In the past few years, new discoveries in science and genetics are creating revolutionary understandings of how we got here, what our “meaning” is, and how life seems to operate.
One great summary of this new knowledge is a book called Survival Of The Sickest, by Dr Sharon Moalem. In it, Dr Moalem points out that diseases we have today may have been necessary adaptive responses to the past. In a new field called Epigenetics, Dr. Moalem writes that Lamarckian transmission, a notion that was discredited in the past, has now become an accepted idea within the field of Epigenetics.
What is Lamarckian Transmission? It is the idea that we evolved through “acquired traits” developed by different species. A giraffe, according to old Lamarckian ideas, got its long neck by constantly reaching fore the higher leaves that became increasingly hard to reach on trees.
What Epigenetics now shows us that it is possible for gene expression to occur as a result of influences from our environment. A recent cover story in Time magazine points this out.
Without getting involved in details, the human body is composed of “germ cells”, those cells which are contributed by our parents as the basic building blocks that make “you” and “me’ unique. But there is now evidence that the body carries a large majority of genes that used to be called “junk DNA”, which Dr. Moalem points out is actually related to viruses.
This is called “non-coding DNA”, not used in the normal process of cell building in our bodies, but seems to be a kind of database or library to which our bodies refer whenever we need to adapt to some new disease or infection. These very genes are also known as “jumping genes”, which were discovered by Dr Barbara McClintock several years ago. These jumping genes actually follow certain patterns that cause them to “jump” to certain areas that activate gene expression in our own bodies.
In fact, writes Dr, Moalem, “Jumping genes are very active in the early stages of brain development, inserting genetic material all over the developing brain, almost helter-skelter, as a normal part of brain development. Every time one of those jumpers inserts or changes genetic material in brain cells, it’s technically a mutation. And all of this genetic jumping around may have a very important purpose–it may help to create the variety and individuality that make every brain unique. This developmental frenzy of genetic copy and paste only happens in the brain, because that’s where we benefit from individuality”.
Imagine that. Our parents provide the core, the germ cells that create the basic blueprint of us, and then our bodies access a “library” of former viral DNA from our collective history that begins to jump around and shape us as individuals. What appears here is a combination of heredity and environment shaping our individual destinies. Dr. Moaelm points out that a chimpanzee, simply by stroking the head of its offspring, can affect the genetic expression of that offspring!
How far does this process of genetic engineering go? Howard Bloom, in a book called Global Brain, writes:
In a crisis, bacteria did not rely on deliverance via a random process like mutation, but instead unleashed their genius as genetic engineers”.
Bacteria? “Bacteria were the first to use the tools which now empower biotechnology’s genetic tinkerers: plasmids, vectors, phages, and transposons–nature’s gene snippers, duplicators, long distance movers, wlders, and re-shufflers….the millions–and often trillions–of bacteria in a colony used their individual genomes…as individual computers, meshing them together, combining their data, and forming a group intelligence capable of literally re-programming their species’ shared genetic legacy in ways previously untried and unknown”.
For bacteria, from ancient times, there was “memory” stored in the reactions of genetic shuffle, absorbing viruses, which Bloom describes as “the bacteria’s collaborator and its foe. Viral assaults devastated bacterial colonies–yet they tested bacterial intelligence, tweaking bacterial ingenuity, and amplified bacterial skills. Viruses also pried loose genetic pages from the creatures they attacked and inserted them in the DNA library of those they visited next while on their predatory rounds. Thus they became couriers through which bacteria swapped molecular pamphlets of new tricks and old collective memories”.
The virus as a “courier” of collective genetic history, has been stored in the creative “library” of the human body, and inserted as “jumping genes” in the developing brain, allowing us to respond to the necessary cues and genetic repsonse of individual stress.
This would mean that the way we think about life actually affects gene expression!
In a very real sense, “As a man thinketh, so is he”.
The germ cells that brought us into existence is not affected in the process of building our bodies, but the expression of genes stored in the “history” of our bodies, genes that once were the couriers, the viral invaders seeking to replicate themselves by hijacking our own replicative system, now compose the library of defenses our body uses when attacked by yet other viral or bacterial invaders.
But this does suggest a “design of intelligence”, if not “intelligent design”. It suggests that early life forms developed strategies that were quickly(by evolutionary standards) used to build ever larger systems, but always keyed to the core building blocks, the germ cells of each and every species.
But in each species, there is always the exchange of genes via viruses, from one species to another, as in Avian flu, swine flu, various flus and plagues that have infested civilization for centuries.
What does this mean in regards to the development of religion? perhaps a later essay.