Outside the Box: Genes for Justice

By Alice Toler

Could we evolve a better world?

Intelligence, it’s beginning to seem, is pretty common stuff. As we progressively shed our species-chauvinism, we notice signs of intelligence in all sorts of strange places. Fish and reptiles, in particular, were supposed to be the dumbest of the dumb—but now we have evidence that even these “primitive” animals are capable of meta-level thinking. Recent photos confirm reports of tool-using marine fish (http://tinyurl.com/fishtools), and research into Puerto Rican anole lizards shows them to be better problem-solvers than some (more “highly evolved”) birds (http://tinyurl.com/smartlizards).

So, where is this intelligence stuff coming from? It seems to be blowing around like cottonwood fluff in the wind, just looking for a brain to stick to. Nobody yet has a persuasive answer to that perennial question, but we are getting some intriguing clues. Anthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has been building a database of our earliest signs and symbols (http://tinyurl.com/earlysignsandsymbols), collecting them from the walls of caves and rock cliffs all over the world. Way before we have any evidence of human language or civilization, we find that the same symbols were cropping up at geographically disparate locations separated by many thousands of years. Von Petzinger has no answer as to why this is so, but she has an interesting conjecture: Other an­thropologists working with current-day shamanic tribes (http://tinyurl.com/currentdayshamans) have noted that these same symbols and patterns are seen by shamans in altered states of consciousness. Does this mean our early ancestors were also trance-state shamans? It seems at least fairly likely. If this is so, the persistence of these symbols over tens of thousands of years indicate our shamanic heritage is deeply rooted in our evolution and should not be lightly dismissed against far more recent developments in religion and ideology.

In spite of the naysayers, we have ample evidence that evolution is real and that humans are still evolving (http://tinyurl.com/humansstillevolving). Not only are our genes still shifting around in order to allow us better survival in a changing environment, we are also now seeing how those shifts can happen quickly over only a few generations. A trait like height may be coded for in any of dozens of genes, so that selection for “a little taller” among many members of a population may have a multiplying effect in their grandkids as the taller survivors have kids together and share different “tall” genes. This method would also preserve many of the “short” versions of these genes, so they would re-engage quickly if future environmental pressures made being short more advantageous. Geneticists can trace how old a single mutation is by statistical tally methods, and have evidence to suggest that one mutation found among Tibetans that helps them deal with the low-oxygen environment of the high Himalayas may be as little as 3,000 years old. We are life, and life wants to survive!

Psychologists have known for a while that exercising self-control against a temptation (say, while dieting) makes us cranky, but new evidence suggests that self-control itself may be inherently aggravating (http://tinyurl.com/wherebadmoodscomefrom). In spite of this, humanity is not defined solely by greed and selfishness. In fact, it has also been shown recently that we reflexively punish the greedy (http://tinyurl.com/punishthegreedy) and that the foundations of our societies may rest on an evolutionary sense of equity and fairness. Even our primate relatives, capuchin monkeys, have been seen to exhibit similar societally regulating behaviors (http://tinyurl.com/monkeyfairness). This behavior appears evolved and therefore hardwired.

The twentieth century was infamous for its various philosophies of human selfishness and was also noteworthy for bloody and widespread war. If selfishness and cooperation are, like tallness and shortness, coded for genetically, then as masters of our environment the responsibility for the gentility of our civilization is put firmly back in our hands.

If we want to be happier, then we should manage our cultures and our environment so that our “genes for justice” are more likely to be expressed. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “be the change you want to see in the world.”

Alice Bain is a Salt Lake-based artist. Look for her blog updates, appearing several times a week, at www.catalystmagazine.net.

This article was originally published on July 29, 2011.