Posts Tagged ‘DNA’

SERMON: “A Final Word” from the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 3rd, 2013
Where it all began.  The first appearance of the not so reverend bob on Charles Darwin's 200th birthday in 2009.

Where it all began. The first appearance of the not so reverend bob on Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday in 2009.

Here’s what reality seems to be.

We live on a planet that is spinning as it orbits around the sun that is the center of our particular solar system.  All living things on Earth appear to have begun their life on earth.  Life is made up of the elements that were manufactured by the formation of the universe and the deaths of stars , and those elements eventually found their way to a young, coalescing earth.  Once on earth, minerals were formed from these elements and liquid water, and here life began, fueled by the energy that blasts out from the ongoing nuclear furnace that is our sun.

Once life took hold, it rapidly diversified through a process we describe as evolution through the process of natural selection, where the ever-changing challenges to survival favored the continuation of one species over another (as well as heritable traits within species), and geographic isolation (combined with random genetic coding errors) led to ever more varieties of living things, each suited to it’s own environment, each occupying a certain niche in nature.  This process has continued to this very moment, and will continue as long as the Earth remains a habitable planet.

Humans are a product of this process.  We are a species of animal that is related to every other living thing on this planet.  We are classified as mammals, and as primates.  Our closest living relatives are the Chimpanzees and Bonobos, with whom we share 99% of our DNA.  (We also “share” almost as much DNA with mice and about 40% with lettuce).

We humans are clever toolmakers who have developed both verbal and written language, which has allowed us to operate in a conceptual as well as an animal world.  Our brains have allowed us to develop technology that has dramatically altered any landscape that we have occupied.  We have, in a remarkably short time, grown from a collection of tribes of hunter-gatherers into huge, complex societies and nations.

A most notable feat of human intelligence has been the creation of the scientific method, which has, over the last few hundred years, allowed us to come to a fairly deep understanding of the reality of our biology, our world, and the universe we float in.  It is through the investigations of science that we know most of what I have just cataloged.

And yet humans also believe in the existence of God.  We have built entire civilizations and cultural institutions around our belief in gods that both created us and who control our fate.  Our first explanations of reality were mythological in nature.  (Before science gave us a means of testing propositions, one person’s guess was as good as another’s).  It would seem fair to say, at this point, that all of the early religious claims about nature and physical reality have been proven false by subsequent scientific discovery.  Yet religion and religious belief persists.

And though science has not (and can not) ever disprove the existence of God, science has shown us that there is nothing about our existence on Earth that necessitates the intervention, direction or supervision of any sort of divine agent, supreme deity, or intelligent god.  And yet the natural state of a human being appears to include a belief in such a being or force, along with a feeling that all of creation is somehow here for (primarily) our benefit.

But not all humans believe in God.

Perhaps tellingly, it is among scientists that we find the highest percentage of humans who do not believe in god(s) or magic.  Which means it is those who know the most about reality that believe the least in what we might call the “unreal”.  Yet the number of such unbelievers (including non-believing non-scientists as well) still represents a minority among the human population.  This hints at the proposition that magical belief flourishes best in ignorance.  But, since belief is coming to be understood as a sort of “default” setting of the human brain, ignorance of reality cannot be seen as the only factor in the continuation of belief in magical things.

The not-so-reverend bob waves goodbye as the Pterosaur that will carry him to his retreat circles above.

The not-so-reverend bob waves goodbye as the Pterosaur that will carry him to his retreat circles above.

Over these last years, I have explored this continuing reality of the believing human in an age of science.  Using my own experience as a means of both discovery and explanation, I’ve experienced a rather intensive period of learning and thinking that I have then turned into my weekly “sermons”.  And I find myself, now, in the rather interesting position of having “answered” the most basic questions we humans seem to have about life: Where did I come from?  Where am I going?  Why am I here?  And though I could probably go on writing a new “sermon” every week for the rest of my life (because there is always going to be a new scientific discovery, or a new popular science book, or a new personal experience to write about), I’ve realized that it’s time to re-direct the energy I’ve been putting in to this blog into other projects.  Because understanding that I am here as the result of natural processes more begs than answers the question of how best to live the life I have (though it does, I think, offer some helpful clues).

I am primarily an artist and performer.  I can now see “the not so reverend bob” as one of my creations — a champion for humane reason and science.  But playing the extroverted evangelist for evolution has been a bit of a strain on this natural introvert (a bit like a submarine doing battle on the surface).  And I think the answer to how to live my life (in this next stage of that life) comes in the form of a recognition that this artist is most effective operating below the surface (like the submarine).  And, for now, trite as it may sound, I want more love and less argument in my life.  And holding the view I do — that we only have this one life to live — I have only so much time to write my next musical or paint my next painting.  (And, besides: it’s not as if anyone’s chances at eternal life will be jeopardized by me not reaching them with the “gospel” of the church of bob)!

So let this be my final sermon on the boblog of the not-so-reverend bob.  I’ll keep the site up for those who might want to read one of my 166 sermons (167 counting this one.  Yikes!).  And I’ll always be ready, like a Minuteman with his musket hanging over the cabin door, to answer the call when needed.  But for the foreseeable future I’ll be directing my energies elsewhere.  I have other lost creative sheep, as it were, to gather up while the sun still shines.

I want to thank each of you that has visited this blog, and especially my “faithful” readers.  I hope that I have given you something worthwhile.

Bob Bless!

the “retiring” not so reverend Bob Diven

SERMON: “And You Thought You Felt Small and Insignificant Before…Part Two” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, June 27th, 2010

PART 2.  “Enough about us…what about me?”

In last week’s PART 1 I concluded with this: “If there is meaning in the universe, it is not to be found anywhere outside of us — you and I are the only game in town where that commodity is concerned.  We (and our animal cousins, to varying degrees) are the only ones that care about anything at all (in any meaningful conception of that idea).  And it takes a certain amount of courage to value ones own individual capacity for caring once it is detached from the borrowed validation of an heavenly authority.  In short, humans find it much easier to trust their feelings and thoughts when they think they are coming from God.  No matter that they are always and completely products of our own physical consciousness no matter how successfully externalized we may make them out to be.”

I have found in this view some new understandings of my own person.  I think about my journeys through therapy, religion, psychic advisers and all the rest to achieve some sense of stability in my emotions and thoughts, driven toward a goal that we all believe can be achieved: normalcy.  But when it comes to humans, as in nature, normal is at best a mathematical approximation of the midpoint between two extremes (either of which, since they exist, could claim at least to be perfectly natural if not normal).

Often, however, we strive toward a goal based more on a notion of Platonic essentialism than reality (essentialism suggesting that there is a past or future ideal against which we can practically compare ourselves or strive towards (or, in the case of Christians, the sinless human we were created to be).  But, as Dawkins put it, using a bunny as an example: “There is no essential rabitt-ness!”, meaning that there is no perfect example of any species (and certainly no human) that we can compare ourselves to as an absolute standard.  There is only, well, us as we are right now.

You and I share pretty much all of the same DNA.  Yet you and I will have just a few letters in different places in our lines and lines of code which makes us just that tiny bit genetically different from each other.  But then so does everyone else, and not in the same places, so to quote Bill Bryson in “A Short History of Nearly Everything”: “We are all 99.9 percent the same, but equally, in the words of biochemist David Cox, “you could say all humans share nothing, and that would be correct, too.””

Despite my best efforts at self-knowledge, who knows what is really affecting my mood today.  I could be responding to a change in air pressure, a chemical shift…etc.,..etc.  My body turns itself over every day, so that on a cellular level I am completely renewed every so many years.  I am not the man I once was, and certainly not the boy I started out as.  And on a morphological level — were my fossils to be found some million years hence — the man I am today could very truly be called transitional between those animals we once were and those we will eventually become (assuming we survive extinction for that long).

In my personality I confront the tension and occasional frustration of trying to maintain both my idea of “who” I am, and the physical “I am” wherein that idea exists.  But from where do I get the idea that the consciousness I carry should be any more stable or “essential” than the body of processes that support it?  Instead of constant complaining about the greased pig of self identity, maybe I should be amazed that I am as constant as I am.  But then, couldn’t the same case be made regarding teeming life in general — or the rumbling earth we stand on, spinning through a vast universe?

And yet, for all this tectonic movement and biological activity, life feels remarkably calm (no matter how unreal that feeling might seem compared to the actual science of both the planet I live on and the body in which I live).  The fact that such knowledge as I am discussing does not make my head literally explode is due, probably, in no small part to the necessity of maintaining a certain coherence of mind in order to assure the survival of the constellation of organisms that I represent.  In short — and in a quite literal way — my DNA won’t let me go there!

One could argue that our individual experience of living — pleasure, the satisfactions of learning, the euphoria of love, the heart-breaking response to beauty, the intoxication of sex — are the wages we are paid so that we will find living more to our liking than oblivion, and thereby allow our DNA to continue its single-minded drive toward replication.  On a cellular level, we die a thousand deaths even while we’re living, and are constantly renewed, until the day that the organism is damaged beyond repair, at which time we are destined to be broken up into our constituent parts and recycled as we have been for billions of years.

What can be gained in raging against such a fate?  From who (or what) could we seek concessions?

It is so easy to look at a mouse or a fly and wonder “what’s the point of such a life, where all they do is eat, poop, reproduce and then die?”  What’s the point indeed.  If the experience of life were universally miserable, none would participate.  Even our pleasures are by-products.  And so, of course, is meaning!

No matter what we do the chances are that all evidence of our time here will eventually be wiped from the face of the planet.  Ice sheets will return and retreat, and other animals will thrive, repeating the cycle until our sun finally explodes and our universe collapses once more upon itself.  The more one looks at it the more bleak it becomes.  But so what?  It is what it is, and no wish of ours will change it.

Our lives can seem predestined by the ubiquitous regularity of the cycle of life and death.  We feel certain that we are serving some power greater than ourselves which, it turns out, we are.  It just happens to be DNA, not God, and DNA’s irrepressible impulse toward replication that began billions of years ago.

We are teeming life become aware.  And yet it could be argued, I suppose, that we are no more capable of understanding our existence than any of the other animals that share our lives on this planet.  It is unquestionable, however, that we know a whole lot more about life and ourselves than anything else on Earth.

The challenge that remains unique to us humans, then, is how to live with that knowledge.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Whose Life is it Anyway?” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

One of the stories I tell myself about my life is the one about my (apparent) dedication to personal growth.  Landmarks of this story include my decision to “accept Christ” as a teenager (having no reason to disbelieve the argument for the proposition, I chose to follow that path to God and salvation).  Another is my much later decision to read the entire Bible and compare what was actually written there against the collection of doctrines and beliefs I had been taught in my years of belief.  One more was my willingness to enter into therapy in my twenties (though I had employee insurance at the time, I still had to pay a substantial deductible, which I accepted using the verse from Proverbs: “Get wisdom, though it cost you all you have!”).  Another landmark was facing, in the fall of 1987, the prospect of living in a universe without God when I found myself (unwittingly, I would argue) delivered to just such a state of doubt after a troubling summer of missionary work abroad during which I was endeavoring to get to the true (and defensible) center of my Christianity.  After that there was the therapist who I allowed to water in me a nascent sprout of belief in my own worthiness, which was later built upon by the psychic that told me outright that “There is nothing wrong with you!”.  Most recently, there was the halting courtship of the full ramifications of being a living organism in a purely and completely natural and mechanistic world.

When I look back, I have been able (from time to time) to pause, take stock and give myself credit for consistently making the choice to explore, to step into the dark unknown in the vague hope or belief that I would come out the other side better for it and more grounded in reality than irrationality.  At the same time I could not honestly tell you that my progress and growth over the years has been animated purely by a fearless devotion to truth.  Most of it, I would confess, could as easily have been driven by my own unhappiness, discomfort and discontent.  To the end that I could not quantify how much of my personal growth could be described as a by-product of a basic pain response and how much as the result of a nobler endeavor.

Even now (as I learn more about the current understandings of the human animal that science has brought us) I realize that a good deal of my increasing comfort with myself and my capacity to access my talents and feelings (from a fairly stable state of emotional equilibrium) could also be (with some validity) described as a by-product of my aging and maturing brain.

In short, I will never know how much of my current mental health is the product of natural processes and how much is the result of my own dedicated (if uncomfortably urged-on) efforts.

The human brain, it turns out, takes about 25 years to reach its mature state (in biological terms).  By age 40 parts of it are starting to decay, forming “holes” in the gray matter.  But as this happens new tendrils — new synapses — form that connect the two hemispheres of the brain to compensate for “holes” and in the process foster an increasingly “full brain” approach to whatever we are putting our mind to.  The “aging mind” gains an ability to synthesize.  With age comes wisdom, they say.

So maybe I would have “settled down” without all the effort and the therapy and the psychic sessions: all the reading and the talking and the praying and the writing may have been just things to keep me busy while my brain followed its own path to maturity and calmness.  Who can say?

Of course it’s reasonable to think that my activities (and choices) during those years had some effect on my maturation and development as an individual.  I did, after all, take a bunch of raw talents (that came with the equipment, as it were) and trained them into usable skills and professional abilities (as long as I was going to be unhappy — I seem to have reasoned — I might as well be productive, and now that I’m happy, I’m made happier still by the skills I picked up along the way!).  (NOTE: The paragraph you have just read is an excellent example of an excerpt of my own internal “story of my life”!)

Now as I read about just how much LIFE is driven by DNA and its need to reproduce, my human efforts (as applied to my personal growth above) are once again placed in relief against much larger (or, in this case, smaller) forces over which I have little say.  The question expands until I am thrown upon even larger questions of the kind that I thought I had left behind when I ceased to be a Christian believer.

As a Christian one of the great (and endless) debates is the role of an individual’s “free will”.  There are those of the predestination mind that say that God has chosen each of those whom he will, and has fore-ordained the days of their life.  Others see a world where God allows each individual complete freedom of choice as to whether to believe in God or not (with the minor caveat, as HItchen’s notes, that the wrong choice will result in eternal banishment and torment in Hell).  Christians (and other religious believers no less so) also struggle with whether their choices and actions are being unduly influenced by demons (or the Devil himself), their own sinful natures or even urgings from God, his angels or the Holy Spirit.

I wondered today (as I considered all of this) if all of my learning and personal growth and efforts to abandon irrational religious belief had only served to lead me — via the ironic path of Darwinian evolution and science — right back into the lap of God.  Or, at least, back to the same questions that believers attempt to understand.

There is an unsettling similarity to the questions:  On the one hand, if God knows every word I’m going to say before I say it, am I really making a choice at all (have you ever done that trick where you suddenly say the opposite thing to test if you can outwit God’s script)?; On the other hand, if I really am merely a by-product of my DNA’s drive to reproduce, do even my much-vaunted human mind and its accompanying “free will” add up to anything that can (in any meaningful way) transcend the biological imperatives at the root of my very existence?  Or — to put it another way — “Can I outsmart my DNA?”

Of course this serves to remind one that religion grew out of our first attempts to answer the deeper existential questions that are the inescapable inheritance of every living consciousness.  In that sense I wonder if there isn’t some inchoate understanding of our biological place in the world that pushed these questions to the surface of our forebearers minds.  The reality is that we haven’t yet answered them.  The hope is that we eventually will.  The concern is that we may not be able to…ever.

Just as the early theory Continental Drift hinted at a geological reality but proved to be an insufficient tool for describing the actual geological processes of Plate Tectonics, so the notion of God and our relationship to an all-powerful deity hints at the larger existential questions that science has now allowed us to put into words.

One thing is obvious: our highly evolved animal-level survival minds are embarrassingly limited when faced with the need to comprehend the scale of our universe, or the complexity of the organism made of ever-smaller organisms that is our living body.  One can almost come to feel that we (like a computer or robot in a science-fiction movie) are a biological experiment conducted by our own mindless DNA that has achieved self-awareness.

The reality, of course, is that life goes on whatever we might decide is the case.  The sun will still rise in the morning, and so will we.  Our minds will revert to doing what they are good at: keeping us alive along whatever lines we tend to find most agreeable in the environment where we find ourselves.  In the case of most of us that includes acting as the keepers of the story of our own lives.  This, too, is a natural part of our consciousness.  It indicates a need for meaning and for understanding.  Stories about ourselves — narratives — are like photo albums that help us organize our experiences and make sense out of them.  They are a means to the necessary sense of meaning that is so natural a part of our make up.

So why bother to try to understand, to grow, to learn?  Understanding how an atom works is not essential to a well-lived life, really.  In my case one reason I push for science to be more fully accepted and appreciated is that it helps to shake the foundations of older (and more unnecessarily repressive) religious belief systems.

Religion does not offer the answers that science cannot provide: Religion imagines answers where there are no answers — describing worlds it has never seen with its own eyes.  Just because the ancient questions are the ones we still ask does not mean that the ancient imagined answers to those questions are therefore worthy of resurrection.  Doctors once described the body as made up of various “bodily humors” that could cause madness, moodiness and disease.  I suppose one could argue that there turned out be actual genes and diseases and bacteria and chemical imbalances and a million other discovered elements of the physical world that were behind the idea of “bodily humors”, and therefore those early physicians were right after all.  But today we know about genes and bacteria and viruses, and the term “humors” is out of date (not to mention so fraught with medieval magic and superstition that the term is far too antique and imprecise to be of much use in modern times).  In like manner, I would argue, is religion no longer useful as a descriptive tool of either human consciousness or the natural world.

It may be that we are the playthings of the Gods, but it may be that we have looked to Heaven for the powers that rule us when they have lived quietly inside our cells all of this time.

But then, maybe my DNA knew I was going to say that.  Damn!

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland” by Bryan Sikes

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

SaxonsCoverIt was one of those moments where a book leapt off the shelf into my waiting arms.  Well, not physically.  But this was a book that seemed to have been written just for me and a gap in my knowledge that I had long longed to fill.  Having taken my genealogy back as far as I could — and having had had my paternal DNA tested — it appeared that most of my history for the last thousand years resided in the “British Isles”.  So I was excited to find a book written by the English geneticist that had extracted DNA from the famous “Cheddar Man” that I had heard about on television years ago.  (If you don’t know the story — the skeleton of a man from 12, 000 years ago was found in a cave near Cheddar, England.  DNA was extracted from one of his molars, and an interesting experiment ensued in which schoolchildren in the area had their DNA tested to see if any of “Cheddar Man’s” descendants still lived in the area.  It turned out one did: it was the children’s teacher!).

I’m always happy to find a book written by the individual who has actually been involved in historic discoveries.  The author describes both the history of his own (comprehensive) “British Isles” DNA mapping project at Oxford University, as well as the history of earlier attempts to determine the lineage of the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh populations.  Sykes goes into a fairly detailed history of each of these nations, detailing the earliest historical accounts (while assessing their reliability) and lays out the popular mythologies with which different populations have most strongly identified.  Finally, he offers his conclusions from years of DNA research and ties things up with a neat little bow.  Well, maybe not that neat of a bow, but at the least one based on empirical evidence that does give a good indication of how the islands were settled, by whom and when.

One one level this book is a general history of the lands in question, both geologic and human.  Then there is just enough explanation of methodology to make one’s eyelids start to droop.  Finally there are the conclusions which, though a bit murkier than I expected, are nevertheless a genuine leap forward in our understanding of human migration patterns and the durability of native populations.  It will change your understanding of Celtic identity, and give you a deeper respect for all of our mothers in history.

It’s not the best written book I’ve ever read, though I can’t put my finger on how it could be improved.  It may be another case of where I really just wanted to get to the last chapter for the new facts, and therefore was less appreciative of the depth of background and history offered in the pages between the first chapter (where the “Cheddar Man” story is told) and the last (where the conclusions of Syke’s research are revealed).

Still, if you have any roots in the lands of the Celts, Picts, Scots, Irish, Saxons, Normans, Angles, Britons, Welsh or Vikings, you’ll find something of yourself in this book.

t.n.s.r. bob