest about what an actual “genetic” perspective tells us, Jefferson’s soaring prose might have to be rewritten as: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [humans] evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure” (110).
Similarly, in my tradition of Unitarian Universalism, our First Principle is “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” A major influence on that choice was the 1948 United Nations’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The very first line of its preamble recognizes that, “the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world….” Likewise, following the preamble, the very first sentence of Article I says, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” I find it to be profound, powerful, and hopeful to be part of a religious movement that has explicitly chosen to weave into our First Principle the starting point of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But a Darwinian perspective invites us to be honest that this claim is more a meme than a gene — which is a reminder of how precious and precarious some of our deepest values are (110-111). There are many vital aspects of our culture that we must not take for granted. If we don’t defend them, they can be lost.
As the saying goes, “History may not exactly repeat itself, but it does often rhyme.” So are there lessons from the history of our species Sapiens than can help us predict what the future might hold? One lesson from history is that there have been five previous mass extinctions on this planet, so there are many reasons to take seriously that the threat of human-created climate change could cause a sixth mass extinction on Earth. Harari writes that some people call climate change “the destruction of nature,” but from his perspective of seeking to take the longview,
it’s not really destruction; it’s change. Nature cannot be destroyed. Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs, but in so doing opened the way forward for mammals. Today, humankind is driving many species into extinction and might even annihilate itself. But other organisms are doing quite well. Rats and cockroaches, for example are in their heyday. These tenacious creatures would probably creep out from beneath the smoking rubble of a nuclear Armageddon, ready and able to spread their DNA. Perhaps 65 million years from now, intelligent rats will look back gratefully on the decimation wrought by humankind, just as we today can thank that dinosaur-busting asteroid. (350-351)
Now, is that really going to happen? The truth is that the past few months have been a reminder that no one really knows what’s going to happen tomorrow much less 65 million years from now. Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, has his guesses. And I saw recently that he has a sequel due to be published in about a week titled Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. That title picks up on the final line of Sapiens. In reference to how powerful our species has become, Harari concludes with a haunting question: “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want” (416)?
I’ll be interested to read Harari’s more extended reflections. But I will say for now that there are many ways in which I remain hopeful. The spirit of resistance and resilience in recent days has shown that many of us do know what we want. For many progressive people, an articulation of what we want is similar to what is found in the UU Seven Principles:
- In the face of bullying and divisiveness, we support “the inherent worth and dignity of every person”;
- In the face of selfishness, cruelty, and greed, we support “justice, equity and compassion in human relations”;
- In the face of religious fundamentalism and orthodox dogma, we support “acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth”;
- In the face of anti-intellectualism, propaganda, and fake news, we support “a free and responsible search for truth and meaning”;
- In the face of authoritarianism and the undermining of constitutional norms, we support “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.”
- In the face of isolationism and tribalism, we support “The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice” — not only for some, but for all.
- In the face of a destructive individualism, we support “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
Liberal values of freedom, reason, and pluralism are more needed than ever.
From certain angles it can feel bleak to reflect on the implications of what it means that we humans are merely a sub-species called Sapiens. But Darwin himself would invite us to reframe that view. So on this week following International Darwin Day, I will conclude with the final paragraph of Darwin’s 1859 book On the Origin of Species:
from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving…the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life…; and whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (170)
The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).
Learn more about Unitarian Universalism: http://www.uua.org/beliefs/principles