Friday, 22 July 2011

On Shape, Science, and Soul. Part I

From the simplest of packages emerges the most complex of arrangements. This is the story of the world.

Small amounts of information, arranged in specific structures and catalyzed by environmental resources, form the basis from which all magnificent manifestations of cosmic creativity emerge. The most pristine of examples is the way Life is encoded in packages of DNA.

Scientists, soaking in a historically-stirred solution of confident naivety and zealous valuation, were only a decade ago under the impression that a complete understanding of DNA dynamics was just around the corner. This was the academic context that gave rise to the Human Genome Project, a multi-billion dollar international collaboration with the goal of determining and deciphering the entire sequence of DNA in a Homo sapien – the goal of determining all the genes that make up a human.
(A second, privately funded pursuit of the human genome, led by Craig Venter (the man who just recently brought us synthetic life – more on that later), actually beat the rest of the world by about a year and spent far less money (600 million vs. multiple billions) in determining the entire sequence of human DNA. Thus, Craig Venter was the first man to have his entire DNA sequenced, and that information is freely available on the internet. For all the bad things said about capitalism, here’s at least one good. Let your mind remember the name Craig Venter.)

Some background biology might now be in order. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is essentially an enormously long string of molecules called nucleotides. The information coding part of nucleotides are about the same size as molecules like caffeine or MDMA (a little smaller than LSD), and are made up of the same component atoms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen – nearly all the molecules in your body are made up of only these 4 atoms, arranged in different sequences and spatial configurations. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it). While all nucleotides in DNA share the same backbone (the part that makes up the sides of the helix or ladder of DNA), there are four different possibilities for the information coding region (the rungs of the ladder). These have been designated by the letters A, C, G, and T. So basically, the Human Genome Project’s goal was to figure out the 3 billion letter long string of A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s that make up a human being.

Let me repeat that, in case the magnitude of it skipped by you. The single cell that was the union of your father’s sperm and your mother’s egg (!), contained a long string of 3 billion (!) bits of information, in a particular configuration (!), in a protective cavern (!) in the center of the cell, from which all (!) the instructions on how the organism (you!) should emerge (!). WOW! Wait till Apple get’s ahold of that technology!

Ok. So we start as a single copy of a long string of information, the DNA Queen in her Cellular Palace, and we turn into people. That’s pretty wild. But tell me, what sort of information is it that DNA codes for?

Traditional genetics conceives of DNA as consisting of smaller units called genes, which may be on the order of hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of letters long. These genes code for large molecules called proteins, and every sequence of three letters in DNA codes for a specific building block of a protein (these building blocks are known as amino acids, and include molecules like glutamate, tryptophan, serine, and tyrosine).

Essentially, proteins are the work horses of life. They are the molecules that respond to and interact with light when it hits your eye; the molecules that receive odours and communicate the message to your cells as smells waft through your nose; the molecules that govern metabolism and break down foods and noxious chemicals; the molecules that govern the shapes of cells and the overall forms of life. Proteins do it all, and they are indescribably awesome.

Appropriately, it is the primary goal of DNA to encode the information required for cell’s to make proteins. And it is synchronously the primary goal of the cell to transcribe DNA into molecules called RNA (basically expendable DNA – clones), and to translate RNA into proteins. Naturally, proteins are responsible for carrying out this entire process.

Now. In traditional genetics a single gene codes for a single protein. However, the Human Genome Project discovered that for the hundred thousand or so proteins expressed in the human body, there were only about twenty thousand genes. Furthermore, it was found that the vast majority of DNA (roughly 98%) didn’t code for proteins at all, and was thus termed “Junk DNA.”
Ha! Junk! What a fantastic notion. This simple conception in academia actually parallels a much more significant behavioural pattern in Humanity itself. Namely, that of ignoring, belittling, defacing, or destroying that which we do not understand. This is the motive behind all forms of discrimination, from racism and xenophobia to cognitive biases and social rejections. 

The world of an animal consists eternally and entirely of that which is Known and that which is Unknown, and humans are no exception. However, these two domains do not have the same kind of relationship as opposing armies in a battle over land, where the advancement of one necessitates the retreat of the other. For no matter how far the Known advances, the size of the Unknown remains infinite and unchanged.

It is precisely this dynamic which supports the phenomenal experience of Time and which underlies all other sociopsychological structures. The distinction between Known and Unknown derives for an individual the impression that it is moving, not through physical space, but through informational space. In the progression of moments, an individual comes to acquire more and more information and so surmises that he has moved from one position in informational space to another, and that this motion necessitates the introduction of a non-spatial dimension called time. We should thus expect that the experience of time is somehow correlated with one’s pursuit of the unknown. Indeed it is.

When one is doing nothing, that is, passively adhering to the rhythms arranged for him by eons of evolution and exerting no effort to engage the world, one gets bored. Time passes extremely slowly. Steps between manifestations of novel information are large. This takes alot of time. One may consider that time has been wasted. However, when one is highly active and engaged in novelty production or exploration, be it through improvisation, psychedelic agents, meditative practices, or athletic flow (among countless other activities), one finds that time, almost literally, flies. It is interesting in this regard that one of the principal ideas of Einstein’s theory of relativity is that as one approaches the speed of light, one experiences less time. At the limiting condition – the speed of light – the interval between successive events is effectively 0. One can be anywhere, in no time. And this is physics.

No physicist, however, will admit that any amount of mass can ever travel at the speed of light, for that would require more energy then exists in the universe. Physics thus suggests that man is doomed to suffer the reign of time. But from a psychological perspective it does not appear that this need be the case, at least at all times. In other words, the individual appears able, in particular circumstances and by particular methods, to exclude himself, intermittently, from the reign of time.
The past decade has witnessed an enormous amount of progress in understanding the functions of “Junk” DNA. A lot of it, it seems, is concerned with regulating the rate and extent to which proteins are made by the cell. Indeed, this is a very important point. It essentially states the what is significant about information is not what it is composed of but how it is arranged and how it is managed. What matters is not the content, but the dynamic structure. (Or, in more famous words, “The medium is the message”).

The case of DNA is extremely interesting in this regard. Every cell in your body, and there are trillions of them (though there are about 10 times more bacterial cells in and on your body than Human cells – and to think you thought you were ‘just’ human), contains the same script of three billion letters of DNA. However, there are about 200 different cell types in your body, each of which manufactures and expresses a different bundle of proteins and at different rates. For example, neurons need to make proteins to respond to neurotransmitters (and drugs) and permit the flow of electricity, while the liver needs to make proteins that can breakdown biological molecules (and drugs), and to manage the metabolic needs of the body. Both cells contain the necessary genes for all proteins, but signals in early development manage to convince one cell’s DNA to take on one shape (and thus make available one set of genes) and the other cell’s DNA to take on another shape (and thus make available another set of genes).

On a species level, differences in DNA lie not so much in genes themselves, but in the sequences that determine how and if genes will be expressed. At the extreme, the differences in protein coding regions between chimpanzees and ourselves amount to roughly one or two percent (ie. 98-99% of our proteins are identical to chimps). However, subtle changes in protein expression patterns over development and later life have led to astronomical differences in the capacity of the human nervous system to manage information and to form unique psychologies. Again, it is not the content that is significant but rather its organizing form and structure.

It is no trivial matter that the structure of things determines their functionality and capacity. In fact, it may be the case that our conception of “information” is merely an abstraction of the existence of diverse spatial patterns and their potential for interaction. At the heart of the universe lies not the atomic bit, but the geometric flower. Existence is, in essence, intricate geometry.
The very success of Humanity as a proliferating species has depended almost entirely on its capacity to transform the Unknown. In animals, this is the prerogative of the nervous system (actually, the immune system partakes of a similar transformation of the Unknown, as does the whole organism when considered as a holistic unit). 

From an evolutionary perspective, transformations of the Unknown manifests in physiological adaptation of an organism to a changing or novel environment.

From a religious perspective, transformations of the Unknown manifests in the spiritual adaptation of an organism to a greater interface with God.

The highest possible transformation of the Unknown may be to assimilate the totality of Its existence, Fully, into one’s own identity, and thus to unite one’s self with God. When you become the Unknown, knowingly, the distinction is dissolved.

A word on the word God, then, please. Unfortunately for those of us who wish to use English to describe and expound upon matters of metaphysics and the fabric of Being, the word God is heavily loaded. It will thus be instructive to distinguish between three uses of the word God, and to make clear their relative roles and relationships with one another in the History of Humanity.

There is first and foremost It. This is it. Everything is It. No-thing is It.
It Is It. Is It. It Is.
It is the timeless, ineffable potential for all of creation bathing in a well at the bottom of the Cosmic Tree.
In Hebrew, It is called Ein Sof.
In Sanskrit, It is called Brahma.
In China, It might be called Dao.
But China is a sponge that was soaked in mystery the day a Dragon chasing a bamboo stick tripped over Tibet into a waterfall of Jade.
In English, we may call It “Now”.

It is one thing for Now to Be Now. But for Now to know It is Now? Could this have been the grand event catalysizng the dawn of Human Consciousness? Could the ebb and flow and sprinkled fillet of Universal Design have launched Itself so deep into Its own Navel that it came out the other end, to greet Its own ass? And say Hi?

So if we were the first sociological body on the planet to encounter the stubborn fact that we are the very heart and soul and fingers and toes of Existence existing, what sociological structure would we devise in order to cope with this overwhelming discovery?
Well, we would make music, and we would dance…

(To be continued in Part II)