Day Fifteen: Non-Genetic DNA

I had a professor once who called culture non-genetic DNA. He argued that it is just as determinant as more conventional DNA, regulating our behaviors, thoughts, and ideas. And one of its neat tricks is that it can change much more quickly than standard DNA. When the world changes rapidly and natural selection can’t keep up, cultural changes can help us survive.

Dog has been acculturated, by her friend Oscar the Husky, to be proud of her holes.

I was reminded of this by this article this morning. We humans tend to assume we have a monopoly on culture, but there is more and more understanding that it is found throughout the animal world, and plays a similar role. It made me think of my dog, who wasn’t particularly interested in digging holes in the yard or eating packages until the dog from up the hill kept getting out. He was a bad influence. Together, they created a mini-culture of canine mayhem.

Something found widely throughout the animal world is clearly something that works. Culture is adaptive in both senses of the word.

I think part of what we are grieving now is the sudden upheaval to our culture. Now it is in a state of flux. We aren’t quite sure what things will look like in the future, just that they will look different.

It was already a time to grieve in the United States, and in many other parts of the world, as national cultures have bifurcated. When our political divide started really heating up in the 90s, the term culture war was popular. You still see it in places. And it is apt. It’s not so much that we have evolved different cultures. The US has always hosted a variety of cultures, large and small. It’s that our political cultures now largely revolve around conflict with one another. We’ve lost the overarching American identity that used to encompass our political differences.

In American politics, the culture has become maladaptive.

It can’t be a good sign when an adaptive trait turns on its organism. A national crisis seems like a good bet to reset a national culture, but we don’t seem to be going in that direction.

Will we diverge into one country wearing masks superimposed on a country that is not? In a world where it is already hard to ascertain the truth, will we all become expert liars, our tells hidden under two layers of tightly woven cloth with a piece of furnace filter slipped between? Will you be able to tell which party a politician belongs to by whether he reaches out to shake hands at rallies? How will we reassure one another without physical contact?

Change is hard, and not knowing what we might be changing into is its own kind of agony.

But we can hope for the best. We can hope for a resurgence of compassion that encompasses the other. We can hope for a shift towards unity. We can hope for renewed faith in the usefulness of good science. We can gain a new, visceral understanding of how interconnected we are. We can set a new default of decency. We can use this crisis as a reboot, not just to reprogram our rituals of greeting and popularize fanatical hygiene, but to start again on tackling problems that we cannot overcome alone.

Here’s hoping, anyway.

Signing off. Take care, and take care of each other.

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