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Journal heironymouscoward's Journal: Fixing it - Genegroups

People, it seems, spend an extraordinary amount of effort and energy in conflict. Now, in evolutionary terms, a certain amount of conflict is inevitable and desirable, but the wholescale violent conflict between groups that dominates the news is clearly wasteful.

The origins of the battles between Serbs and Kosovars, between Jews and Palestinians, between Shias and Sunnis, between Georgians and Ajarians, and between every aggrieved minority and its neighbours, seems obvious. Competition for power and resources, protection of family and extended family, the twisting of natural human responses into abstract conflicts that serve a small minority at the top, and that cost the rest an arm and a leg.

The "ethnic" conflicts that dominate the news are, IMHO, 99% driven by a few individuals in each case, who polarise and encite populations into mutual hatreds so that they can build power bases and do the protection money racket that men with sticks love to do.

It works because people identify themselves with family and kin, in an ever increasing circle that includes anyone who speaks the same language, follows the same customs, and belongs to the same identifiable group.

But these groups are virtual, existing more in the mind of their members than in their real constitution. Often religion and language are the strongest binding attributes: factors that can be learned and adopted well into adult life. Genetic closeness is certainly the core of the family and extended family structures, but it is almost irrelevant when talking about larger groups.

It's been measured that the average genetic differences within a single well-defined "ethnic" group are about ten times more significant than the average differences between two such groups. In other words, the genes that affect our appearance are trivial compared to the genes that affect the rest of our human variability. Genes for the way our minds and bodies are constructed have a standard distribution throughout our species, thanks to two main mechanisms. First, valuable genes are conserved and maintained over long periods of time (the gene for dark hair is shared by humans, cows, and other animals, but may be absent from light-haired people); secondly, rare genes spread rapidly, so that no population is really isolated unless they are physically cut-off from the rest of the world.

It's quite likely, and this is the basis of my idea, that you will be much closer, genetically, to random strangers scattered throughout the globe, than to anyone further away than second or third cousin.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a story (I think it's "Breakfast of Champions", but most of my books are in cases somewhere in a depot right now) in which everyone was assigned a surname attaching them to a surrogate family. A dozen or so of such families cut through social and cultural layers, giving people another level for competition and collaboration. Vonnegut had a great idea, but I reckon it can be made even more practical by basing this on genetics.

Extended interest groups based on genetic similarity that transcends superficial "ethnic" markers is not such a far-fetched idea. I suspect that we feel real affinity for people, from any background, who think and react like ourselves: atheletes, business people, teachers, artists, musicians, travellers, aesthetes, preachers, facists... the attraction of like to like is strong.

So I suggest that by encouraging and formalizing this into "genegroups" we can give people a strong tool with which to fight the authoritarian "us and them" discourse that sends communities into spirals of violent conflict. "Yes, we are here, and they are there, but I'm an alpha-thirteen, and if you excuse me, I have an alpha-thirteen meeting with some of 'them' in five minutes..."

Possibly the alpha-thirteen genegroup will plot to take over the world, and the gamma-two's will initiate a terrible revenge. But at that point close family interests ("but my sister's a gamma-three, and that's almost a gamma-two!") will step in to prevent extremism.

Ideally, genetic tagging should be universal at birth. I'm not sure whether our genegroups should be tattooed onto our foreheads or not, being able to lie about one's genegroup might be fun, and a life saver when the delta-fours (with a marked tendency to psychotic violence) break out of the asylum.

One last comment. Genes do not define us unconditionally, and I'm not proposing that all criminals can be identified at birth (although if you are a delta-four, please be warned, I have a large and violent dog, also a delta-four). Much behaviour is driven by local economics.

However: feeling close to someone because they share real and tangible parts of your makeup seems a better basis for creating communities than feeling close to someone because they have learnt your language and share your religious delusions.

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Fixing it - Genegroups

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