Last week I ran into two separate articles, more scientific than philosophical, that open up much larger questions for consideration. Below are some salient extracts from each.

The first is an article from Newsweek by Sharon Begley:

Alas, poor Darwin. By all rights, 2009 should be his year, as books, museums and scholarly conclaves celebrate his 200th birthday (Feb. 12) and the 150th anniversary of “On the Origin of Species” (Nov. 24), the book that changed forever how man views himself and the creation. Teamed with genetics, Darwin’s explanation of how species change through time has become the rock on which biology stands. Which makes the water flea quite the skunk at this party.

Some water fleas sport a spiny helmet that deters predators; others, with identical DNA sequences, have bare heads. What differs between the two is not their genes but their mothers’ experiences. If mom had a run-in with predators, her offspring have helmets, an effect one wag called “bite the mother, fight the daughter.” If mom lived her life unthreatened, her offspring have no helmets. Same DNA, different traits. Somehow, the experience of the mother, not only her DNA sequences, has been transmitted to her offspring.

That gives strict Darwinians heart palpitations, for it reeks of the discredited theory of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829). The French naturalist argued that the reason giraffes have long necks, for instance, is that their parents stretched their (shorter) necks to reach the treetops. Offspring, Lamarck said, inherit traits their parents acquired. With the success of Darwin’s theory of random variation and natural selection, Lamarck was left on the ash heap of history. But new discoveries of what looks like the inheritance of traits acquired by parents—lab animals as well as people—are forcing biologists to reconsider Lamarckism.

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Water flea

The second is by Michael Brooks, from New Scientist:

Religion is an inescapable artefact of the wiring in our brain, says Bloom. “All humans possess the brain circuitry and that never goes away.” Petrovich adds that even adults who describe themselves as atheists and agnostics are prone to supernatural thinking. Bering has seen this too. When one of his students carried out interviews with atheists, it became clear that they often tacitly attribute purpose to significant or traumatic moments in their lives, as if some agency were intervening to make it happen. “They don’t completely exorcise the ghost of god – they just muzzle it,” Bering says.

The fact that trauma is so often responsible for these slips gives a clue as to why adults find it so difficult to jettison their innate belief in gods, Atran says. The problem is something he calls “the tragedy of cognition”. Humans can anticipate future events, remember the past and conceive of how things could go wrong – including their own death, which is hard to deal with. “You’ve got to figure out a solution, otherwise you’re overwhelmed,” Atran says. When natural brain processes give us a get-out-of-jail card, we take it.

That view is backed up by an experiment published late last year (Science, vol 322, p 115). Jennifer Whitson of the University of Texas in Austin and Adam Galinsky of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, asked people what patterns they could see in arrangements of dots or stock market information. Before asking, Whitson and Galinsky made half their participants feel a lack of control, either by giving them feedback unrelated to their performance or by having them recall experiences where they had lost control of a situation.

The results were striking. The subjects who sensed a loss of control were much more likely to see patterns where there were none. “We were surprised that the phenomenon is as widespread as it is,” Whitson says. What’s going on, she suggests, is that when we feel a lack of control we fall back on superstitious ways of thinking. That would explain why religions enjoy a revival during hard times.

Whether spiny helmets, altered pattern recognition skills or supertitiousness, I’m left with a lump of recognition, once again, that there’s not much that can be offered up as autonomous or isolated. Indra’s Net, that extraordinary and ancient image, comes up yet again, but this time with more emphasis on the context that holds that complex interconnectivity. Wow.

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