Are genes self-aware?

Does anyone have an opinion on this question?

Let me explain my intention here. Let’s consider a moth whose wings resemble tree bark. This moth knows instinctively that these wings provide camouflage, and that hanging out motionless on trees will increase its chance of survival. Now, the moth made no conscious decision to have bark-like wings. It was not logic or ingenuity or deliberate choice on the part of the moth that made this so. Yet it is so. Why?

I’m not a scientist, but I assume it is because of genetics. In fact, I’m damn near certain it is. So if genes direct the life form (the moth) to have wings that resemble bark, and gives it a preference for lying motionless, and also provides the instincts to know that it is safer resting on trees rather than on moss covered rocks, doesn’t that imply that the genes are somehow self-aware?

If a gene is going to create a wing that resembles bark in the presence of visible light, doesn’t the gene have to understand that 1.) light exists, 2.) that other creatures use light to see objects, navigate through the world, and to find food, 3.) that by manipulating matter (the wings) to resemble an inanimate object (the bark), that it will increase its chance of survival? In order for it to make these choices/adaptations, doesn’t that imply that, to some degree, it is self-aware?

To me that sounds logical and yet completely implausible. So can anyone here tell me how genes seem to know these things? Is all this intention, or mere coincidence? Is it possible that they have a certain amount of self-awareness, or something equivalent to self-awareness?

Tags: adaptation, genes, genetics, life, life forms, self-awareness

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Replies to This Discussion

Thanks for that link. I'll bookmark this and get to it soon.

The genes don't care, and they don't know.

If the moth has genes that paint it a bright green, then if that moth has a habit of resting on brown tree bark, it will get eaten and the gene will not continue.

If the moth has genes that paint it a dull brown, and if that moth has a habit of resting on dull brown tree bark, it will get eaten much LESS and the gene will have a greater chance to continue.

If the latter moth decides to change its habit (or if the color of the bark changes), then the moth will have a stronger chance of being eaten.

Here's the trick--if the moth's predators see in infra-red, then the natural selection will wind up with moths that match the infra-red signature of their favorite tree!
if that moth has a habit of resting on brown tree bark

The term "habit" is a bit misleading here. I suggest that part should read "if most trees in the forest have a brown tree bark". Assuming a forest with brown trees in the North and white trees in the South, if per chance the same moth species develops both "brown" and "white" genes, you'd end up with a higher concentration of brown moths in the North and white moths in the South. The moths don't know which area is safer for them, they're free to cross the border, but the trespassers are more likely to survive and reproduce. Natural selection chooses for them.
but the trespassers are more likely

Sorry - I meant less likely.
This is easy to explain. =)

So let's say you have a random population of moths with wings of different colors living in a forest with a population of insectovorious birds. The birds hunt by sight. All the moths that are too dark or too bright are quickly gobbled up by the birds. Perhaps only a couple moths survive, but these moths happen to have genes that make them more difficult to detect. These moths pass on their genes to the next generation.

Again, the birds eat their fill. This time there are no stand-out moths for them to hunt so they must start looking harder. Even so, there are still a few moths whose coloration protects them from the birds and makes them less likely to be seen. They pass on their genes. This goes on for several generations.

Suddenly a mutation occurs that causes the pattern of the wings of one moth to closely resemble that of tree bark. Now this moth is camoflodged not just by color, but by texture as well. Most of this moth's offspring inherit this mutation and are better equipped to survive because of it. Before long all the moths in this population have the mutation.

Genes don't direct themselves. The enviorment determines which genes get passed on and which don't. Even a slight advantage can become exaggerated over successive generations to become a major one. The addition of potientally beneficial mutations can speed up the process.
Genes are not conscious, no. WE replicate THEM. WE replicate memes, we replicate all the replicators. Genes may "be selfish", but they do not replicate themselves by way of their effects. It must always be remembered that their effects replicate them.

The genes randomly mutate, and those genes--having come about as a result--that give the moth the instinctive, vague-to-describe but likely infinitely powerful notion as it's flying that it must land on a tree and remain motionless at times gave the individuals with those traits (one or three at first) a greater chance of surviving than those without. The next generation, 4% of those with the Stay-Still-Land-on-Trees instincts (SSLT) died, and 40% of those without it did. (I pulled these numbers out of my ass, which is why they're unreal.) Now there's an overpopulation. Bats have an easier time finding moths in this overpopulated environment--or whatever hunt moths. More moths die off. The moths less able to hide are picked off even more easily, and so on for generations. By the end the SSLT moths have dominated the population--shit, they ARE the population.

No consciousness required. It's just motion on a potential-energy map--sets of genes move toward the lowest local energy level ( F = -grad(U) )--the least unstable nearby state.

The individual components evolve over a course similar to this one described, but on and individual basis--though possibly at the same time. The color of wings resembling the color of bark, the trees (or even whatever kind of surface) on which the moths instinctively rest, the patterns on the wings resembling the bark more closely, and the moth holding still and not moving, as traits, developed and 1. didn't get the original haver of the trait killed, and 2. once proliferated enough, proliferated even more due to their advantageous nature.

Really, it is more a matter of the genes vibrating in genetic space and seeking the state of lowest potential energy, as balls and atoms alike do, while changing the very contours of the potential energy map somewhat depending on their location on the map. No consciousness, Intelligent Designer, or decisions involved--just the ubiquitous seeking of the lowest energy state.
Thanks Jared. I'm going to look up this "lowest energy state" soon.
You probably won't find it in most genetics papers. Jared's analogy with physics was a good and cute one, though.
It's a common misconception that evolution has some kind of pathway or that genomes consciously mix with other genomes towards a superior genome. It doesn't really work that way. Firstly, we do not know the future and what is very advantageous today may be very detrimental a century from now.

Using your example, moth wings became brown because all the moths with not-tree-bark colored wings were eaten, not because moth wings figured out that being brown was better.

If the individual cells or DNA in individual wing cells were self aware and could change color on command, one would at least expect moths to have a kind of active camouflage that they don't have.

In terms of genetics, once sperm meets egg, the genetic die is cast. The success of that organism is dependent entirely on the genes now contained in it and the environment it will have to survive in. If its genes are not advantageous, it will die and will not pass on those genes. If its genes are advantageous or at least not-detrimental, then it will likely pass on those genes.

No matter the case, there is no clear directionality. Nature in its truest and cruelest culls the least able. It gives the impression of intent or direction without any really being there.
Wow, great explanation Jack. Thanks. I really like: "No matter the case, there is no clear directionality. Nature in its truest and cruelest culls the least able. It gives the impression of intent or direction without any really being there."


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