So what does it mean to succeed?

If you’re a printer, or you’ve ever been in the print industry in any capacity at all, or you’ve ever taken a design class, or even if you’ve ever used the “random text” command in any of a large number of different programs, you’ve probably seen a piece of gibberish text that begins with the words “lorem ipsum.” Since the dawn of time, relatively speaking, that gibberish text has been used by newspaper editors, magazine layout artists, prepress people, designers, even Web designers, as “filler” text to let them see, for example, how many columns of type they need, or whatever. The whole text looks like this:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit, sed diam nonummy nibh euismod tincidunt ut laoreet dolore magna aliquam erat volutpat. Ut wisi enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exerci tation ullamcorper suscipit lobortis nisl ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis autem vel eum iriure dolor in hendrerit in vulputate velit esse molestie consequat, vel illum dolore eu feugiat nulla facilisis at vero eros et accumsan et iusto odio dignissim qui blandit praesent luptatum zzril delenit augue duis dolore te feugait nulla facilisi. Nam liber tempor cum soluta nobis eleifend option congue nihil imperdiet doming id quod mazim placerat facer possim assum. Typi non habent claritatem insitam; est usus legentis in iis qui facit eorum claritatem. Investigationes demonstraverunt lectores legere me lius quod ii legunt saepius. Claritas est etiam processus dynamicus, qui sequitur mutationem consuetudium lectorum. Mirum est notare quam littera gothica, quam nunc putamus parum claram, anteposuerit litterarum formas humanitatis per seacula quarta decima et quinta decima. Eodem modo typi, qui nunc nobis videntur parum clari, fiant sollemnes in futurum.

That’s the full version. That, or fragments of it, are used whenever someone has a need for nonsense text to fill in a blank area in a design, until the real text comes along.

Problem is, that nonsense text is not nonsense.

In the groundbreaking book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins put forth a revolutionary new way to conceptualize evolutionary biology–at the level of the gene, not the level of the individual. A gene’s “goal,” in a manner of speaking, is to reproduce itself. Genes that do this efficiently succeed and become widespread; genes that don’t, disappear.

Many people still have a mistaken view of evolution as “survival of the fittest.” Charles Darwin never used that expression [Edit: Charles Darwin did not use the expression until the fifth edition of Origin of Species, where he adapted it as it had come to be associated with his ideas of natural selection through Spencer’s deliberate creation of an analogy between evolution and market economics using the term)–it was coined by a man named Herbert Spencer–and the term can create inaccurate perceptions of how evolution works. Evolution does not necessarily work on the level of the individual at all; for example, all the bees in a beehive save the queen are not capable of reproducing, and so have no chance to pass on their genes. However, all the bees in a beehive share their genes with the queen. So if a bee dies, but its death helps promote the survival of the hive, that particular bee’s genes survive; it is the survival of the gene, not the survival of the organism, that matters.

In many cases, the survival of the organism means the survival of the gene–in many cases, but not in all. And some genes are passed on by individuals who do not express those genes at all. Male pattern baldness and red-green color blindness in humans are passed on matrilineally–you inherit those genes from your mother–even if they are expressed primarily in men. If you were somehow to prevent every color-blind man or every bald man from reproducing, even though color blindness and male-pattern baldness are genetic, you would not remove those genes from the population.

The human genome project is attempting to map and understand every gene that makes a human being. Each of these genes codes for the production of a single protein, and each of these proteins is responsible for carrying out all the tasks necessary to build a cell and make it go. Human beings have somewhere around 25,000 genes, each made of many DNA base pairs; the ntire sequence of these genes has been mapped, and their function is being explored.

And a lot of them are gibberish.

Biologists call this “junk DNA”. It exists in all species over a certain level of sophistication. Some of it is “obsolete code”–stuff that calls for things the organism no longer needs or uses, like gills and tails in humans. Some of it has been selected against because the stuff it codes for has no or negative survival value, at least in the short run. (New research suggests that mammals carry the genes that would let them, and us, regenerate damaged organs or regrow lost limbs, but that these genes are switched off. If that’s the case, learning how to switch those genes on could revolutionize medicine…but I digress.)

Some junk DNA is old or obsolete…but some is not. A good deal of this “junk DNA” is actually the remnants of old retroviruses, viruses that eons ago infected our ancestors and then became inert, their DNA integrated with ours.

Retroviruses are strange beasts. They work in a simple but devious way. They contain a strand of RNA, not DNA, and this strand of RNA has the necessary code for creating a special enzyme called “reverse transcriptase,” bundled together with the viral code.

When the virus attacks a cell, it injects its RNA into the cell. The RNA is snapped up by tiny machines within the cell whose job it is to read pieces of RNA and build the proteins that the RNA calls for. These machines have no way to tell that a particular piece of RNA is legitimate; they read and process any RNA they see. The viral RNA, once inside the cell, gets read and processed just like any other RNA.

The viral RNA tells the machines to build reverse transcriptase. Reverse transcriptase is a molecular machine that take a piece of RNA and writes it into the cell’s own DNA. When a retrovirus infects a cell, it injects its genes. Its genes tell the cell to make reverse transcriptase, and once the cell does that, the reverse transcriptase writes the viral RNA into the cell’s DNA; the viral gene becomes a part of the cell’s gene.

Now, normally, at this point the viral gene pretty much shuts down the rest of the cell, and tells the cell to stop whatever it was doing and dedicate all its resources to making more copies of the virus. This destroys the cell, of course, but it’s how viruses reproduce.

Every now and then, though, something goes wrong. The viral RNA is injected, the reverse transcriptase is made, the viral genes get recorded into the cell’s own DNA, and then…nothing. The viral gene just sits there. It doesn’t activate, it doesn’t take over the cell, it just sits there.

But when that cell divides, the viral gene goes with it. that viral gene is now a permanent part of the cell’s DNA. Sometimes, if a gamete is infected, the viral DNA gets passed on to new offspring; it never actually does anything, it’s just along for the ride. Has it succeeded? If it never gets activated, ever produces anything, but the organism it infected becomes successful and spreads all troughout the world, then that viral gene has been spread throughout the world too, right?

In talking about ideas, philosophers often speak of “memes” rather than “genes.” A meme is an idea; memes–ideas–can spread themselves, and can grow. You can look at Christianity as a meme, for example. People who accept the idea of Christianity want to spread that idea; the idea uses their minds, just as a viral gene uses a cell, to spread and reproduce itself. Christianity is a very complex meme, which has fractured and divided into competing sub-species, and most memes are not that complex, but it’s a good example nonetheless.

So what’s the equivalent of a “junk meme?” Lorem ipsum.

Most people believe that the Lorem Ipsum text is meaningless gibberish. In fact, “lorem ipsum” is a generic term for any gibberish text in the print industry–“Oh, I don’t have Sandy’s editorial yet, so I just put some lorem ipsum into the space where her column goes for now.” But the lorem ipsum text is not meaningless, and it’s not gibberish.

In fact, the lorem ipsum text is Latin, and it comes from a work called De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum (The Extrmes of Good and Evil), a study on ethics written by the philosopher Cicero in about 45 BC. The fragment that survives as the modern gibberish text placeholder begins not only in the middle of a sentence, but in the middle of a word; the complete section of the original text begins

Neque porro quisquam est, qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet, consectetur, adipisci velit, sed quia non numquam eius modi tempora incidunt ut labore et dolore magnam aliquam quaerat voluptatem. Ut enim ad minima veniam, quis nostrum exercitationem ullam corporis suscipit laboriosam, nisi ut aliquid ex ea commodi consequatur? Quis autem vel eum iure reprehenderit qui in ea voluptate velit esse quam nihil molestiae consequatur, vel illum qui dolorem eum fugiat quo voluptas nulla pariatur?

Translated into English, the passage reads:

There is no one who who loves pain itself, who seeks after it and wants to have it, simply because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?

One could argue that, viewed from a certain perspective, this passage represents a meme that is successful almost beyond all reason, because it has been picked up and reproduced over and over and over again. But like the viral gene that becomes an inert, non-functional part of its host’s DNA, this meme is “junk;” it is completely inert, and most people do not even realize it has any meaning at all. It’s filler; it’s treated as gibberish, just like the viral gene is effectively gibberish.

But is it successful? It’s picked up and propagated all over the planet; it has spread far and wide, as inert viral genes which have become a part of the human genome have spread far and wide; but is it successful?