Genes, Memes & Then What?

Wednesday 17 October, 2012

There are good reasons why we are all different. For a start, we have to be. Aside from the ‘wouldn’t the world be dull if we were all the same argument, evolution – the effects of environment on genetic variation – would simply have nothing to work with if there were no variation. Only through diversity does a species have any chance of coping with the powerful impact of its habitat. Indeed, in nature, those two factors – genes and environment – along with behaviour, dictate a species’ chances of survival and the course of its development. But there is one species which has found a way to lay a veneer over those factors and steer its development in any direction it chooses.

This post is about what makes us who we are, how we are influenced by the world into which we are born and how we respond to that world. It demonstrates how these three determinants are not isolated from each other. They are interconnected. But mostly, this piece is about how we can wrest control from the passive view that: we are who we are and nothing can change us.

Genes

To begin with, genes ensure our differences. Our gene pool is large (although nowhere near as large as was first thought), but we still share 99.9% of our genes with each other. It is how those genes are expressed which creates the variations in our appearance and congenital personality. As further proof of the power of epigenetics to trigger the same genes in different ways, consider the fact that we even share upwards of 95% of our genes with chimpanzees. The similarities are clear, especially when we compare both species with the rest of the animal kingdom, but so are the differences.

That the expression of genes could have such a marked effect on organisms when they are essentially made from the same basic units, is an indication of the genes’ power to create individuals. Even with almost identical tool kits, they generate enormous diversity. And so it is that every one of us starts life unique; different from everyone who has ever lived and everyone who ever will. But that is not the whole story.

Memes

Once we are born, our environment begins to influence us.* Variations such as climate and diet all play their part. But so does culture. Meme is the term given to those units of culture which are passed on from generation to generation. They could be anything. Commonly, the word is used to refer to internet memes which spread via our social networks. But they can just as easily be cultural beliefs (‘Our way is the best way), family traditions (‘Nobody in this family ever amounted to anything’), or parental messages (‘Children should be seen and not heard’), all of which have their effect on us, whether we realise it or not.

From the day we are born, we are exposed to all the available memes within our environment. Their impact on us is immediate and can be everlasting. Indeed, some of the behaviours we adopt from our parents may lie dormant until the day we have children of our own. Our vulnerability to memes is particularly evident in our early years. We internalise a whole host of thoughts and feelings without question because as children we lack the awareness or encouragement to verbalise and check our assumptions. So much so that, in adulthood, many of us persist with the same passive absorption. But it need not be that way.

And Then…

Memes are handed down by those who have gone before us. Our perceptions and responses, however, are all our own. They determine to what extent we are influenced by the stimuli of our environment. Two people are unlikely to experience the same stimulus in precisely the same way. So even siblings, born very close together, growing up in the same family, exposed to the same influences, will perceive them differently and respond differently.

It follows, therefore, that the more awareness we have, the more control and influence we have over how we respond and, ultimately, who we become. With awareness we begin to see daylight among the conditioning – that thin distance between cause and effect into which we force our way, pushing the two apart until we can exert our full influence on whatever the world is telling us. It is then that we begin to make decisions for ourselves. The decisions we make, the actions we take, the fate lines we follow, all become our choice.

Our genes have the greatest say about who we are as life begins. But we have the greatest say thereafter. Our environment sits in the middle and exerts influence in both directions, but because we have the chance to become aware of its effect and, therefore, choose how it shapes us, it is we who are ultimately responsible for who we become in our adult life. We have the opportunity to influence our lives in ways our genes no longer can, in ways our environment no longer can.

Given the right start in life – good genes; a nurturing, forgiving environment; and a loving, supportive family – of course we can prosper. But even that is no guarantee. The only way to ensure we make the best of who we are is to take control of our lives, assume responsibility for ourselves and, while we’re at it, empower others to do the same.

 

* In fact, by the time we are born, our environment has already had a far-reaching influence because the conditions to which our grandparents were exposed when growing up have an effect on our gene expression.


Leave a Reply