Posts Tagged ‘behavior’

SERMON: “My Gut is Telling Me Something” by the-not-so-reverend bob

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

In what seemed an almost off-handed remark in evolutionary biologist Deirdre Barrett’s book “Supernormal Stimuli” (reviewed here this week), she said that consciousness only accounts for a small part of our brain’s activity.  My little ears perked up!

The reason I was surprised is obvious: my consciousness accounts for almost all of the energy of my, well…my consciousness!  And then I realized (yet again!) that there are lots of reasons that we humans are so completely self-focused, chief among them being that it’s only natural for us to be so, being — practically-speaking — hard wired for it by eons of evolution.

Another surprising bit of neural-data came from a video my anthropologist friend sent to me, in which I found learned that our “guts” have enough neurons in them to build a brain the size of a cat.  Yes: we have a “brain” in our gut.  Pondering that, the picture of what I’ve thought of as my “brain” — a discreet organ lodged in my skull — expanded into a more comprehensive view of the brain as a specific collection of neurons with specific functions, connected to a whole raft of other neurons with equally specific purposes, all of them feeding into the smooth functioning of the entire body.

Now this is one of those ideas that, upon hearing it, elicits a sort of bland “Well of course that’s how it is” (even though the minute before hearing it we could never have articulated such a concept).  But that’s how good data functions: like the right piece of the puzzle that someone else hands us and we snap into place to complete another part of the picture.

This is an exciting time for science and scientific discovery, for the trend I notice most is the increasingly rapid abandonment of the confident (and overly-simplistic) assertions of earlier discoveries for the more nuanced (and much more likely) realities of everything from early human evolution to dinosaurs to genetics.  There is a part of me that is relaxing into a deeper confidence in scientific progress even as new discoveries (indirectly) highlight past over-statements or over-reaching conclusions.

A side effect of this new wave of a more integrated scientific sensibility is a growing awareness that even much of what we now know more confidently will continue to be modified (or replaced) by new discoveries.

I don’t expect we’ll last long enough as a species to know everything (nor, frankly, that were we to live forever we could know everything).  But in science — just like in life — we have to strive for the best information we can get and apply our knowledge as best we can even as we understand that we will know more and better tomorrow, or in a week, or in a year.

I pity and fear those that carry metaphorical torches and pitchforks against science.  In modern society the anti-science mob fixates on a few favorite hoaxes in the past (Piltdown Man is a perennial), or the fact that science continues to revise itself in the face of new data (a habit that un-nerves those who want their truths eternal and fixed).  The irony, of course, is that the anti-science folks rant and protest (against the erosion of belief by evidence) while remaining blithely ignorant of how much of their lives (and their life itself) has been made possible and better by the knowledge we have gained only through scientific research.

Back to our intestines: the ramifications of understanding that we have a semi-brain operating in our gut are rather startling, and can point the way to better understanding our own behavior and possible corrections to that behavior when modern stimuli and historically novel food choices threaten our very lives.

I said in my very first sermon: “Because of Darwin, life on earth makes sense.  Because of Darwin, my life makes sense.”  We are lucky to live in a time when science can actually answer questions that mankind could only guess at for the last couple hundred thousand years.

t.n.s.r. bob