A spate of observations made
by molecular biologists now sequencing DNA as
part of the human genome project, suggest that
there is a lot more to heredity than DNA. The
hitherto accepted theory that everything comes
from our genes, and genes come from our parents,
is now being questioned. There are tantalizing
hints that we inherit something else as well,
says Gail Vines in New Scientist:
Just as cells inherit genes, they also inherit
a set of instructions that tell genes when to
become active, in which tissue and to what extent.
This much is uncontroversial. Without this "epigenetic"
instruction manual, multicellular organisms
would be impossible. Every cell, whether it's
a liver cell or a skin cell, inherits exactly
the same set of genes, and it is the manual,
which has different instructions for different
cell types, that allows the cell to develop
its distinctive identity.
Established theory has it that the instruction
manual is wiped clean during the formation of
sperm and egg cells, ensuring that all genes
are equally available, until the embryo starts
to develop specific tissues. But outlandish
evidence now suggests that changes in the epigenetic
instruction manual can sometimes be passed from
parent to offspring....
Molecular biologists have created the misleading
impression that genes alone run the show. The
constant emphasis on the power of genes, says
Wolf Reik [a molecular biologist], has created
"a 20th-century form of fatalistic predestination,"
in which people believe they are the product
of their genes, nothing more, nothing less.
Even geneticists, he says, have lost sight of
the huge range of environmental factors that
can change a gene's activity, ranging from an
adult's diet to certain high-tech fertility
treatments. For those reasons, some geneticists
are calling for a new definition of the gene,
based on not only its DNA sequence, but also
its epigenetic instruction manual-the degree
of methylation, for example....
Marcus Pembrey....speculates that the inheritance
of epigenetic factors which control a few select
genes may have enabled human populations to
regulate the growth of individuals according
to food availability. Food shortage could generate
physiological responses in adults, say, a change
in hormone levels, that influence the activity
of key growth genes. This could then be passed
on to their offspring by varying the genes'
"What we can see now is the tip of the
iceberg," says Marilyn Monk, a molecular
embryologist and geneticist....As the human
genome project rushes to completion, the really
interesting insights are going to come not from
the sequences....but "from working out
how genes are controlled."
There is more to heredity than its physical mechanism.
It is, however, significant that scientists are
coming round to the view that environmental factors
and diet can alter a gene's activity. Theosophy
agrees that food is an important vehicle or basis
of heredity. The very process of reincarnation
by which the Ego passes from the disembodied to
the embodied state is connected with food. Mr.
Judge mentioned that the germs of human reproduction
must come from food taken by the parents. And
millennia ago the Chhandogya Upanishad,
tracing the soul's return in symbolic language,
pointed to the same truth:
Having become mist, he becomes a cloud, having
become a cloud, he rains down. Then he is born
as rice and corn, herbs and trees, sesamum and
beans. From thence the escape is beset with
most difficulties. For whoever the persons may
be that eat the food, and beget offspring, he
henceforth becomes like unto them. (V, 10, 6)
People often talk about "fear of the unknown"
during times of transition and turmoil. Rapid
changes create great uncertainties about the future.
When people face life's uncertainties, their fear
inhibits them from personal development and growth.
Though we cannot change the future or even know
in advance what it holds in store, yet we can
change our own attitude towards it and thus help
ourselves, writes Wallace Wilkins in The Futurists:
By altering how you think about your uncertainties,
you can free yourself from many inhibitions
Actually, there cannot be a fear of the unknown,
because the unknown is devoid of information.
The unknown is neither positive nor negative.
It is neither frightening nor elating....The
unknown is like a blank screen at a movie theater.
A blank screen contains no information. There
is nothing positive or negative, frightening
or exhilarating about a blank screen....
Screens do not create emotional experiences
at theaters, but images projected onto the screen
do elicit emotions. If a horror movie is projected
onto a screen, you will be frightened. If tragic
scenes are shown, you will be saddened. If comical
scenes are displayed on the screen, you will
laugh with delight. The power to create emotions
is not in the screen, but in the projections
onto the screen.
Devoid of information, the unknown has no more
power to create your emotions and behaviours
than a blank movie screen. Then what causes
people to fear when they face the unknown?
Here's how it works: We create our own fears
by projecting our own frightful images, anticipations,
beliefs, and thoughts onto the blank screen
of the unknown. Every time you project a threatening
or catastrophic image onto the unknown, you
will be frightened....Like a blank screen, the
unknown gives you great freedom. It permits
you to fill it with whatever is useful to you.
Instead of projecting frightful, inhibiting
scenes onto the unknown, you can project upbeat,
This is scenario planning on a personal level.
Each individual has the power to replace fear
with confidence and optimism. With practice,
your positive projections can engage and inspire
you each time you encounter another unknown....Fill
this unknown with only positive anticipations.
Our new thinking habit will bring substantial
benefits to us.
Who were the original Americans?
The old theory is that they were East Asians of
Mongoloid stock who trekked across the Bering
Strait. But new finds, say the archaeologists,
are rewriting American prehistory. Some recently
found skeletons bear no resemblance either to
today's Native Americans or to the Asians who
were believed to be their ancestors and thus,
supposedly, the original Americans. The picture
that emerges is that early America was a mosaic
of cultures and peoples who came both by land
and by sea from several regions of Asia and even
from Europe. Newsweek (June 7) features
the raging debate as to who got there first:
The emerging answer suggests that they were
not Asians of Mongoloid stock who crossed a
land bridge into Alaska 11,500 years ago, as
the textbooks say, but different ethnic groups,
from places very different from what scientists
thought even a few years ago. What's more, stone
tools, hearths and remains of dwellings unearthed
from Peru to South Carolina suggest that Stone
Age America was a pretty crowded place for a
land that was supposed to be empty until those
Asians followed herds of big game from Siberia
into Alaska. A far different chronicle of the
First Americans is therefore emerging from the
clash of theories and discoveries that one anthropologist
calls "skull wars." According to the
evidence of stones and bones, long before Ellis
Island opened its doors America was a veritable
Rainbow Coalition of ethnic types, peopled by
southern Asians, East Asians-and even, perhaps,
Ice Age Europeans...."It's very clear to
me," says anthropologist Dennis Stanford
of the Smithsonian Institution, "that we
are looking at multiple migrations through a
very long time period-migrations of many different
peoples of many different ethnic origins."...
The possibility that today's Native Americans
are not the descendants of the original Americans
is not going down easily.... "We are rewriting
the textbooks on the First Americans,"
says Stanford. The new edition will show that
"the peopling of America was never as simple
as simple-minded paradigms said."...It
is thousands of years older than we thought-home
to settlers so diverse that it was, even millenniums
ago, the world's melting pot.
What is missed out by archaeologists,
anthropologists, historians and others engaged
in the study of ancient lands and peoples is the
fact that the geography of our globe was then
very different from what it is now. As stated
by H.P.B. in "Notes on 'A Land of Mystery'"
(The Theosophist, August 1880):
We never pretended to suggest new theories
for the formation of oceans. The latter may
have been where they now are since the time
of their first appearance, and yet whole continents
been broken into fragments partially engulfed,
and left innumerable islands, as seems the case
with the submerged Atlantis. What we meant was
that, at some pre-historic time and long after
the globe teemed with civilized nations, Asia,
America and perhaps Europe were parts of one
vast continental formation, whether united by
such narrow strips of land as evidently once
existed where now is Behring Strait (which connects
the North Pacific and Arctic Oceans and has
a depth of hardly more than twenty to twenty-five
fathoms), or by larger stretches of land....
We have as evidence the most ancient traditions
of various and widely-separated peoples-legends
in India, in ancient Greece, Madagascar, Sumatra,
Java, and all the principal isles of Polynesia,
as well as those of both Americas. Among savages,
as in the traditions of the richest literature
in the world-the Sanskrit literature of India-there
is an agreement in saying that, ages ago, there
existed in the Pacific Ocean a large continent
which, by a geological upheaval, was engulfed
by the sea. And it is our firm belief-held,
of course, subject to correction-that most,
if not all of the islands from the Malayan Archipelago
to Polynesia, are fragments of that once immense
submerged continent. (THE THEOSOPHICAL MOVEMENT,
Far from being the "New World"
as commonly believed, America is older than Europe
(The Secret Doctrine, II, 407 fn.). It
was peopled during the palmy days of Atlantis,
the traditions of whose high civilization the
American settlers would most naturally have brought
with them. It is not surprising, therefore, that
the surviving antiquities of the American continents
far surpass in grandeur and in extent the early
European records that have come down to us.
The new Sanctuary Asia is an updated and
attractive natural history and wildlife magazine
committed to promoting environment awareness and
education in a world increasingly becoming conscious
and ashamed of the deteriorating environment of
Mother Earth. In the June issue, Bittu Sahgal writes
editorially on "The Nature of the Beast":
There is something quite remarkable about the
manner in which the most powerful humans view
nature. Perhaps threatened by its supposed immutability,
they seem driven with the idea of altering,
rearranging, and boxing it to fit their own
vision of life and development. In the end,
nature does what nature does best...it subdues
the disobedient. But not, lamentably, before
it takes a very vicious toll of millions who
played no hand at all in transgressing its limits.
True, we have the power to block the flow of
the mighty Narmada. We also have the means to
turn millions of years of evolution into plywood
tea boxes. And we can indeed invoke the miracles
of science to purify infinitesimal quantities
of Tungabhadra river water after poisoning it
with organochlorines. What is more, we can now
stock "frozen zoos" full of the genetic
raw materials from which tigers, elephants,
monkeys, rhinos and even human beings could
materialize on some distant day.
It is in the nature of the beast to dream. But,
with every passing day, the signals being sent
to us by nature are getting less and less tolerant.
Ironically, that we persistently choose to ignore
such signals is as good a sign of our trust
in nature as it is of our disrespect for it....
A minority that demonstrates a somewhat more
healthy respect for nature has been trying,
often with surprising success, to cajole, oppose
and coerce the system to protect the ecological
foundation of millions....But this, in the ultimate
analysis, is a social problem. Time will prove
that our ecological crisis requires social solutions
born of a multitude of voices communicating
power, will and wisdom.
For now, however, as a chronicler of our times,
I must reluctantly report that our environmental
voices are too few, and even among these...most
are trapped in the silken web of unsustainable
lifestyles...which themselves are the root of
most environmental destruction. We are, in other
words, the problem we wish to solve.
A study presented at the conference of the British
Psychological Society reveals that chimpanzees share
key psychological traits with humans. This will
give added weight to the growing international movement
demanding "human rights" for the great
The Sunday Times (London)
reports on recent findings. Dr. Lindsay Murray of
University College, Chester, spent 1,000 hours studying
59 chimpanzees at several zoos. Using interviews
with keepers and drawing on her own observations,
she found that the chimps could be graded on personality
factors, including their openness to experience,
conscientiousness, degree of extroversion, agreeableness
and neuroticism-the same categories used by psychologists
to define human personality. Analysis of the results
provided quantifiable proof that each chimp has
its own personality and a unique combination of
defining traits. "This is another weapon in
the battle to give them better conditions and rights,"
Niall Ormerod who has been in charge of the chimps
at Chester zoo for 25 years says: "Other animals
may have a certain temperament but chimps definitely
have personalities and moods like children."
A two-year-old chimp, it has been observed, is much
more intelligent than a child at the same age.
Dr. Jim Anderson, senior lecturer in psychology
at Stirling University and a leading expert
on primate behaviour, has carried out extensive
research on chimpanzees' powers of self-recognition.
Unlike almost all other animals, if presented
with a mirror, a chimp will use it to examine
itself, looking at its teeth, for example. This
has been taken as important evidence of the
kind of self-awareness previously thought unique
"It has been shown that chimpanzees have
complicated emotional lives and can suffer extreme
depression if they are bereaved," Anderson
said. "There seems to be a great deal of
similarity between humans and chimps. The closer
to us they are seen to be genetically, biologically
and psychologically, must help the case that
they need better rights."
New Zealand's parliament is debating a bill
that would give chimps the equivalent of basic
human rights. If passed, the bill would give
the great apes, which includes chimpanzees,
gorillas and orangutans, the fundamental right
to life and the right not to suffer cruel or
degrading treatment. The law would allow individuals
to use the courts to protect apes they believe
are being mistreated. Campaigners for the Great
Ape Project, a pressure group behind rights
for the apes, hope the New Zealand bill will
set a precedent which other countries will follow.
The voices raised against experiments on animals
in research laboratories are bearing fruit and alternatives
are being sought. Ivar Giaever, a Nobel-Prize-winning
biophysicist, and Charlie Kees at Rensselaer Polytechnic
Institute, have developed the Electric Cell-Substrate
Impedance Sensing (ECIS) machine, which uses electricity
to study complex cell behaviour. The new electric
biosensor yields detailed results and an unprecedented
level of sensitivity. Data readings can be taken
as often as every quarter second to follow a cell's
behaviour movements. The implication of this discovery
is that it offers a noninvasive technique for testing
animal cells, allowing researchers to examine and
measure the activity of live cells over time, while
eliminating the need to carry out tests on live
animals. (Sanctuary Asia, June 1999)