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Feb 16, 2010

God Genes

Humans are genetically predisposed to use human language. Attempts have been made to raise chimps in human families and in an environment where human language is used, chimps can learn the basics of language, but then they hit a wall, unable to deal with complex grammar. It would be interesting to know which gene combinations allow humans to do what chimps can't do.

Similarly, key elements of supernatural and religious thinking are on lists of human cultural universals. The Human Relations Area Files list rituals used to magically gain knowledge, stories of humanity's ultimate fate, superstitious beliefs about luck, supernatural beings, souls, healing and taboo behaviors. Are there specific gene combinations that predispose humans to religious thinking? Some twin studies have suggested that religious behavior has a genetic component.

In The Start of Eternity, I've been playing around with the idea that the human species was created by intelligent design. The alien Huaoshy came to Earth 7 million years ago and started genetically engineering primates. Their goal: create a species in their own image.

The Huaoshy face a challenge. They strive to create an ape that will make tools and develop an advanced civilization, but they want a well-behaved species that will easily merge into a vast intergalactic civilization along with thousands of other species from other planets.

We can think of religious ideas as memes that infect susceptible minds. In the The Start of Eternity I imagine that the Huaoshy have trouble designing a non-religious human subspecies that can compete against humans who are easily infected by religious memes.

In his Foundation Saga, Asimov included the idea of telepathic communication. For The Start of Eternity I'm imagining that there is some behavioral feature that is selected for by the Huaoshy and it is a consequence of that positive selection that telepathic ability is selected against.

Isaac Asimov wrote some amusing stories about telepathic and religious robots. QT1 invents a religion and HRB-34 can read minds. Asimov's stories were written before computer programming, but he imagined built-in rules that could shape and control robot behavior.

I'm imagining that the Huaoshy played around genetically with Neanderthals and achieved a cortical structure that resulted in a primate with Huaoshy-like consciousness and language ability. However, the Neanderthals were not very susceptible to memes like those that can make a foundation for religions. The Neanderthals were out-competed by modern humans who are better "meme machines". The Huaoshy then struggle mightily to tone-down the genetic predisposition to religious thinking that exists in modern humans before they are allowed to develop a technological civilization on Earth. However, their work is interrupted by a freak accident and a technological civilization develops on Earth before the Huaoshy can complete their work. Oh, well. The rest, as they say, is history.

The "freak accident" involves an evolutionary throwback, one of the last Neanderthals, who ends up having her mind transferred into a positronic brain. Due to the unusual physics of positronic circuits, the latent telepathic abilities of Gohrlay become amplified in her robotic analog, R. Gohrlay. The result, as Asimov said, is psychohistory.

Image. God protein.

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