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Matrix indeed after all?

What do the two pictures on the left and right have in common?

The dog and sheep on the left are the two animals first domesticated by humans (the dog over 17,000 years ago in East Asia and Africa and the sheep over 12,000 years ago in Southwest Asia).

The smallpox infection on the right likely got transferred to humans from an ancestral African rodent-borne variola-like virus between 16,000 and 68,000 years ago.

The connection between the two is what striked me as a possible explanation for the emergence of what Dawkins coined memes in his 1976 bestseller, The Selfish Gene.

This article is a temporary departure from my ongoing series on nature vs. nurture but I thought it is important enough for me to follow the line of thoughts — or rather infectious memes 😉 — that made me write it and may even help me bring new light to the view of the tripartite system in our brain where the Relationship, the Social and the Status organs are coming together to concoct a new human being from each newborn that is at the same time unique from all the others, but still similar enough to be able to find common ground to cooperate with them!

Let me start unveiling the connection between the infectious diseases like smallpox and domesticated animals before you give up further reading thinking that some strange meme is causing me to see correlations where they don’t exist — a possibility I can accept given that it’s been shown by research that often our brains construct their own reality and even come up with fantastic stories to explain our beliefs.

Life’s been busy lately so my writing had to suffer, but I still managed to do some reading (by the way, a week ago I finished Talking Hands from Margalit Fox — excellent insight into how our brain can create language out of “thin air”, in this case a sign language in deaf communities) so I recently picked up Guns, Germs, and Steel from Jared Diamond (I read his The Third Chimpanzee earlier — great overview of human evolution and history). What piqued my interest was the part about infectious diseases — nasty germs as Diamond calls them — with ability to cause pandemic in human population emerging around the same time as agriculture, i.e. food production emerged in the early tribal societies of West Asia more than 10,000 years ago. This was also the time we’ve started domesticating wild animals and turning them into our pet companions or sources of food, materials for tools and clothes or raw power for efficient food production.

Diamond argues that the animal domestication have brought upon humanity various opportunities for certain viruses previously attacking wild animals to spread onto humans, which ultimately lead to an evolutionary adaptation on both sides — us evolving immunity to fight off such diseases and at the same time the viruses reducing some of the impact to cut their fatality as killing too many people too rapidly was leading to extinctions of whole tribes, before the virus had a chance to spread to people from neighbouring tribes, ultimately leaving only the “milder” viruses to survive and spread.

While the book goes on to explain how those germs have tipped the odds for those human populations which domesticated animals first (notably from the Western regions in Eurasia) to spread over the world and conquer many indigenous peoples on other continents by inadvertently letting their own nasty germs loose on populations with no immunity — e.g. the evidence suggests that the viruses spread among the indigenous peoples of native Indians (their population is estimated to have been around 20 millions when Columbus reached the Bahamas in the early hours of 12 October 1492) paved the way for Europeans to quickly take over both American continents in very short time and with limited number of people, something else caught my eye.

The viruses that interested me are causing what could be called crowd diseases, i.e. the cases where the virus spreads over a vast population and manages to maintain itself by jumping from one host to another before its host either dies or develops immunity and ultimately prevents further spread. Influenza, or common cold is one such familiar virus to all of us. What is peculiar about these viruses is that they’ve been brought to us humans from other animals that tend to live in groups — social animals if you will. Even more, all the historical and biological evidence suggests that the majority of the animals we did succeed in domesticating are such group animals (think of wolves, wild horses, wild mouflons and similar animals grouping in packs or herds) and many of those we tried and failed are not.

What is striking about this fact is that prior to the domestication and the advent of food production, we lived in scattered and rather small bands leaving a hunter-gatherer life. However, since about 10-12,000 years ago our population started to rise steeply in certain parts of the world and we started grouping into tribes, chiefdoms and ultimately states with centralised government and organised religion. 12,000 years ago we had no writing, were using limited tools and often killed other people from neighbouring bands — with kinship being the prime reason for people to keep peace between each other. Shortly after the food production took off — compared to the time it took to switch to hunter-gatherer to a farmer lifestyle — the first writing emerged and the history took its known course leading to today’s highly technological society. More importantly, we started reducing the killings and started forming bigger groups, growing from mostly kin-based bands and tribes to bigger societies consisting of lots of unrelated people forming chiefdoms and ultimately states.

How could it be that we managed to overcome the fear of foreigners outside our band and the killing behaviour so common when we were hunter-gatherers and learned to cooperate with non-related people in building complex societies, inventing new technology and ultimately feeding further growth? Is it possible that this emergence was an inevitable outcome from the fact that food production enabled populations to grow much more than the previous hunter-gatherer lifestyle?

Think for a moment what would be your behaviour if someone is to take you from your home and dispose you somewhere on the opposite side of the world, in a place where you don’t speak the language of the locals and have almost nothing in common culturally or otherwise! I bet you’ll experience a flurry of fear, panic, desperation, urge to protect yourself by finding any place with even a slight resemblance of familiarity. Now imagine being in that place with your family. You can see yourself becoming alert, paying great attention to the behaviour of people around you and thinking constantly about the well-being of your loved ones, right? Those feelings would be innate and would surface out through any learned behaviour that made you be a good neighbour, respected member of the community, a trusted colleague at work, etc.

Why you don’t fear your neighbours of co-workers in the same way you may do in case my imagined scenario really played out? I can see you’re coming up with answers like “I’ve known them for a long time”, “Our kids go to the same school”, “We go to the same church”, “We play tennis together”, and so on. But all those answers are relating to abstract things that meant very little for most of our evolutionary history. There’s no more guarantee that your neighbour won’t harm you as there’s a risk you’ll be harmed by a random person in a random place in the world (assuming that place is not in the middle of a war right now, of course).

We’ve just learned to “trust” some people through conscious rationalisation how might they behave in the future relationship with us based on the accepted cultural norms and their previous behaviour, while when we’re presented with a new culture/language and people we never met before, our unconscious fight or flight emotions take over and make us behave very differently than usual.

My question is what caused us to “raise” over our fight or flight urge — that we share with our ape ancestors — and start relating to other people which are not our kin? A possible answer that I am pursuing in this article is that we didn’t evolve this new behaviour, but it was brought on us!

When we think about evolution, we often think in isolation how one species adapts to the environment and under circumstances separates into two or more groups that may have different environments causing them to diverge and become distinguished species. While that process is surely largely responsible for the evolution of all of the species that survived so far, it doesn’t explain the rapid changes in humans that seem to have piled up in recent history after letting our species to evolve very little for millions of years after our lineage split from the common ancestor we shared with the other apes.

In the past 50-100,000 years our brain size increased more significantly than any previous increases that may have started with Australopithecus or Homo Erectus, we acquired language, we started our own food production instead of depending on existing plants and animals, invented writing, boosted the invention and adoption of technology, evolved complex societies and conquered the entire planet. Short of a miracle change in our genes (highly unlikely given that we share most of our genetic code with chimps) or aliens visiting us and teaching us few secrets (I wouldn’t discard it entirely, but in all likelihood this option remains in the realm of science fiction), something else but biological adaptation in response to the natural selection pressure must have happened.

That else, it seems to me, might have been someone else’s evolution — that of the nasty germs we inherited from our lovely pets while we were trying to domesticate them — surely a process that lead to many extinctions because of lack of compatibility between our immunity and the germs killing rate, but also few important survivals in which a balance must have been reached.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of a virus that requires significant population size of animals to feed off and spread. Your best strategy is to try to avoid being too lethal so that you kill all your potential hosts and effectively become extinct yourself. But in the wild it is hard to optimise the speed of killing your host to ensure there’s enough time to meet another host and transfer further. Many viruses have employed various strategies like hitch-hiking in the saliva of insects biting their host, thus increasing their mobility and range. Those interesting for us are the ones that have gone further and modify their host’s anatomy (e.g. create open wounds), habits (e.g. induce itching, coughing, sneezing or similar) or even behaviour!

Think of this for a moment! Wouldn’t a virus that influences its host behaviour in a way beneficial to the virus by increasing its chances to spread to another host be ultimately successful in spreading more babies of its species and increasing its chances in winning the survival lottery? The researchers have already found many examples of this kind of behaviour change induced by a parasite — e.g. the host may divert from its regular life pattern and turn itself into an easy prey for a certain predator, allowing the parasitic virus to spread to the predator.

Given that I started this article with the example of smallpox and similar crowd disease, I now ask the question, “What better behaviour change can such a potentially pandemic virus  cause to make their hosts increase contacts with other potential hosts, i.e. group in packs, herds, bands, etc.?”

Remember that these viruses got transferred to us by animals that already exhibited group behavior, so they already may have had mechanisms for inducing that group behaviour in their hosts. We humans, with our significantly bigger brain capacity compared to those animals may have offered the best environment possible for the spread of such viruses.

If my hypothesis that our group behavior is not caused by the evolution of our own species, but triggered by viruses like smallpox is correct, then one can easily come up with explanation for the rapidity with which humans raised from their ape origins and in very short time developed more and more complicated social interactions, leading to the development of culture, which further fuelled grouping and many of the advances in human lifestyle we’re all too familiar with.

It may even explain the origin of memes, maybe as an extraneous representation (like a phenotype?!) of the virus’s genes.

The picture that emerged in front of me as I was reading through Guns, Germs and Steel and thinking about the impact of the viruses we inherited from the animals we tried to domesticate was one not unlike the one in The Matrix when Neo emerges from the virtual and into the real world, in which it turns out the humans are plugged to a machine controlled by robots, blissfully thinking that their experiences are real — except in my picture there are no robots, but some of the oldest living inhabitants of our planet (whose lineage goes back billions of years to the very origin of life) are plugging us, humans (with a very short appearance on the scene of life on Earth) into their own version of the Matrix, one in which we’re merging societies and cultures into one big global mega-state, an ultimate dream for pandemic loving nasty germs to spread over the entire planet.

The only problem is that our controllers have driven us into eating our way to extinction by overusing the resources available on our planet. I wonder what outcome is best favoured by the germs – us flying off on another life-bearing plant where they can start all over again, – us causing a vast extinction of most complex lifeforms, so they can go back and redo their experiment, but this time using the acquired knowledge,-  or the evolution of a new replicator not limited by carbon-based biology but rather silicon-based technology, where they may take a ride in the ultimate form suitable for this universe, that of bits of information!

Categories: General Tags:
  1. April 4, 2010 at 4:51 pm

    I usually don’t post on Blogs but ya forced me to, great info.. excellent! … I’ll bookmark your site.

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  1. April 4, 2010 at 1:15 am
  2. April 3, 2010 at 5:30 am

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