A very interesting article in the current New Yorker Magazine sent to me by Steve Kurtz might go a long way to explain one apparent anomaly about human nature. It concerns very small DNA-like snippets of chemicals called transposons. Quite what they are and exactly what they do are still much of a mystery even to research biologists. Detailed investigations into them have only recently started.
Every time a fertilizations occurs the 23 chromosomes of the sperm and the 23 of the egg break up into pieces (three or four times per chromosome) and then recombine as two brand new sets of chromosomes. All this is a very complex process and far from being perfectly tidy. What also happens is that parts of the DNA, transposons — perhaps fragments of where the breaks had occurred — dart about between the large writhing chromosomes and copy themselves into almost anywhere they can find a niche. Although transposons are very short and genes are very long, the former can often introduce uniquely new features into the functions of the genes themselves.
Now these mutations, by themselves, would make the normal working of body cells impossible and so regulatory genes have evolved which patrol the chromosomes and make sure that the transposons, once they have found a new home, remain quiescent from then onwards. Except when neurons, or brain cells, are dividing into two. We have six or seven basic sorts of neurons and although every new neuron may have acquired an additional cluster of transposons they don’t affect their main work-a-day functions.
But what they may be doing is adding additional quirks to their host genes. Some researchers are now speculating that this may be the reason why one group of humans so readily develop new cultural habits so readily. For example, if an love-large hunter-gatherer tribe in New Guinea splits into two they’ll be speaking two different, almost mutually incomprehensible languages within a couple of generations; in the same period they’ll be wearing different head-dresses and signs of rank, too; and any other activity outside the basic ones of food-getting can also change to remarkably different extents.
But whether these relatively trivial transposons are the original cause or not of vast cultural changes between neighbouring peoples who may, otherwise, be expected to live similarly and have similar cultural beliefs, the facts of life are quite different. Cultures are not amenable to change from the outside. It is this problem that has mystified economists for 60 years as they tried to get economic growth growing in most of the countries of the world since the Second World War.
Ever since 1780 when mass cotton spinning burst on the scene in England, and was rapidly adopted by Germany and America also, these three countries have remained the only ones who seem to be still in touch with elusive strands of scientific enlightenment that grew in the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly due to two of the world’s greatest scientific geniuses, Leibniz and Newton. And it is these three countries which have won almost all the scientific prizes in the last century. Without being complacent or arrogant, it is difficult to see how this is going to change much in the next century.