Like so many debates, the one around how we came to exist is a victim of the ‘false dichotomy’ problem between “Intelligent Design” – another way of saying “God did it” or a godless, random process where it’s total chance that we ever ended up existing at all. Even the “Giant Spaghetti Monster” hypothesis is really just another version of Intelligent Design.

We are not limited to these two choices in understanding how life in general and humanity in specific came to exist on Earth.

In college, I used to get in fierce debates with my science-major friends about the non-randomness of evolution; arguing that I strongly believed in evolution, I just didn’t think it was random. This was something they seemed unable to understand. For them, if I didn’t believe in Random Genetic Mutation (RGM) coupled with Sexual Selection, I was a Creationist.

For my part, I thought this was a vast underestimation of the data that gets exchanged at a biochemical and energetic level among organisms in the world we live in. Everything we take into our body – whether breathing, eating, or absorbing through our skin – has an impact on us.

Consider the pheromones given off by many creatures (including humans!) when they seek to mate. Pheromones are a chemical substance that communicates more powerfully then any pick-up line could.

I couldn’t understand why it was so hard to believe that our bodies could take in environmental information at a cellular (or atomic / energetic) level and use it. Granted, maybe not in the current generation, but perhaps in future generations. For me, this meant that it wasn’t a random genetic mutation driving evolution, but a very targeted one.

It seems like the very core of evolution to argue that a species genetic code can be modified based on the data that came in from the environment.

Reflecting back, I can understand a little bit what the resistance of my friends might have been. Targeted genetic modification sounds a lot like ‘someone’ is making a ‘decision,’ and that sounds an awful lot like “Intelligent design.”

However, I associated this behavior on a cellular level as a more fundamental example of what we readily observe on an organism level. For example, when a plant grows in the direction of sunlight – is that a decision? When a tree (or plant) gets too much sunlight and flips it’s leaves over so that the more reflective backside of the leaves slows the absorption of sunlight – is that a decision?

No.

It’s a stimulus and a response.

Missing Pieces

Interestingly enough, it was a college Ecology class that really galvanized my belief that evolution is not random. (And before you ask, I went to college at a large public university). We were discussing the evolution of evolutionary theory; gradualism, random genetic mutation, sexual selection, etc. One thing the professor said really sparked my interest. She said,

“The one big mystery of evolution from a random genetic mutation perspective is that you would think – if it’s random – the fossil record would be littered with bad mutations – ones that didn’t work out, but that’s simply not the case. We don’t have a record of all these failed random mutations.”

We have records of organisms both large and small that have gone extinct, even organisms as old as stromatolites. But we don’t have examples of animals that have mutated in unsuccessful ways. Isn’t that interesting?

Now, one could argue that all those fossils have disappeared into the Earth – or that the fossils we do have aren’t really a representative example of all the iterations of creatures that have existed. Or it could be argued that the fossils we do have may have had failed mutations that aren’t visible in their remains.

The lack of fossil evidence of random genetic mutation is not a smoking gun by any means, but it is a data point that’s worth paying attention to.

A few years later I stumbled on Olivia Judson’s book Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation, a pop-culture evolutionary biology book that bolstered my developing belief that evolution is something less than random. Here is one interesting quote (of which there are quite a few) to illustrate what I mean;

“an experiment with yellow dung flies…has shown that testes size can evolve in response to sperm competition in as few as ten generations.” (pg 23)

So first of all – I hope you weren’t eating. If you were, I apologize 🙂  Secondly, though, ten generations?  That’s not millions of years, that’s evolution happening in weeks and months. Also, worth noting, if we were talking about random mutation in response to an environmental stimulus (here: sperm competition), one expect flies to turn pink maybe or grow extra legs or maybe their wings change size, but that’s not what happened here.

Maybe it’s easy to miss, but here we see (and I did do a quick skim through the source studies for this one) that evolution is happening in a very targeted way for the animal– one that corresponds to the area where adjustment is needed.  That makes perfect logical sense, but it’s definitely not random.

This is not to say that there are no random mutations. That surely happens. My argument is merely that random mutations (even ‘coupled’ with sexual selection) are not the primary driver of evolution.

Of course this may all seem like ‘old news’ now as I know there is a “new-ish” field called Epigenetics that studies modifications to the genetic code based on environmental conditions.  Still – it’s worth considering that evolution may be a bit “smarter” than we thought without needing to imagine a single, high god tinkering with every plant and creature.

Off the Deep End

I’m now going to take a leap in a completely different direction – I think it’s only fair to warn you.

Above we’ve discussed evolution of organisms from the perspective of ‘matter’ – that is, bodily, but we haven’t really touched on the idea of consciousness. Consciousness in general is possessed by most subjects in the Animal Kingdom. We can all tell that there is a difference between the consciousness of a plant and that of a puppy.

But, as an observable phenomenon, there seems to be a categorical difference between the operation of human consciousness and any other known life on this planet. We may talk about dolphins and whales as intelligent animals, but we do not mean by this that dolphins can work with complex mathematical algorithms, nor do we evaluate the complex narrative structure of a whale’s song compared to a work like War and Peace.

The human ability to create and self-reflect, to understand diverse perspectives and craft narratives based on complex emotions and motivations; all of these are representative of the uniqueness of the human condition. Also notable, is the human ability to build on what came before – not just over tens of thousands of years, but year over year. We don’t really see that with any other known species.

Now, some may argue that we simply don’t know enough about the inner life of a whale or dolphin (or ant for that matter) to judge. This is true. We should allow that that’s possible and avoid dismissing the argument outright. However, on the other hand, we should not let that argument stop us from thinking about the difference between human consciousness and that of all other life on Earth as we presently understand it.

It is partly this difference, of course, that sparks our speculation on the human soul. In the face of the human experience from the perspective of this difference, it is perfectly logical and rational to wonder why it is so. Why can fruit flies evolve sexual adaptations in ten generations, but in the 60,000 years of human existence hasn’t another species evolved a consciousness like ours?

Based on the current evolutionary debate it seems like we are at an impasse here – that we must choose between believing in a human soul and believing in evolution. Fortunately, that is actually not true, we are not required to believe that our bodies and our human ‘sense of self’ came about in the same way. People have certainly been wondering over the mind-body connection since Descartes and probably a long time before.

As a person who believes in both evolution and reincarnation, I feel compelled to be open-minded about how these two parts of our existence (both as spirit and as body) might have come into being and changed over time to result in our current experience.

In closing I want to note that I am clearly not a geneticist or an evolutionary biologist. It is not my goal with this post to try to convince you that the ideas in this post are right. What’s most important to me is that you take away this; we don’t have to ‘choose sides’ between a ‘godless’ evolution and a creationist myth that clearly ignores the evidence we do have on record – the more possibilities and options we consider, the better our chances of making a real breakthrough in this area.

Does the sun do more than light up our lives?

I have sometimes wondered if we (and by that I mean human beings in general) can absorb different types of energy for use.  Typically we think of getting “energy” (and by energy here I mean that feeling that gets us going / keeps us moving) from food.  But is food really our only means of picking up energy?  Some studies have shown that prolonged separation from sunlight has a negative impact on the mood and I wonder if these are pointing at a more fundamental influence that sunlight has on our energy levels.  On a personal note, I remember that when I was meditating multiple times a day in direct sunlight, I had tons of energy even though I was barely eating and I wasn’t losing any weight.    I know there are some groups out there, such as Inedia (see wikipedia for more), who maintain they can live on sunlight and water alone.  Even if it is possible to absorb energy from the sun, I don’t think sunlight is a replacement for food.  The body needs the nutrients we absorb from food to function, and although we get some vitamins from the sun, certainly not enough to sustain a healthy, active lifestyle.  Even plants, which we know get a substantial amount of life energy from the sun, cannot live on sunlight alone and require nutrients from soil or water to thrive.

Why does music make us want to dance?

Returning to the idea of absorbing alternative forms of energy (ie – not just food energy), when I listen to dance music I also feel an ‘energy boost’.  Is this just a perceived increase in energy or are my energy levels really rising?  I have read somewhere that listening to high energy / upbeat music makes the heart speed up and this is what causes the burst of energy.  That makes some sense, however – if this is the case, I would think that I would feel tired after listening to music; the way I do after a hard workout.  Conversely, though, I feel much more energized.  Perhaps my workout just isn’t getting the heartbeat thing right – but let’s look at the flipside of this argument.  How exactly is the music making my heart speed up if I’m not absorbing the energy from it to do so?  Is my body expending food energy to do this?  If that’s the case – listening to music should cause us to lose weight?  Have we ever wondered why music makes us want to dance?  Dancing is a very high energy expenditure for the body.  I don’t want to dance when I’m on the phone, or when a teacher is lecturing at me in class, nor when I sit at my corporate desk at work.  Those types of sound do not trigger the desire to dance.  So why does music do so?  I also believe there are studies out there about music affecting mood – I don’t think the idea of music affecting mood would surprise anyone.  But like sunlight, does this hint to an effect on a more fundamental, energetic level.

How can sunlight and music tangibly affect?  By which I mean, what is the `by which one thing has an effect on something else?  Usually for that to happen there needs to be some connection between the two things by which the change can be effected.   I would argue that, in this case, energy is passing from the one medium (sunlight / music) to the other (us).  And if that is the case – then is it possible that we are actually able to use or expend some of that energy?  I charge my ipod with energy from the wall outlet, the ipod uses that energy to ‘play’ my music, the music and sound waves go directly into my ears – is it impossible for me to be converting those sound waves into expendable energy?  I mean – the energy has to go somewhere right?  Is it just turning to ‘heat’ in my eardrums?

How could we test this hypothesis?

So let’s pretend you agree that the above is fairly logical and interesting.  How could we go about measuring this type of energy in the body?  It seems like you would have to start with finding a way to measure ‘usable’ energy before you can determine whether we can convert other types of energy besides food into a usable form.   I guess one way to experiment with this concept – informally – would be to have a few groups of people who all eat the same exact meals let say for breakfast and lunch (maybe you have them fast for 12 hours before then?  I don’t know how far you’d have to go back… but, this is a thought experiment, not detailed lab instructions) and after lunch then you have one group lay out in the sun for let’s say 30 minutes, another group sit and listen to high energy music for 30 minutes, and the control group can do whatever they want for 30 minutes as long as they’re not expending much energy and aren’t performing the other two activites (read a book? sit quietly? watch tv?) then you have all three groups hop on an exercise machine; treadmill? elliptical? Gazelle freestyle?  I imagine you might be able to tell if there is some differentiation in the energy output of the individuals on these machines over a period of time (high-school science project, anyone?).   Along those lines – it would also be interesting to study the energy output (by effort exerted on machine or maybe endurance) of people who are watching TV while exercising, listening to high energy music while exercising, exercising in direct sunlight (?) or doing none of these supplementary activities and just working out.  One experiment we could all try at home is measuring how long we can sustain the energy to dance without music vs. how long we can sustain the energy to dance with music.  Is there a notable difference?

I don’t mean to suggest that this is only a factor for sunlight and / or music – their could certainly be other sources of energy we might be able to ‘convert’ and use.  Obviously even if there were some studies out there that suggested this was possible there would still be lots of unanswered questions.   For example, does everyone have the ability to do this – or just some people?  Also, I would imagine lower-energy music (like ballads, etc.) requires just as much energy to play on a device for a minute as high-energy music.  However, low energy music does not have the same perceived, positive, ‘energizing’ effect on our mood or energy levels. (So there goes my wall-outlet argument, right?).   I recognize that there would need to be a scientific approach taken to this question in order to determine whether it is possible for humans to absorb and convert / use energy from sources other than food.  However, there is so much we don’t understand about even our own energy levels that I think it is a question worth exploring.

Let’s take a more logical look at this age-old criticism

sci·ence (from dictionary.com)
noun
1. a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.
2. systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.
3. any of the branches of natural or physical science.
4. systematized knowledge in general.
5. knowledge, as of facts or principles; knowledge gained by systematic study.

I was a bit surprised to learn that Astrology – something I usually don’t think of as a mainstream topic – merited not one, but two Mother Jones posts this month.  The reports by Chris Mooney and Kevin Drum focused on the scientific basis of Astrology or perceived lack thereof.  Given that I hold Mother Jones in very high regard as a journalistic vehicle that “questions” to find the truth, I was dismayed (although not really surprised given the topic) at the ignorance displayed in these two articles.

 

Before I go further, let’s back up to ask what these articles even mean by Astrology?  Horoscopes printed in Cosmopolitan?  Descriptions of sun-signs in one-dimensional pop-culture astrology books?  Are they talking about predicting the future by interpreting planetary influence in one’s life at a particular time? or the complex personality profile provided by analyzing a specific birthdate & time?  Are we talking about Chinese Astrology? Hellenistic Astrology? Vedic Astrology? I have found that most people who denigrate astrology actually know next to nothing at all about it.  It’s clear by the lack of interest in even defining what is meant by “Astrology” that the same holds true for the authors of both these articles.  For the sake of this post, I am largely referring to the Hellenistic Astrology of personality– but I do believe the arguments would work for both predictive and personality based Astrology.

 

So let’s really examine the idea of Astrology as science.   To help out, I’ve actually reprinted the definition of science above.  I would like to call attention to the second entry which describes science as, “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation” and I would argue that knowledge of Astrology could comfortably fall under this definition of science.  Unlike, say, particle theory, Astrology is something that ordinary people actually have the ability to observe and experiment with in the lab of everyday experience.  As Kevin Drum, in his slightly less derogatory post, indicated, “It works.”  People for centuries have been systematically observing and experimenting with Astrology.  If it was totally unhelpful and surpassed by our more modern understanding, it would have fallen out of use like the sundial.  On a more personal note, I have pointed a lot of skeptics towards astrology simply saying, “Try it out for yourself” and every single one has come back a convert.  So I offer that challenge to both Kevin Drum and Chris Mooney.  Try it out – go to a site like Alabe.com and get your comprehensive personal profile for free (or go look it up in a book) and then go to your local library or bookstore or whatever and pore through the books.  Observe and experiment with your own personalities and those around you for awhile and compare.  Take the scientific approach. 😉

 

Because our scientific community doesn’t understand how Astrology works, the conclusion is that it can’t work.  (Note the Carl Jung quote on the front page of this blog).  Thus far,  the experiments that I have seen related to Astrology have largely been designed to prove that people are gullible, not that Astrology itself is inaccurate.  If you are looking for an understanding of why Astrology works that sounds more ‘science-y’– how about this one?  The gravitational force of the Sun is so strong that it anchors our entire solar system, the moon’s gravitational force is strong enough to have a noticeable impact on our ocean tides. Further, Mars & Venus keep our planet floating along in its own orbit.    Do we really believe that we are somehow exempt from solar, moon, and planetary influence when it so clearly regulates the very behavior of our planet?  We may not “notice” these influences the way we notice the tides, but that doesn’t mean there are no effects.  We don’t understand what they are because we haven’t dedicated time to study and document them.  Maybe a civilization that wasn’t so distracted by television and the internet had time to do that?

 

To bring this subject back to the theme of the blog, I just want to note that knowledge about Astrology is in no way necessary to actively walk the Spiritual Path.  It can be helpful if the personality aspect of it is used as another mirror of the self to better understand and evaluate who we are as well as our interactions and relationships with others.  However, I have found that, when too much time is spent on it, Astrology is more of a distraction from the spiritual path than an aid to further development.  Additionally, I don’t really recommend using Astrology to predict the future.  There are so many factors to consider that this type of prediction is a lot like financial market prediction; it works in a vacuum, but we don’t live in a vacuum.  I think it would require an incredible amount of research and dedication to predict how a particular planetary influence is going to manifest in your life.  I’m not sure it’s healthy to be that obsessed with the future; it takes you out of living in the present.