Concept: Genetic Memory

So I’ve been reading Children of Dune lately, as per the recommendation of a comrade. I thoroughly enjoyed Frank Herbert’s Dune, but had reservations after reading Dune Messiah (2nd Book). I was told that Children of Dune gets better; though it seems that popular reception is that the series actually gets worse as more books are read. If this is true, I believe Children will be the last for me. We shall see.

Things in the ‘Duniverse’ are wide and varied, and no single blog post can do the book justice, let alone the series. Today I’m merely going to address one of the many themes that Frank Herbert illustrated in his work: genetic memory.

As it stands now, the concept of genetic memory is still a theory – one that doesn’t hold much water in fact, on account of it being unprovable. Pesky rules of science and all that. However, this does not stop it from appearing in fiction! But what is genetic memory? Here’s the opening line from wikipedia:

“In psychology, genetic memory is a memory present at birth that exists in the absence of sensory experience, and is incorporated into the genome over long spans of time.”

We see this in Dune, and described in as great a detail as I’ve ever encountered. Personally, I think any mortal human would lose their mind if given the ancestral memories of 10,000 years of generations, but I suppose as far as story writing and science fiction go, it could be argued that the pooled strength of these memories and consciousnesses could help the living descendant cope with the process anyway. The point is, characters in Dune have access to the sum of experience of their ancestors, up until conception of the next generation. It makes sense that the memories would not include how the previous forebear died (unless it was witnessed by a younger one).

Now if the genetic memory was a continues stream of life-experience after life-experience, we’re getting awfully close to a single, unified intelligence. We’re getting close to what is, arguably, immortality.

Not bad, Mister Herbert.

There are other examples of genetic memory in popular media, some either being the main plot or a scapegoat. The Assassin’s Creed games come to mind, in which a descendant of said assassin utilizes a machine called an Animus, which decodes the ‘archival history’ in their DNA and projecting the information onto a three dimensional feed; thus allowing players to relive the “memories” of their ancestors. Better than time travel, in my opinion, for creating a game set in various points of history – apparently going back far back into prehistory.

Now this is fun. There’ll be another post about this topic alone.

More often than not, genetic memory is a theme of science fiction, but it’s around. Ripley 8 from Alien Resurrection, who got her mixed genetic memories as a result of her human/xenomorph cloning process. But, one work that I thoroughly enjoyed, and wasn’t science fiction, was Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel, wherein…

“…Neanderthals were portrayed as having racial memories, which was supposed to both make up for their lack of verbal skills and imagination and keep them socially and “technologically” stagnant.” [Borrowed from T.V., who phrased it better than I could.]

Now, as we can see, using genetic memory can either open a lot of doors for story telling, or it can come off as a cheap cop-out for why certain actors get to play the same character hundreds of years after they died. Or in the case of The 6th Day, well, seconds.

But then, that’s how it is with most concepts in science fiction.

Happy writing!


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