Traditions and Junk DNA

Have you ever wondered why there is still a royal family in the UK? One that doesn’t ostensibly holds no power, and “rules” over (several) otherwise democratic countries?

Have you ever wondered about seemingly arbitrary cultural practices, like marriage? Why businessmen wear a suit and tie? These things seem normal because they are the way thing have always been your whole life, but think about it: who first thought these things up?

Genetic Pattern

It serves as a proper introduction to start by discussing how the selective pressures that guide evolution can influence more than just organic creatures. For some of you, much of this section may sound obvious. However, I would like to go over it here, for reference to give forward to future posts. If you came to this post for its title, feel free to skip to the section titled, “Junk DNA”.

Since Darwin, biologists have studied how the process of natural selection guides the evolution of all life. The process goes somethings like this:

  1. A population has more offspring than the environment can support
  2. There is variation of traits within the offspring, owing to genes
  3. The environment selects against the less fit of the offspring, leaving only those genes that are better at helping the organisms survive the environment
  4. The successful offspring pass on their genes selected for in step 3, and repeat step 1.

Scientists might get pedantic about how exactly I’ve worded it, but I doubt most readers fail to understand the essentials of process.

Biologists specialize in living, organic creatures and study their DNA. However, the process in steps 1-4 occurs outside of only such confines. Programmers may recognize steps 1 and 4 as a simple recursive loop. We should not constrain ourselves to only thinking about natural selection with respect to only what we traditionally understand as “life”.

For my convenience, I will use the term “genetic pattern” to refer to anything that exhibits the following properties:

An entity or system that (1) replicates or propagates itself, (2), competes with other structures for growth, and (3) changes, or has the capacity to change, with time, in ways that effect its ability to propagate itself.

It is worth noting #1, because this is a bit different than the rule for organic life. Organic life can propagate itself, but not forever; eventually, the forces of entropy make self-propagation non-viable, leaving only self-replication (i.e., reproduction). For non-organic structures, however, it suffices to only self-propagate, with one caveat: if it does not self-replicate, it must be able to be invented/created. Something which, if it happened to organic life we would call it spontaneous generation. Spontaneous generation does not happen to organic life, but something akin to it does happen to other genetic pattern, for example, with companies.

Companies are genetic patterns. They (1) self-propagate, and can be created freely by people in the right conditions. They also (2) compete with other companies for customers and income. Finally, companies (3) change over time, either quickly or gradually.

Previously on this blog, I have referred to that which is created vs evolved. When I say “evolved”, I’m talking about genetic patterns. Genetic patterns that evolve their properties have a few advantages over structures that are designed from the top-down. They: (A) have the capacity to be incredibly complicated, beyond what any human can design, (B) are specially adapted to fit the needs of incredibly complicated environments, and (C) are very optimized for efficiency.

One can see how those benefits are conferred upon companies. Companies are (A) often times very complicated institutions, to the point where nobody truly understands all of their inner workings. Moreover, (B) they fit the needs of the economy, which is itself an incredibly complicated system. No institution of central planners can possibly respond to its needs the same way a private firm does. Which is why (C) the free market is more efficient than Soviet-style planning.

Companies can only survive by providing goods and services that people connect to paying for. The companies that survive are the ones that find a way to do that, however difficult that may be. That is how the free market optimizes for efficiency.

Ideas are also genetic pattenrs. This video elaborates on that. Ideas self-propagate or self-replicate, depending on how you want to phrase it, using language as a medium to spread from one mind to another, competing with other ideas for attention and influence. Ideas also change and evolve with time, being influenced by every mind that spreads them, every “note” in the viral spread. The same holds true for jokes, or heck, any spoken and oft-repeated story.

Words and language are another example of genetic patterns. They self-propagate by similar means as ideas. Words and language gradually evolve through time, which is why linguistics is one minor interest of mine.

Here is where things get tricky. Genetic patterns can themselves contain other genetic patterns. For example, governments are genetic patterns, because they evolve with time and compete for land and power (although they are not totally efficient, for reasons I have discussed before). The tricky part: governments contain another genetic pattern: political parties. Political parties compete for votes (at least in theory) which given at the behest of the people. This, by the way, is why, is why Democracies are better at abiding by the will of the people (at least in theory) than autocratic governments are.

The term “genetic pattern” does not refer to the pattern of the genetics, but rather the entity itself (for example, humans are genetic patterns). Think of it as a synonym for “life”, but for non-organic entities. It’s a term I’m coining for convenience, although other terms that mean a similar thing exist.

Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to refer to what I call genetic patterns. I prefer “genetic patterns” to “memes” for an obvious reason: the latter has taken on a different meaning (which is actually a good example of what I’m writing about).

Junk DNA

Some biologists have estimated that as much as 98% of the human genome is comprised of non-coding DNA, “junk DNA”.

We now know that much of it isn’t in fact actually junk or useless; it is responsible for controlling gene activity. But studying junk DNA can reveal some interesting things about evolution.

For instance, chickens still have the genes for growing teeth. They are in the code. Just aren’t “switched on”. Scientists have, in a laboratory setting, successfully “switched on” these genes, making chickens grow alligator-like teeth.  What this means is: chickens (and presumable, other birds), still have the genes for growing teeth, inherited from their ancestors who once had teeth. Who knows what other genes we all have that are in our code, inherited from our millions upon millions various ancestors, but not expressed.

Now, we come back to the question of why there is still a royal family in Britain.

Monarchies are genetic structures that were at one time dominant, either because they best met the competitive demands of the environment at the time, or simply because a superior system had not been successfully rolled out yet. But environments change. In time, monarchies could not keep up with the demands of the environment, and they were replaced with democracies. In most cases, newformed democracies destroyed the old monarchies, but not always.

When you think of one social system replacing another, you may be tempted to imagine a revolution, a violent clash wherein the old system is irrevocably destroyed. In real life, it does not always happen like that. Democracy in the UK didn’t destroy the monarch because it didn’t have to. It was enough to gradually out-compete other systems. Like chicken teeth are to chicken DNA, monarchies are still attached to some governments … just not “activated”.

I came up with the idea for this post after watching this video by Historia Civilis. At least three times in the video, he mentions that a position in ancient Athens was once powerful, but had since been relegated to a “ceremonial position”.

Athens has been inhabited for at least 5000 years, so it is only natural to imagine that many successive structural usurpations occurred, over time, where each new power structure does not completely replace the older.

When you observe society and institutions, look out for the group that holds the power “ceremonially” or “in theory”, vs the group that holds the power actually, in practice.

I’ll give you an example of something you probably don’t think of as structural usurped: marriage. In the time before birth control, sex = conception. You could not risk having sex with someone who was not completely devoted to you. To answer this predicament, marriage was established and eventually accepted as a contract to enforce commitment before sex. The idea was, if you can’t prevent sex from getting you pregnant, then if someone wants to have sex with you, you better get their commitment in writing.

But birth control changed the environment. If a couple anticipates having a child, it is usually because they want one, in which case each partners’ commitment is not in doubt. Marriage still exists, but it is not utilitarian in the way it used to be. It has been relegated to a “traditional”, “ceremonial”, role. Ostensibly, what those words mean is “non utilitarian”, aka “defunct”.

Okay, maybe not completely defunct, but cultural norms (the acceptance of sex outside of marriage) have replaced marriage, and removed it from its old position in society. There is an entirely different language around relationships. With some similarities to old, such as social punishment for “cheating”, previously called “adultery” when sex = marriage.

Religion is another example. Religion can be conceived of as originally the answer to collective action problems, as explained in this comic. How do you convince people to be good? Religion’s answer is the threat of hell. In time, as states became more powerful, government took over the role once occupied by religion.

Only, governments have a slightly different answer to “how do you convince people to be good”: the threat of prison (which, unlike hell, exists in this world and not the next).

All of this invites a question. Monarchies, marriage, religion … if all of these things are supposedly “defunct”, why do they still exist?

Well, in many cases, it the cost these things exude isn’t so great that it it’s worth the effort to eradicate them outright. There is simply no utility in that. Although they have been relegated to a subordinate and sometimes not traditionally utilitarian role, they survive (as genetic structures) either by costing nothing, or by occupying a particular niche or conferring some small benefit (within other genetic structures), to the point where they technically pay for themselves.

The royals are like fun celebrities. Marriage is symbolically important. Religion gives some people fulfillment.

At least some of their old essence remains.

Status Symbols

I will leave you with a note about status symbols.

Sometimes, something starts out utilitarian and turns into no more than a status symbols. A suit jacket was probably invented to provide warmth, but has turned into a signaling mechanism to indicate professionalism. This is a social convention we all observe, probably existing because of issues relating to collective action (I might dig deeper into this in a later date).

In the opposite way, some things start out status symbols and then loose their attached status. It might just be survivorship bias, but ever notice that aristocratic clothing and architecture seemed to get a lot less fancy after industrialization? This may be because before industrialization, some clothing was so expensive that only the rich could buy it, and so conferred status. Post industrialization, this effect was reduced. Today, the rich prefer the postmodern, minimalist aesthetic.