Lateral Meme Transfer

September 6, 2009

So the first paper I had to read in my Cell Bio course was a paper by Carl Woese at the University of Illinois from 1998 called “The universal ancestor.” LUCA, or Last Universal Common Ancestor by many scientist, is our sort of Adam and Eve: some simple cell from which environmental factors and genetic mutations led to the vast array of organisms we see and observe today, including ourselves. His theory, in short, is that LUCA could not have been one species as we know it today, having all of the essential little biological processes we see in our cells or even simpler organisms like bacteria. Instead he proposes that LUCA was instead a community of “progenotes” or extremely simple cells that lack large RNA sequences with each cell providing a different crucial aspect to life. As the community of cells survived, they had to give and share with each other, proving that the cells were not self sufficient as we would see later.

In the paper he says that the method of evolution for LUCA was different than the method we see today. Today we evolve through genetic inheritance. Family trees. Mom and Dad are different from each other, they have a kid, and if that kid got good aspect of mom and good aspect of dad, he will survive to adulthood and produce a bunch of children who hopefully will also have those same good aspects. Aspects in this case being genes that lead to a stronger ability to survive. But in the chaotic … cluster fuck … of the progenotes, everything evolved differently. Calling it lateral gene transfer, he proposes that the cells of LUCA easily shared genetic information. If things worked well the genetic information could move around and be taken by other cells and if things failed, the information would be quickly lost as those cells died. So evolution moved extremely fast with direct genetic movement from cell to cell instead of what we have today that requires slow generational movement.

An interesting aspect of his paper is his discussion on translation. Translation is how genetic information, like RNA and DNA, become proteins, proteins being the workers of the cell. He says the poor early ribosomes, ribosomes being the RNA machinery that does translation, were extremely inefficient. This means that mutation rates were high, and only small proteins could be made from equally small genomes. And with eventual efficient ribosomes being made that had much better accuracy, traditional vertical, family tree inheritance could occur. Because with better ribosomes meant less mutation and larger proteins which could not be genetically transferred laterally. This all just reminded me of HIV. HIV relies on a poorly functioning reverse transcriptase to be able to adapt to anything. But this is a side note and I’ll get back on topic…

While this theory of his is based on supposition, although his reasoning is extremely well thought out and very believable, the idea of lateral inheritance is an important one. I’ve been thinking about religion a lot lately. Being around the nonbelievers (aka, the biologists) have really got me thinking. Biologists tend to, more than any other science, reject religion. This is the result of evolution being a major aspect of our career. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” a famous quote by Theodosius Dobzhansky. We stake our experiments on evolution. I’m currently working on a project in yeast that looks at a system in yeast that is conserved in humans. Without evolution, I’m wasting my time: who cares about yeast. But with evolution, I’m looking at a system so important to life, even a single celled organism has it.

But is rejecting religion a bad thing?

I’m going to make the case, with lateral gene transfer, that it might be. This is coming from a biologist, remember. A godless biologist at that.

Religion is a very important aspect of our development into society. Religion brings our people together and gives us a culture. For I don’t know how long, religion has worked in doing that. Look at marriage. A religious institution, it has for the longest time, brought two people together to care and nurture their children. What is more evolutionarily stronger than this institution? We have a long tradition of courtship that leads to two dissimilar people (opposites attract) getting together and sharing their differing genes. Then we bind them together to ensure that these children survive the difficulties of childhood and become successful, child bearing adults. Marriage is a meme that proved to succeed in raising tons of strong children, so it stuck.

(Skip this is you know about memetics) A meme is a cultural gene. The theory of memetics is relatively new (1970’s Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins). It states that we pass down genes to our children. But with human thought, we have developed a new self replicating “gene” that strictly relates to culture. He called these meme’s, or the cultural genes that like genes, go through evolution and natural selection. Some memes survive, marriage, and some die, Pogs. And some memes evolve, in this case religion.

So religion is, in my opinion, the most successful meme(s). It has held so many societies together, keeping children alive, and getting us to work together and live longer. It keeps us moral, defining what is good, like helping out your neighbors, and bad, killing your neighbors. It has led to cultural bloom: JS Bach is considered one of the best composers, and his Mass in B minor is considered one of the best works ever written, and it’s church music!

But only recently have we seen a different ideology spread. With mass communication and an acceptance of free thought, we are seeing it possible to be moral, care for children, form a working society without religion. Atheism is spreading, and not resulting in tons of anarchists burning houses down and lynching Christians. So is this the end of religion? Maybe.

But I doubt it. Because as ironic as it is, religion, specifically Christian religion, has child bearing in it’s roots. The Duggars have 19 kids with more on the way. Not because pregnancy is some kinky infatuation, but because God told them children are gifts from up above, so more gifts are better than less. But that’s evolution! The person with the most successful progeny wins! And ironically, the godless people working in media are providing them with money to show godless America a crazy Christian household. Guess what, the godless are giving this Christian family money to be even more successful, both evolutionarily and societally.

But are the atheists producing 19 children? Are we listening to the word of Darwin and crapping out as many children as we can to spread our thinking in the world. And I have a feeling we’re not. Even Richard Dawkins, who many biologists have come to view as the atheistic leader of evolutionary thought, has only one child. That guy should be producing tons of children to someday spread his thought to the world. He preaches a militant atheism. How does he plan to do it without vertical, family tree inheritance of ideas?

He does it by lateral meme transfer. If atheists aren’t having enough kids to pass this ideology down, they need to spread it laterally. Show the rising youth, confused by war and famine in spite of one dollar spicy chicken sandwiches at BK, a scientific view of life. Show them that hoping for a peaceful, paradise heaven is affecting their happiness in the life they are experiencing today. Show them that they too can have a family, a marriage, and a happy, successful life, without god.

Atheism depends on lateral conversion. So many families are ingrained into their religious ways, and with atheist families so small in number, the only way to make is to convert them.

Will it succeed? I don’t know. My advice? Atheists need to instead of talking about a rejection of God and the importance of evolution, give people a sense that they too can question life, questions fate and destiny, and still create a viable, happy family. And that vertical meme inheritance, allowing your numerous children to also freely believe what they want, and listening to the facts, needs to also be prioritized. It’s worked for religious families for thousands of years. We need to utilize every memetic tool at our disposal. Or else we will see atheism and free thought disappear, just like that your super awesome shiny gold pog that just landed facedown.



  1. Isn’t that what the atheist bus ads have been pushing? Goodness without God? It’s a tough sell, though. I’d never say that militant atheism is the way to push the issue. I don’t think we should be brutal in our criticism of the limits of religion but we do need to work harder at demonstrating the flaws in their reasoning (and lack thereof). We need to demonstrate the goodness, the ethical behaviour, the decency that they claim can only come from their Good Book. Proof through deeds as well as words.

    And yes, it’s harder since they outnumber us. But economically, it’s not viable in this world to have 19 children and hope to support them all. Without those books and TV deals, what kind of life would those kids have? On the flip-side, how are these kids supposed to live normal lives at that kind of constant attention level? What motivation is really behind the Duggars’ ambition? I really don’t think parents should be pimping their progeny all over the media in the effort to sell an ideology. It can’t be good for them.

    The lateral meme way is probably better because it’s not limited to a family’s lineage. It can cross borders, cultures, affect strangers, and compel anyone whose mind really “gets” it to give it to others. It might not be fast, but it might have a longer reach in the end.

  2. I’ve read of this lateral gene transfer theory before and the various claims about its relation to religion. There’s a very sobering and sensitive analysis of this whole controvery in Anthony Serafini’s classic book THE EPIC HISTORY OF BIOLOGY available from Plenum press online. He tries to sort out the pros and cons of both sides

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