I started http://www.scienceandreligion.com in the mid-nineties when nobody was interested in such an esoteric URL. Regardless of belief in divinity, new research shows the biological benefit of spiritual practices, and has overturned long-held beliefs about genetics, the brain, and even the immune system. This has caused a resurgence in interest in spiritual practices and may also be the reason why the much-ballyhooed tide of atheism only two or three years ago has petered out.
There are 21 points worth considering:
1. Your body’s DNA changes during your lifetime. Your DNA is more a work in progress than a fixed asset. Recently methylation changes have been noted in muscle tissue after exercise; though these changes were temporary (disappearing 48 hours after the test sample) it shows how susceptible DNA is to even minor activities. Epigenetic changes caused by diet, addictions and environmental pressures can be so long-lived that, observing their effect in nine generations of rats, one researcher went as far as to say there seems no way to turn them off.
As the intricate switching mechanisms, epigenetic changes, and the workings of vast areas of “dark matter” within the DNA are explored, the idea that “most DNA is junk” (Dawkins) is proving how much ignorance passed as wisdom only recently. Clearly, we’re only just at the beginning.
2. Your brain DNA changes constantly “overturning all previously held theories about the brain”. Retrotransposons react to the moment-to-moment conditions within the brain and rearrange sections of the brain’s own DNA.
3. Oxytocin, a naturally occurring molecule produced by a small group of about 3,000 neurons in the supraoptical nucleus, is supremely beneficial for every system within the body. Its absence is a noted feature of autism; a single intravenous injection of oxytocin have been noted to greatly improve cognition in autistic people for as long as two weeks. Oxytocin is generated by emotions such as gratitude and generosity. Both these emotions are stressed repeatedly in every scripture of mankind.
4. Meditation strengthens the cortex, develops the amygdala, enables the brain to resist age-related thinning, and creates higher levels of telomerase. Telomerase is an enzyme which extends the copyable life of chromosones, and therefore rejuvenates the body.
Prayer, a form of meditation, has been shown to increase vagal tone, an essential measure of parasympathetic nervous system efficiency. The bottom line: altruistic thoughts are actually healthier than selfish ones, an effect amplified by concentrated prayer. Notable convicted fraudster Jeffrey Skilling (former CEO of Enron) justified a $132m paypacket (the year before Enron’s collapse) and based his abuse of employees on Richard Dawkins’ Darwin-centric The Selfish Gene, the altruistic model promoted in religions builds a sturdier nervous system.
5. Methylation of cytosine within the DNA physically strengthens the DNA chain, greatly increasing the force required to break the strands in laboratory experiments. Since strand-breaking mechanisms are part of the burglary equipment contained within many hostile bacteriological mechanisms, methylation of the DNA explains why, all other things being equal, one person might resist disease better than another.
6. Epigenetics (1,2 &5) explains how the experiences of one generation are transmitted to the second and third generations (and beyond, in laboratory experiments on animals) and accounts for the ancient concept of the “sins of the fathers” being visited on the second and third generations. This idea has been derided by militant atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens) as wicked and evil, though is an inescapable part of human biology.
7. The mathematics of protein forming and folding show that the body’s estimated two million different proteins, coded by at most 25,000 of our genes, and each of whose components number anywhere from 150 to 29,000 – could never be achieved incrementally or randomly. A small change in a single element can render a protein useless.
To give an idea of the scale of the complexity, I asked a company in California to build me a working model of a single hemoglobin protein, able to flip between oxidised and non-oxidised states, of any size, using any materials they like and taking as long as they need. They say it is tooo complex and would require too much manpower. And that’s with the design already known!
Interesting note: hemoglobin has four spring loaded iron platforms which trap oxygen; it also carries nitric oxide, releasing it at the same time as oxygen, carbon dioxide, as well as other regulatory molecules. The size of the hemoglobin molecule was first worked out in 1825 by J.F. Engelhard, using the known molecular mass of iron, as n x 16,000 where n is the number of iron molecules per hemoglobin. He was ridiculed at the time, as nobody thought a biological component could be so large.
But his findings were confirmed in 1925 by Gilbert Smithson Adair – we now know n = 4, meaning hemoglobin has a molecular mass of 64,000. Hemoglobin is designed such that the first oxygen molecule can only be collected in areas of high pressure – an exponentially easier loading system applies to the second, then third, then fourth. This means, on travelling back to the lungs, hemoglobin will not rip off the oxygen molecules it left for cells on the way from the lungs.
8. The mapping of three-letter codons within the genetic code to the amino acids coded for is the strongest (most fault-tolerant) in all possible configurations. The number of possible mappings is more than 6 followed by 42 zeros. This feature, among others, is statistically a non-random arrangement.
To give an idea how difficult it is to come up with the strongest configuration randomly, even if one tested two different arrangements every thousandth of a second (4.14 x 10 power 19) for 14bn years on a planet circling each and every star (7x 10 power 21) in the known universe, and have only one chance of coming up with the strongest – coincidentally the same one which has been in use on our planet from the beginning and which is measurably the strongest. To make this achievement even more unlikely, the ribosome arrives pre-configured for this specific codon mapping. This doesn’t look like chance to me.
9. The backwards facing retina is not the aberration pointed to by militant atheists as evidence of random design: far from it. It is absolutely necessary for long-term function and renewal in sunlight, and the arrangement of opsin molecules, light-detection cells, and the retinal pigment epithelium has somehow been configured for the greatest possible sensitivity to light – able to detect a single photon, and able to renew itself so efficiently it can last unaided for a century of continuous use.
10. The appendix, often a target of atheist scorn, has been shown (SciAm Mar 2011) to be a miniature farm cultivating protective bacteria for the digestiive system. The tonsils, once considered a useless annoyance, and extracted at the earliest opportunity, are now known to be vital immune system sentinels guarding the entrance to the body. Routine extractions while operating on unrelated matters have therefore stolen the entire reboot mechanism from patients. Whoops!
11. Mirror neuron activity shows that morality is hard-wired into intelligent species. Rats will forgo rewards if they find their enjoyment of them causes distress to another rat, and chimpanzees display the same behaviour. Observation of animals nurturing other species (a crow raising, feeding and protecting a kitten, a leopard nurturing an orangutang infant, a lion embracing a long-lost human friend who nursed it in illness) shows the mechanism can also work across species. Since morality is a biological default, its absence represents a degeneration, but also lends itself to investigation.
12. Higher socio-economic groups have been shown to have reduced mirror neuron activity in a Berkely study. Autistic individuals also show impaired mirror neuron activity. On this and other evidence of rampant materialists and their genetic offspring, materialism itself causes damage to the mirror neuron process, while its reverse – gratitude and generosity – seem to elevate the brain genetics in the progeny.
13. Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity as Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham and Gandhi (by Howard E. Gardner) found that the inverse is indeed true, that is, genius emerges from strongly moral backgrounds. Since morality is stressed in all the scriptures of mankind, they have formed an important part of the evolutionary process.
14. Elevated creative states are invariably accompanied by an elevated religious sensibility, which finds expression through the creative act. The lives of at least two dozen geniuses have been explored at length elsewhere in this blog. The irresistable conclusion is that creativity’s impact is to stimulate insight into the transcendent nature of life, whether expressed in literature, art, music or the sciences. If so, this arousal of transcendent moods fully explains the protective sentiment and fascination which works of genius attract.
15. The lives of highly gifted individuals are littered with mystical experience. The racing driver Ayrton Senna is a recent example, while others include Gandhi, Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Victor Frankl, Walt Disney, Jack Kirby, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Glen Campbell, Leo Fender, Isaak Levitan, Pablo Picasso, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Einstein, Neil Diamond, Antoni Gaudi, William Blake, Henry Thoreau, Ralph Emerson, Edward Carpenter, Jackson Pollock, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarotti, Paul Gauguin, Roy Buchanan, Tom Thomson, Spike Milligan, Vincent Van Gogh and hundreds of others.
16. The lives of mystics show peak achievements at the age when the brain and nervous system are mature, generally around age 33, which indicates a role of the central nervous system in mystical experience. The highest achievers in this field have been simple, uneducated men and women, indicating that mystical experience is a natural gift, and less likely to occur after years of forced memorisation.
17. The spiritual scriptures of mankind show a unity of purpose, which is the establishment of manners of behaviour and mental attitudes which lead gradually to an evolutionary development of the brain, at the end of which communication with divinity is a possibility.
18. The scriptures are also united in declaring that the abandonment of such a lifestyle leads to disturbing and damaging mental states. This fully accounts for the forceful emphasis on the visual metaphors which have emerged from this school of thought, namely heaven and hell – one representing the normal evolutionary target, using a healthy evolutionary path, the other representing mental chaos and degeneration.
19. An instinctive reverence for ancient scriptures created centuries before the evolutionary development of methodical scientific analysis, can be accounted for by their contribution to a hygiene for the brain’s evolution. Molecular biology is revealing mechanisms which prove this to be the case. Fasting, as a single example, has been shown to have huge neurological benefits. Fasting not only accelerates chemical signalling in the brain, but stresses the neurons in a way which makes them stronger – as going to the gym does for muscles – and is effective in preventing Alzheimers. More recent research indicates that as little as three days of fasting causes the human immune system to regenerate itself from scratch.
19. The aggression and sociopathic behaviour shown by leading nations in their treatment of those weaker or less fortunate than themselves – whether their own homeless, underpriviledged, aged or infirm, or third-world nations – illustrates this degeneration by soaring rates of ADD, Alzheimer’s, autism, addictions, sociopathy, bi-polar disorder, depression, suicide, violent crime, delinquency, social upheavals, obesity, anorexia, bulimia, schizophrenia, and dozens of other chaotic and disturbing mental states. The WHO declares autism an epidemic, and that the medical world should prepare for a “tidal wave of dementia”; they state that mental disorders are the advanced world’s number one health problem.
20. Autism and atheism have been correlated in statistical and behavioural studies in which the similarities extend to focusing on details at the expense of the larger picture. Frustratingly entrenched, fundamentalist and dogmatic thought patterns – whether religious or materialist – can be traced to specific brain configurations which avoid conflicting beliefs and find gray areas of subtlety distasteful, regardless of truths they contain.
21. Rupert Sheldrake’s 2012 book The Science Delusion details laboratory experiments proving psychic abilities to be a genuine occurrence and proposes a new scientific worldview in which these traits – common to humans and animals – are not a supernatural, but an entirely natural occurrence.