On the creepy parallel between gene duplication and oppression – as inspired by a passage from Karen Armstrong’s “Fields of Blood.”


“If, as has been shown for ethnographically documented hunter-gatherers, women in the most meat-dependent foraging societies spend less time procuring food and more time engaged in the production of technology and performing nonsubsistence tasks, then Clovis women likely spent the majority of their time not gathering plants.  In this sense, equating women solely with plant gathering is reducing their role in prehistoric societies to activities for which they may have spent little time and effort.  The ‘shrinking’ phenomenon may not be entirely the effect of preservational bias but the inherent bias of archaeologists limiting female labor to the plant realm.”

     ~ From Nicole Waguespack’s article “The Organization of Male and Female Labor in Foraging Societies.”

There’s a term in there – “perservational bias” – that I hadn’t seen.  I guess that shows how little archaeology I’ve studied.  The idea: if a task uses tools that will decompose – anything with wooden baskets, or even a free-standing windmill – then it might fade away and disappear from the archaeological record.  People digging through the strata later will find only durable tools – a stone arrowhead, for instance – and get a skewed impression of how people spent their time.

Anyway, I thought this was interesting – modern archaeologists, given the biases present in their own societies, ascribed limited roles to prehistoric women.  Waguespack wanted to address that bias, arguing that if women’s contribution to diet wasn’t needed, they probably still did *something* as opposed to sitting around twiddling their thumbs all day.  Seems like a reasonable assumption, right?

And I came across this article because I was trying to learn what percentage of people’s time was spent on food production through prehistory.

This article does have a chart of numbers for the time spent on foraging for modern hunter-gatherer societies – often four to six hours per day – although, really, the numbers I should’ve been looking for were for early agricultural societies.  Because hunter-gatherer societies are often regarded as highly egalitarian, and I’d just come across this passage in Karen Armstrong’s “Fields of Blood:”

“By the end of the fifteenth century CE, agrarian civilizations would be established in the Middle East, South and East Asia, North Africa, and Europe, and in every one–whether in India, Russia, Turkey, Mongolia, the Levant, China, Greece, or Scandinavia–aristocrats would exploit their peasants as the Sumerians did.  Without the coercion of the ruling class, it would have been impossible to force peasants to produce an economic surplus, because population growth would have kept pace with advances in productivity.  Unpalatable as this may seem, by forcing the masses to live at subsistence level, the aristocracy kept population growth in check and made human progress feasible.  Had their surplus not been taken from the peasants, there would have been no economic resource to support the technicians, scientists, inventors, artists, and philosophers who eventually brought our modern civilization into being.  As the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton pointed out, all of us who have benefited from this systemic violence are implicated in the suffering inflicted for over five thousand years on the vast majority of men and women.  Or as the philosopher Walter Benjamin put it: ‘There is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.'”

That passage gave me a lot to think about.  Many people participating in the modern economy of the United States feel a residual squeamishness because the distribution of capital in this country is deeply rooted in the history of slavery and genocide – if you buy a house, well, no one *made* the land it’s sitting on, so if you delve far enough back through time murder or the threat of violence was necessary for that piece of land to be claimed by someone, who then sold it to someone else, onward through time until it ended up with you.  But I hadn’t previously considered the idea that *all* the trappings of modern culture – so much of it brought to us by discoveries rooted in the scientific method – is rooted in oppression. Early scientists were aristocrats: no one else had as much free time to pursue experiments.

So, right, I rooted around to find some numbers (in the United States, for instance, we went from 90% of the populace being employed in food production some 200 years ago to less than 2% today – so presumably the percentage of people working in food production was 90% or higher through most of history), and spent a while thinking about this.  And figured I could write an essay, because I’d recently written one that mentioned gene duplication events as a driver for evolution.  Not sure what article I posted for this fact previously – I have many in mind for this topic – so here’s a nice recent review by Katju & Bergthorsson, again stressing that gene duplication events give you room to maneuver:Gene-duplication

“[G]iven that most mutations are degenerative, a duplicated gene is much more likely to end up as a pseudogene than to acquire a function that is distinct from the ancestral gene and actively maintained by natural selection. Loss of one copy, either due to deletion or mutational inactivation is the fate of the overwhelming majority of duplicated genes.”

Which, right – most of the time accumulated mutations after a gene duplication event turn your new sequence into symbolic dreck – but, think, without the prior duplication, you would’ve even have the chance to try out that dreck.  Mutations that reduce the function of a necessary gene, if there were only a single copy, would be selected against.

And I wanted to write an essay about the metaphorical link between gene duplication events and the oppressive taxation that Armstrong wrote about.  Perhaps I should include one last background quote – from Richard Dawkins’ introduction of the concept of “meme,” an evolving bit of culture, presented in his work “The Selfish Gene.”

“We do not have to look for conventional biological survival values of traits like religion, music, and ritual dancing, though these may also be present.  Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over.  We do not even have to posit a genetic advantage in imitation, though that would certainly help.  All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes will then evolve that exploit the capability to the full.”

The idea is that culture will also evolve, in a way similar to the evolution of genetic sequences.  As long as a bit of culture is good at propagating itself – either a story that’s fun to hear, or fun to tell, or a piece of knowledge that helps its carrying people survive – it’ll pass through the ages.  You might think of biblical proscriptions against certain foods.  If those foods caused people to get sick, there’s a survival benefit to the meme’s carriers by propagating them, and they’re encased in the bible, which people enjoy reading from.  Their very souls depend on it.

But any scientific or technological discovery “evolves” similarly.  The principles of mathematics, the scientific method, knowledge about electricity.  As our knowledge is refined, in ways that make what we have to say more useful, it’s spread more widely … to the point that now 80% of the world’s population has access to electricity.

(Also: only eighty percent?  We are not doing a great job.)

But for that process to start, electricity has to be discovered in the first place.  And that is what I see as the link between stratified oppression and gene duplication events.  Once humans were living in agricultural societies, where there was a big benefit to ownership of capital (which, right – this claim can be contested.  The whole idea that farming heralded the beginning of stratification and oppression.  Heather Pringle wrote a nice article on the effect of staked claims in pre-agricultural societies – think, “This is my fishing rock… go sit somewhere else!”  Or, “This is where I hunt for berries… in this here berry patch… go forage over there, in that rocky field!”  But there isn’t any evidence that any pre-agricultural peoples attempted to build the type of long-ranging empire made possible by farming), by using violence or the threat thereof to claim ownership of land and tax the people working it, you create leisure time.  Like a duplicated gene, the person who no longer needs to work for food is free to do something else.

And I think the analogy goes farther.  Most duplicated genes degenerate and produce nothing of value.  And I personally imagine that most aristocrats through history were more the Caligula type – only drinking some wine, sleeping with some slaves, causing trouble – than the Ben Franklin type (who, uh, did other stuff too).  But, because useful information spreads so rapidly, it took only a miniscule fraction of good ones to create our modern culture.

This perspective – the idea that stratification was important to give the lucky few a chance to pursue cultural advances – also gives me a new vantage for some passages from the Ramayana.  Many of the hardest passages for me are those involving caste.  The idea that a kingdom would be thrown out of balance if someone who’s supposed to be oppressed instead pursues enlightenment is pretty horrible to me. Here’s a passage from M.N. Dutt’s translation of the Ramayana:

“On the banks of that pond one ascetic was performing the most austere penances with his legs upwards and head downwards.  There upon approaching him, Rama Said–O you of good vows, blessed are you; I do ask you, now, O you highly effulgent and grown old in asceticism, in what Varna you are born.  I put this question out of curiosity.  I am the son of king Dasaratha and my name is Rama.

“For what are you going through such hard austerities?  Is it heaven, or anything else that you pray for?  O ascetic, I wish to hear, of the purpose for which you are performing such hard penances.  Art you a Brahmana, or an irrepressible Ksatriya or the third caste Vaisyas or a Sudra?  Do you speak the truth and you shall be crowned with auspiciousness.

“Hearing the words of Rama, the ascetic, whose face was downwards, gave out his degraded birth and communicated to him for what he was performing ascetic observances.

“Hearing the words of Rama of unwearied actions, the ascetic, with his face downwards, said.

“O highly illustrious Rama, I am born in the race of Sudras; and with a view to reach the region of the celestials with my body I am going through these austere penances.

“O Kakutstha, I shall never utter a falsehood since I am willing to conquer the region of gods.  I am a Sudra and my name is Sambuka.

“The Sudra ascetic having said this, Rama took out of scabbard a beautiful sharp sword and chopped off his head therewith.”


Right?  Very crumby.  Dude is just trying to be good!  But the king’s job was to ensure that oppressed people stay oppressed.  And now I, sitting here typing on a laptop computer, surrounded by all the comforts of the modern world, am the disconcerted beneficiary.