Random Thoughts

Genes, Darwin, Contraceptives, Demography & Salafi Terrorism

A view propounded by Richard Dawkins and others is that the organism is a mere vehicle for genes to perpetuate themselves. Over the course of evolution, the initial formula of direct and complete perpetuation of genes of an organism by binary fission or parthenogenesis has given way to the lottery of sex with a 50% chance of successful propagation of an individual's genes. Many rational explanations from out-competing rapidly reproducing parasites to sequestering harmful mutations and providing a template for repair and restitution have been advanced for the wasteful preference for sexual reproduction over cloning. Meiosis evolved to make the lottery reasonably fair. The history of genetics is replete with segregation distorters and other selfish genes that have successfully beaten the system and the resultant counter-strategies of the parliament of genes to neutralize this advantage. Nevertheless, as pointed out by Trivers and Burt in a recent exhaustive monograph on genetic conflict, there are circumstances when this extreme selfish attitude can lead to extinction of the species.

Even in animals not expending effort for parental care, the mating instinct is powerful enough for them to jeopardize their life by uttering loud mating calls that may attract predators. In the Black Widow spider and other Arachnid species the male literally courts death to mate. In death he serves as a vital nutrient for the female spider to be nourished enough to give birth to more viable progeny and leaves behind his broken penis as a plug to prevent another male from fertilizing the female's ova. Is there a more unselfish father? Cecidomyian gall midges have two evolutionary strategies labeled "r" and "K". They can lay eggs and have male and female progeny or can reproduce by parthenogenesis bearing females. Aphids behave similarly. In the latter mode the offspring develop within the body of the mother's tissues and literally eat their alive mother from the inside and perpetuate this mode of reproduction, suffering the same dismal consequences. These flies feed on mushrooms which are rare and difficult to find, but once found serve as food for a few generations. The strategy to reproduce prolifically is called the "r" strategy and the offspring are without functioning wings as they have enough food and don't need to fly searching for nutrition. When food is scarce and the mushrooms are eaten they revert to winged children of both sexes and sexual reproduction to explore and find a new mushroom. Is there a more unselfish mother?

Reproduction is so vital that in primates like us evolution has programmed orgasmic pleasure and an insatiable instinctual desire for it. Unfortunately evolution has no foresight or plan and functions by chance and necessity as emphasized by Nobel prize winning Monod in his book. Thus it evolved in us a neocortex that allowed us to analyze and find the secrets of our own existence. When we found oral contraceptives, it broke the chain between sex and pregnancy. We liberated human libido to attain fulfillment without the consequences of pregnancy or parental care and investment. The only reasons to have children are the hope that they will support parents in their old age and the vicarious pleasure of transferring our unfulfilled ambition in the hope of their realizing it. Leakey, on discovering a healed fractured femur fossil in a protohuman remarked that it was a proven example of compassionate care by relatives or friends that let the invalid survive due to the care and efforts of others. Thus in less developed societies with no social safety net the rates of birth are higher, as parents look upon children as a form of insurance.

In the West where the state provides cradle to grave security as in Europe, the birth rates have dropped precipitously. In America with its Darwinian capitalism and religious orthodoxy they have held at replacement levels. There is an additional factor in Europe and America that has led to decline in the birthrates. The second reason to have children once the economic necessity has been eliminated is the vicarious pleasure of basking in their glory. Unfortunately rabid individualistic rebellion has made the young unwilling to channel their life towards the fulfillment of this parental desire. They choose to satisfy their own goals and often ignore their parents' ambition. The deprived older folks without raison d'etre are then led to acquire trophy spouses, indulge in conspicuous consumption or hanker for power. This severely suppresses the desire to have children and leads to a self-gratification psyche, destined to die out as it cannot propagate genes or ideas.

Affluence and satisfaction make individuals and nations risk averse. History is replete with the course of rise and fall of civilizations on that basis. Another of Dawkins' innovative ideas is what he calls memes which are ideas that propagate in a Lamarckian mode due to our gift of the neocortex and speech. They are not always benign and in their most malignant form are exemplified in religious zealotry. Religion has its benefits in that it can put restraints on selfishness and bring about a civil society amongst the non-intellectual masses, but it can also become a scourge as in the Crusades or Jihad.

The compound problems of the West are a mind-set of secular humanism, affluent security and selfish gratification that take away the desire for risk of life, expending time, effort and money to invest in children. The few children raised are affected by lack of parental interest to rebel with greater selfishness which translates into their having even less or none. The need for affection is met by pets with unthinking loyalty. The intolerance for suffering pain and heartache of begetting and raising children is leading to a demographic meltdown requiring increased immigration to meet the fiscal needs of funding an unfunded and over generous social security and old age safety net. The racial prejudices have encouraged immigration from North African and Middle Eastern countries. The same racial prejudices have prevented full social acceptance and integration. The alienated new immigrants regress to religion and their more intimate understanding of Western exploitation with the encouragement of zealous fanatic preachers sows the seeds of domestic terrorism. This leads to states with declining native populations locked in a combat to death with an extremist orthodox Islamic foe willing to proliferate faster and committed to its cause even on the pain of death. It is a no-brainer which side will triumph given time, despite the West having phenomenal advantages in technology and arms. Iraq and Afghanistan are classic examples of the failure of military superiority, as was Vietnam. Of course the hands of the West are not pristine and without stains of sin and it needs to redress the exploitation and oppression of the Muslims and begin a real dialogue and not the phony double talk of the current American administration with its fear and war mongering.  


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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