How to breed books

The Evolution of Great Books

Have you ever thought of breeding books?  I know that I have.

What a read it would be – “Harry Potter and The Two Towers”, or “The Hungry Hobbit Games”?

So I gathered together all of my favorite books in a quiet space, and while I waited I googled book breeding to get a few tips on the finer aspects of the art, when to my horror I discovered that books don’t have baby books. 

Then I realised – books need authors.  They need an intelligent creator… or do they? 

It got me thinking – Isn’t DNA like a book?  Some even call it the book of life, with each chromosome being a ‘volume’ in the genetic ‘library’ of the cell’s nucleus.  Apparently, DNA evolved without an author, so perhaps I can evolve a book? Maybe I have just been going about it wrong. Perhaps all that I need is a couple of dictionaries, a shredder, and a huge bowl of alphabet soup.

Ah no, that didn’t work.

It does make you wonder though about this idea that DNA just evolved from random molecules – it sounds about as likely as a “book evolving from random words”.  Is the fact that books need an intelligent creator, reasonable evidence that DNA would have needed one too? 

More googling…  

It turns out that while comparing DNA with a book might sound reasonable, the analogy does not hold true because there are three requirements for evolution that a book does not meet. These are Replication, Mutation, and Selection.  A book can’t reproduce, it does not make errors while reproducing (Mutation), and there is nothing which selects the fittest copies allowing them to further replicate into the next generation. Once again, books don’t have baby books. (You can confirm this yourself with your own books at home.) 

Unless you consider the contents of books.  The contents of books do replicate, these copies are subject to errors, and these are subjected to selection.  If you follow the ancestry of the contents of a book, the ideas, the stories etc, you will likely find that the ideas have over the last couple of hundred years, jumped from book to book and perhaps more recently even into movies and onto the Internet.  Looking further back, the ideas were more likely passed by word of mouth, where the likelihood of errors in copying were much higher, but back then the competition from other ideas was lower, so even dumb ideas like slavery persisted for a while, and still do in some forms.  Further and further back, the ideas get sillier and sillier. Thor, Zeus, Ra, child sacrifice, all turned out to be bad ideas and it is difficult to imagine that they could have ever existed, little alone prospered.  

The same has happened with genes, the further back you go the more alien and weird they would appear from our perspective.  The first replicating molecule must have been very basic – no one today would marvel over its exquisite design – it was probably largely ineffective and barely held together, but it only had to hold together long enough to benefit from copying errors and natural selection.  There was little to compete with back then, so it held in there for a while – like child-sacrifice and slavery, but ultimately genes that can’t compete – like ideas that can’t compete, diminish in frequency and ultimately disappear.  

So yes, in that regard, DNA and the contents of books both evolve over time.  Ideas require a medium to replicate, as does DNA. Like DNA, ideas sometimes pick up errors when they are copied.  Ideas are combined and mixed in an author’s mind. DNA is combined and mixed through sexual reproduction. Successful ideas survive and spread – becoming more frequent in the population, as do successful genes in DNA. 

In fact, DNA is very much like a book, with genes being more like ideas and collections of genes being more like stories.  Some of our stories probably go back many thousands of years, some of our ideas and skills even further. Like the idea of keeping a dog – that has been a pretty successful idea.  But the first ideas were pretty simple and basic – there were not any books back then. The idea of even having a book didn’t even exist. Then at some point the first stone tablet, then the first scroll, and finally something that looked like a book evolved.  The first scratching on a cave wall didn’t look much like a book, and ideas that they portrayed there are hardly recognisable in the light of today’s sophistication.  

I don’t know how the first replicator came to be, but just as the first ideas to pass from one conscious mind to another didn’t require the written word or even language, the first replicating molecule certainly didn’t require a cell or a double helix of DNA.  The first DNA would have come about much later as a result of replication errors and selection of the initially much simpler earlier replicating molecules.   

Evidence suggests that the first replicating molecule chanced assembled from the available molecules about three and a half billion years ago – which is about one billion years after the earth formed.  It must have been an extremely unlikely event because although it had a huge number of opportunities, as far as we know it only happened once. From all of those various molecules, in all of those various environments, over all of those millions of years, for it to have only happened once it must have been incredibly unlikely.  So it is no surprise that we can’t replicate the process over a few decades in a lab, or that we can’t come up with a plausible hypothesis of what might have happened to create that first replicator. An explanation that is likely, an explanation that is reasonable, or plausible, is almost certainly wrong.

There are many more ways of being wrong than right.  Just because something sounds right, does not mean that it is right.  You can make an honest effort to believe that what is true, or you can make an honest effort to believe whatever you think that you should believe.  Hopefully they are the same, but if not then go with the first as the latter leads to darkness, and you can’t read a book in the dark. 


Disclaimer:  No truth was harmed during the writing of this article, but perhaps a few shadows were injured a little.  

The one finds a book on the road, and uncertain of its values asks their Sensei of its worth.  Their Sensei replies – the book may fetch a high price or a low price, but if you keep the book and read it, then surely its worth will be known.

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