Becoming a gene machine - what should change?

post by Delta · 2012-08-01T13:06:17.003Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 38 comments

Hello everyone,

After being introduced to the fascinating subject of evolutionary theory by Less Wrong and starting reading The Selfish Gene I have been slowly coming to terms with the mind-blowing revelation that I am simply a machine built to ensure the preservation of my genes, and that they are the only part of me that will outlive me. This is a change of huge magnitude, requiring I abandon the usual cached thoughts and perceptions of humanity as somehow special, detached from and above the world and baser matter that built us.

Such a revelation should make me question all my assumptions, permeate my thinking, yet I find myself still thinking much the same ways I did before. I have not fully integrated this information and its implications into my world-view. I have noticed myself changing my mind less often than I think, and hope.

My question to you is therefore, how would you expect a person who had learnt of their status as a "mere" gene machine then reflected and fully integrated the knowledge to think? What new thoughts and habits would they form compared to their old life as an immortal special creature, allegedly made in god's image? What would you expect to change?

I offer the following suggestions of the kinds of change this hypothetical person, let us call them "the subject", would make:

- The subject would have to reformulate their attitude to other non-human life-forms or potential lifeforms. With no divine spark seperating us from other animals or artificial minds, they would experience the freedom to decide what they place in their "tribe" (I'm reminded of Human the piggy in Speaker for the Dead realising he can include other cultures and even alien species in his definition of his "tribe"). Would they show more empathy towards non-sapient animals too? How else would this manifest?

- The subject would become more aware of their own mortality and that of others. This would hopefully result in taking additional care of themselves and others on the basis that each has only one chance to be happy and our indifferent creators will not do so. Regrettably this could go the other way and result in undervaluing life given its brevity and seeing no need for morality.

- The subject would feel additional kinship towards fellow humans, bearing in mind that their fundamental structure is almost exactly the same. They would hopefully have greater difficulty labelling others as inhuman or evil and be better capable of empathy. This coupled with their own mortality might incline them to pursue longer-term projects for the benefit of humanity as a whole.

- Less laudably the subject might make their new awareness a source of pride instead of humility, and take pleasure in looking down up those who still hold such "backward" beliefs, seeing them as weak for embracing reassuring falsehoods and having inflated senses of their uniqueness and special-ness.


These are all very general, and I would be very interested to hear your ideas of specific behaviours such a conversion would engender if properly reflected upon and integrated. Thank you for your time.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2012-08-01T14:13:18.808Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You are a gene machine, but you are not merely a gene machine; you are not even 'merely' a gene machine.

Replies from: Delta, None
comment by Delta · 2012-08-01T15:35:09.757Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm aware of that, but since there is no inherent, conceptual difference between us and animals (the soul or right to rule them that religion says we have) it means we have to decide what it means to be valuable rather than just assuming we are and not thinking about it. How intelligent would an animal or machine have to be to have the same value we place on a human?

Replies from: Emile, Larks
comment by Emile · 2012-08-01T20:22:06.582Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How intelligent would an animal or machine have to be to have the same value we place on a human?

How heavy would a statue need to be for it to be considered as pretty as the Mona Lisa?

comment by Larks · 2012-08-01T17:55:12.483Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are plenty of inherant differences between us and (non-human) animals; for example, we have the property of being human. The question is whether or not there are ethically significant differences, which is a completely different question.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-01T22:29:18.768Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What's the distinction between merely and 'merely'?

Anyway, I'd go further and say that humans are wonderful gene machines.

Replies from: Luke_A_Somers
comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2012-08-02T13:43:52.363Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"mere" was the scare-quoted usage in the original post. I wanted to emphasize that even weakening it with scare quotes wasn't enough.

Replies from: Document
comment by Document · 2012-08-02T20:17:25.219Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Delta seems to have edited it from from "merely" to "simply". Not sure why, since they all mean exactly the same thing: roughly "I am using this sentence to claim something unsupported by its literal meaning".

(Rather than "lullaby words", I personally like to think of them as "alarm words".)

comment by FiftyTwo · 2012-08-01T23:15:16.827Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Why should you act any differently at all? The day before you learned about these you valued x , y and z, the day after you still valued them. Whatever the causal source of those values you hold them all the same.

comment by ChristianKl · 2012-08-02T09:45:01.145Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is too much "should" in your text.

Evolution isn't intending to form creatures in a way that they preserve their genes. Evolutions knows no intentions.

The Christian god tells people what to do. Evolution doesn't tell people what to do. If you come from a Christian background it might make sense to replace the "shoulds" of Christianity with "shoulds" from Evolution. That isn't how it works.

Once you get rid of a god telling you what to do, you have to make your own decisions.

comment by Manfred · 2012-08-02T00:09:02.815Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you may be confusing causation and purpose. With a question like "why do I exist?" it's pretty easy to miss that 'why' can have at least two meanings.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-01T22:25:18.032Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

my genes ... are the only part of me that will outlive me

What about your memes? (See also: I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter.)

comment by OrphanWilde · 2012-08-01T13:45:50.125Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think any of that follows. My personal change in opinion was this:

"Hm, shit, I'd better have kids." That was pretty much it.

What makes you think any of those conclusions are likely? They sound more like beliefs you already held, as suggested by the fact that all of them except for the last are, apparently, laudable, which you found reason to reinforce in genetics.

For example, animal rights. How does it follow that we should have greater empathy for other animals just because they're made of the same stuff as we are? I could see an opposing realization that animals are directly competing with us, and therefore fair game.

Replies from: juliawise, Delta, DanielLC
comment by juliawise · 2012-08-01T16:42:32.986Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't let evolution define your utility function. It got you here, but you decide where you go from now. Will having kids produce effects you actually want, or will it just continue the pattern of evolution?

Of course, we evolved to enjoy things that help us pass on genes, like butter and cute kids, and pursuing enjoyment seems fine. But only if you really enjoy those things, not just because it spreads your genes.

Replies from: timtyler, OrphanWilde
comment by timtyler · 2012-08-01T23:11:56.221Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't let evolution define your utility function.

It's probably a bit late for that!

comment by OrphanWilde · 2012-08-01T16:55:57.447Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Robin Hanson posed an argument in a post I can't hunt down that choosing not to have children disadvantages genes which permit that choice over the very long term. It's possible there are genetic reasons this line of argument may lead nowhere - there may be no genes at all which can have any impact on that choice, for example, or those genes may confer benefits which outweigh these costs. But for now I am convinced by this line of argument.

Replies from: juliawise
comment by juliawise · 2012-08-01T22:09:38.410Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't understand this argument. It says that if only people who want to have children reproduce, future generations may be incapable of choosing not to reproduce? And thus people who don't want to reproduce should do so anyway to preserve the ability of future generations to ...choose not to reproduce?

It also depends on how likely you think there is to be a "very long term". I think it's plausible that standard evolution won't matter much in the long term because we'll either be wiped out or reproduction will be very different.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2012-08-01T22:30:24.589Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The issue isn't strictly the choice not to reproduce, but choice-space generally; our brains are fairly complex, and anything that compresses one choice is probably going to compress others. I don't pretend to know the shortest path to increased reproduction, but as a general rule of thumb, genes are ambivalent towards the interests of their hosts. There are more ways for the shortest path to be bad for us than to be good (from the perspective of our current interests); the least-bad imaginable case for me is that it might simply increase sex drives earlier in our adolescence, when we're more prone to making bad decisions.

Plausible, certainly, but I wouldn't stake anything on it. I don't know what priors to assign, particularly since I think the doomsday argument ignores the anthropic principle. I therefore act assuming that things will proceed according to historic norms. (Now, if I had a strong disutility from engendering children, I might weigh things differently. However, since I came to the conclusion that I should have children, I've decided that I want them. So a utility-neutral decision became a utility-positive one. Some biases have advantages.)

comment by Delta · 2012-08-01T15:51:32.812Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I guess this more comes into coming to terms with my own mortality. A full appreciation of your own brevity and insignificance is a bit of a shock to your system (I'm reminded of Douglas Adams's total perspective vortex), and as a pair they feel like such game-changing ideas that they should have a significant effect on my thinking. It feels like a change of such enormity that something is wrong if it doesn't result in a lot of rethinking, hence my coming here to discuss the implications when I realised I was just carrying on as before.

As for animal rights I am inclined to agree and not place a high priorirty on preserving species (you'll be able to clone another before long, right?), but I never really thought out the reasons why before (probably the cynical reason that I can get more out of preserving humans so I put a low price on other causes). Since I never had a clear idea why being less empathic towards animals was okay it felt like the revelation I'm not so different should make reconsider the issue. Again, my concern is it hasn't, that I'm not updating myself.

Replies from: OrphanWilde
comment by OrphanWilde · 2012-08-01T16:15:06.307Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think you should account for it in figuring out the best course for the future; Robin Hanson's argument that choosing not to have children could compress decision space in the far future resulted in me concluding that the long-term implications of choosing not to have children may be a bad thing, absent radical changes I do not feel safe including in my predictions.

However, it doesn't necessarily follow that it should change your ethical system as a whole, unless your ethical system is dependent upon the mechanisms by which you came into being. Your consideration space is finite, so at some point it's necessary to limit what you put into it.

comment by DanielLC · 2012-08-01T19:41:56.972Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Hm, shit, I'd better have kids."

Why? Also, by "have kids" do you mean start a family or donate sperm?

I could see an opposing realization that animals are directly competing with us, and therefore fair game.

Humans are even more directly competing with us. Are they more fair game?

If we value humans because humans are similar to us, and we find that animals are more similar than previously thought, it would follow that we would start valuing animals more.

Replies from: timtyler, OrphanWilde
comment by timtyler · 2012-08-01T23:45:57.029Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If we value humans because humans are similar to us, and we find that animals are more similar than previously thought, it would follow that we would start valuing animals more.

If we are talking about kin selection, that doesn't really follow - members of other species are very distantly related to us - and barely qualify as kin at all. Nor do they typically share memes with us - so their memetic relatedness with us is near zero as well.

comment by OrphanWilde · 2012-08-01T19:58:37.276Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Donating sperm is a lower-probability option, to be sure.

Humans don't compete in zero-sum games, generally. If a particular human or set of humans forces me into a zero-sum competition, yes, they are fair game. In a choice between a mugger's life and my money, I'm going to pick my money.

We already implement something like this with animals, which is why dogs and cats, who play a cooperative game with us, have more value than cows, with whom our relationship is closer to a synergistic low-sum game, which have more value in turn than coyotes or wolves. (In modern day, we rarely compete directly with coyotes and wolves, and they tend to get benefit from city folk from a halo effect from our affinity for dogs. Those who do compete with them rarely harbor such sentiments.)

comment by Ahuizotl · 2012-08-02T08:30:56.717Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, one other way to look at it is that "you" are a self-modifying computer program who just happens to be operating on a neural net that evolved inside of biological self-replicating machine.

The fact that your body (which comes equipped with reproductive, digestive, and various locomotive and manipulating organs and appendages) happens to be running you as its operating system as opposed to running say... the mind of a dog, fish, gorilla, or stagnant vegetable simply means its survival chances are higher when it has someone intelligent at the wheel.

The body is essentially a self-replicating machines with all its immune system and digestive track and other bits to perform its needed self-replication. But alone it isn't capable of meeting its own needs without a mind (aka You) to help it maneuver through its environment. Plants have no minds because they only work through photosynthesis and absorbing nutrients from the soil, they also get eaten by herbivores en mass. Animals run primarily through instict, basically working like old-school computers on legs running some basic instinctive programming that is rather difficult to self-modify.

You are an intelligent self-aware optimization process that is currently operating on one of the best computing platforms that nature has managed to cobble together over millennial of evolution. Your basic human body, devoid of a personality and collection of acquired cultural memes, is little better than a mindless vegetable or a feral animal (sadly one devoid of claws or other natural defense mechanisms). Your body counts on YOU to help it operate its limbs and vocal chords to help it mover around and navigate an increasingly complicated world.

Fortunately, YOU are smart enough to learn about things like nutrition, exercise, medicine, and potentially various trans-human technologies that could help you maintain your body better than it could ever do on its own. If you have a heart condition that could kill you (and your body), you can find ways to cure it or get a replacement heart. If you find your condition incurable then you could potentially enact plans to prepare for your eventual death, ensure your progeny (or other humans) get the resources they need to survive, you could even donate your organs for transplant to improve the survivability of others.

Or you could invest in cryogenics to have yourself frozen and possibly revived and brought back to life later. If evolution had ever found a way for your body to reanimate itself after death then it would gladly have taken it (there are plenty of creatures who's bodies can regenerate limbs or survive freezing cold or poisons). As your bodys Operating System, it's your job to decide how to best improve both its and your own survival.

Or you could try downloading yourself into a completely new and better optimized body instead of your regular human one. If you try that... then I guess your mindless vegetative body won't complain.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2012-08-01T23:17:52.370Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You're not just a gene machine. Your gene machine is part of you. But you don't have genes for speaking English, tying your shoes, or buying food in a grocery store. Your genes are symbiotic with other replicators — cultural replicators — that provide those abilities.

(Yes, it's a symbiosis. Human genes that find themselves in machines lacking a symbiotic language replicator, don't tend to get replicated. Or, in other words, people who can't talk [or sign, etc.] don't get laid very much.)

And if your genes do get replicated, you'll probably care if your cultural replicators spread along with them. (You wouldn't want to have kids and have them raised without language or education, right?)

comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-02T08:25:08.938Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've just noticed the title -- “Becoming a gene machine”? Er... Nope.

comment by The_Duck · 2012-08-02T00:10:01.089Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

As a result of understanding how the human condition came to be, you might become less susceptible to the naturalistic fallacy. For example, I think the majority of LW takes a stronger anti-death position than most people. Possibly this is because most people have some sense that humans are somehow meant to have finite lifespans. LW tends to reject this in view of the fact that our finite lifespans result from the mindless and uncaring process of evolution. When we realize that there is no particular reason for evolution to have ordered the world the way we would want it ordered, we are free to decide whether we in fact want to reorder it.

comment by David_Gerard · 2012-08-01T22:36:19.024Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Reproduce as much as possible. A quick hack to this in the present day, if you're male, is donating as much sperm as possible. My UK experiences in this thread. For females, I understand egg donation is rather more fraught and there's actually a lot less demand, but I have only anecdote to this effect.

Replies from: None
comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-05T22:46:14.388Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In some countries that's not so quick a hack. (Do UK sperm banks accept foreign donors, BTW?)

Replies from: David_Gerard
comment by David_Gerard · 2012-08-06T12:16:36.443Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's a quicker hack than a couple of decades raising your offspring yourself, compared to letting someone else who's keen to do so do so ;-)

If you're a resident that's fine, I think. Find a reason to live here for a year ;-) They need positive ID - I used my Australian passport, but they just wrote down that it was an Australian passport and its number.

You're in Italy - what's the state of sperm donation there? If you're Italian, of course, you have that magical EU passport.

Replies from: None, gwern
comment by [deleted] · 2012-08-06T17:43:45.294Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Unless the law has changed recently and/or I misremember it, in vitro fertilization with sperm other than your husband's is forbidden altogether.(Even with your husband's sperm, you have to jump through an absurd amount of hoops. The most obvious culprit is the Catholic Church's stance that embryos are people, but given what else I know about Italy I wouldn't be terribly surprised to find out that someone is profiting by doing that clandestinely.)

comment by gwern · 2012-08-09T02:44:09.857Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If you're a resident that's fine, I think. Find a reason to live here for a year ;-)

That's an actual requirement?

Replies from: David_Gerard
comment by David_Gerard · 2012-08-09T07:51:41.079Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, I mean having a steady UK address while you're a donor, which is something on the order of months. It's not actually a requirement.

comment by DanArmak · 2012-08-01T21:59:29.179Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

they are the only part of me that will outlive me

Physically, atoms are part of you and will outlive you. As patterns of information (like genes), books and LW posts you write, memories you create in other minds, photographs you make of yourself, will all outlive you. Lots of other examples might be given. You also have the power to make your genes not outlive you. Why single out genes or care about them?

comment by Xachariah · 2012-08-01T21:45:17.721Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am simply a machine built to ensure the preservation of my genes, and that they are the only part of me that will outlive me.

Some hold that we are not just genetic propagators, but memetic propagators as well. That link also talks about how technology may be the third replicator. Eg, technology is literally evolving. Memes aren't good or bad, they just are.

If you hold that humans are not just genetic propagators, but memetic propagators (and technological propagators), then the what will remain of you isn't just your genes. The memes you use/invent and the technology you use/invent will outlive you as well. Acting in a way to promote the replication of one of the replicators is no more important than promoting any of the other replicators. An idea or a technology being born from you is just as much an immortalization as a child. It just doesn't feel that way because genes have a billion year hold on you and grab you at an instinctual level.

Keep in mind, if the singularity hits then 'outliving you' becomes a hard prospect when 'you' can outlive stars. Should you upload, your genes will live on only in they way they affected your personality. When that happens, the only part of you to remain and reproduce will be your memes. I feel like this is far more pure a replication than any crude duplication with DNA or RNA could ever be.

Just because you were originally built to be a machine to replicate genes doesn't mean that is all that you will ever be.

Replies from: Xachariah
comment by Xachariah · 2012-08-01T22:09:13.299Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your hypothetical person holds themselves as a 'gene machine', but their views should further change when you look at humans 'gene/meme/(tech) machine'.

  • Animals are gene replicators but not meme replicators and so hold lower value. Humans can think and animals can't, at least not in the way of replicating memes. That's why we, and anything else that can think, are worth more.

  • The subject would become more aware of their mind, and what memes and tech they're allowing to replicate. They should take additional care in what arguments and ideas they let pass onto others, and which ideas of others they find dangerous and must block their own mind from adopting.

  • Kinship towards others would be based on ideological lines. Genetically, we're all prettymuch identical because humans make up such a small piece of the gene-pie. Even someone who looks 'perfectly opposite' you is practically identical to you genetically. Memetically, humans are the entire pie, so a subject with perfectly opposite ideas can really be your opposite. You would judge people more on the content of their minds.

  • Lastly, you would look at those with different beliefs and do what you can to replicate your memes. You'd teach them and explain to them why your belief is true, and why it is good.

When you take memes into account, Egan's Law comes back to being true.

Replies from: timtyler
comment by timtyler · 2012-08-01T23:05:35.236Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Kinship towards others would be based on ideological lines.

That is cultural kin selection.

Replies from: Xachariah
comment by Xachariah · 2012-08-02T01:34:59.471Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That sounds about right. And thank you for introducing me to that blog. It seems to have some good stuff so I'll check it out.

comment by mwengler · 2012-08-02T13:28:55.066Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In my case, awareness of evolutionary psychology has made me more skeptical of morality, of "should" as a moral command. I know whatever else is going on that I feel most of my "shoulds" because my ancestors who didn't were not as successful at reproducing as my ancestors who didn't. If aliens enslaved us and set about efficiently breeding us to meet their purposes, we would not likely internalize their goals as our goals. Until they managed to selectively breed that tendency in to us. So instead of aliens, we have been enslaved by a mindless natural selection, why internalize its goals?

I am less likely to feel depressed or guilty about percieved lack of success. This constant striving is a feature that natural selection likes, but it sorta sucks for the individual. Sure, you drive yourself mercilessly and you get more done and in the past that was the difference between almost surviving and thriving. But if I can survive without that grinding internal demand to do better, I'll shut the damn thing off with medication and be personally better off for it.

Its extremely interesting to contemplate whether what makes you different is a feature or a bug. Is it something natural selection would be "wise" (in its mindless way) to include in future generations, or is it, as is much more likely statistically, something that reduces human's fitness if generalized?

We know from the selfish gene and the moral animal that human social connection is a primary driver of our fitness ( a lone human or pair of humans is not a successful animal in the wild). Much, perhaps all of what we call morality has to do with internalized rules for how to interact with other humans. Knowing these evolved, I consider it educational to contemplate how the various rules helped us survive. How did they improve cooperation, or at least the kind of cooperation that was useful?

Natural selection is dumb, there is no reason to think it is looking for a "uniform" human genome which is optimized for survival if replicated. Indeed, we have the obvious man-woman split. Maybe other variations are features of the survival of the whole of us (and therefore the survival of our selfish genes). Maybe we need a few sociopaths to run big companies and countries without the survival-sapping restraints that the rest of us, who make great followers and cannon fodder, have. Maybe the optimum physicist, general, politician, and businessman really are genetically different from each other, and a human genome which becomes too homogeneous will be out-competed by groups of humans that stay more varied.

It is also fascinating to contemplate "gaming the system." The dodo bird lays its eggs in another bird's nest and its chicks are raised by the other birds as their own. What do our genes tell us about adultery? Rape? Dishonesty for seduction? Cuckoldry? I have read that leaders of many countries and companies are sometimes psychopaths. Maybe a society of 100% psychopaths would fail. But would a society of 1% psychopaths have any advantages over one with 0%? Do we need immoral leaders, unconstrained by conventional concerns for their fellow humans, to organize a group of humans and allow that group to compete in a less restrained way against the other groups?

The "shoulds" I take from evolutionary psychology are 1) there often is a survival reason something is a certain way, even if I find that something morally odious, 2) don't "worship" your moral tendencies or beliefs: they didn't come from god they were just what worked better than available alternatives, 3) when there is a feature of the world you hate, this may be a map-territory problem: genetics had to optimize you by giving you a simple map for a complex world, and that map may not work all the places you try to use it.