Genetics and Metaphysics

Considering the wonderful advances in science and the unlimited access to knowledge and information that modern man has, humankind should be moving away from metaphysics and the ethereal beliefs associated with it, right? Wrong! The unconditional adherence to organized religion and the blind acceptance of otherworldly phenomena remain unchanged, when not growing.

Why does this happen? Because the predisposition to metaphysical beliefs seems to be coded in our genes. Evolution first created our sense of identity–our self–and then, from there on, two illusory extrapolations–the body-soul duality and the allocation of paranormal qualities to common events–came up.

The sense of identity is our certainty of an individuality that delimits and sets us apart from the others. According to Portuguese neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, the emergence of such self, that wants to survive and reproduce, is the reward of evolution to the genetic ‘memorization’ of the events that favored the survival of our primitive ancestors.

The perception of the self is so compelling that our ancestors, unable to explain its origin, made out of it a parallel separate entity that were not as fragile or temporary as the physical body is. The soul is the invention of a path to eternity and a way to illusorily circumvent our earthly demise, by hiding under the rug our transitory nature. We humans have a hard time to think of us dead.

Once the soul was fabricated, the addition of further myths was the obvious outcome that opened room where new beings–deities, ghosts and mythological beings–thrived. From this expansion to the assignment of human qualities to both new spirits and natural phenomena was a fall out. And then, spontaneously and very soon, there arose benign spirits and malignant goblins, spells and possessions, talking stones and trees scaring, positive planetary alignments and negative astral positions…

Natural selection chose the genetic adjustments that favored human survival. The sense of identity seems to correspond to evolutionary genetic mutations somewhere in the small fraction of our DNA is that is different in the DNA of chimpanzees. This is an accepted fact.

Evaluations of many ancient fossils and images painted on rocks, hint believes in some kind of life after death, by both the Homo sapiens and the Homo neanderthalensis (our closest relative), many millennia before the development of writing.

What makes us think that belief in spirits is congenital? According to psychologist’s experiments at Yale University, body-soul dualism is present in children from ages as young as two years. During the research tests, many children asserted that spirits have their own identity and can move from one body to another.

Genes’ structures influence our behavior through both genetic mutations, which are permanent, and expressions of the same genes, which are ‘semi-permanent’. Epigenetics is the study of physiological and cellular features that originate in stable but peripheral disturbances in the potential of expression of a cell (with no mutation occurring within the DNA sequence). The expression of a gene is its activity level, something like the volume of a radio which, although variable, it may be set from zero to maximum when the unit is on. A mutation, on the other hand, is tuning permanently on a different station.

Epigenetic characteristics may be inherited. Beliefs in spirits, either ‘my spirit’ or somebody else’s, is probably the result of changes in ‘volume’ in certain genes: As the ‘volume’ goes up, predisposition to the belief increases; agnostics, who neither believe nor deny God, might have it at zero level. What do babies inherit? The inheritable level of a gene’s expression might be the gene expression level of either parent at the time of conception.

So, with the complex involvement of both genetic and epigenetic influences, secularization in humankind is happening at a much slower pace than predicted by many sociologists. Adhesion to religious dogmas and magical beliefs, originally considered as cultural evolutions, seems rather the result of gene expressions (in genes not yet unidentified) that manifest as predispositions to such adhesions. Organized religions therefore will remain for centuries; occultism, which is followed more often by believers than by atheists, does not lag behind, as it could be expected. “The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology,” says the American naturalist Edward Wilson.

Atlanta, November 23, 2014


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