Richard Dawkins’ anti-religious trilogy now streaming on Netlfix, “Sex, Death and the Meaning of Life” is not much of a threat to mainstream conventions. Sex is his whole focus concerning morality, which is what a nice Englishman like him would see — excluding, of course, the whole big rats’ nest of gentlemen who destroy little boys for the entertainment of it. And carefully avoiding the issue of money morality.
Now I’ve watched “Death” the centerpiece and find it is also a little exercise in British Empire (though that institution is pretty much gone except for the dancing on its grave). Dawkins keeps insisting he doesn’t believe in the afterlife,so he begins by addressing a religion that is based on life-after-life-after-life, carrying some mysterious continuity of identity. He doesn’t show us temple ceremonies, but rather the gruesome bodies of a grotesquely overpopulated country with not enough money, wood, vultures, or rivers to dispose of dead flesh. A pye (pariah) dog tugs at the body of a partly burned and rotted former person, snarling at the competitor who wants a bite.
Then he takes us on a visit to Watkins, one of the discoverers of the double-helix of the genome that led to the idea that we each have an internal plan, unique to ourselves but derived from our progenitors. (Watkins, wild-eyed and a little manic, identifies himself as the greatest scientist alive — well, aside from that guy in the wheelchair. He also ignores Rosalind Franklin, whose images were the key to the Watson and Crick assertion.)
Dawkins’ genome is plotted for him (just like Carl Zimmer) and handed to him in a little box about like a spectacles case. He takes us to the unopenable door of the Dawkins’ family crypt (the key is lost) and says he would like to put his little box in there with the rotted bodies. He thinks of the genome as a kind of immortality, mutable and shareable, but highly significant. Sort of like a name or a crest. We’re in “Game of Thrones” territory, as though realms were immortal, which they demonstrably are not. Someday the door won’t matter because the entire church will have collapsed and dissipated, even its stony rubble.
We go to see Dawkin’s charming mom to talk about how slippery memory can be and look at albums of the redoubtable Dawkins as a child. The scenery all through this film from the Ganges to his mother’s local church and burial yard is the main reward for the film. Through it emerges the real manifestation of evil as expressed in economic class and domination. The bones of the Empire show through the suffering of Untouchables and the safe privilege of “upper” classes in their snug cottages. Yet Dawkins is totally oblivious and insists on talking about souls.
There is one diverting little experiment in which kindergarteners are led to believe that a mouse can be duplicated without the conventional means of conception. The scientist has invented a mock machine, which he seems to think reveals the inadequate reasoning of small children and therefore their misunderstandings of “soul” as a concept. “Star Trek” is more fun.
In real life as we know it, the science of the genome keeps elaborating and getting more contingent. This film was made before the discovery of the “epigenome” which is the way the environment is able to change the instructions of genes through a process called “methylation” that turns genes on and off. This can cross generations, so the grandfathers of the Netherlands who nearly starved in WWII have affected the genetics of their granddaughters.
Dawkins comes closer to this when a scientist explains that the puzzle of people who were lifelong smokers but lived to 105, were not endowed genetically with the ability to resist smoke damage, but were patterned genetically to smoke a certain way. They tended to smoke without inhaling very deeply and to discard their cigarettes before they had burned all the way down. It’s hard to believe, but evidently the inherited gestures and habits were the saving element.
Today I read a little piece in one of my science feeds that explodes another idea about the brain. We had thought that the brain stopped producing cells in early mid-life and declined after that. Then we discovered that the more you think, the more you make new brain cells, just like muscle tissue. Now here’s the next surprise. It’s from a feed called “STAT” but you could probably google to find the original articles if you are capable of reading them.
Brain cells have stunningly diverse genomes
A new technique that plucks out the defining genetic characteristics of individual brain cells has just taken home the top prize in a neurobiology competition. The award went to Harvard’s Gilad Evrony and his colleagues for their work on understanding the mutations that occur in single cells while the brain develops. His findings on the diversity of brain cells run counter to a long-held assumption that every brain cell contains the same genome. Evrony is trying to pinpoint whether some of those changes — known as somatic mutations — might be contributing to neuropsychiatric disorders that scientists don’t really understand. Those mutations are impossible to pick up during conventional DNA sequencing because they might be present in just a handful of the brain’s cells. Evrony and his colleagues created a new approach to get up close and personal with those mutations, work that’s now won the group the Eppendorf & Science Prize for Neurobiology.
This is something like the discovery that some people are chimeras — that is, have evidently absorbed cells from a twin egg that then disappeared, so that the genes of their liver or whatever other tissues are different from the rest of their body. What happens to the soul then, Dawkins? Something similar happens when the cells of an unborn child travel up the umbilical cord and join the cells of the mother for the rest of her life. She carries her infant always, at least in part.
But that’s not quite the same as the studies showing that the unseeable parasites (virus, microbe, bacteria, rickettsias, prions or whatever) emigrate between intimates: lovers, moms, and caregivers. It’s interesting to ponder what Bob Scriver’s body-occupants — acquired through fifty years on the Blackfeet Reservation where the bodies have been swapping for centuries — passed on to me. From my side are microscopic hangers-on from five years of handling Portland, OR, animals, mostly dogs, who have been our close companions for so long that human genomes overlap those of dogs. We were warned not to give blood for fear of passing some threat to a vulnerable person.
By now the cutting edge scientists have given up on the idea of individuated bodies whose immortality depends upon their in-skin identities. Instead the vision is something like a great sheet of life, morphing and crossing boundaries among species, surging with persistence, but also sliding out of one form into another. It’s inconceivable for the Brit-developed thinking that we call “science.” But a Hindu wouldn’t have much trouble with the idea.