Saturday, 20 June 2009

Controlling Love

A pet provides a means of control. We want to be able to control nature around us, not to live in harmony. We want to find a way to conquer- even if it means changing the very genetic code of wild animals to tame them. We try to to control animals emotionally, projecting our own thoughts and feelings upon them, as a recent study with dogs convincingly demonstrated. If the owner thought the dog had done something, the dog looked guilty to the owner. If the owner scolded the animal, the dog looked more guilty to everyone who observed the dog. If the dog had done nothing wrong, and was scolded, he looked most guilty.

This stems from communication barriers between dramatically different cultures. If I can mean one thing and communicate another to a human from a different culture, how much more dramatically will be the divergence in communication across species lines! Consider the simple hug, of arms around the neck, that we primates love to do. To the dog, even the pet dog, this is an act of aggression, going after the vulnerable jugular veins, and it is only with great effort that our tame wolves are able to control themselves- as evidenced by the enlarged whitening of their eyes in fear response. (Incidentally, a physical trait that we two species do share.) Thus love from one species communicates as attack to another.

But we are the dominant "wolf" in the pack, and we lay the ground rules. The dog tries desperately to follow them, and is happily assisted by some 30,000 years of selective breeding to more effectively read human expressions and emotions. Indeed, we have not been so well bred to them. So when the dog sees us angry and demanding that they have done something wrong, the dog knows the proper response to ameliorate the head wolf: act ashamed, or rather, lower the head and look up in the submissive posture- whatever it takes to make us happy. When the human sees this, usually, the anger begins to dissipate, for the human then feels they have asserted themselves to some degree over nature, have controlled something in their life.

We desperately want to believe our dogs and other pets are intelligent and can understand us. But intelligence is relative. They aren't intelligent when compared to whales, primates, or pigs. They are quite intelligent when compared to rodents. But that's not a level of intelligence that extends to the knowledge of good and evil, to the awareness that they have done something inherently wrong. It is an intelligence that is able to avoid discomfort and pursue comfort, regardless of inherent morality. Comfort comes from doing what the pack leader wants, what the human owner wants.

For us, comfort comes from loving, and being loved. Of course, the best way to do this is with humans. But for some, it just doesn't seem to work out. Because humans are messy. You can't control them, like you can a dog. When you try to, it's bad all around. A healthy human relationship is one without control, but with learning to love that which does not obey your every command, and should not obey it. Animals, on the other hand, can be taught to do whatever we want, or nearly everything. It is decidedly more convenient. It's a lot less messy. It's a lot less love, in the deep sense of agape, loving the unlovable.

And so, just as we all create God in our own image, we do the same to our pets. We look for ways to make them more human, to respond the way humans respond, or rather, the way one particular human responds- ourselves. We want to see a mirror image with fangs and fuzzy fur, that cocks it's head cutely and responds as we would want to respond. It is like a Bizzaro World reapplication of Christ's relationship principle. Not "Do to others as you would have them do to you," but "Expect others to do as you would do."

And this is not to say that this is in any way wrong, when applied to animals. But let us realize what we are doing, and realize what are reasonable expectations of our pets. Yes, our dog can learn to behave and follow our rules. It can not feel wrong, or be ashamed, or engage in a meaningful relationship. What we see there is our own projections of reality, and our pursuit of that is merely incestuous relationship, a bird enamored with its own reflection.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

What do you do when your Theory is too good?

For so long now, we've been patiently explaining how evolution works, to all those who want to listen. It does not produce Hopeful Monsters, with an X-Men-like change in one generation. None of us are going to get Healing Factors or the ability to shoot lasers out of our eyes. It's a slow process, taking generations, and hundreds of thousands of years. This is why the argument by Literal Creationists that no dog has ever produced a cat is so silly. It is nothing but a straw man, for no biologist has ever argued anything remotely like that. Given the right environmental factors, over many, many generations, and a hundred thousand years, the remote descendants of dogs might appear to look more like cats than they do today- but that's a big if. And granted, fast reproducing species like bacteria and viruses do show evolution in our lifetime, with a high rate of Darwins (the units of evolutionary speed), so that we can easily trace how the HIV virus evolved in different environments into different "species", or types. (The environment in that case would be various populations of us, depending on our sexual activities.) But bacterial and viral selection has never been as sexy, if you'll pardon the pun.

Now, in the span of a few generations- twenty-six to be exact- and in eight years, guppies show selection towards various fecundity (birth) levels, depending on their environments. When put into two streams where there were no guppies, the stream that had predators produced guppies that had many offspring (since some of them would be eaten), and the stream without predators produced fewer offspring. (For those that say that no new species if formed, all that is required there is for isolation change producing a slight tweak in reproductive structures, or time of breeding, or proteins on the egg, etc.)

This study dramatically shows how it is environment which drives evolutionary change, and the formation of new populations and species. A stable environment is unlikely to produce major changes or many species; a quickly changing environment, like that the dynamic equilibrium of the coral reefs, produces the greatest diversity of any ecosystem. But who knew that evolution could actually happen so quickly.

The question isn't why organisms evolve so slowly. It is more, how is it that they evolve so quickly, with so little encouragement? And granted, this does nothing to help the macrofauna in the 6th Mass Extinction Event we are causing. But does it provide some hope for the more quickly breeding microfauna?

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

An Inherent Right to Freedom?

?As much as physics is an inherently Arminianist science, so is biology inherently determinist. As a biologist, I believe everything is determined by my genetic code and my environment. This nicely dovetails with my belief in predestination, wherein I feel Calvin didn't go far enough but Augustine's ideas are right on (though sadly not completely accepted by the Roman Church). So it is with pleasure that I read another study affirming my perspective- the MAOA gene is found to be linked to aggression in males, and is more prevalent in more violent societies.

We often want to believe we are free to make our own decisions, especially in Western societies, especially in America. But to what extent is this true? We will trot out the arguments that one can not be held accountable for their actions if they did not freely make them- but if I go through every step of a decision, am I not as culpable, even if it can be found what actually motivated that decision? If I have a genetic disposition to alcoholism and grow up in a heavy car culture, it is more likely that I will drink and drive- and yet I am fully responsible when I do so.

And yet, excessive drinking, or drinking and driving, or adultery, or violence- all of these are sins. They are all missing the mark, all not hitting the target that God has for us. So this sin, this tendency, that we all have, in different ways, is written into our genetic code. And since many studies show the same actions in other primates, we can be fairly well assured that this tendency in our genetic code predates our existence as a species, predates the humans who are Homo sapiens - "wise men" - with the ability to discern good and evil. That which we did without the knowledge of good and evil (note the text never says the far more reasonable "knowledge of evil") was in no way evil, for we were amoral, not immoral, not knowing good and evil. Once we obtained that knowledge, once our brains reached that magical point of being able to differentiate, we became culpable.

Thus our actions and very sins are predetermined, and every year we learn new ways in which our genes have dictated our lives. Does this mean that the individual who discovers they have MAOA should just give up- that there's no hope, and they will always be violent? No! It means they are now aware that there is something inside them making them violent, and they must work on it. Or the society with the greater prevalence of MAOA now realizes they have a greater work to do in that society. This is just as when we all learn that we have a certain tendency, we now know the area to work on to pursue spiritual growth, and salvation sola morphe, striving to change to be more like Christ, as he called us to do, picking up our crosses to willingly suffer at the hands of violence without being violent ourselves.

And if they do the concerted effort to change, and resist their genetic tendency, that resistance will have been predetermined too.

But this is not enough. It is unfair to those with MAOA, or any such gene. (For we all likely have some sort of detrimental gene with a tendency towards sin, and more than one!) Jesus speaks quite forcibly against violence, even calling the possession of weapons a sign of wickedness. But that doesn't mean there is no place for war and violence in Christianity. On the contrary! For Paul says, "Our weapons are not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual powers." As Christians, we are called to continuously fight against the demons. This involves prayer, yes, but the Pauline passage makes it clear that this fight also involves righteousness and discipline, truth and readiness, listening to the Spirit with faith, and love.

What is needed is a transference of the enemy, of the other, for those afflicted with MAOA. In this way, their resonance of the curse becomes a blessing for the entire body, as Jesus did with his death on the cross. This was the same transference that the early Christians went through, in that violent time of first century Roman rule, when they called those who did not believe pagoni, meaning "the civilians". The term "Pagoni" was not an insult or attack, but rather an indication of who we, as Christians, are called to protect, not through force of arms, never through force of arms, but through force of prayer and love.

Thus those afflicted with MAOA now become those empowered by it, with Christ's redemption of even a gene for violence, as they come to the forefront of spiritual warfare, working against the powers of evil, and for the care of those they once might have attacked.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Who wants to live forever?

The great band Queen once had a song "Who Wants to Live Forever", notably played as the theme song to the Highlander TV Series. (There should have been only one.) In Highlander, there were Immortals who could only be killed by having their heads chopped off. The drawback is they were incapable of having children.

Geneticists have recently discovered a mutant line of nematodes wherein their non-sex cells (somatic cells) behave like sex cells. (Nematodes are round worms that are the most populous species on Earth, present in nearly every living organism, to such an extent that if all other organisms were removed, the general outline of the organisms would be visible from the nematodes within them. Yes, that means you, dear reader.) This leads to stronger cells throughout the nematode, ensuring their longevity, which in turn fits with some hypothesis that organisms make a choice between reproduction and eternal life, wherein organisms get old because they are investing in creating and raising young.

So here's the question: if you could choose, to be like the Immortals or mutant nematodes, would you choose to live forever, if it meant you could never have offspring? Granted, this is really only a viable question for those who don't have kids, since of course any parent is going to say they wanted to have their kids. And for many, they believe they will live forever, in new bodies, in the New Earth and Kingdom. But my question is, if you could live forever now, in this body, but never have offspring- would you choose to? I'd be interested in hearing both from those who believe in eternal life and those who don't.

As for me, it's a no-brainer. I'd far rather have the kids, even if it meant dying in the next couple years.
This is the discussion of the World Science updates as they become available.
Your thoughts are most welcome here.