New Slants on Evolution

Guest Column

The Cary Institute lecture inspired an attendee to write the following that might have a bearing on man's ability to evolve and perhaps thereby survive.  So, we might survive despite our tendency to self-destruct.

As I drove away after Michael Tennesen’s talk at the Cary Institute on the future of evolution, my brain spun into hyperdrive.  I began thinking about environment, evolution, genetics and religion, how environment affects behavior (which includes religious practices), and how that behavior then affects the epigenetic mechanisms, which then cause changes in gene function. This led me to ponder that with environmental changes (either outer climate or inner behavior) there need to be changes within people (including their religious practices.) For to stay the same is to maintain non-adaptive forms of behavior/epigentic expression,etc. And then I had to search for facts. 

Recent scientific research has shown that what we do, how we do it and the environment in which we are active affects how our genes work. This field of study, called epigenetics, has only been in existence since the 1990’s. The results of many studies show that where we live, the food we eat, our stress levels, meditations and thoughts can trigger the expression of particular genes, and that these changes can persist, even passed on to one’s children. So the epigenetic process is the way our actions and surroundings have an effect on what goes on deep inside our cells.

The science of the process starts within our cells where reside not only genes, the DNA sequence that encodes our inheritable characteristics, but also a group of chemicals that affect how the DNA is expressed. “Epi” means ‘on top of’ in Greek, so the epigenetic substances are seen to lie on top of, or wrap, the DNA, although some are nested within the DNA strands.

The epigenetic material includes histones, which are a type of protein that packages DNA into a small volume, controls its replication, and prevents DNA damage. There is also an alkyl derived from methane that can be added to the DNA, and a third mechanism which is based on a type of RNA. 

Scientists have discovered how the world outside of the cell walls interacts with these epigenetic processes & substances. The Journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology published a study of the effect of meditation on the methylation results and indications of inflammation in the blood of a group who meditated and a control group that did not. Their conclusion was that meditation had therapeutic effect on the inflammatory process. 

A study at the University of Wisconsin compared a group of advanced meditators to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities. After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation. 

                            the ecology of religion

To this mix of what our outer and inner environments are capable of influencing, we can add belief systems and ethics: the initial ideas, the practices, and the moral codes that accompany the theory and practices. This relationship is difficult to prove, but there is new field of study, called the ecology of religion that researchers are investigating. Social scientists in this field are doing statistical analyses to determine correlations. A group of international researchers recently published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Washington Post’s summary of the study states: The study “suggests instead that the environment in which a culture or society emerges and lives may powerfully shape the kind of religion that it adopts. In other words, the paper suggests, there is a kind of geography of human religiosity -- one in which beliefs map onto the climates and ecology of different regions.”  Since environment and behavior affect genetic expression, and since religion is one form of behavior, it is logical that environment affects religion, and both affect the epigenetic expression of genes.

Studies show the environment can affect our gene expression: directly through the epigenetic interactions and through molding our belief systems that create their own methyalation and RNA interactions.

As for a practical, immediate way to make use of these 'webs' of connections to our genes, I found in my internet searches that several people have set up organizations that claim to lead others to better health through learning to manipulate the epigenetic interface, called ‘epigenetic medicine,’ and ‘using intention to control genes.’

Where does this all lead? I think that if the connection between our actions and thoughts can be channeled into more compassionate, more effective, healthier bodies and minds, then we will survive and prosper. But Michael Tennesen didn’t cover that territory in his lecture. And his book, The Next Species, the Future of Evolution and the Aftermath of Man, appears to have a very dark answer.

Charlotte Mann, a software engineer by trade, a Harvard graduate, teaches meditation and harbors hope for mankind. She was inspired by the recent Cary talk by Michael Tennesen to write this column.