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Is it possible that a large, multicellular, naturally evolved organism with an advanced intellect on the order of a human's could have evolved to pass on its knowledge and memories in a fashion that could be described as 'genetic'?

By 'genetic', I mean that a newly born/hatched/whatever organism would emerge with at least a reasonable subset of one or both/all of its parents' stock of knowledge at the time at which it was born or conceived (depending on the means of reproduction) without having to be taught in the manner that human children must be taught.

Obviously, this should not preclude such offspring learning naturally in the manner with which we are familiar after birth.

Should this be possible, by what mechanism might this take place?

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  • $\begingroup$ Be more specific, which kind of knowledge. When in general then answer is rather No, information is too complex (although not so simple, depends on how their normal teaching happens this like) But in form of funny video this called Epigenetics, it's already happening, although for high intelligence, intelligence itself is more important then inherited knowledge at level of that intellgence. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Jul 25 '16 at 5:31
  • $\begingroup$ Like MolbOrg pointed out, what you have in mind is epigenetics, but it doesn't really apply at the scale you have in mind. Still, it's a subject you should read up on. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Jul 25 '16 at 7:52
  • $\begingroup$ Here is one scientific study into this concept, albeit for base instincts. Basically one generation of mice were trained to fear a certain smell. Their offspring and subsequent generations shared that fear to a degree, though they had not been trained and had not even previously encountered that smell. $\endgroup$ – Kys Jul 25 '16 at 13:42
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Why limit the knowledge transfer to the DNA/reproductive process itself? A reproductive system is designed and adapted to create new life and get it up and running. A brain is designed to handle knowledge and use it to do all kinds of cool stuff. If I wanted to create a species that did this, I wouldn't focus on messing around with how the reproductive system works. I would make a third system which transfers knowledge. Say, some kind of neural connector that latches onto the fetus in utero and establishes a connection to the mother's brain. Long term memory in the mother could be more or less reproduced if the fetus had a brain sufficiently developed to have somewhere to store it. Obviously, this species would have to develop their brains completely much earlier than humans, but if they had a neural transfer mechanism/organ, obviously, they would be adapted to do this.

The memories would be like a photocopy of long term memory from the mother, and would probably be accessible to the child in stages as their brain developed. Who knows, maybe the creatures could even learn to focus on particular areas that are important to pass on during pregnancy? There could be a pretty formalized corpus of species knowledge passed on every time with a lot of stuff that each generation had thought was very important to relate. Also, like a photocopy, you would have to figure that the accuracy of the transfer would probably degrade over time. How well would the transfer of a firsthand memory of your great, great, grandmother work?

It's an interesting mechanic, but that way you aren't mucking around with the actual reproductive system itself, which is already very complicated and absolutely must be reliable for the species to survive.

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Reasons why this won't work by way of introduction

As a person with a degree in the life sciences you do realise this could involve one or both of its parents storing their knowledge and memories in their germ cells and that somehow these memories are expressed and translated into knowledge and memory in the brain of their offspring.

The density of information encoded into the spermatazoa and ovum would be massive. To say nothing of the potential harm caused by decryption errors into their offspring's brain. All of which would be prohibitive. So direct genetic transmission of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next is impossible. OK?

A modest proposal for transmitting knowledge and skills reproductively

Now let's do it another way. Through the reproductive process itself, but it's not reproduction as we know it.

Assume the two parents do something when they reproduce that no respectable metazoan would ever consider doing, namely, their bodies fuse, soften and effectively liquefy as they and their organs form a single mass of living matter. Effectively this is a gigantic syncytium.

Their child will be formed out of this somatic fusion, probably in a womblike cavity at the centre of this fused body, and it will inherit the recombined genetic material from both its parents, as if was normal dioecious reproduction, and imprinted on its brain will be the knowledge and memories of both of its parents. And all that epigenetic stuff that is becoming so fashionable in biology these days too.

Once the child is sufficiently formed to be viable, the fused mass separates into the both of the two parents with their offspring between them. As a bonus offer, there's no reason why twins or other multiple births might not result from this from this reproduction by immersive fusion.

There you are one great big gooey reproductive mechanism for the direct inheritance of memories and knowledge from one generation to the next. Naturally this reproductive mechanism will be produced by evolution, but how and why it evolved in the first place that's something for you to figure out.

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    $\begingroup$ I immediately thought not multicellular. A place where life consists of highly evolved slime moulds that can reproduce by merely dividing, but which have a sex-equivalent information-passing mode of merging two into one and then dividing into three or more. Interestingly alien if they are intelligent tool users! $\endgroup$ – nigel222 Jul 25 '16 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ @nigel222, you should post that as an answer and not just a comment. There are a range of slime moulds some of which are congregations of unicellular organisms and others are blobs of protoplasm. My creatures are not dissimilar to slime moulds, but metazoan versions. $\endgroup$ – a4android Jul 25 '16 at 13:15

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