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

The genes don't know anything. The expression of the gene causes an effect. If the effect is beneficial or neutral, the gene for that effect survives and spreads. The gene doesn't mean anything on its own. It is the expression of the gene that matters. That moth has a gene, or more likely a collection of genes that happen to express as a pattern that other animals have trouble seeing. If something else ever gained an advantage in seeing that pattern, it would change over time as other genes were favored.

The gene for teeth in chickens goes unexpressed. There is nothing in the genome that knows that chickens don't need teeth. When the gene was originally suppressed, it either caused an advantage or didn't cause a disadvantage. It just happened by chance and happened to be effective.
Thanks you two. Good responses.

When the gene was originally suppressed, it either caused an advantage or didn't cause a disadvantage. It just happened by chance and happened to be effective.

But wouldn't environmental factors have an affect on whether a gene ends us being expressed or not?

Alternately, could there have been some kind of genetic battle between a chicken's teeth gene and its gizzard gene? And in this instance, the gizzard gene won out? If I am not mistaken, the gizzard helps digestion by grinding up food. Teeth and saliva serve that same purpose in animals that have them. So if the chicken had the genetic capacity for teeth and a gizzard, it seems logical for one or the other to become the ascendant gene, and one to remain unexpressed, but redundant (and wasteful) for the animal to have both. Correct?
There is no gene battle. There are no gene death matches in the fertilized egg where traits battle it out in a war for expression. If a particular gene isn't beneficial enough, the organism that has it dies and with it goes the potential for the proliferation of that gene. The more organisms with that not-beneficial-enough gene die, the less likely it is that further generations will ever have that gene. If the trend continue, eventually the gene will become extinct.

The genes themselves are just there, to be transcribed and translated into proteins or not.

If you mean two potential branches of a common ancestor battling for supremacy, yes that happens. However that happens external to the organism and it is whole organisms competing and not the genes themselves.
Thanks Jack.
We could say that genes use their hosts for their proxy wars. Evolution is god, we're only its puppets ;-)
Actually, the moths don't know what is better cover or not. Natural selection lets those that stops on trees that happen to camouflage them. If you paint the trees a different color, or if, as in England, the pollution makes trees a different color, the moths keep landing on them and don't have any cover.

A brown moth on a white wall will freeze until the last second as well a white moth on a wall. Freezing works against things like frogs and bats really well, but not humans and birds (who hunt during the day when moths are in hiding). Natural selection does indeed work wonders.

Lastly, if moths were self-aware they wouldn't fly into fire.
Lastly, if moths were self-aware they wouldn't fly into fire.

Hehe. You know, I have a vague recollection that some time ago I heard a radio interview or saw a PBS program that discussed why this happens to moths -- something to do with refraction or circular light perception, or something really complicated. Now I wish I could remember it.
Moths normally fly with visual cues from moon and star light. A fire, however, is much brighter than that, and they keep orienting to it. That causes them to spiral in or flight straight in or fly away, depending on what angle from the natural light source they are attempting to fly. Obviously we notice the ones that end up in the light and not fleeing it.
Genes don't "know" these things nor any other thing. Genes are selected by nature as long as they are useful for the moths to survive long enough to be passed to the next generation. What happens is that those moths that do not hang motionless are engulfed by predators probably before being able to reproduce, but those moths that have the trait will avoid being predated and will probably live long enough to reproduce. Doing so, they will pass the genes that make them to have this trait and with time the number of moths that have the trait will be far more that those that don't have it. It is just a plain mechanichal, blind and purposeless process.
Is it correct then to say that it is correlation and not causation?
Yes, I think it's correct.
It's both actually. Causation (a change in the environment) triggering correlation (evolution leading to previously detrimental -thus rare- traits being 'selected' to adapt the species to the change). That's the basic tenet of coevolution.


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