26 Oct

Selfish Gene vs Altruistic Human

Altruistic Animal

There is a human gene called DRD4.  A mutation in the DRD4 gene can give ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyper Activity) to the people who have the mutation.  People who have ADHD have difficulty with controlling their impulse.  Many of them marry young, have early pregnancy, have many kids, etc.  In all, there is every reason to expect the DRD4 mutation (and ADHD) is going to increase in the human population.

ADHD, of course, can pre-dispose a person to several setbacks.  Learning difficulty is the most well known affliction of ADHD.  People with ADHD are more vulnerable to addictive behavior, temper outbursts, poor job performance, etc.  About 65% of the inmates in Western prisons suffer from ADHD spectrum disorders.

DRD4 is clearly behaving in a way that is detrimental to the carrier animals.  But the same behavior is helping the gene to maximize the number of its own copies in the population.

Genes behave in a way that increases the number of its copies.  Over time, any gene that doesn’t doesn’t toe the line gets ‘subsumed’ by other aggressive genes. Because our language lacks adequate words to describe such behavior, we talk as if the genes are people (anthropomorphic thinking) and claim that the gene is behaving selfishly and we call such a gene a selfish gene.  Obviously, the gene is not people and it doesn’t think or act.  More importantly, genes don’t have any objective or motive.  They are mindless.

While the genes always act in a purest self-serving way (or they perish), sometimes their behavior is counter intuitive.  Altruism is one such paradox.  An altruistic animal seem to be an evolutionary dead end.  But among pack/herd animals, taking care of one another had increased the chances of all the animals in the pace/herd.  Over time, only the animals with altruistic genes were alive and the rest perished.  While altruism appears self-less, it is in reality promoted by a gene acting in pure selfish fashion.

But when an animal feels altruistic, the feeling of altruism is very real.  Even though the altruism is a product of a selfish gene, that is a mere technicality.  It is like saying “oxytocin release in your brain makes a mother bond with her child”.  Of course it is true.  But the technicality doesn’t make the mother-child bonding any less real.

We often confuse the selfish motives of our genes with the motives an the animal.  We shouldn’t.  We are not our genes.  We are not more.  We are not less either.  We are different.

24 Oct

Spirituality for an agnostic

Spirituality

Spirituality is one of the most misused words out there.  The word ‘spirituality’ is like a closet in a teenager’s room: Anything goes in there, but nothing ever comes out.  For example, according to Wikipedia, the term spirituality can be used when dealing with any of the following:

  • Immaterial reality
  • Inner path leading to essence of a person
  • Deepest value and meaning by which people live
  • A person’s inner life
  • Larger reality
  • A more comprehensive self
  • Joining with other human beings
  • Joining with nature, cosmos and/or define
  • Source of inspiration/orientation for life
  • Going beyond the worldly experience

You can stretch spirituality to fit it on everything or nothing.  You and me can be talking about spirituality, but we may be talking two very different things.  I think the confusions is caused by the limitation of the English language.  Sanskrit, on the other hand, has much more specific terms for each of the above.  It is unfortunate that we are letting this knowledge die.  But we are digressing.

Regardless of what anyone means about spirituality, whenever they use this word, I think they are talking about something bigger than themselves of which they are a sub-set.  The super-set may be a group of people, a set of social rules, some guiding principal, nature, cosmos, divine, etc.

This 18 minute long TED video talks eloquently about the evolutionary basis of spirituality.  As the speaker Jonathan Heidt points out, at times we all experience a powerful dissolution of the self and a sense of merging with something much bigger than us.  When we encounter one of these perception warps, it is usually a life changing (or life ending) experience.  We call these transcendental experience a spiritual experience.

Only hitch with spiritual feelings is this: The purpose of these powerful emotions lie deep in our evolutionary past.  In the past, the humans who put their community above the self survived and the ones who put self above community perished.  So, all of us today happily merge into something bigger.  Since the reason for this transcendental and powerful feelings are not obvious, we tend to attribute all kind of reasons to explain them, ranging from merging with a soul mate to merging with the God.

For an agnostic like me, spirituality is the “anything related to my super-set“.  Simple.  It works regardless of whichever context I see that word coming up in.

23 Oct

Sabre Dance of Sexuality

Sabre Dance

Close your eyes.  Imagine a melody in your head.  A new melody, something that you haven’t heard before.  Did you?  If you are like me, you probably came up with something trivial or nothing at all.  Now, click on this link and watch Vanessa Mae play Sabre Dance.

The difference between the simplistic music that we came up with and the glorious Sabre Dance is “human ingenuity”.  You and me are untrained and we probably never thought about creating music.  If you worked that violin for twenty years, under the supervision of an able teacher and pushed yourself to your limits, then Sabre Dance won’t be so unimaginably distant for you.  Now, answer this question with utter honesty:

What would be the Sabre Dance of your sexuality?  Can you even imagine it?

If you were like me, you probably can’t imagine what the Sabre Dance of your sexuality would look like.  But can you at least imagine that the expression of your sexuality today is trivial compared to what is possible when you apply your ingenuity?

The ‘zero-risk’ sexual policy that we have for thousands of years has kept our sexuality from progressing the way human ingenuity progressed in every other spheres of life.  In this area of life, we are all still amateur violin players, struggling without guidance, working on our skills in a haphazard manners.  But we wrongly assume that we play at virtuoso levels.

It is as if we think that the best musical performance is done in our bathrooms when we sing.  Whereas, the possibility of Sabre Dances of human sexuality never crosses our mind.