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From The Theosophical Movement
Vol. 69 No. 10 - August, 1999

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' methylation....

"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 and limitations....

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, "can-do" scenes.

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, August 1943)

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 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 apes.

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," says Murray.

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 to man.

"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)

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