The Host and The Gene

Written on May 30, 2024

Most things either perish with time or are so simple (like water) that their continued existence is completely un-noteworthy. Replicators are the things in the sweet spot: things which encode information and somehow manage to buck the trend and preserve themselves over long time periods. Replicators by definition are things which are good at burrowing themselves into the future in spite of various forces in nature acting against them.

Genes are one example of replicators. Genes ‘know’ (they don’t actually know anything but you can think of them as knowing) that they can’t survive on their own: they need a host. The host is the body which carries the gene into the future, but as I said above, most things perish with time and hosts are no exception. So the gene also ‘knows’ that eventually the host is going to perish and so the gene will need to find another one. This is where the gene earns its label of ‘replicator’: it replicates itself into another host through getting the host to reproduce.

In humans, this takes place with sexual reproduction: the host finds a mate, they have sex, and their genes are entwined together in a child. The gene isn’t precious about individual continuity like humans are: it’s happy to be replicated many times into many children, to maximise its chances of still being around in the distant future.

Why does the gene do this? Such sophisticated behaviour implies that it has intentions but there’s no more intention in a gene than there is intention in a star that seems to want to burn brightly. The reality is that this is just how things go: very simple structures in complex environments can give rise to complex behaviours and in the case of genes, all that complexity is embodied in the host.

Which is me.

I’ve been thinking lately about how strange it is that there are these mindless, Moloch-like genes in me with the completely mundane goal of burrowing themselves into the future, and I, the sentient instantiation of all these genes, am beholden to their goals, arguably to my own detriment.

I’ve never read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene but I assume he goes into some detail about how all this works. This post is me lamenting that things had to be this way in the first place.

When I’m hanging out with friends and I get a warm feeling of belonging, or when I achieve something and receive recognition and feel proud, or when I’m working towards a goal and get a burning feeling of desire, or feelings of romantic attraction, or disgust, or dread, or ecstacy: it all feels so real and genuine from the Inside View but it’s unsettling to consider from the Outside View that these feelings are exactly what my unfeeling, unconscious all-powerful genes want me to feel! All in service towards their selfish, banal mission to burrow themselves even further into the future.

When a mother sacrifices herself for her child, it certainly seems selfless, but from a genes-eye-view it’s a no brainer. What does the gene care for its host if it’s been instantiated in a younger, more promising host? It seems that many human feats of altruism, when considered more closely, reveal themselves to be the machinations of our callous, selfish gene overlords.

I think about the distinction between Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones quite a bit: the former is ‘Charged with God’ and the latter is not. But GoT’s author GRRM says that there is still so much beauty and tragedy in the lives of his characters and that that’s as real as anything. In LoTR, the Outside View is congruant with the Inside View. By ‘Charged with God’ we really mean ‘Charged with transcendent intention’: intention to match the internal intentions of each person. But in GoT, and in real life, there is no transcendent intention to be found: we just have these genes which, if they have any intention at all, is to… keep burrowing. Not exactly inspirational.

All this being said, I’d much rather be the host that lives its short life as a slave to the gene than be the gene that pulls the strings, bereft of the gift of consciousness. Despite the incongruence between the Inside View and the Outside View, the Inside View is still pretty damn beautiful. And if this is the best that the universe can muster, then that will have to do.

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