Saturday, November 12, 2016

The molecular work of Being—DNA and the soul, part I

Madonna Enthroned
Rogier van der Weyden
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

I am but a small man. How can I criticize religion and science? What then is possible? I begin to think that perhaps there is some truth in them; it is impossible for everyone to be mistaken. So now I set myself the task of trying to understand what it is all about. When I begin to think and study impartially, I find that religion and science are both right, in spite of the fact that they are opposed to one another. I discover a small mistake. One side takes one subject; the other side, another. Or they study the same subject but from different angles; or one studies the causes, the other the effects of the same phenomenon, and so they never meet. But both are right, for both are based on laws that are mathematically exact.

—G. I. Gurdjieff, Views From the Real World, New York, Feb. 20 1924

"...thought and will could not exist unless there was a similar action and cooperation between life as it inflows and the spiritual organic structure underlying our brain. Life flows from the Lord into that organic structure. Because the organic structure cooperates, it perceives what it is thinking.

The spiritual organic structure consists of long strands in helixes.”

—Emmanuel Swedenborg, from True Christianity

I've been reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene, which is a fine piece of writing and an engaging historical documentary of our evolving understanding of the natural world and heredity. The book is highly recommended.

 The genome— DNA and RNA molecules, to be specific — marks the place where the microcosmos of the atom and its essential assemblies — molecules — create the world of what we call the living. 

In the world of metaphysics, the understanding that the spiritual expresses itself materially in a structure of helixes is not a new one — Swedenborg understood this through his remarkable and highly unusual spiritual insight. He described the actual structural nature of DNA and its role as the structural foundation of our organism (brain); yet he even more presciently assigned it spiritual attributes. That is, he intuited a direct connection between the material and the spiritual lying at the base of Being. 

To put it as simply as possible, he said that God flows into man through our DNA; and there can be no doubt there is a genetic component to man's spiritual impulses. After all, all of human impulse is governed, in the end, by the process of natural selection, and from the ubiquitous presence of spiritual inclinations throughout societies over the entire course of man’s history, we can directly infer that our DNA selects quite powerfully for that characteristic. Evolutionists may argue one way or another about the reasons for that; yet the existence of it is an inarguable fact. Spirituality is built, quite literally, into our DNA: and like all the other characteristics we express, it is ultimately regulated by these tiny molecules.

 Yet it is, perhaps, impossible to fully appreciate the incomprehensible intricacies of how life arises and reproduces itself without understanding just how complex and—in a very practical sense—self-aware these molecules are. They undertake tasks of enormous complexity, tasks well beyond the abilities of today's supercomputers, on a scale so small and at such great speeds that even a single cell in our bodies is engaged every second in a set of tasks far too complex for any current technology to replicate.

The laws, logic, physics, and chemistry behind these forces create life. I sometimes wonder why scientists are so obsessed with re-creating life, as though we were going to do something better than nature has already done it. Man, after all, has consistently proved an ability only to do things much worse than nature does—far more destructively, and with no appreciation for consequences. Modern science has so far proven to be a blind man with no morals. These questions are worth pondering; and every sane-thinking, three brained individual ought to be pondering them.

In any event, what has provoked my interest here relates to a specific ability of the molecular machinery in cells. Genetic material, in response to its environment, has the ability to change the proteins it expresses in order to better use the material around it. This was known as early as the late 1940s, when Jacques Monod (who spent World War II researching bacterial metabolism in an attic in occupied Paris) saw that bacteria,  when put in a medium of glucose and lactose, selectively consume glucose first, and then undergo a phase change of growth before starting to eat the lactose. It eventually became apparent  that the bacteria change the proteins they express midstream in order to digest lactose; that there are molecules which regulate this behavior; and that the sequential instructions for the process are directly encrypted in the DNA of the bacterial genome.

 In order to understand how this relates to spiritual work, it's important to understand that in the intersection between the natural and the spiritual, much of the arrangement that allows the natural body to sense the spiritual relates to the molecular arrangements within the cells. As in the case of the bacteria with glucose and lactose — which are foods— all of the cells in our body feed not only on sugars, but also on oxygen (what Gurdjieff called the second-being food) and, above all, impressions. Yoga focuses a great deal on changing the relationship of Being to air; and yet as a discipline it does not deal with the nature of change imparted by the ingestion of the third being-food, impressions. Impressions are not even generally recognized as a food by science, something which is by now long overdue.

Mukherjee explains, furthermore, that the essential nature of DNA and RNA and the way that they operate arises from the relationships (read here, impressions) they create; it is not just the code that they embody, but the incredibly intricate, complex, and sensitive relationship between the various molecules, which takes place constantly in real time, that leads to all the things that make life possible.  It is not, in other words, the planks of wood that make a boat — it is the relationship between them. In the case of the genome, all of those relationships are made possible by the way the molecular structure of DNA takes in impressions exchanged between itself and proteins. 

DNA, like human beings, furthermore has a set of inner exchanges — whereby it exchanges information within itself — and outer exchanges, where it interacts with incoming molecules, and ions. Everything mediating this process of exchange with the cell is, at its point of origin, determined by the cell’s DNA, which contains dynamic instruction sets which respond to changing conditions both inside and outside the cell.

If you will recall here Gurdjieff’s remark that the outer cannot affect the inner—it is always the inner that affects the outer—it's worthwhile to consider the idea that our DNA is the physical representation of the inner on the microcosmic level. No matter what impressions we encounter, at the molecular level, every protein—every amino acid, every molecule and ion—expressed by cells in response is a product of the engine driven by DNA. 

All of our molecular responses, our energetic, electrochemical responses, are generated, regulated, and replicated by the DNA molecule and the work that it does inside the cell. If one kind of impression comes in, instantaneously, one kind of electrochemical neural responses take place — and a different impression produces different group of these responses, stimulating the production, release, or retention of a different set of regulatory molecular entities. 

We—our beings— are, in the end, a macroscopic summation of these molecular entities and their interactions; and in every instance, within the body, being as it stands is composed of these collective entities and the way they work in relationship. 100% of this is regulated by the moment to moment work of our DNA — which truly works in the moment, every moment. 

As such, the inner state of the organism is a mirror of outer conditions, and forms a response to them on a molecular level. This is taking place in us always and everywhere, for as long as life lasts.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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