Ras proto-oncogenes and memetic metastasis
A hypothesis concerning how defective human pheromone receptors may be implicated in mental and social pathologies
Could uncontrolled social growth have a genetic basis, in much the same way that cancers do? I was ruminating on this while walking past the old hospital complex in downtown Eugene, which strikes me as an example of a paradigmatic cancerous human institution. That is, it is characterized by uncontrolled growth and metastasis, and year after year consumes a greater share of gross productivity without delivering a concomitant improvement in the quality of life to the average person. It is right next door to the University of Oregon, about which much the same could be said: unlimited growth, decreasing marginal utility, and appropriation of resources in a way that destabilizes the community and compromises its future.
This occurred to me after I finished writing an entry for a genetics encyclopedia on the Harvey Ras Oncogene, which is present in 20-30% of human cancers. It’s a mutated form of a gene coding for a protein in the cell wall that determines receptivity to growth hormones. The gene was first discovered in rats (ras stands for rat sarcoma) infected with a retrovirus. In humans it is usually a spontaneous mutation and is one of the main pathways for carcinogen action.
There are rather over 100 known genes/proteins is the ras superfamily. Other ras genes are responsible for the human sense of smell, for insect responses to mating pheromones, and for aggregating behavior in cellular slime molds. In all cases a mutation in the gene causes a defective response to a chemical signal but unless it facilitates growth and reproduction, either of cells within the organism or the organism itself, the effect will be localized and short lived.
I started wondering whether there was some defect in both institutions, or in the people running them, which prevented putting on the brakes in response to signals that further growth was counterproductive. At first I was thinking in terms of a defective meme, some basic assumption underlying decisions which is insensitive to clear signals from the environment that growth needs to slow down. I do think that such memes are very prevalent, but it is also possible there are actual ras-family genes governing social behavior at a very basic molecular level and that the malignant memes originated in those genes.
They told us solemnly in biology classes in the 60’s and early 70’s that there were no human pheromones – no specific molecular signals communicating information between individuals. Even at the time there was ample evidence that there were, and science now recognizes this in some limited circumstances. However, they are generally considered to be unimportant and subordinate to other forms of communication.
I have said elsewhere that I think there is strong evidence for an innate human sense of morality tied to a perception of what aids or harms a relatively small interacting group of people – that we are programmed to be selfish up to a point but inhibited when the harm we cause those around us exceeds the benefit to ourselves. Anything else in an obligately social species such as Homo sapiens would result in extinction.
Among the pheromones humans give off are ones indicative of strong emotional states. People who are very afraid or very angry actually smell different. They also give off other clues, such as facial expressions and verbalizations, but these do not elicit quite the strength of gut response that an odor does. However, for the pheromonal signal to operate, one needs to be within a few feet of the other individual, and some of our personal hygiene practices, such as antiperspirants, interfere.
Under primitive conditions, a fear or anger pheromonal response would send a very clear signal when a person was grabbing too many of the goodies. In a village or tribal setting, people would learn in childhood to associate an angry smell with gestures, vocalizations, and physical attack; later on, the vocalizations alone would elicit the instinctive avoidance response: back off, limit your grabbing.
According to this model, an individual with a defective sensor for pheromones signaling another individual’s emotional state would be completely reliant on cultural signals – rules – to turn off powerful instinctive urges to take and amass stuff, mate whenever possible, etc. and would be very vulnerable to early childhood influences reinforcing selfish and aggressive behavior. This is the constitutionally antisocial or psychopathic personality. In a stable society where everybody agrees on the rules such an individual isn’t necessarily dangerous. (The downside of this is, that the more stable and rule-bound the society is, the less likely a person who is very sensitive to the needs of others will be in challenging rules that no longer serve the needs of society).
The potential for such a mutated gene to become cancerous is obvious. On the genetic level, if this individual has a propensity to mate regardless of the consent and commitment of the partner and without developing an attachment to the offspring produced, the level of the gene in the population will rise provided the rules do not strongly discourage the behavior and the absence of commitment does not negatively affect survivorship. This is the case in the United States at the present time.
On the memetic level, if aggressive stuff-grabbing confers financial success, it will enhance the influence of the stuff-grabber, who from his position of influence bends the rules to reinforce the behavior. As an explanation for the exponential growth in income inequity in my own country and worldwide, this makes enough sense to me to be worth exploring.