Thursday, February 14, 2008

On the Sixth Day: Milk, Tools, and Questions

Then God said / “Let the earth bring forth the living creature / according to its kind / cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth / each according to its kind” / and it was so / And God made the beast of the earth according to its kind / cattle according to its kind / and everything that creeps on the earth according to its kind / And God saw that it was good.
Within the past 10,000 or so years, a new force has been shaping evolution. We can find the evidence for it in our genes. One example is the gene for the enzyme that cuts milk sugar (lactate) down into simpler sugars for digestion. We have it when we're babies and we live off milk, but we don't need it when we're adults (sometimes it feels like you may need a milkshake, but trust me, you can get the physical support you need from bread alone). So, our bodies being efficient, we tend to turn the gene off -- unless we keep driking milk when we're older, and then it's beneficial to keep it on.

We can find the mutation in our DNA that turns off this enzyme and measure how long ago it happened. It happened about 5-7,000 years ago or so. So somewhere around that time, northern Europeans and Africans domesticated cows and lived off their milk, making the mutation that keeps the enzyme "turned on" that much more helpful -- and that mutation happened in two slightly different waus in the two different places. That new force is us, taking creation and twisting it by our very presence the way a massive star twists the space around it.

Note A: in geological/cosmological terms, 10,000 years is a hiccup, a twinkling of an eye. It's like this just happened, oh, I don't know, a day ago.

Note B: the sixth-day animals are land animals and seem to be anthropocentric, that is, focused on the animals most important to us. The focus is tightening in for this creation narrative and is focusing on its ultimate result: homo sapiens.

Then God said / “Let Us make man in Our image / according to Our likeness / let them have dominion over the fish of the sea / over the birds of the air / and over the cattle / over all the earth and over / every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” / So God created man in His own image / in the image of God He created him / male and female He created them.

If you walk around some parts of Africa, you might accidentally trip on a sharp-edged rock. There's some areas where they are scattered around like fruit that fell from some ancient tree. You can pick it up and look at it closely. It will fit solidly in your hand. Looking closely at it you'll notice its sharp edges were chipped off, in directions that clearly suggest intentionality. What you're holding is an ancient hand axe. Some places have so many of them it's hard to imagine they were strictly speaking all necessary. Rather, they may have been made for the sheer joy of it. Perhaps an ancient Jay Leno type collected dozens of them in a "garage" structure somewhere?

These tools are the world literally shaped by someone, the first really artificial things you can find. It's not far from these chipped rocks to Mount Rushmore. What they tell me is that the humans who made them are different, and recent. They changed the world when they appeared.

It's a fun exercise to compare humans to other primates and try to see what makes us different, because these differences must somehow add up to be the image of God. Which matter, which don't? I don't know, and in this area of science particularly, political rivalries and jumping to conclusions runs rampant. I have more questions than answers here. So here they are:

1.) Bipedalism: To walk on two feet, the pelvis must hold a load in a new way, and must narrow so that there's only a small opening for the baby's head. Is bipedalism Eve's curse?

2.) Health care: Near Lake Turkana in Kenya, hominid bones have been found that show unmistakeable evidence of too much vitamin A, something that happens when a person lives off a completely carnivorous diet. What's really interesting about these bones is that the growths on them are huge, far beyond the point where the person who had them would have been able to be useful or functional for hunting or gathering. So someone took care of this person and tended him or her for weeks, maybe months. Is this something verging on selfless love?

3.) Neanderthals: What the heck were they? I like this quote out of Bill Bryson's book: "The one certainty is we are here now and they aren't." See other posts about how they may have had red hair: and they may have even made music. They're as mysterious as, oh, again, I don't know, the "sons of God" of Genesis 8. Is that an ancient memory of competition between populations?

4.) Human genetic similarity: There is more genetic variation between 55 chimpanzees than there is in the entire human population. Now, as we learn more about how DNA works, this number may change a little, but at least by one measure, 5 billion people are more alike than 50 chimps on the DNA level. We really are that similar to each other. If that's so, what's the force that keeps us trying to kill each other in new ways? Could Cain and Abel be a paradigm for our fallen world?

5.) Words: We can talk, apes can't. This entire eight-day letter is a string of 26 symbols that (hopefully) bring meaning from my brain to yours. That's amazingly powerful. Over a few thousand years, people have used similar symbols to put ideas together, and we're told that God breathes life into those words and preserves them for us. Not only that, but God put on carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms and walked among us. What weapon was his choice for his one and only life? The sword coming out of his mouth -- his words.

Now, the Kingdom of God is not just words, but power breathed into those words by the same Spirit that created the world. They are words that match reality because of that. My understanding of how they match reality is in this letter, and probably a third of it is wrong. (I'd be happy if only a third of it were wrong!) But it's the best I can do right now, looking at everything I can.

How does this all add up? We're told in Genesis 2 that God breathed into a man named Adam and he became a living soul. Not he got a soul, but he became one. To use a computer metaphor, God put some software into Adam's hardware (and he can upload that software again when he wishes). But the hardware and software are part of the same system: body, soul, and spirit are intertwined. Something that affects the molecules of my body has an impact on my soul.

I am a machine, and I spend most of my hours trying to understand how that machine works. But I know there's more than that to me, that there's a consciousness that sums up reality and allows me to look out and think about it. This consciousness as far as I know is not transferrable by any scientific device, and can't be captured or replicated. My own self-awareness is unique. Science has a hard time dealing with that, and the only way that I think it could would be if it could transfer consciousness, and I'd only believe it if I could experience that for myself. (That's quite a risky experiment, because if your self-awareness doesn't truly transfer, the only person who'd necessarily know would be YOU!) I don't think that's going to happen using a device, ever. But that's my own theory of consciousness.

So learn all you want about neurons, how they can mirror other people, how if they get damaged, the person inside them gets damaged, even about fascinating experiments like how firing certain ones of them can induce an out-of-body experience. Just don't assume that if you recreate the neurons you recreate the exact same self-awareness. Even if we could recreate the neurons, it would be a different person, just like identical twins with identical DNA are different people.

To represent this uniqueness, when you two boys were born, we gave you each your own names, Sam and Aidan. They are your possessions. Take good care of them.

This letter is only words, but in the end, that's what we have: words. And some words will endure forever. We need to align our words with His creative words, and His creation. Investigating it with science is one way to learn how to understand it, and how to take care of it. If you love the creator, love and care for his creation as well. That's how I interpret the end of this passage.

Then God blessed them / and God said to them / “Be fruitful and multiply / fill the earth and subdue it / have dominion over the fish of the sea / over the birds of the air / and over every living thing that moves on the earth” / And God said / “See, I have given you every herb that yields seed / which is on the face of all the earth / and every tree whose fruit yields seed / to you it shall be for food / Also, to every beast of the earth / to every bird of the air / and to everything that creeps on the earth / in which there is life / I have given every green herb for food” / and it was so / Then God saw everything that He had made / and indeed / it was very good / So the evening and the morning were the sixth day.
In the face of any questions, don't forget that it was VERY good. It's been messed up, but it will be corrected, any day now. The creator is still around.

It was evening, and it was morning. The sixth day was done.

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