Friday, November 13, 2009

Science: Gene Variant and its Religious Implications

Neuroscientists at UC-Irvine released a study in the journal Cerebral Cortex that says, "People with a particular gene variant performed more than 20 percent worse on a driving test than people without it - and a follow-up test a few days later yielded similar results. About 30 percent of Americans have the variant.

"This gene variant limits the availability of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor during activity. BDNF keeps memory strong by supporting communication among brain cells and keeping them functioning optimally. When a person is engaged in a particular task, BDNF is secreted in the brain area connected with that activity to help the body respond."

I was wondering if, soon, neuroscientists will announce another break-through in brain-derived neurotrophic factor. I suspect that there exists another 'gene variant' that causes some people to believe in ghosts, dead men walking, angels and voices in their heads. It is clear to me that there must be something going on in the heads of this set of 'believers' which is not going on in the heads of millions of other human beings.

Dr. Steven Cramer, neurology associate professor and senior author of the study published recently in the journal Cerebral Cortex, said, "It's as if nature is trying to determine the best approach. If you want to learn a new skill or have had a stroke and need to regenerate brain cells, there's evidence that having the variant is not good.

Here's a question that needs pondering- why did Nature offer the variant in the first place? And, extending my hypothesis, of what benefit to human evolution was/is the 'believer's variant'? Further, of what value to modern-day humans are those who still carry the believer's variant?

With all of the religious wars past and present, how could such a BDNF gene-variant be useful for human existence? How was a belief in the paranormal helpful to furthering the human race? The only idea that comes to mind is that it limits population growth through war. The limit to population growth might be its only saving grace. One might conjure that, in those dark days of prehistory, there was a dog-eat-dog scenario played out among our predecessors in the hunt for food. Perhaps one tribe's "god" became the nemesis to the other tribe, and that offered a reason to attack and kill them off.

The Muslim world, I would suspect, might have a greater number of BDNF belief-gene-variant than most other groups of humans, as adherents to that religious sect seem to be most fervent. Christian fundamentalists and Zionists would, I suppose, also be high on the belief-gene-variant.

Those of us who rank at the bottom of the BDNF belief-gene-variant column have stood, scratching our heads, in wonder at the intense 'religiosity' that we see playing out on the battle fields of the world. We just don't get it. Now, perhaps, we know why. Yet I still do not understand the benefit to humanity of a strong belief-system. As with our appendix, it should have died out long ago, just after the neolithic period.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day Thoughts: Afghanistan- Caught Between Two Warring Deities

Today is Veterans Day, a time for Americans to reflect on the sacrifices that our military has made for the citizens of this nation. So many wars to remember; so many deaths to recall. The Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, First Gulf War, the War on Iraq, and now the Afghanistan War. It makes one wonder, what years did this nation endure without a war going on?

Veterans of the wars from Korea to the present might be wondering if their sacrifice and the ultimate sacrifice of their comrades was worth it. Why did they fight? What was their mission? Why did their president decide to send Americans onto the battle field? Was it really necessary to protect our nation from foreign oppression, from foreign aggression? Did the Communists in North Korea, the Vietcong in Vietnam. or Saddam Hussein in Iraq really threaten our nation? Many now are skeptical of the necessity of those wars.

And now, and for the past 8 years, we find ourselves in Afghanistan fighting the elusive al Qaeda and the religious Muslim fundamentalist Taliban. President Obama has a great weight on his shoulders deciding what he should do about this longest war in which our nation is involved. Public sentiment has turned against our involvement. Of course, it did in Vietnam, yet the president continued the useless involvement.

Afghanistan has turned completely into a war of tribal deities, Christianity vs. Islam. Christian fundamentalist preacher, Pat Robertson, said so two days ago. He said. "And they [Islam] talk about infidels and all this, but the truth is that’s what the game is. So you are dealing with not a religion. You’re dealing with a political system."

Well, no, Rev. Robinson, you're dealing with that other tribal deity, the one that your tribal deity doesn't like. It's all about religion now, since al Qaeda has left Afghanistan and is in many other locations around the world. We are fighting fundamentalist Muslims, period. Is that what our young men and women are giving their lives for? Is a war of religion what America wants? Our European ancestors fled here because of religious wars. Now, we are fighting one.

How very sad, especially on this day when when honor the memories of those brave men and women whose president thought that their lives would help preserve those at home.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Birth of Humanity

Last week, PBS aired the first in the 3-part series on evolution. It was fascinating to realize that there were human-like creatures as far back as 3.3 million years ago. An increase in brain size occurred about this time and has never stopped increasing in size or cognitive ability. We are the present end-product of this 3.3 million years of human evolution

Part 2 is Tuesday evening on PBS. The program examines an intriguing theory that long-distance running–our ability to jog–was crucial for the survival of these early hominids. Not only did running help them escape from vicious predators roaming the grasslands, but it also gave them a unique hunting strategy: chasing down prey animals such as deer and antelope to the point of exhaustion. "Birth of Humanity" also probes how, why, and when humans' uniquely long period of childhood and parenting began.

This latter point of a 'uniquely long period of childhood' was touched upon in part 1. In fact, the 3.3 million year old fossil discovered in Africa was that of a 3-year-old. It was noted that its brain had not yet begun to develop [enlarge] just as the human brain takes time to develop. The ape family, on the other hand, have fully-developed brains by the age of three. This is why 'Lucy's Child' began the switch from ape-like to human-like.

It must be quite exciting for a paleoanthropologist to stumble across a valuable fossil like this- just lying atop the rock and sands. It seems with each passing month, scientists uncover one more link to our past, one more incredible example of our epic journey towards 'humanity.'

It is too bad that there is a knot of nihilists both in the Christian and Muslim worlds who deny all of this, cling onto ancient and dusty journals written by men who thought the stars were atop the cloud layer. Oh well, we didn't cry for the demise of the ice man and we shan't for these non-believers. Enjoy part 2 Tuesday evening at 8 PM EST.

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