The Genie scenario

The “purpose” of a gene is to persist. What our genes “want” is to continue to exist, in one body or another (or in several simultaneously), for as long as possible. We phenotypes are “designed” to further that “goal.” (I’ll dispense with the scare quotes hereafter, trusting that my readers can recognize a metaphor.)

When the phenotype is a higher animal capable of thinking, it can have its own desires and goals — which, in turn, are designed to further the genes’ goal of perpetual existence — so you might think that animals would naturally evolve to want the same things their genes want. But they don’t, generally, because animals (including us) are just too dumb. So instead we’re given proxy motives which, while not identical to the motives of our genes, will tend to produce the results the genes want.

Take the so-called survival instinct for example. I suspect very few animals actually have an instinctive desire to survive. When a mouse eats and drinks regularly, runs away from a fox, or finds a warm place to hide during a blizzard, is it thinking, “I’d better do these things, or I’ll die”? I doubt it. I doubt a mouse has any concept of its own mortality. What it wants is not “survival” in the abstract, but food, warmth, the absence of pain, and so on. From the mouse’s point of view, these are ends in themselves. The mouse’s genes don’t particularly care if the mouse is warm and comfortable; they give it those desires as a means to an end, knowing that a mouse that pursues such goals is likely to live longer than one that does not. That’s the best they can do with a mouse, which understands life and death dimly if at all and wouldn’t know what to do with more abstract desires if it had them.

Human beings are another story, though. We have many of the same desires a mouse has, but we also have a desire for survival itself. We’re smart enough for it to be useful. It’s what allows us to think, “This is delicious, but if I eat this kind of stuff too often I could end up with heart disease,” or, “This is going to sting, but if I don’t do it, the infection could spread.” As often as not, our mouse-type desires actually become a liability for animals as knowledgeable as ourselves. A mouse’s desire for tasty food will rarely lead it astray; but the same in not true for humans, smart enough to cook up all kinds of new foods that are tasty without being nutritious.

The disparity between what we want and what our genes want is even clearer when it comes to reproduction. In lower animals the sex drive leads predictably to reproduction, but humans can often find ways to have lots of sex without having lots of kids, and the smarter and better-informed they are, the better they are at subverting their genes’ intentions in this way. All across the First World, birthrates are plummeting, as clever humans pursue what they want in ways their genes never anticipated. As Richard Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene, our intelligence allows us “to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” Nor does this rebellion always take the form of hedonism; well thought-out moral principles can also subvert the goals our moral instincts were designed to further.

But this is a rebellion we can’t possibly win, at least not in the long run. If our genes die out, we die out. Our ability to survive is a function of our ability — and willingness — to serve their interests. We may be able to “turn against our creators” for a season, but the day of reckoning will inevitably come. The combination of mouse-level motives and human-level intelligence is unstable. It can’t last. One or the other has got to go. Maybe our motives will stay the same, the intelligence bubble will burst, and the species will go back to being too dim to outwit its own genes (“protective stupidity,” though perhaps not in a precisely Orwellian sense). The more interesting possibility is that we’ll stay smart, or continue to get smarter and smarter, but that our motives and desires will evolve to approximate ever more closely those of our genes. I would predict an almost law-like correlation between level of intelligence and type of motivation. Lower animals can do just fine with proxy motives far removed from what their genes really care about; a species of geniuses, though, could survive only if they wanted exactly the same things their genes wanted.

Lets imagine such a species — much older than the human race, much more intelligent, and therefore consciously gene-centric in its motivations. And let’s call these hypothetical people Genies — a convenient word that suggests a focus on genes (i.e., genes are to Genies what Rev. Moon is to Moonies), is etymologically related to genius, and is already used to refer to imaginary human-like beings. Here are some speculations about the nature and history of the Genies:

Gene-centered psychology:

Genies care about genes, not phenotypes. To them, the self-evident purpose of life is to do everything you can to enable as many of your genes as possible to survive (in original form or as copies) for as long as possible. Everything else is a means to that end. Important secondary goals include:

  • Longevity: As a vessel of your genes, preserve yourself and live as long as possible. If you can, live forever.
  • Reproduction: Don’t put all your genes in one basket. Make copies of them in other bodies (especially in younger bodies that may outlive your own). This can take the form of conventional reproduction, cloning, or even inserting some of your genes into other species via genetic engineering.
  • Diffusion: For the same reason that you don’t want to keep all your genes in a single body, you don’t want all the bodies that bear your genes to be in the same house — or in the same region, or, ultimately, on the same planet. As Stephen Hawking has said, “There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet.” Scatter your seed.

Genie psychology is human-like in some ways, but in other ways it is deeply alien. You can probably sympathize with the desire to live a long life and have children, but may be less enthusiastic about, say, cloning yourself, or ensuring the immortality of a few of your genes by engineering a species of cockroach to carry them. Nor are you likely to have any particular desire that your descendants live in many different countries, let alone on many different planets. For Genies, though, this stuff is fundamental. They care about it the way we care about status and sex.


Cloning technology is a big deal for Genies. With sexual reproduction, each child carries only 50% of each parent’s genes, and no matter how many children you have, you can’t be sure that 100% of your genes will be passed on. (Two children will, between them, carry 75% of each parent’s genes; three will carry 87.5%, four 93.75%, and so on, with the number approaching 100% but never quite reaching it.) The Genies find this completely unacceptable and instead opt for cloning, which they develop to the point where it becomes the norm and sexual reproduction disappears completely.

The end of sexual selection:

When sexual reproduction disappears, so does sexual selection as an evolutionary force. If you think about how many human traits and behaviors have their origins in sexual selection, it’s hard to overestimate the impact this would have on Genie psychology, lifestyle, and even physiology. Genies no longer care about making themselves attractive to others or about proving their fitness through showing off or symbolic status-seeking. The concept of fashion disappears, and Genies all dress in identical jumpsuits which are efficient and can be cheaply mass-produced — or perhaps each genotype has a uniform of its own which, as in the military, serves to distinguish friend from foe, because that’s how they think now — not “me” or “my family,” but “my genotype.”

Physical changes:

You might expect that at this point the physical evolution of the Genies would effectively come to an end, since ever more advanced forms of cloning ensure that each new generation bears precisely the same DNA as the last. But remember that the Genies are smart. Really, really smart. They’re quite capable of thinking things out and seeing the need to make certain sacrifices in the service of their long-term goals.

Imagine that you are a member of one of the less successful Genie genotypes. The other Genies are in some way more “fit” and are out-reproducing you. You can stubbornly continue to produce exact copies of yourself, keeping your “inferior” genotype as it is, in which case it will probably eventually be driven to extinction by other types of Genie. Or you can do some genetic engineering, modify your genotype to improve its “fitness” and allow it to compete successfully against the others, and it will live on. Sure, you have to sacrifice portions of your precious genome, but so be it. As Jesus said, it’s better “that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” Better to sacrifice a few of your genes than to allow your whole genome to be driven to extinction. It may even be possible to have it both ways, keeping all your old genes in the genome but “turning off” the less adaptive ones so that they have no effect on the phenotype and become what we phenotype-focused humans would call “junk DNA” — a term that would be oxymoronic to a Genie.

So, even after switching to reproduction by cloning, with careful anti-mutation measures taken, the Genies continue to change. Mostly they engineer higher and higher levels of intelligence, since that alone allows them to compete against rival genotypes, to develop the best methods of cloning and genetic engineering, and to trick others into helping them. The brain, which, thanks to the latest reproductive technology, is no longer required to squeeze through a vagina, is now free to expand, and a sort of intelligence arms race leads to the Genies’ distinctive bulbous, grotesquely enlarged heads.

A single genotype:

As long as they are competing with other genotypes for space on a finite planet, doing anything to limit population growth is unthinkable for the Genies. Their planet quickly fills to capacity, leading to wars of genotype against genotype, until one alone survives

This changes everything. All competition and physical change ceases, and each individual’s goals and interests are now 100% identical to those of every other individual. Soon the Genies scarcely think of themselves as individuals at all, their entire focus being on the genome which created them all, which dwells in every one of their bodies but is essentially non-physical in nature, which appears in many persons but is all one substance, and which — unlike any individual Genie — has the potential to be immortal. Individual bodies are valuable only in that they keep the genome alive. Indeed, an earthling overhearing the Genies speaking of their genome might be forgiven for mistranslating the word as “God.”

Space colonization and panspermia:

The One Genotype having been firmly established on the Genies’ home planet, and in no danger of being outcompeted by any rival, space colonization would become the next big goal. The Genies pour all their efforts into interstellar travel, terraforming, and so on, setting up Genie colonies on as many planets as can be made to support them.

Not every planet can be made to support Genies, but, in the Genies’ mind (best to use that word in the singular now), letting even a tiny fraction of the Genie genome take root on a planet would be better than nothing. They create bacteria which are designed to contain as many Genie genes as possible while still being simple and versatile enough to survive in a wide variety of environments, and they make every effort to seed the entire known universe with these Genie-bacteria. Wherever the Genie-bacteria take root, evolution takes over and they develop into forms suited to each local environment — but in nearly every case, some portion of the Genie genome survives, and that alone made it all worthwhile for the Genies.


Much, much later, Genies in spaceships visit some of the planets which were seeded millions of years before. If the planet is habitable by the Genies themselves, they settle there. In other cases, they find a planet which they themselves could not comfortably inhabit, but where the Genie-bacteria have evolved into strikingly Genie-like intelligent life. In such cases, the Genies abduct the local people and perform genetic tests. Sometimes they steal eggs, sperm, and fetuses, genetically engineering them to contain even more Genie DNA. Some of the resulting “hybrids” look pretty much like the local people, but others are distinctly alien in appearance. Asking what purpose this genetic meddling serves would be beside the point. To the Genies, continually spreading copies their DNA to more and more planets, storing it in as many different places and in as wide a variety of bodies as possible, is an end in itself.

One of the planets they visit is, of course, Earth, where the Genies are known as Walking Fish People, Little Doctors, or Greys.



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4 responses to “The Genie scenario

  1. Pingback: The Argument from Desire | Bugs to fearen babes withall

  2. I don’t buy the transition to clonal reproduction. I don’t see any reason that intelligence would be able to upend the current dominance of sexually reproducing organisms. A gene has the best chance of survival if it is distributed into many different genomes, just as it survives best distributed in many different physical locations. A genie would value sexual reproduction with as wide a range of dissimilar organisms as possible, except those so dissimilar as to have incompatible genomes. Survival in a crowded, competitive world will demand specialization, which will result in reproductive isolating barriers, resulting in continued speciation rather than a single clonal genotype.

  3. You may be right. I assume that the Genies follow two different strategies: preserving the entire Genie genome intact through cloning, and maximizing each individual gene’s chances of survival through panspermia, genetic engineering of other organisms, etc. I suppose I need to clarify what exactly it is that the Genies want: the survival of the genome as a whole, the survival of each individual gene, or something else. (Perhaps the evolutionarily optimal version would be a self-referential desire that the genes responsible for that desire persist?)

    One problem with my whole method of thinking about this is that I was working at it from two different directions. I started with the premise of the Genie and tried to see what would follow from that, but when I realized they were starting to sound a lot like Strieber-style aliens, I started coming at it from the other direction, too — thinking of specific alien traits and trying to think of Genie-based explanations for them. That probably caused me to jump to some unwarranted conclusions.

  4. Pingback: Bruce Charlton’s case that atheism is incoherent | Boisterous beholding

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