Saturday, December 6, 2014

Are You Religious or Spiritual?

The distinction between being spiritual and being religious has become more pronounced in the last hundred years. Whereas until the 20th century the two terms were used interchangeably, present day studies show a clear divergence of the terms and the characteristics of those who hold the two types of beliefs.

A three-year international study involving 57 researchers in 20 countries (1) found that humans are predisposed to believe in some sort of eternal being and an afterlife irrespective of their culture or teaching. Children below the age of three believe that their mothers and God can see inside a box, for example, but by the age of four they realize that their mothers are not all-seeing. Yet many continue to believe in an all-seeing God throughout adulthood. Adults across many different cultures believe in a duality of spirit and body, the former surviving beyond death.

In a study from Rice University (2,3), researchers found that more than 20 percent of scientists consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious. They used terms such as “individual, personal and personally constructed” to describe spirituality, whereas terms such as “organized, communal, unified and collective” were terms used to describe religious thought. They see both science and spirituality as “meaning-making without faith,” and spirituality as “seeking a core sense of truth…consistent with the work they do as scientists.”

Monday, July 21, 2014

Reversing Aging

In a study in 2013, a team at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute reported (1) that combining  the circulatory systems of an older mouse and a younger mouse in a surgical procedure called parabiosis improved the structure and function of the enlarged hearts of older mice, otherwise known as cardiac hypertrophy, which is a common cause of heart failure in humans. The hearts became smaller and there was molecular remodeling. They then found that the blood of older mice had less of a protein growth factor called GDF11 than blood of younger mice, and that administering GDF11 to older mice had similar effects as administering blood. GDF11 is also found in human blood.

In a separate paper (2) the same team showed that GDF11 reversed the structure and function of aged muscle to that of younger muscle and increased strength and exercise capacity. In a third paper (3) they showed that young blood, as well as GDF11 alone, improved the vascular structure of the brain and caused the creation of new nerve cells.

In yet another study at Stanford University (4) researchers found that administering young blood to aged mice can reverse pre-existing effects of brain aging at the “molecular, structural, functional and cognitive level.” Synaptic plasticity and dendritic spine density increased in the hippocampus of aged mice. Cognitive abilities improved in fear conditioning and spatial learning and memory. The study used the blood of young mice and did not try to identify any specific factors.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Scientific Evidence of a Pre-life?

There is an unshakable belief by most humans, irrespective of religion or cultural background, that they have a soul or some essence of themselves which is immortal. The question of spiritual immortality has usually been approached from the point of view of what happens to us after we die. But the same question can be asked in a different form: if there is a spirit and it is immortal, where were we before we were born? Though most of the lay literature has been focused on life after death, there is a small but growing popular literature (1,2,3), as well as websites (4), on pre -life memories, usually by small children. This literature is all based on anecdotal stories and thus disregarded by scientists.

A paper has recently appeared, however, in Child Development (5) by a Boston University team which tried to study a child’s conception of the pre-life from which he/she came. Their aim was to find out where beliefs of an immortal soul come from, whether it is hard-wired in our biological make-up or learned through religious teachings, cultural influences such as books and movies, or simply intuition. Their reasoning was that by asking very young children about their pre-life, there would be fewer cultural and religious forces which would have influenced them (especially since Catholicism, the religion of one group, teaches that life begins at conception).

They interviewed 283 children, ages 5-12, from two groups, one from an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador which has no concept of a pre-life, and the other from an urban area near Quito, Equador (Catholic). They showed the children drawings of a baby, a young woman, and the same woman pregnant. They then asked the children a series of questions about their concepts of the baby’s abilities, thoughts and emotions during three periods: as a live baby, as a baby in the womb, and before conception.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Origin of Species - An Example

How new species arise has been a question at the core of evolutionary theory and a point of challenge for those forces which adhere to an intelligent designer as the source. The idea of a new species arising from a pre-existing one seems to require many simultaneous changes, many of which could prove lethal. Yet in a paper recently published in Cell Reports (1), it appears that the process isn’t all that difficult or rare. Only relatively few genetic changes are needed for the evolution of a new species, even when two divergent populations remain in contact and continue to mate.

The researchers at the University of Chicago analyzed the genomes of two closely related butterfly species, Heliconius cydno and H. pachinus. They found that the initial divergence occurs in a small fraction of the genome, usually related to wing color pattern, which is important in mating and predator avoidance. Once started, however, added changes in other genes rapidly occurred in escalating divergence, usually in neutral regions of the genome.

The divergent regions were shown to be the result of both natural selection and adaptive introgression (the movement of genes through backcrossing of hybrids with parental species, since the hybrid species were still able to mate with parental species). The process of new species creation was shown to be a gradual one, rather than the result of a sudden split between two divergent populations. According to the authors, the mechanism of selection and adaptive introgression in the creation of a new species demonstrates “the link between mircroevolutionary processes acting within species and the origin of species across macroevolutionary timescales,” thus addressing the objection put forth by proponents of intelligent design that evolution explains changes on a micro level but not on a macro level.

How important this type of speciation is to other organisms remains to be seen, but the fact that it can occur in butterflies should send some deniers of evolution back to the drawing board.

1.     Marcus R. Kronforst, Matthew E.B. Hansen, Nicholas G. Crawford, Jason R. Gallant, Wei Zhang, Rob J. Kulathinal, Durrell D. Kapan, Sean P. Mullen. Hybridization reveals the evolving genomic architecture of speciation. Cell Reports, 2013 DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2013.09.042