Be Nice

I believe I got my strong reluctance to indulge in personal insults from two very different communities with whom I have had strong ties. The first, from age about 6 till 13 was made up of my neighborhood friends in Brooklyn NY, some of whom were the offspring of actual mafiosi. The second was the community of scientists I joined after becoming a professional doctoral level  scientist. Both communities taught me the danger of using direct personal insults, publicly or privately, and the lessons were similar in that both could result in death. In the first case that meant the death of me, and in the second of my reputation.

For this reason, I have always been shocked at the massive level of invective and deeply wounding insults one encounters online, often by anonymous sources, who apparently have lived lives devoid of either of my two communities or anything like them. On Twitter, I instantly block anyone who insults me directly (getting close to 500 such cases). I will not watch dumpster fire style debates, and (although it hasn’t happened) would immediately leave such a scene if I were directly involved.

Perhaps I feel so strongly about this because I have personally witnessed the consequences of stepping outside those rules. In the first case the memory of a teenager hanging from a schoolyard fence, and in the second, the immediate fall from grace of a fairly famous senior scientist who began publicly badgering a terrified post-doc at a conference. This post-doctoral fellow worked in the lab of another famous scientist who was also at the conference, and in full view of a couple dozen colleagues (including myself) came to her protege’s rescue. With a few well-chosen words she reduced the badgerer to near tears. I won’t mention the name of the badgerer (who I never heard of again), but the rescuer was Charlotte Friend, the brilliant and pioneering discoverer of the Friend Leukemia virus.

What I learned, and live by, is the principle that politeness is a sign of strength, and the converse is also true. It might not be a coincidence that the well acknowledged toughest military unit in the world, the UK’s SAS, hails from a nation famous for its politeness.   

Of course, I claim no credit for this wisdom, it is found throughout the Bible, and is at the core of all religious teachings, as well as many secular sources. It forms the basis for academic and scholarly exchange in all disciplines,  not to mention ordinary casual interactions between all people.

So, I will end with this. Be nice. It doesn’t pay to not be.

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Alfred Wallace and Human Evolution (with Shafir Sabbag)

An online friend named Shafir Sabbag sent me three questions about Alfred Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution independently of Charles Darwin. I found the questions thought-provoking, and after writing my answers, decided it might be worth posting on this blog. Shafir agreed. Here they are:

Question #1:
Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently co-discovered the theory of evolution, criticized Darwin´s extrapolation of the findings that evolution by natural selection could have been responsible for the evolution of man (humans). Do you have a position on Wallace´s criticisms?

Answer #1. I should first state that my knowledge of Wallace’s views is not anywhere near expert or even good enough to make academic style arguments. I do know that he disagreed with Darwin’s ideas on the evolution of humanity extending to cognitive and moral behavior. Darwin’s views in The Descent of Man are reflected by modern day reductionists and anti-idealists. He not only assigned all human behavioral characteristics to the same process of natural selection, but also wrote “ the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind”.

While this remains a popular idea among atheist reductionists, there is a great deal of philosophical and biological reasons to disagree. Thus, Wallace’s view that there was another source of human exceptional mental states is perfectly consonant with one segment of modern opinion (including my own).

Wallace initially agreed with Darwin about human mental attributes being sufficiently explained by the selective advantages that advanced cognition and certain behavioral traits would confer on individuals and groups. But in an 1869 paper, he radically changed his mind, based on his experience living with uncivilized tribes. He found they had the same mental faculties as the “higher” civilized races, and that led him to wonder how such people who he believed (unlike Darwin and nearly everyone else at the time) were equal to the Europeans in mental abilities, could have  been subjected to selection pressure regarding things like math, musical talent etc. He wrote “I must believe that some other power caused that development – and so on with every other especially human characteristic.”

I completely agree with this statement, and like Wallace (also a Christian), reject the attempts to force fit natural selection into an explanation for human genius, creativity, moral attitudes, consciousness, and cognition.

Question #2:

When Wallace and Darwin formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection, they exclusively used abductive reasoning. Deductive reasoning was not possible as empirical evidence was absent, during the 19th century. If someone would limit natural science to only the experimental, the theory of evolution would not have been classified as scientific during the 19th century! Why do you think many people in the popular culture think that natural science has to be strictly deductive, experimental or empirical? 

Answer #2. As a matter of fact, at the end of the 19th century, and the early part of the 20th century, Darwinism had gone into decline as a scientific theory for pretty much the reasons you cite. This was exacerbated by the rediscovery of Mendel’s experimental work on the genetics of pea plants. When Mendel’s data on the nature of the genetic mechanisms were disseminated at the turn of the 20th century, most scientists thought it dealt a death blow to Darwinism, since it appeared that the concept of dominant and recessive alleles made natural selection impossible. It was thought that recessive alleles would simply go extinct. A decade or so later, two mathematicians Hardy and Weinberg showed that in fact, recessive traits are in equilibrium, and that no such alleles would be lost unless natural selection played a role. The Hardy Weinberg equilibrium rescued Dawinism.  As experimental genetics enjoyed a renaissance, the 1920s and 30s saw the blossoming of the New Synthesis combining genetics and evolution, and Darwinism became once again a respectable science.

The idea that science must be strictly experimental and empirical was baked into the definition of the new concept of science at its origins with Francis Bacon and the other scientific pioneers of the scientific revolution. The reason was that before that, natural philosophy or just philosophy, which was the standard path to knowledge of the natural world, relied heavily on historical scholarship, the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and others, and various views from religious, political, social and moral sources. Science and scientists deliberately decided to exclude from their work any such “non-scientific” influences, and focus only on what could be shown to be true by undeniable evidence. This attitude only increased in intensity during the 18th and 19th centuries, and can still be found today among many scientists, and the majority of atheists, and reductionist materialistic philosophers. 

Most scientists today, however, recognize that the methods of science have expanded to include observational studies, statistical and theoretical mathematical analysis and computer-based simulations and other techniques. In some fields of social science, even subjective assessments  are permitted to reach certain kinds of conclusions. However, changes in scientific viewpoints among scientists take a long time to filter down to the popular culture, and as a good example, while many non-scientists continue to argue about “neo Darwinism”, actual evolutionary biologists and population geneticists know that neo Darwinism has long been modified out of recognition, and is not longer the mainstream scientific viewpoint.

Question #3:

Why do you think Wallace and his contributions to the theory of evolution, is virtually forgotten in the popular culture? In Chris Prescott´s Oxford Science Study Dictionary, only Darwin is cited as discovering the theory of evolution. Is Wallace forgotten because he was a confessional Christian, perhaps?

Answer #3. I think there are several reasons, one of which might be his outspoken belief in the reality of spiritual forces, which strongly went against the grain of early 20th century science. I don’t think his being a Christian specifically played a major role; after all, most scientists were Christians at the time, including Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Louis Pasteur, Alexander Fleming and Lord Kelvin. Also Darwin’ s great supporter Asa Gray was a devout Christian The problem was more related to Wallace’s later embrace of magical spiritualism, which was the early 20th century analogue of New Age beliefs. Wallace lost a great deal of credibility as he was outspoken about his views on the reality of spiritualism, phrenology, and other ideas that were much further outside of the scientific realm than traditional Christianity.

On the other hand, in today’s intellectual climate, many in academia and intellectual circles have come to view Christianity and all religious beliefs as contrary to a sound scientific world view of truth, and it might be that today, Wallace’s exclusion from the pantheon of groundbreaking scientists, might very well be at least partially related to his faith.

Darwin himself, despite his disagreement about human cognitive evolution, was a big fan of Wallace, and they maintained a vigorous correspondence throughout the 1870s, including a letter I found in the British library discussed in the post: “My greatest Discovery”.

I believe that Wallace was a major scientific figure, and truly deserves credit for clearly demonstrating that the biological theory of evolution by natural selection is in no way contradictory to the tenets of Christianity.

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When I was told to choose between you and a thief, like the crowd in Jerusalem, I chose the thief to live and you to die. Like the Roman soldiers, I mocked you as you walked to your death, I made fun of your claims and taunted you about your powers. Like Simon (Peter), I denied knowing you, I told others I had nothing to do with you. Like Saul (Paul), when they claimed you had risen, I became furious and applauded the killing of your followers. I persecuted them and routed them from their homes.

Like the Roman emperors and many other tyrants, I passed laws against worshipping you, and stirred the people against your people. I made up and spread lies against you and your church. I blamed you for all the evils of humanity. I hated you.

But you did not hate me back. You forgave me. You forgave all of it, and showed me nothing but love. I rejected it, but you never gave up on me.

And then You rose. Dead, buried, lost, You rose from the dead in my soul, and showed Yourself to me as You had done so long ago, and spoke, this time to me, and told me things I would not listen to before. You were dead in my soul, and then…You were alive. I saw who you really are, and  I bowed my head and cried and begged forgiveness, and it was granted. I asked You what I should do, and You told me “Believe in Me, read My words, follow My path. Spread My message”.

“Thank you, Lord” I said, and I felt the light rise in my heart and soul as the sun rises in the new morning, and I too rose in the grace of Jesus Christ, the risen Savior. Alleluia.  

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A few of my readers might recognize this piece. It was first published in a now defunct chat site, ten years ago.

It is daytime, but the sky is dark, storm clouds race and pour down thunder. The landscape is parched, dead, dark, there is no beauty to be seen. We huddle in cold and fear, trembling, isolated. There is no light, no hope, no joy, no relief from sorrow, danger, grief, dread. We are doomed, and we know it, like the earth, like the sky.

We need solace. We need a blade of grass, a sign of hope, a hero. We yearn to be saved, redeemed, helped. But there is no sign, no aid, nothing. We look  for a promise. And some do promise. All lies, all false, we are disappointed so often, we barely listen anymore.

A group  gathers by a muddy pond. They have come to drink. The water is dark, full of mud and worse, but its all there is. The people bend to drink, and then they stand and form a circle. They don’t know why, but each looks to each. There is some kind of song in the air. They all feel the song, but they cannot hear it. Then someone steps forward. She is not special, she is like them, she is afraid, she has no hope. But she is a hero, and she says one word – “Listen” and  they can hear it –  a beautiful melody, and they know it has always been there.

They hold hands, still in a circle, and the woman begins to sing, and they all join in. Others arrive.

Another hero, a plain man, steps into the center of the circle. He raises his hands to heaven, and says “You who have walked in darkness, shall see a great light”.

And it came to pass, that the greatest hero of all, who was the least of men, not a king, not a landowner, not a prince or a wealthy merchant, not a warrior or a general, not a priest or a philosopher, not a sage or a teacher, a man of no fame, born in poverty, in a time of despair, came into the circle of men and women, and dispelled the clouds, stopped the thunder, ended the hunger, brought hope and peace, made the light shine, filled hearts with hope. This hero came from nowhere, was unknown, and was at first rejected. A simple carpenter, of no real account. But his message, his sacrifice, his redemption, his resurrection, all of these were overpowering, and they changed the world forever. He arrived in our midst, to dispel the gloom, to lift us up from the depths of despair.

Heroes are everywhere. They do not wear name tags saying “hero”, and they cannot be recognized, except for their actions.  They are of all kinds, genders, sizes, and types. They don’t know who they are. When you meet them, smile and thank them. They follow in the footsteps of our first Hero, they are what keeps the world of men turning. They save us. Praise them.    

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Have you met Luca?

I don’t mean in the flesh; Luca has been dead and gone for a long time. But have you heard of him? An important individual was Luca. I am descended from him, and so are you. And everyone else, and everything else that is alive today. Luca is not really a him. Luca is really LUCA, which stands for Last Universal Common Ancestor. Luca lived about three and half billion years ago, and although we don’t know everything about it, we do know a lot. By definition, Luca was the organism from which all current living organisms are descended. There would have been other kinds of life around, but they didn’t last. Only the descendants of LUCA are on earth today.

We know a lot about LUCA because there are many characteristics that all current life forms share, and these are therefore characteristics that LUCA must have had.

LUCA was a small single-celled organism, with a plasma membrane. It had a cytoplasm with many proteins, each composed of either 16 or 20 amino acids arranged in a specific order as a linear polymer. The proteins made up all the structures of the cell, and, as enzymes, catalyzed all the required chemical reactions that allow life to exist. All of these proteins were produced within LUCA by a complex process that all cells today still share. The process starts with a double strand of DNA, which contains a sequence of bases arranged in a manner that codes for each of the proteins. Every group of three bases (a codon) stands for a particular amino acid. As is still true today, there were four kinds of bases, and so there were (and are) 64 possible codons, which means that some amino acids can be coded for by two, three, four or even six different codons. The specific genetic code, which is the identification of which codons code for which amino acids, is the same for you and me, oak trees, elephants, most bacteria, and LUCA[i]. (But we are all different because our DNA sequences are different, much as this blog post is different from the last one because of the sequence of the specific words, even though it’s written in the same language.

In order for this sequence to be translated into the correct proteins, LUCA used an incredibly complex molecular process that (with the rare exceptions mentioned) has not changed in any form of life for three and a half billion years.

The coded sequence is copied from one part of the DNA (called a gene) into a long stretch of RNA (the messenger RNA, or mRNA), which then interacts with another form of RNA called a ribosome. In the ribosome each codon of the RNA (which is the same as the codon on the DNA) is “read” one at a time. The reading process is both chemical and mechanical, and quite fascinating.

Since amino acids and nucleotide bases do not interact chemically, two different adapter molecules are required. One of these is a form of RNA called transfer RNA (tRNA), and there are different specific molecules of this kind of RNA for each amino acid.

There is also a group of enzymes called amino acyl tRNA synthetase (aaRS); again, different ones for each amino acid. The aaRS enzymes have binding sites for one and only one amino acid, and the same enzyme molecule has another binding site specific for the unique shape of the tRNA that has the anticodon for that amino acid. The enzyme then does the actual translation of the nucleotide-based code into the correct protein structure by joining the amino acid to the proper tRNA. The entire process has the technical name translation. Once bound together, the happy couple of tRNA and amino acid goes off to the ribosome, where the tRNA binds to the mRNA, and its amino acid is added to a growing chain making a new protein. This extremely ingenious and complex machinery operates in all living cells, and was present in LUCA as well.

We don’t know how LUCA got to be able to do this, or what happened before LUCA. In this sense, LUCA is like the big bang is for physics. Of course, we know that time existed before LUCA, and probably life did also, but what kind of life was it? And we have no idea how that life was able to produce a genetic code, and the mechanism for protein production that uses the code.

In fact, the same kind of mystery applies to all of the biochemical machinery found in all living cells. These include the mechanical wheels that produce the energy molecule ATP from sunlight or food, the membrane machines that selectively move molecules in and out of cells, the error correction systems, and a host of metabolic pathways by which all cells make the material they need.

Will we discover the answers to these mysterious origins some day? I believe we will, but not until we begin to explore new ways of thinking about biology, and the still unknown laws that control the truly miraculous processes of life.

[i] The rare, slightly different variant code that occurs in a few species of bacteria and protozoa evolved from the original LUCA code as well.)  

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Life and Light

There are some really strange things about the universe that science has uncovered in the past century, and among the strangest is the behavior of tiny particles such as protons and photons. Quantum entanglement is the phenomenon where two particles seem to be instantaneously linked, even if they are light years apart. Einstein originally called this spooky action at a distance, but it is real and demonstrable. However, it is so strange and so outside all of our logic and scientific understanding that it has been called “The God Effect” (1). Indeed, the concept of a simultaneous linkage between two particles independent of distance does seem to be supernatural.

One of the biggest mysteries in biology has long been the detailed mechanism of photosynthesis. In graduate school for biochemistry, I remember lots of holes in our knowledge of how sunlight could interact with stuff in green leaves to eventually produce sugar and chemical energy. And I found it quite difficult to fully understand the bits that were known.

Almost all life on earth depends on photosynthesis either directly or indirectly—without photosynthesis, animals would have nothing to eat—and it was photosynthesis that gave rise to oxygen gas in the atmosphere, which is required for large, complex animals like us to exist.

Since my graduate student days, we have learned a lot about how photosynthesis works to convert light energy to chemical energy. One stubborn mystery was how the process is able to convert light energy to chemical energy at such high efficiency, losing very little of it as heat. This is the only energy conversion process we know of with such high efficiency.

For the past decade or so, experiments (2) have indicated that photosynthetic bacteria and plants achieve this incredible feat by the use of quantum entanglement. When a photon strikes certain pigments associated with some enzymes in the chloroplast (the precise details are extremely complicated), electrons are elevated to a higher energy state, and then go through all possible pathways simultaneously (which is how entanglement works) to find the most efficient route to achieve the chemical reduction of the next protein in the electron transport chain that leads ultimately to conversion to chemical energy.

This is quite remarkable. First it had been assumed that many of the strange behaviors of particles related to quantum theory would not occur in “real world” situations, only under highly controlled laboratory conditions.  But these experiments suggest that quantum entanglement, besides being an esoteric, almost metaphysical property of particles in labs, is probably the most important physical phenomenon we know of when it comes to life. It isn’t a rare thing in the real world at all—rather, it is happening trillions and trillions of times per nanosecond everywhere on Earth. And it is critical to all life on the planet. No entanglement, no life.

If quantum entanglement really does defy all of our notions of normal cause and effect and suggests the existence of phenomena beyond our current understanding, I think it’s pretty interesting that life on earth is totally dependent on the reality of this quite remarkable, even “godly” effect.

1 The God Effect: Quantum Entanglement, Science’s Strangest Phenomenon by Brian Clegg Link

2 “Untangling the quantum entanglement behind photosynthesis.” Science Daily, Science News, May 11, 2010 Link.

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Absence of Holly

No tree. No presents. No bells and no holly. The house was dark when Tommy got home. It was Christmas Eve, but there was no sign of that in the house. Just another stupid day, as his father always said. That’s how it had been for the past 12 years, a silent night indeed, a silent and dark night, without lights. If carolers had come by (they hadn’t for years) they would have gotten yelled at and told to scram. No one left casseroles or presents for Tommy at the door anymore.

His dad wasn’t home. Tommy went to the refrigerator, took out a carton of milk and drank for a while. The he rummaged around, found some donuts, a hunk of cheese, a half bag of Doritos, some sliced ham, two bananas, a leftover chicken leg, and some gummy bears. Dinner.

Tommy went to his room and fired up his computer, checked out some Facebook pages, and then saw a chat request from Bonnie. He answered and went live with the web cam. There was Bonnie, sitting on her bed, with April next to her.

“Hi, Tommy,” they said in unison.


“Is your Dad home?”

“Nah, he’s working late tonight. He always takes the late shift on Christmas Eve.”

April said, “Your dad is such a scrooge. Why does he hate Christmas so much?”

Bonnie gave her a dirty look but didn’t say anything.

“I don’t know. I guess it’s ’cause of my Mom.”  

“Oh my God, that was so long ago”

“Yeah, well. Whatever.”

Bonnie asked, “Are you all alone there, Tommy?”

“Yup. Why, you wanna come over?” He was joking but he realized they might not get that. In fact, Bonnie whispered to April, who giggled.

“I’m kidding,” he said, and Bonnie looked down for a minute, and then smiled and said,  “I know, no company allowed on Christmas.”

His cell phone rang. It was his dad. “I gotta go,” he told the girls. “Bye, Tommy,” said Bonnie, “Bye, Tommy,” said April. He didn’t respond because he was talking to his Dad.


“Hey kiddo. Are you home?”


“Did you get something to eat?”


“What did you eat?”


“Hmm. So how was your day? Did you get to meet Patrick?”


“Good. Look, Tommy, I’m going to be pretty late tonight. I know school is closed tomorrow, so you can stay up late. But not too late, OK?”


Tommy went into the living room, switched on the TV, turned the volume down a bit,  plugged in his iPod earphones, and started surfing around the internet. Everything he saw was about Christmas. He was used to that. His dad used to leave plenty of non-Christmassy DVDs around. War movies, TV series, gangster films, stuff like that. Nowadays he tended more to streaming older comedies, non-Christmas themed. Tommy was checking out a YouTube video that he and Patrick had made a week ago when his cell buzzed again.

He looked at it. The screen said “Bonnie.” He answered it. “Hello.”

“Hi Tommy. Look, my Mom sent me out to get some stuff from the store and I’m right around the corner. How about if I stop over for a second. You know, just say hello. I won’t even come in, and your dad won’t even know.”

“I guess it’s OK. He’s working late tonight so… yeah. OK”.

The knock on the front door came within five minutes.

Tommy saw Bonnie standing on the porch wearing her red coat. Her car was parked at the curb. There was no one in it. Tommy held the door open and Bonnie walked in. She took off her coat. She sat down on the sofa. Tommy didn’t know what to say. “Where’s April?” he asked. That wasn’t the right thing to say, apparently, since he saw Bonnie’s chin move in a way that seemed a tad defensive.

“Why, would you rather that she came?”

“No, no, not at all. Just you know, you were with her before and I don’t know, I just wondered…” He stopped.

Bonnie patted the space next to her. “I won’t bite you, come on and sit down.” He did. Then he jumped up again. “Do you want anything?”

“No, thanks,” she said in a voice that sounded odd, almost dreamy. “I’m fine.” Tommy sat back down, and then they were kissing. He didn’t know how that happened. Her lips were soft and delicate, and he reached up with his hand and touched her hair. It was smooth and silky. He didn’t know how to stop kissing her, but she did. She smiled and pulled away a little.

“Do you like me, Tommy?” He couldn’t answer her—his throat wasn’t working. So he nodded his head. She smiled at him and took something from somewhere. It was a red and green wrapped box. “I brought you a gift.”  Tommy shook his head. “No gifts on Christmas, I promised my Dad.”

“I won’t tell him if you don’t.” she laughed with that silver laugh she had. Tommy took the present and started carefully unwrapping the paper.

Bonnie laughed again. “No, silly, just rip it off”. Tommy gulped, then did as she suggested. He opened the white box. Inside was a red and blue scarf. Tommy stared at it. He looked up at Bonnie, and saw tears in her eyes. “Merry Christmas, Tommy”, she said. He couldn’t speak.

And then he heard the steps at the door and his dad’s throat being cleared.

“Oh no”, he whispered to Bonnie. “You better hide, I’ll…”but she smiled and put her finger to his lips. “Its OK, Tommy, your dad knows I’m here.”

What?? He was confused and then his Dad was standing in the living room. Smiling.

“Hi, Tommy. Hi, Bonnie.”

“Hi,” said Bonnie. “Merry Christmas.” Tom flinched a bit and muttered something, but then he smiled again. “What you got there, son?

Tommy held out the scarf without a word. He was trying to figure out how to explain it without admitting it was a gift.

His Dad came over and took it from him. “Very nice,” he said, his voice a bit choked. “Nice job, Bonnie.”  Tommy was even more confused, especially since now Bonnie had tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Do you remember, Tommy?” his Dad asked him.

He nodded. The last Christmas present he ever got was also a scarf. A lot smaller, but the same colors, red and blue. He was a little kid, and he thought it had come from his Mom. And then there were no more Christmasses.

Tommy looked at Bonnie, and then at his Dad.

“Dad, did you know Bonnie was here? Did you tell her about the scarf?”

Tom cleared his throat again.

“I don’t care for Christmas very much. All that fake joy and commercialism. And to celebrate what? A myth, a legend.  And all those pagan rituals, like the tree. Everyone pretends that everything is just fine. It’s a requirement to be happy, even if you don’t feel like it. No, I really do not like Christmas at all.”

He seemed tired and he sank into a chair.

“But I do remember what your mother told me once, about Christmas, Tommy. I didn’t care for it much when she was alive either. And she told me that Christmas is not about religion or shopping or shiny lights. Its about love.”  He stopped and put his hand over his face for a moment.

“Yeah, I told Bonnie she could come over tonight, and I mentioned the scarf to her. I love you kid. Merry Christmas.”

Tommy sat still on the sofa, with tears in his eyes, and Bonnie’s hand on his shoulder. He looked at his dad and noticed that next to the chair there was a package that was half open. Inside he could see a wreath of holly.

“I love you too, Dad. Merry Christmas!”

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I believe in a God who answers prayers, and who interacts with me on a personal level. I also believe that God is the creator of all that exists. We don’t know how God created our universe, or even what that universe is composed of (one universe, or many independent ones). We don’t know if life arose from natural processes on Earth, arrived here on a meteor from some extraterrestrial source, or was a creation by God. We don’t know where our souls come from, a natural product of evolution (like our bodies) or breathed into the first human by God. There are so many things we don’t know.

But there are also many things we do know. We do know that life began as single cells, and that evolution by natural selection led to all the species that have ever existed. We know a lot about how life works, and we can worship the creator of such majesty, even if all the intricate, amazing details of biological function are natural results of adaptive evolution. From science we have learned the mechanisms of how the world works. From faith we learn about the agency that created those mechanisms.

The big question we are faced with is where is God? Did God create the universe and withdraw? Does God play a role in the history of life and our planet, in order to further His purposes? Did God intervene in the world?

We cannot find the answers using the human tools of knowledge – scientific investigation and analysis. We might get some clues this way, we might see some pointers, but not enough to be sure. No, the path to truth does not lead through our human knowledge but only through God.

So let us see what God has said and done. We know that God came to walk among us in the form of a man. Christ spent over 30 years amongst us, and the last two or three in active ministry. What did Christ, God incarnate, do during that time? Did He create any new species of animal or plant? No, He did not. He spoke of plants, flowers, birds and animals, but He created no new ones. Did Christ reshape any geological features of our landscape? Did He water the desert, lower any mountains, widen the Jordan River? No, He did not. Did he overturn any of the laws of man or nature? No, he left man and nature to continue as they had been.

Did he change the course of history? Not during his lifetime; that took some time, but eventually everything in the world of humanity changed beyond comprehension.  

So what sort of miracles did the Lord do, in his time on Earth? He healed the sick, turned water into wine, calmed the seas, raised the dead, cast out demons, made the blind see. But when challenged by Satan to turn stones into bread for His own sustenance, he refused. Christ performed his miracles, showed his Godhead, only for the benefit of individuals or collections of people, not for glory, not to demonstrate his powers, not to win converts. And what did God tell us, when he preached His sermon, and spoke to us in parables, and stories? He told us to believe, to help each other, to love each other and to love Him. To have mercy, to be forgiving, to find the Kingdom of Heaven in ourselves and each other and in Him.

All that He did and said, all of these miracles, and all of His teaching, all of His ministry to the poor, the outcasts, all of His parables and mercy were directed to one object – His love for His people, us. Jesus Christ, the living God came to us for our sake, to heal us, to redeem us, to sacrifice himself for us. He came to Earth to speak directly to us; he bent His laws of nature for us, for our sakes, to cure us, to help us, to show His love for us, and not for any other purpose. 

So I can believe that Christ hears my prayers, answers me in dreams, and in visions and in miraculous events, even if He does not intervene in His own Creation for any other purpose. Our God is not an absent God, nor does he deny us the freedom to make our own choices. And yet, when we need Him to, God intervenes for us. For me and for you and for all.

I did not always believe this to be true. As an agnostic, and even when I began believing that God might be real, I wondered why so many of my prayers and wishes were not being answered. Looking back now, after the passage of many decades, I can see a pattern that was not clear at all when I first prayed to God for professional success, a happy marriage, good health, and occasionally even survival, for myself or others I loved. And that pattern is that all of those things were indeed granted to me. Some took a lot of time, some required considerable effort and sometimes courage on my part. But here I am today, healthy, happy, alive and about as successful as I would want to be, and I know all of it is due to the grace of God, who always answers prayers, in His own time, and in His own way.

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Genes and Behavior

Towards the end of my academic career, I was appointed to be an academic member of an NIH Special Review Committee tasked with evaluating about a half dozen grant applications submitted in response to a “Request For Applications (RFA)” from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). An official at this agency was interested in the burgeoning field of behavioral genetics, and by issuing the RFA, the NIMH was hoping to stimulate some interesting and useful research in the subject.

I remember being quite unimpressed with any of the proposals, and as it turned out, my views were shared by the rest of the committee. We recommended none of them for funding. I don’t remember the details, but I do recall that all of the proposals seemed very speculative and contained some major unproven assumptions, not much supporting preliminary data, and very weak hypotheses. In all my years as a reviewer, and my subsequent six years as Division Director for Physiological and Pathological Sciences  at the NIH Center for Scientific Review, where thousands of grant applications passed through each year, I have never experienced such a dismal result in the peer-review process.

At the end of the meeting, the official in charge of the (now defunct) program asked us what the problem was. I was the first to respond, and I said that none of the applications were meritorious enough to be considered for funding, because the field was just too immature and the data already gathered were not at all convincing that there was in fact any real connection between any gene or gene variant and human behavior. Another issue brought up by several members of the committee was the implicit racial bias related to the search for genes that “make people violent.”

Of course, that was many years ago, and in the interim, more research has been done. I am sure if the meeting were to be held now, there would be some worthwhile projects proposed. In fact, while I am not at all in the loop anymore, I fully expect that many grants in behavioral genetics have been funded. The field is certainly not dead, and papers are being continually published. But I remain skeptical in general, and especially with respect to the issue of genetics and moral values. Here’s why.

I still think that the connection between genetics and moral behavior is less than straightforward to say the least. There is of course, no question that genes play a role in behavior throughout evolutionary history. Evolution is all about population survival, and the beneficial effects of certain behaviors like individual sacrifice for the sake of a community cannot be denied. But for most animals where individual sacrifice is known, such as with bees, this has nothing to do with a high moral value. A bee’s self-sacrifice for the good of the hive might appear to be result of a laudatory impulse on the part of individual bees, but it is nothing of the sort. No bee decides, in a moment of supreme valor to give her life for the good of the hive. There is no moral imperative acting here—only the evolutionary pressure that produces an appearance of high altruism.

The same is obviously true for the evolution of viruses, bacteria, and various animal and plant predators and parasites. No viruses (such as COVID) decided to be “good” and target the upper respiratory tract rather than the lungs. Increased transmissibility and decreased host mortality is a well-known and very frequent evolutionary strategy for infectious, lethal viruses, and the resulting good news for humans is simply an accident.

While these are extreme examples, the same sort of thing applies to a large extent (though admittedly not entirely) to behavioral traits coded for by human (as well as other animal) genes. For example, increased empathy might be expected to result in behaviors that are more “morally good” according to many human cultures. But a careful examination of the literature shows this is not always the case. Genetically determined reactions to a scene of violence, such as various autonomic reactions, as well as changes in empathy, may lead to various behavioral outcomes.

It is very well known that both emotions and behaviors are multigenic and often involve highly complex gene-environment interactions. All of this makes prediction of anything to do with moral actions based on genotypes of one or a few genes extremely difficult. One particular genetic variant in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) is an example of this complexity. One paper describes a behavioral phenotype (tendency to post-partum depression) in which the A allele appears to be dominant, whereas another paper, which discusses a different behavioral phenotype (increased empathy) for the same gene, finds the G allele to be dominant. The two alleles at this locus have also been associated with a variety of other individually tested behaviors. All the studies concur that this polymorphism is in Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium, meaning that selection pressure for either allele is currently absent, and the gene probably was never a target for natural selection.

Returning to the issue of moral choices, the very fact that there is no single objective morality for all human cultures is strong evidence against an evolutionary genetic connection. There are only very small differences in allele frequencies of some of these genes in different ethnic groups, and these differences are generally not meaningful. During the grant review meeting I mentioned above, we examined one application that hypothesized that different frequencies of a particular polymorphism in a neurotransmitter gene could make African Americans more violent than European Americans. Preliminary evidence was nonexistent and the proposal was considered by the whole committee to verge on outright racism..

This does not mean that there are no genetic correlates with human acts of moral good or evil. All humans (except for rare variants like psychopaths) recognize the inherent good in caring for children, in love, and in doing kindness to kin and relatives. And all recognize that doing harm to these people is bad. There is no question that these moral understandings and resulting behaviors are of evolutionary origin, since the same behaviors are seen in many mammalian and other animal species.

But we only need to think of moral values in modern cultures that extol the killing of “enemies,” the mistreatment of people with sexual or other non-conforming phenotypes, the subjugation of women, and so on, to see that once we go deeper than fundamental common values, we find purely cultural determinants of morality, with no genetic influence at all.

Cultural evolution (which includes good explanations for different human moral codes) is fundamentally different from biological evolution, which depends on genetic variation. For morality, it is memes, not genes, that count. The uniquely human brand of cultural evolution has given us fire, shelter, the internet, and everything else that makes us more than just another ape, including the moral choices we make.

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Tomorrow is Halloween.

Seventy five years ago, on a dark and stormy Halloween night at about 3 AM, a baby was born. To the surprise of all, the baby was a boy. This was surprising because the mother and all her cousins and all her aunts and her grandparents had had only girls. Everyone in the extended family figured this newborn would be a girl also. The parents had even chosen a name – Sarah, commemorating one of the mother’s aunts who had recently passed on.

Imagine the confusion when little Sarah turned out to be, um someone else. The parents actually had two immediate worries. First was what to name this kid. But the second worry was more serious, and distracted them (at least that’s my theory) from the first concern. The baby was not well. A diagnosis of infant diarrhea was pronounced, which at the time was considered a serious illness with no known cause or cure. There was a high rate of infant mortality associated with this illness, and so the parents (especially the mother) were very upset. When they were pressed for a name, they quickly conferred. In order to continue to honor the noble departed Aunt Sarah, the name should start with an S. Well there are certainly plenty of S names for boys. Steven, Scott, Simon, Sam, Sherman, Sidney, Sal, Sean, Silas, Sebastian, Seth, Stanley, and so on.

“We’ll call him Seymour”, they decided.

So, baby Seymour survived his first week of life starting on that Halloween, and is still alive and kicking and writing silly blog posts 75 years later. And never, ever speaks that name out loud, and forbids anyone else to do so.

People (including my wives) have asked me why I hate my name. Some have told me that Sy is not much better. I disagree. I just checked the internet for boys’ names starting with S. In addition to those listed above, the list of 100 names includes such gems as Sultan, Shai, Savion, Stryker, Slade, Salem and Syncere.

You know what name is NOT listed? Yup, SEYMOUR. Why not? Because it’s a terrible name. Sometime after I was born, the name fell into disuse, and the last recorded boy named Seymour was born in 1956. (I read this somewhere, but don’t expect a reference). 

The only popular reference to the name can be found in the lead character of the show and film  A Little Shop of Horrors, and in the song “Suddenly Seymour” from that show. In other words, a joke inside a joke.

So, not only was I born on Halloween, (meaning everybody was out tricking or treating and couldn’t come to my birthday party) I had this joke of a name, and was born unhealthy. Does this post sound a tad grumpy? Well, see how you feel turning 75. Anyway, Happy Halloween.

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