Pleiotropy

Was having a conversation with friends a while ago about sundry topics, but mostly centering around this idea brought up by one of us expressed in Dialectic of Enlightenment (which I haven’t read). However, as someone who is currently studying colonialism and histories of Western imperialism, it’s an argument that is vaguely familiar– that Enlightenment values are hardly progressive or drive towards some positive historical endpoint in and of themselves. What’s more, a rejection of this belief also raises the question of what is contained in ‘progress’ or any other positive value/claim (‘freedom’ ‘rationality’ etc). Is the presumed positivity of progress inextricably linked to its other (un-progress? backwardness?) through an antagonistic relationship? Progress must annihilate its other to survive, in a way, and this destructive impulse is then inherent in the ideal. So, then does it remain positive? (One has to think about what this enactment of ‘progress’ entails in real life– yet again, colonialism provides myriad illustrative examples.)

This snippet of the discussion reminded me of a concept in evolutionary biology called the antagonistic pleiotropy hypothesis. If I remember correctly, it is an attempt to explain the persistence of certain self-destructive gene phenotypes in light of natural selection and the imperative to maximize fitness in the reproductive stage of an organism’s life. In short, there are certain genes in the DNA that encode for contradictory processes, in the sense that the same gene can encode for phenotypic outcomes that are both beneficial and harmful to the organism at different stages in life. Why natural selection hasn’t pushed these genes out of the picture of biological life is because they confer benefit at the reproductive stage of life that can turn into a detrimental effect in the post-reproductive phase. Within a single gene is contained both the creative and destructive impulse, if you will. It strikes me that the idea of antagonistic pleiotropy is a good way to describe much of the human condition and state of affairs in this world, not just confounding biological phenomena.

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