Saturday, February 27, 2016

Monkey's Uncle

Religion, Politics, love and the Origin of Species.

 Many Americans are convinced that human beings came into existence in a flash and appeared as they do today, except perhaps for dark-skinned people, who in a Biblical tale that might have come from Aesop, became black after Ham, was cursed for some vague reason that's been the subject of rabbinical debate for a very long time.  Those of us not cursed with a religious brain blockage might speculate that some advantageous mutation allowed some ape to pass on his genes as our hairyness declined millions of years ago in sunny Africa: as we began to separate from furry arboreal apes and walked away on two legs.

The same sort of  religious fugue that makes people deny our evolutionary origins as one of many sorts of apes which no longer exist makes them deny all sorts of things and like someone who is losing parts of their memory, make things up to fill in the gaps.

some of our fundamentalist presidential candidates who balk at admitting the evolutionary origin of our species  might explode to find out just how much of our genetic makeup is shared with some deep sea Acorn Worms because we both descend from a common ancestor a billion or more years ago. Some 70% of our genes are shared it seems. Of course many things now alive share a large part of this wormy genetic makeup which evolved during the Cambrian period and subsequently proliferated through the many periods of extinction  These worms' genes are shared with many current species from all vertebrates to octopuses.  You may in fact be more than a monkey's uncle -- you're also the umpteenth cousin of a banana if the idea of common ancestry of life is correct. The Popol Vuh says we're all children of the corn.  It's sort of true.

I'll delay rhapsodizing about our common heritage  and the reverence for all life one might therefore feel, and get to the point: which is to say that what we are and what we look like is the product of certain building blocks and how they interact to produce an organism.  Obviously the genes that many creatures of today have inherited are turned on and off  differently and expressed differently and by more than one process.  The ancient genetic patterns that form the legs of a lobster may form the ribs of a vertebrate.  The similar structures that appear in flowers and mammalian reproductive organs aren't accidental.   That's why the argument for the genetic identity of humans across gene pools falls apart.  We all share the genes for melanin, but some have a mutation that limits the expression of those genes and others do not. All those with blue eyes probably descend from one person, That holds true for other features one finds in long separated gene pools. That mutation, recessive as most mutations are, will not likely appear in a population not descended from the original blue-eyed gal. You may remember reading about Gregor Mendel and the distribution of recessive characteristics,  If God turned Ham black, he couldn't pass that on any more than Aesop's leopard could pass on his spots.

Such mutations may be so small: one out of billions of base pairs, that the practice of  saying we are all genetically identical based on percentages of genes is one of those stories we make up to prop up a political or religious prejudice.  I'm not really 98 percent Chimpanzee or only 30% different from an Acorn worm, gene percentages notwithstanding.  I don't know about you and I don't know about Donald Trump, but I do know that Lamarck was wrong as was Aesop, the science of epigenetics notwithstanding.

But the entire science of genetics as it appears in our culture has been warped by normative beliefs. Opening a box of crackers yesterday I was assured by the box that no genetically modified grains were used in making them.  OK, so my mother warned me if I ate any more chocolate I'd turn into a coco bean, but she was wrong.  You are not what you eat and genes are not transferred from flour to the eater thereof. Relax, there is no DNA in your toast and  We won't turn into a chicken if its genes have been tampered with.  We already have most of its genes anyway and all the chemical components thereof.

Yes the rapidly advancing science of genetics Is transforming everything and yes, the inevitable reaction to having to change our  views because of it is creating the same sort of  disturbances in the farce we call culture as other new avenues in science have done, from telescope to telegraph. If we're confused and afraid of the new it's because we all have it in common, my dog and I and you. We may look radically different, dogs and cats and Canadians, but we still can feel love for each other and when we don't it's because we're a monkey's uncle and the scion of a tube worm and the love child of a lobster. I have so much in common with my dog that I love him like a child. He likes me too.  How much more do we have in common with all mankind?   Are we so afraid that that's still not enough that we have to hide behind mythology?  Is the difference between male and female greater than between a black man and a Chinese man?  The Y Chromosome that makes me a man constitutes 2% of my DNA - a greater percentage than the difference between species, yet men and women are more alike than either is with a Chimp.  There is much more to what we are than gene percentages and  admit that our genetic differences don't make us different enough to matter. Our true differences are manufactured, taught and learned and very often they are wrong.

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