Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Why JREF forums rules are still living in the dark ages

It is becoming ever clearer with time that my supposed suspension from the JREF community is not in fact a suspension at all but a permanent ban. I'd still love my account back. I'll still continue to post bad press on this blog about what happened and some cultural biases I've remembered off the forum now I can not discuss it more productively on forum. Which is unfortunate for a community I used to respect and enjoy so much.

It seems in retrospect I was treading a very fine line between posting respectable scientific literature on psychedelics in the science section weighed against the political anti-science rules implicit in the rules of the forum. Being informed of this would have been much appreciated, but it simply never happened.

I summarized the point why the banning was a mistake in my previous blog here. I can only presume that there are certain unwritten rules about drugs I was not aware of.

I did however find this one "
if the post contained instructions ... or information about ways to get high with (usually, illegal uses of) legal substances, or information about little-known drugs or how to obtain them -- then the posts breach rule 1. More importantly, the posts threaten the continued existence of these forums."

I will address why my post that resulting in the banning did not violate any of these rules, and why such posts do not in fact "threaten the continued existence of these forums".

To re-iterate why it was unfair as it relates to the rules of the forum here's a concise list:

a) I have never received a suspension for my posting of such material, so was completely unaware that I had a history of violations of rule one. Checking my history of infractions may reveal something I have missed, but since I can no longer access the forum I am unable to do this.

b) The way in which the ban was conducted too non reciprocal, my account simply stopped working one day. I got no email from the admins explaining why the ban happened, and no opportunity to reply, which makes the fact that a mistake was clearly made even the more aggravating for me, as I have no means to contact anyone on the forum to explain why this was the case other than this blog.

c) "
if the post contained instructions ... or information about ways to get high with (usually, illegal uses of) legal substances" As I explained in my previous post, the statement I 'was asking where I can get psychedelic drugs in my area' is false. I asked for the location of a local UDV center. I found one. I broke no laws in asking, I broke now laws in participating. Such UDV clinics are legal in the USA and due to this precedent pretty much worldwide (apart from France and a few others, but there will always be local cultural exceptions as a side effect of an anti-science based application of drug laws). This is not "(usually, illegal uses of) legal substances", even the use of this is allowed in this context. The purpose of them is primarily social and, if you choose to, medicinal as well. I found one, it took me two days, and surprisingly was only 50 km from home. It was a humbling experience.

d) "More importantly, the posts threaten the continued existence of these forums." I feel a change in the rules here is warranted. This a change to the rules that I'm sure would not even raise an eyebrow online as it's already largely in place, ( a purely medicine/drug forum that had always erred on the side of caution with site rules being in accordance with '
international law' ) is now adopting a change to the site rules that allows admitting use of and planned use of drugs, much to the amusement of the spectrum of drugs forums that have been using first person prose since the beginning. It turns out that after speaking to people running drug related forums for nearly a decade not one of them has any evidence that posts made on a forum even attract the attention of drug law enforcement agencies, let alone compromise the security of them (the days of operation web tryp and the hive are long gone). The main forum rule to enforce seems to be not letting users reveal any more precise geographical information than city level in drug related posts and banning discussion of the price of drugs (it can can look like advertising); however since JREF is not a forum that is predicated on drug use I do not even feel this rule would be a necessary addition. This is a recommendation for the rules, not a complaint against them out of bitterness. I am trying to help. The very existence of these drug predisposed forums shows that the authorities do not care about forum posts, these entire drug communities with even more members than JREF have never once received any hassle from authorities, and they exist purely to talk about illicit drugs use, to reduce harm to people unfortunate enough to have to use them. There is not even evidence that forum posts about drugs have ever been used in court, due to identity theft and it being nearly impossible to prove someone actually posted what can be seen online in a court of law.

e) There is also an element of cultural responsibility here to honest education, it's now proven beyond doubt that drug laws do not correlate to the harm of the substance and that many many illegal drugs in fact have legitimate scientific application and medicinal use (recent studies into MDMA and PTSD, psilocybin and wellbeing, etc) so an educational forum that prides itself on evidence should not act as sycophants to a purely political ideology lacking any scientific evidence in its favor. The natural ahahuasca brew that I inquired about in the thread that resulted in the banning is also a drug with no deaths worldwide, proven clinical benefits (I posted these in the science section in reply to roborama) and clinically significant effects on habits and addictions. It would immediately put a poster who had a degree in psycho-pharmacology in an extremely surreal situation: either help educate people about his chosen discipline by sharing his knowledge (which no doubt sometimes is going to look like advocating certain well studied non addictive and efficacious psychedelics) or get banned. The fact that I wrote in the thread I got banned for in large capital letters 'I AM NOT ADVOCATING ITS USE' seems to have been missed.

f) Again on the point an admin stated for the reason of my ban “
He was asking where he could get psychoactive drugs in his area” is spurious at best, as most people a) are already breaking the law due to it's natural presence in the mammalian bloodstream b) can get this particular one instantly from their natural environment (17+ dominant strains of canary reed grass) I would never be asking to source a chemical fully available to me for free from my garden or local field within a few hours of cursory chemical competence on an online forum, the post was literally about the UDV context of the trip to get the set and setting correct. I have spoken about this relentlessly in the science section (without ever informing people how to do it, of course). Similarly if I was asking on JREF for the location of a rave the chance of substances will be consumed is very high, I will likely either drink ethanol or use MDMA (the legality does not even effect the choice for most people, the science and cultural reference points about the dangers of the substance speak for itself), however asking for where the rave is located, or stating that you enjoyed yourself last time you went, as far as I can tell, is not against the rules. Thus asking for the location of a UDV centre in the UK and stating that I enjoyed the last one I went to is in exactly the same territory, the ayahuasca or ethanol use is a secondary or tertiary event to locating the group organizing the event.

g) Our bodies containing this endogenous psychoactive, is highly illegal according to the state definition. Lock yourself up, you would almost certainly fail a blood test for DMT. Every JREF moderator should hand themselves in to the authorities, at night time when they are dreaming the base levels of DMT are raised to far above threshold dosages. Anyone with phalaris in their garden is technically producing this scheduled drug. Science on the other hand, the foundation I thought JREF was based on, is a lot more accommodating, and it's been deemed a fruitful area of scientific inquiry, even though work has only begun properly a year or so ago into it’s possible role and effects. Cultures like the UDV that have used it for centuries know exactly what it’s about, thus its legality in the USA. I merely queried if anyone knew of UDV groups in the UK that use the brew that elevate the levels of this natural neurochemical. So there, right there, you see schizophrenia involved in thinking about drugs and implicit in the forum rules. Apparently there are ‘
good’ drugs sanctioned by science and medicine (ostensibly allowed on JREF for open discussion) and ‘bad’ drugs used by brown people in strange rites for thousands of year and growing in unusual plants in distant parts of the world (politically banned on JREF for open discourse to ensue). This kind of thinking – because it’s naïve – leads of course to social problems and bad politics and bad social and forum policy, in spite of the science.

Since this blog is proving rather popular (20,000+ views), I really hope that the mods or users can post this on forum, either in the moderator discussion or in some other forum to discuss this issue in an open and skeptical way. I will delete this blog if that happens, and post the material on forum for a productive discussion. I do not intend to post psychedelic material on JREF in the future, it is not the right forum for it, but I feel that I was harshly mis-treated by a total misrepresentation of my post. A suspension, to me, would have been a far more reasonable action to take, as is the normal for most members who have never been suspended before. But this is just my subjective opinion, and I have no means to have a dialogue with the moderators to discuss this. Weird situation.

PS: And to the poster in the thread about my banning who said they were concerned I would now turn into some 'kind of guru', I've more twitter followers the JREF twitter account, I've a 350k strong facebook page(s) and 4.5 million combined views on youtube. JREF massively shot itself in the foot by banning me, in terms of it's quest of spreading logic and reason, as without having the constructive feedback from the knowledgeable members there about various things my primary woo filter (as a young person still learning) was disrupted. So hey ho, I expect at least 100 annoying threads on JREF have been spawned due to my online content. Since I can't discuss it on forum productively anymore, I have to just 'put it out there' and get feedback from the general internet. 

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Clockwork or psychedelic universe?

If meditation is the best known and respected path for introspection, then the psychedelics cheat by putting you on the motorway, where you are more likely to crash.

I don't think you could discover consciousness if you didn't perturb it, because as Marshall McClune said, "whoever discovered water, it certainly wasn't a fish". Well, we are fish swimming in consciousness; and yet we know it's there. Well, the reason we know it's there is because if you perturb it, then you see it; and you perturb it by perturbing the engine which generates it, which is the mind/brain system resting behind your eyebrows. If you swap out the ordinary chemicals that are running that system in an invisible fashion, then you see: it's like dropping ink into a bowl of clear water -- suddenly the convection currents operating in the clear water become visible, because you see the particles of ink tracing out the previously invisible dynamics of the standing water. The mind is precisely like that, and the psychedelic is like a dye-marker being dropped into this aqueous system.

When I personally say psychedelic I have something very specific in mind that a substance or a plant should do. It should not inhibit clarity, in other words not episodes of forgetfulness, lack of memory, passing out or confusion. It shouldn’t interfere with that at all, and it should transform thought and be accompanied by visual hallucinations with eyes closed. The CEVs (closed eye visuals) are what it's all about. They can be evoked simply by shutting your eyes and staring at the inside of your eyelids with the expectation of seeing something. The closest thing I can think of to explain the visuals you see is it can be like a lucid dream caught just on the concrescence between hypnagogia and deep sleep.The biggest danger with psychedelics is not reading about them online on a forum, it's that while you are in that open state having used it some moron will mess with you.

At bedrock, the universe is more like a DMT flash than it is like an 18th century garden party, as we were previously assured by the clockwork mechanist practitioners of science. An incredible ability to not register radical change seems to be a precondition of existing in the presence of radical change.

The psychedelic community is cleverly invisible. Because our choices in gender expression, fashion, and so on have, by crypto-osmosis, come to dominate the values of the culture, we can no longer tell ourselves from straight people.

Basically, when you smoke DMT what happens is pure confoundment. DMT does not provide ‘an’ experience which you analyze. Nothing so tidy goes on. The syntactical machinery of description undergoes some kind of hyper-dimensional inflation, instantly. And then you cannot tell yourself what it is that you understand. In other words, what DMT does can’t be downloaded into as low dimensional a language as English.

One toke of DMT away is this absolutely reality-dissolving, category-reconstructing, mind-boggling possibility. And I feel like this is a truth that has to be told.

Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behavior and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.

When you see these people, like Daniel Dennet or any of these talk show materialists so many look up to, it's a shame. As these people haven't gotten the news that's coming out of quantum physics, or they have, but they don't understand it's implications.

Let me describe the state of play here. The way science works is that science respects fidelity of theory to experimental results. What really thrills a scientist is when a theory makes predictions down to 4 or 5 decimal points and then you perform and experiment and it's spot on, so now everyone involved is fairly confident they are on the right track. But only one science is ever that good to that many sig fig; physics (macrophysics). Shortly following is chemistry, it's good, but its not that good. Then we have biology, ecology, demography, etc, these are pretty loose. Sociology is even looser. And this is how science has been structured for several thousand years starting with Gallileo and physics, it's been a pyramid of envy directed towards the paradigmatic science of physics that can produce this unrivaled congruence between theory and experimental data.

So physics continues to charge forward into matter, asking deeper questions. But when you pass the atomic level, where leptons like electrons, baryons and mesons, etc, are the fundamental forms of matter, things change. It's like smoking DMT. Utter madness breaks out in the properties of matter. Whereas before you had these wonderfully exact models you now have backwards flowing time, quantum entanglement, bell non locality, superposition, quantum teleportation, wave particle duality
arising in different situations depending on the observer, singularities. The best definition for a singularity is a point where all the rules cancel because you don't know what the hell else to do, same applies for the singularities evoked in the center of black holes. Nature does not make zero dimensional points we can study, or singularities in black holes with 'infinite mass/dimensions/etc'. These are placeholders revealing shortcomings with theories rather than actual real things, any attempt to give a dimensionless point properties is nothing more than hypostatization, and is evidence of the lack of understanding by many between a metaphysical maths like a point and the magnitude of physically experimentally testable things.

It used to be in physics there was only one singularity; The Big Bang. And so one singularity is OK, essentially science said, give us one free miricale, and we can run it from there onwards. Then relativity came along and introduced the concept of black holes based on the extraneous extrapolation of peturbation theory derived masses of bodies in our solar system to the cosmos at large. And what do black holes have in the center of them? A singularity. And how many black holes are there in the universe? Something like 10^14, at a guess. That's a lot of singularities for a theory that at first only wanted one to use as a springboard to overcome the cause and effect problem and for a theory that should be trying to avoid producing singularities. In effect 10^14 singularities is an admission of total intellectual defeat. If there are 10^14 singularities your not even doing science, you might as well be channeling atlantis or something.

So it troubles me because I think this quantum mechanics is rich, physics is feeding back, and a model of consciousness will eventually come out of studying the properties of the deeper levels of matter. But the conclusions are all going to support the non scientific non rational fasions; in other words bell nonlocality is real, all matter in the universe is in contact with all other matter through some sort of entanglement of higher space based on their original connectivity, quantum teleportation is a possibility, these violations of backwards flowing time and rational casuistry are all real, superposition and the same particle being in multiple locations at the same time is real.

In other words science/physics prosecuted its agenda of deconstructing nature to the point where it let loose the elves of madness, paradox, peculiarity and contradiction. And in terms of something relating to consciousness that can relate to these confounding properties, it would have to be DMT and psychedelics. There appears to be sketchy blueprint of a bridge between quantum physics and a more realistic model of consciousness being constructed based on the similarities between the peculiarity, paradox and contradictions of a DMT experience and the madness, paradox, peculiarity and contradiction and quantum theory. Pensrose has made a noble start already.

Matter is not lacking in magic, when you get down to quantum levels; matter is magic. When you get to the bedrock of it all, reality seems far more congruent with a DMT flash than a mechanical clockwork machine.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

On the matter of drugs, abuse of the word 'drugs' is worse than drug abuse itself

Drugs. The word alone has all manner of negative connotations. In our culture it often produces an instant aversion reaction. Yet drugs are what we are; its the symphony of complex organic chemistry that gives rise to our very identity.  Its a beautifully elegant complex system of hierarchical emergent systems in which we all inhabit, at one level we are all organic chemistry, and at some level all life as we know it is, yet life is far more than just complex chemistry. Molecular biology emerges from the complex chemistry, and anatomy arises from the molecular biology to give rise to biological systems, with many steps in between. And the final pinnacle of all these levels of emergent phenomenon is human consciousness; the seemingly most unique emergent phenomenon we have evolved. As an emergent phenomenon we are still collectively figuring out how it works. Dissolving mental boundaries our fear based ancestors hardwired into our brains seems to be the main method to expand your consciousness at this point.

Dissolving arbitrary mental boundaries is what psychedelics are uniquely good at doing. They dissolve boundaries between the conscious and subconscious mind, they dissolve the boundaries that separate people, they dissolve boundaries of identity and culture, they dissolve boundaries of time and space. Most people profit from the grand project of boundary dissolution, it introduces them to the wider horizon of reality. But there are those among us who for which the maintenance of boundaries is a daily struggle. They are trying to create an ego, trying to create a complete ultimate view of the world, these are not candidates for the psychedelic experience. My concern is that the fearful among us have set the social agenda for all of us, so we are all told psychedelics are somehow corrosive of social values, compromising of sanity. The psychedelic experience is the most important experience a human being can have this side of the yawning grave, the boundary dissolving capacity of these psychedelic substances act as if they are a reset button, we are not ultimately the creatures of our culture. Ultimately we are biologically defined, and biologically connected. Yet our culture and fearful mindset we inherited makes us only notice differences when we see our fellow species, never the similarities. And what the psychedelics do is inject an enormous amount of distance between us and our learned cultural values. 

Drugs’ is a word which has polluted the well of language. Part of the reason we have a drug problem is because we don’t have an intelligent language to talk about substances, plants, psychedelic states of mind, sedative states of mind, states of amphetamine excitation. We can’t make sense of the problem and the opportunities offered by substances unless we clean up our language. ‘Drugs’ is a word that’s been used by governments to make it impossible to think creatively about the problem of substances and abuse and availability and so forth and soon.

In our society Drugs mean that which cures us and the greatest social problem of the generation. So there, right there, you see schizophrenia involved in thinking about drugs. Apparently there are ‘good’ drugs sanctioned by science and medicine and ‘bad’ drugs used by brown people in strange rites and growing in unusual plants in distant parts of the world. This kind of thinking – because it’s naïve – leads of course to social problems and bad politics and bad social policy.

From the time I was very young I was fascinated with the idea of extremely dramatic changes in consciousness from which one recovers after a few hours induced by plants. And I discovered through the writing of Aldous Huxley and other people that this was a world-wide religious and cultural phenomenon that my own western cultural upbringing had completely over looked or even denied. 

These substances have had a far greater influence on culture than previously realized. To my mind human history is the story of one substance after another distorting or transforming human values and society. A perfect example would be sugar. Most people don’t even think of sugar as a drug, and yet we may think that cocaine distorted moral and political values in Latin America. But sugar brought back slavery. Slavery actually died with the Roman Empire. Nobody worked agricultural products with slaves in the middle ages. It wasn’t until the early 1400s that the Portuguese began producing sugar and they used up jews and prisoners and so then they started buying human beings from Arab traders. And the pope was in on the deal and everybody was in on the deal. I mean this is drug corruption of the central institutions of society on a massive scale.

Nowadays we have alcohol, we have tobacco, some of the worst drugs health wise. Historically it seems that every society chooses a small number of substances – no matter how toxic – and enshrines them in it’s cultural values then demonizes all other substances and then persecutes and launches witch hunts against those users whenever some political pretext requires witch hunts and persecutions. So, it’s an old game and it’s been played in many places. Hope-fully part of the advancement of society toward ideas of universal human rights and that sort of thing certainly must include the idea of the universal human right to take responsibility for and to alter your own state of consciousness as you see fit. I don’t think we can even pretend that we are on the edge of a civilized dialogue until we grant that people’s minds – like their bodies – must be a domain free from government control. In American law we have the notion of  ‘life,liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ If the pursuit of happiness means anything it must mean the right to use and experiment with substances and plants.

Now we need to catch up; we need endless amounts of research. The fact that these things have been illegal in most countries for fifty years means there is a huge lag in understanding the impact of these things on human beings. How many people have taken MDMA, and yet MDMA has not been thoroughly studied by science. How many people have smoked DMT? Same thing. In a way, by making these things illegal we’re setting ourselves up for a potential catastrophe, someday, when some side-effect is overlooked because the drugs were not rationally re-viewed with an eye not toward keeping them out of the hands of the public but with an eye toward public safety and educating the public in safe use of these things. The state should not in the matter of drugs, anymore than in the matter of sex, act as the secret agent for the agenda of the church. And that’s what’s happening. People want to stimulate themselves. They want to explore their consciousness. They want to sedate themselves. Who are we to stand in their way with a moral ideology and the long heavy arm of the law to interfere with that? It distorts civilized values. That’s the bottom line: drug repression distorts civilized values  and  political  discourse.

Anyone who has actually been around people using psychedelics knows they have tremendous therapeutic potential, tremendous potential to launch people into confrontations with aspects of their personality or their history that they are in denial of. The people who hold that these psychedelic substances have no application have very little actual personal experience with them. It’s the old story of: ‘My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with facts.’

I think it’s a great tragedy of twentieth century science that the original excitement about exploring consciousness and mental illness generated by the discovery of LSD gave way to establishment paranoia and repression of drug using populations. The excitement in psychology when LSD was first introduced was like the excitement in the physics community when the atom was smashed and everybody thought, well, now we’ll understand mental illness, schizophrenia, the traumatic memory so forth and so on. And instead the government lost its nerve because it saw that these substances have a potential for deprogramming people to institutional values. And that was so terrifying that all the promise for mental illness and creativity studies and so forth and so on was sacrificed to institutional paranoia about the fact that drugs might actually cause people to wake up to some of the abuses and scams that were being run by late modernism and capitalism.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The impact of Godels theories on modern science and maths

The greatest most intelligent minds that walked this earth in terms of understanding the machinery of the universe were likely Albert Einstein and Godel, I still think to this day. We would be wise to take a historical note of what Einsteins later years were spent doing and what conclusions he came to, as the scientific community ran off and made mainstream with a set of his theories he himself was deeply uneasy with. Einstein and Godel seemed to reach similar conclusions, but seemingly one of them coped better with the implications of this than the other in the end.

The solid mathematical foundations that a lot of these modern day Nobels are awarded for in linearized maths, have a slightly darker and mirkier past in a historical context. And in fact, the whole materialist myopic view of linear maths as revealing deeper and deeper truths to us about the universe is fatally flawed from the get go.

This is the true story of how some of our most intellectually stimulated minds untied the previously cosy relationship the universe seemed to have with the certainties of mathematics, and how these facts have been acknowledged but largely ignored. It's a story of how such deep questions being asked back then of such high importance resulted in the fact that when some of the greatest minds of the time engaged their mind with such questions their brain dare not look away from the evidence that perplexed them so much, and how pursuit of meaningful answers to these issues pushed them first to the brink of insanity, then over to madness and suicide.

But for all the human tragedy of great minds lost due to seeking meaning from life from maths and logic, what they saw is still true - the intellectuals at the time that took over the consensus opinion, assigning Einsteins work greater credibility than the original creator himself did, whilst in the case of Godels work largely ignoring it; so to this date we have yet to inherit at large the conclusions they themselves made.

- - - - - -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- - - - - -

George Cantor (1845-1918) was a religious professor of maths who started a paradigm shift in the world of established maths and science, that maybe he did not appreciate at the time. The profundity of a brand new question, not based on previous knowledge or even a similar school of thought in maths at the time; he asked himself "how big is infinity"?

It’s just an incredible feat of imagination. It’s, to me, the equivalent of taking mind enhancing drugs for that era (1800-1900) Others before him, going back to the ancient Greeks at least, had asked the question but it was Cantor who made the journey no one else ever had, and found the answer. But he paid a price for his discovery. He died utterly alone in an insane asylum.

The question is what could the greatest mathematician of his century have seen that could drive him insane?

Cantor had auditary hallucinations from a little boy that he attributed to god as calling him to maths. So for Cantor, his mathematics of the nature of infinity had to be true, because God had revealed it to him.

Cantor soon discovered he could add and subtract infinities conceptually, and in fact discovered there was a vast new mathematics opening up infront of him - maths of the infinite. This out of the boxing thinking had revealed something special, and he could feel it as a sort of profound insight into the nature of maths he was previously blind to.

By 1884 Cantor has been working solidly on the Continuum Hypothesis for over 2 years. At the same time the personal and professional attacks on him for his heretical "maths of the infinites" had become more and more extreme. Due to this, the following may of that year he had a mental breakdown. His daughter describes how his whole personality is transformed. He would rant and rave and then fall completely and uncommunicatively silent. Eventually he is brought here to the NervenKlinik in Halle, which is an asylum.

Even after concerted further effort he could still not solve the Continuum Hypothesis, he came to describe the infinite as an abyss. A chasm perhaps between what he had seen and what he knew must be there but could never reach. He realized that there’s a way in which in order to understand something you have to look very hard at it but you also have to be able to sort of move away from it and kind of see it in a kind of holistic context, and the person who stares too hard can often can lose that sense of context.

After the death of a close relative, Cantor went on to say that he "could no longer" even remember why he himself had left music in order to go into maths. That secret 'voice' which had once called him on to mathematics and given meaning to his life and work. The voice he identified with God. That voice too had left him.

Here I divert from Cantor, because if we treat Cantor’s story in isolation it does little to bridge the gap in the idea that Cantor had dislodged something was part of a much broader feeling of that time. That things once felt to be solid were slipping. A feeling seen more clearly in the story of his great contemporary- a man called Ludwig Boltzmann.

The physics of Boltzmann’s time was still the physics of certainty, of an ordered universe, determined from above by predictable and timeless God-given laws. Boltzmann suggested that the order of the world was not imposed from above by God, but emerged from below, from the random bumping of atoms. A radical idea, at odds with its times, but the foundation of ours. Ernest Marc one of the most influential er philosopher of science at that time stated: 'I cannot see, I don’t need it, they do not exist so why we should bring them in the game.'

Worse than insisting on the reality of something people could not see, to base physics on atoms meant to base it on things whose behavior was too complex to predict. Which meant an entirely new kind of physics – one based on probabilities not certainties. Boltzman worked tirelessly at his idea irrespective, and as Boltzmann got older and more exhausted from the struggle, he'd get mood swings, mood swings that became more and more severe. More and more of Boltzmann’s energy was absorbed in trying to convince his opponents that his theory was correct. He wrote, “No sacrifice is too high for this goal, which represents the whole meaning of my life.”

The last year of Boltzmann he didn’t do any research at all, I’m talking about the last 10 years. He was fully immersed in a dispute, philosophical dispute, tried to make his point – writing books which were most of the time the same repeating the same concept and so on. So you can see he was in a loop that didn’t go ahead. By the beginning of the 1900’s the struggle was getting too hard him.

Boltzmann had discovered one of the fundamental equations, which makes the universe work and he had dedicated his life to it. The philosopher Bertrand Russell said that for any great thinker, “This discovery that everything flows from these fundamental laws… comes”, as he described it, “with the overwhelming force of a revelation: like a palace emerging from the autumn mist, as the traveler ascends an Italian hillside,”

And so it was for Boltzmann. But for him, that palace was at Duino in Italy, where he hung himself.

A new generation of mathematicians and philosophers, were convinced if only they could solve the problem of the nature of infinity Maths could be made perfect again. Kurt Godel was born the year Boltzmann died 1906. He was an insatiably questioning boy, growing up in unstable times. His family called him Mr Why.

What Godel later showed in his Incompleteness Theorem is that no matter how large you make your basis of reasoning, your set of axioms in arithmetic there would always be statements that are true but cannot be proved. No matter how much data you have to build on, you will never prove all true statements.  

Godel's incompleteness proof involves constructing statements that are well-formed within the system in question, and cannot be proven true within the system, but can be proven true via analysis outside the system.

Mere undecidable statements (that cannot be proven true or false at all) are far easier to construct and do not render a formal system incomplete.

There are no holes in Godels argument. It is, in a way, a perfect argument. Thus the present tense of this paragraph, it stands unimpeachably strong to this day. The argument is so crystal clear, and obvious.

Yet still to this day, very few want to face the consequences of Godel. People want to go ahead with formal systems, and Godel explodes that formalist view of mathematics that you can just mechanically grind away on a fixed set of concepts. There’s a very ambivalent attitude to Godel even now a century after his birth. On the one hand he’s the greatest logician of all time so logicians will claim him but on the other hand they don’t want people who are not logicians to talk about the consequences of Godel’s work because the obvious conclusion from Godel’s work is that logic is a failure - let’s move onto something else, as this will destroy the field.

Godel too felt the effects of his conclusion. As he worked out the true extent of what he had done, Incompleteness began to eat away at his own beliefs about the nature of Mathematics. His health began to deteriorate and he began to worry about the state of his mind. In 1934 he had his first breakdown. But it was after he recovered however, that his real troubles began, when he made a fateful decision.

Almost as soon as Godel has finished the Incompleteness Theorem, he decides to work on the great unsolved problem of modern mathematics, Cantor’s Continuum Hypothesis. Godel, like Cantor before him, could neither solve the problem nor put it down - even as it made him unwell. Again, the mind so engaged the brain dare not look away from the evidence that perplexed the mind so much. He calls this the worst year of his life. He has a massive nervous breakdown and ends up in a sanatoria, just like Cantor himself.

Alan Turing is the next person to enter this brief history. Turing was most well known for breaking the Enigma code; but he is also the man who made Gödel’s already devastating Incompleteness Theorem even more devastating.

Computers being logic machines was Turings predominant world view, and he showed that since they are logic machines incompleteness meant there would always be some problems they would never solve. A machine fed one of those problems, would never stop. And worse, Turing proved there was no way of telling beforehand which these problems were.

With Gödels work there was the hope that you could distinguish between the provable and the unprovable and simply leave the unprovable to one side. What Turing does, is prove that, in fact, there is no way of telling which will be the unprovable problems. So how do you know when to stop? You will never know whether the problem you’re working on is simply fundamentally unprovable or extraordinarily difficult. And that is Turing’s Halting Problem.

Startling as the Halting problem was, the really profound part of Incompleteness, for Turing, was not what it said about logic or computers, but what it said about us and our minds. Were we or weren’t we computers? It was the question that went to the heart of who Turing was.

This tension between the human and the computational was central to Turing’s life – and he lived with it until, the events which led to his death. After the war Turing increasingly found himself drawing the attention of the security services. In the cold war, homosexuality was seen as not only illegal and immoral, but also a security risk. So when in March 1952 he was arrested, charged and found guilty of engaging in a homosexual act, the authorities decided he was a problem that needed to be fixed.

They would chemically castrate him by injecting him with the female hormone, Oestrogen. Turing was being treated as no more than a machine (which in a sadly ironic way is what he was trying to prove himself). Chemically re-programmed to eliminate the uncertainty of his sexuality and the risk they felt it posed to security and order. To his horror he found the treatment affected his mind and his body .He grew breasts, his moods altered and he worried about his mind. For a man who had always been authentic and at one with himself, it was as if he had been injected with hypocrisy.

On the 7th June 1954, Turing was found dead. At his bedside an apple from which he had taken several bites. Turing had poisoned the apple with cyanide. Turing had passed, but his question remained. Whether the mind was a computer and so limited by logic, or somehow able to transcend logic, was now the question that came to trouble the mind of Kurt Godel.

Having recovered from his time in the mentally unstable sanctum, by the time he got here to the Insititute for Advanced Study in America he was a very peculiar man. One of the stories they tell about him is if he was caught in the commons with a crowd of other people he so hated physical contact, that he would stand very still, so as to plot the perfect course out so as not to have to actually touch anyone. He also felt he was being poisoned by what he called bad air, from heating systems and air conditioners. And most of all he thought his food was being poisoned.

Peculiar as Gödel was his genius was undimmed. Unlike Turing, Godel could not believe we were like computers. He wanted to show how the mind had a way of reaching truth outside logic. And what it would mean if it couldn’t.

So, why so convinced was Godel that humans had
this spark of creativity? The key to his belief
comes from a deep conviction he shared with one of the few close friends he ever had, that other Austrian genius who had settled at the Institute, Albert Einstein.

Einstein used to say that he came here to the Institute for Advanced Studies simply for the privilege of walking home with Kurt Godel. And what was it that held this most unlikely of couples together. On the one hand you’ve got the warm and avuncular Einstein and on the other the rather cold, wizened and withdrawn Kurt Godel. The answer for this strange companionship comes I think from something else that Einstein said.. He said that "God may be subtle but he’s not malicious." And what does that mean? Well, it means for Einstein is that however complicated the universe might be there will always be beautiful rules by which it works. Godel believed the same idea from his point of view to mean, that God would never have put us into a creation that we could not then understand.

The question is, how is it that Kurt Gödel can believe that God is not malicious? That it’s all understandable? Because Gödel is the man who has proved that some things cannot be proven logically and rationally. So surely God must be malicious? The way he gets out of it is that Gödel, like Einstein, believes deeply in Intuition - That we can know things outside of logic, maths and computation; because we just intuit them. And they both believed this, because they both felt it. They have both had their moments of intuition, moments of sudden conceptual realisation that were by far more than just chance.

Einstein talked about new principles that the mathematician should adopt closing their eyes, tuning out the real world you can try to perceive directly by your mathematical intuition, the platonic world of ideas and come up with new principles which you can then use to extend the current set of principles in mathematics. And he viewed this as a way of getting around the limitations of his own theorem. He no longer thought that there was a limit to the mathematics that human beings were capable of. But how could he prove such subjectives?

The interpretation that Gödel himself drew was that computers are limited. He certainly tried again and again to work out that the human mind transcends the computer. In the sense that he can’t understand things to be true that cannot be proved by a computer programme. Gödel also was wrestling with some finding means of knowledge which are not based on experience and on mathematical reasoning but on some sort of intuition. The frustration for Gödel was getting anyone to understand him.

Gödel was trying to show what one might call mathematical intuition of the kind we see in the brains of Synesthesia Savants such as Daniel Tammet in current times, and he was demonstrating that this is outside just following formal rules. What he had shown was that for any system that you adopt, which in a sense the mind has been removed from it because it's you that's used to lay down the system, but from there on mind takes over and you ask what’s it’s scope? And what Gödel showed is that it’s scope is always limited and that the mind can always go beyond it.

Here’s the man who has said, certain things cannot be proved within any rational and logical system. But he says that doesn’t matter, because the human mind isn’t limited that way. We have Intuition. But then of course, the one thing he really must prove to other people, is the existence of intuition. The one thing you'll never be able to prove. It would be synonymous in many regards to trying to prove the strong version of the gaia hypothesis.

Because he couldn’t prove a theorem about creativity or intuition it was just a gut feeling that he had and he wasn’t satisfied with that. And so Gödel had finally found a problem he desperately wanted to solve but could not. He was now caught in a loop, a logical paradox from which his mind could not escape. And at the same time he slowly starved himself to death.

Using mathematics to show the limits of mathematics is…is….is psychologically very contradictory. It’s clear in Gödel’s case that he appreciated this - his own life has this. What Gödel is, is the mind thinking about itself and what it can achieve at the deepest level.

It's a paradox of self-reflection. The kind of madness that you find associated with modernism is a kind of madness that’s’ bound up with not only rationality but with all the paradoxes that arise from self-consciousness from the consciousness contemplating it’s own being as consciousness or from logic contemplating it’s own being as logic.

Even though he’d shown that logic has certain limitations he was still so drawn to the significance of the rational and the logical. That he desperately wants to prove whatever is most important logically even if it’s an alternative to logic. How strange and what a testimony to his inability to separate himself - to detach himself from the need for logical proof; Gödel all of all people.

Cantor originally had hoped that at its deepest level mathematics would rest on certainties, which, for him, were the mind of God. But instead, he had uncovered uncertainties. Which Turing and Godel then proved would never go away; they were an inescapable part of the very foundations of maths and logic. The almost religious belief that there was a perfect logic, which governed a world of certainties had unsurprisingly unravelled itself.

Logic had revealed the limitations of logic. The search for certainty had revealed uncertainty.

The notion of absolute certainty, is, there is no absolute certainty, in human life, in maths, in logic neither in science. The only certainty that has withstood the test of time to date is; that what we think is certain and true has a limited axiomatic scope, and the conscious mind is the only force in the universe that can transcend proclamations of truth by virtue of conceptualizing and defining its limited scope, thus transcending certainties to higher values of truth it itself previously set the scope of. In this regard, focused right by powerful minds, it's self transcendental in the fact that it's forever able to define the scope, lay it down, then re-analyse it and go beyond it.

Such realizations he said are only from becoming
shut off from the outside world and looking fully
internally, a sort of mathematical medication practice. It's the ability to see the full axiomatic scope of an internally self evolving mathematical framework; the message seeming to be that its always going to be expanded better by the internal mind, as long as no external influences of a social culture not open to questioning the scope and truth of the axioms it was predicated on, which was his current outside world over 50 years back. And, I feel, this culture largely remains so today, though certainly not to the extent it did 50 years back. The fact Godels Incompleteness Theorems still have a lot of applicability to many theories I think has been largely overlooked, or even rejected, by certain disciplines predicated on mathematical grounds and potentially spurious axioms, all of which can likely be viewed as a more wholistic viewpoint and expanded on with the power of the minds ability to always see the limits of the system.

But if consciousness in its normal form is indeed non computational, non algorithmic and not based on logic (incompleteness theorem) associated with turing machines then how are we ever going to try to understand it in terms of them without just tying ourselves up in knots made of the same paradoxes that drove the aforementioned geniuses mad?

To finish, applying Godels theorem more vigorously to current dominant paradigms could have such a catalyzing effect in developing new, mathematically sound theories based on the more creative functions of human inspiration; whilst also pointing out certain unprovable assumptions that underlay some materialist sciences.

The problem is that today, some knowledge still feels too dangerous.

Because our times are not so different to Cantor or Boltzmann or Gödel’s time.

We too feel things we thought were solid, being challenged, feel our certainties slipping away.

And so, as then, we still desperately want to cling to belief in certainty.
It makes us feel safe.

At the end of this journey the question, I think we are left with, is actually the same as it was in Cantor and Boltzmann’s time.

Are we grown up enough to live with uncertainties?

Or will we repeat the mistakes of the twentieth century and pledge blind allegiance to yet another certainty?

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Epigenetics - An introductory exposition

We may be on the verge of collectively knowing just how much we don't know. Biology stands on the brink of a shift in the understanding of inheritance. The discovery of epigenetics -- hidden influences upon the genes -- could affect every aspect of our lives.

The picture of a genetic makeup that fluctuates by the hour and minutes seems at odds with the public perception: That genes determine everything from our physical characteristics all the way to our behaviour. Many scientists seem to think that our geners form an immutable blueprint that our cells must forever follow. British research scientists and Oxford Susan Greenfield says "the reductionist genetic train of thought fuels the currently highly fashionable concept of a gene for this or that"

Niles edridge in his book why we do it, says "genes have been the dominant metaphor underlying all manner of human behaviour, from the most basic to animalistic, like sex, up to and including such esoterica as the practise of religion, the enjoyment of music, and the codification of laws and moral strictures... The media are besotted with genes... genes have for over half a century easily eclipsed the outside natural world as the primary driving force of evolution in the minds of evolutionary biologists."

The tools of our consciousness, including our beliefs, thoughts, intentions and actions, often seem to correlate much more strongly with our health, longevity, and happiness than our genes do. Larry dossey, MD, observes in his much cited publication health perceptions and survival: do global evaluations of health status really predict mortality? "Several studies show that what one thinks about ones health is one of the most accurate predictors of longevity ever discovered". Studies show that a committed spiritual practice involving mindfulness can add many years to our lives, regardless of our genetic mix.

As we think our thoughts and feel our feeling our bodies change and respond with a complex array of shifts, each thought releases a particular mixture of biochemicals in our organs and triggers genetic changes in our cells. Psychologist Ernest Rossi explores in his text the psychobiology of gene expression "how our subjective states of mind, consciously motivated behaviour, and our perception of free will can modulate gene expression to optimize health" Nobel prize winner Eric Kandell MD believes that in future treatments "social influences will be biologically incorporated in the altered expressions of specific genes in specific nerve cells of specific areas of the brain"

Brain researchers Kemperman and Gage envision a future in which the regeneration of damaged neural networks is a cornerstone of medical treatment, and doctors prescriptions include "modulations of environmental or cognitive stimuli", and "alterations of physical activity", in other words, doctors in the future will prescribe, instead of (or in addition to) a drug, a particular therapeutic belief or thought, a positive feeling, an affirmative social activity.

Randy Jirtle has discovered that he could make Agouti mice produce normal healthy young, by changing the expression of their genes, and without making any changes to the mices DNA, by feeding them methyl groups. These molecule clusters are able to inhibit the expression of genes, and sure enough, the methyl groups eventually worked their way through the mothers metabolism to attatch to the Agouti genes of the developing embryos.

In Laymans Terms

At the heart of this new field is a simple but contentious idea -- that genes have a memory. This is not the same as 'water memory' or homeopathy; this has empirical scientific foundations. Suppose that the lives of your grandparents -- the air they breathed, the food they ate, even the things they saw -- can directly affect you, decades later, despite your never experiencing these things yourself. And that what you do in your lifetime could in turn affect your grandchildren.

The conventional view is that DNA carries all our heritable information and that nothing an individual does in their lifetime will be biologically passed to their children. To many scientists, epigenetics amounts to a heresy, calling into question the accepted view of the DNA sequence -- a cornerstone on which modern biology sits.

Epigenetics adds a whole new layer to genes beyond the DNA. It proposes a control system of 'switches' that turn genes on or off -- and suggests that things people experience, like nutrition and stress, can control these switches and cause heritable effects in humans.

In a remote town in northern Sweden there is evidence for this radical idea. Lying in Överkalix's parish registries of births and deaths and its detailed harvest records is a secret that confounds traditional scientific thinking. Marcus Pembrey, a Professor of Clinical Genetics at the Institute of Child Health in London, in collaboration with Swedish researcher Lars Olov Bygren, has found evidence in these records of an environmental effect being passed down the generations. They have shown that a famine at critical times in the lives of the grandparents can affect the life expectancy of the grandchildren. This is the first evidence that an environmental effect can be inherited in humans.

In other independent groups around the world, the first hints that there is more to inheritance than just the genes are coming to light. The mechanism by which this extraordinary discovery can be explained is starting to be revealed.

Professor Wolf Reik, at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, has spent years studying this hidden ghost world. He has found that merely manipulating mice embryos is enough to set off 'switches' that turn genes on or off.

For mothers like Stephanie Mullins, who had her first child by in vitro fertilisation, this has profound implications. It means it is possible that the IVF procedure caused her son Ciaran to be born with Beckwith-Wiedemann Syndrome -- a rare disorder linked to abnormal gene expression. It has been shown that babies conceived by IVF have a three- to four-fold increased chance of developing this condition.

And Reik's work has gone further, showing that these switches themselves can be inherited. This means that a 'memory' of an event could be passed through generations. A simple environmental effect could switch genes on or off -- and this change could be inherited.

His research has demonstrated that genes and the environment are not mutually exclusive but are inextricably intertwined, one affecting the other.

The idea that inheritance is not just about which genes you inherit but whether these are switched on or off is a whole new frontier in biology. It raises questions with huge implications, and means the search will be on to find what sort of environmental effects can affect these switches.

After the tragic events of September 11th 2001, Rachel Yehuda, a psychologist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, studied the effects of stress on a group of women who were inside or near the World Trade Center and were pregnant at the time. Produced in conjunction with Jonathan Seckl, an Edinburgh doctor, her results suggest that stress effects can pass down generations. Meanwhile research at Washington State University points to toxic effects -- like exposure to fungicides or pesticides -- causing biological changes in rats that persist for at least four generations.

This work is at the forefront of a paradigm shift in scientific thinking. It will change the way the causes of disease are viewed, as well as the importance of lifestyles and family relationships. What people do no longer just affects themselves, but can determine the health of their children and grandchildren in decades to come. "We are," as Marcus Pembrey says, "all guardians of our genome."

The mechanics of epigenetics

For the materialistically predisposed, adding small methyl groups to specific points of DNA is one of the main ways of turning a gene off. This short video and news report gives you a Laymans view understanding.

Due to the limited data
available in the gene structure epigenetic changes were needed for things such as plasmodium falciparum genes. Epigenetic changes are more flexible than genetic changes, and permit rapid yet reversible adaptation, so determining which proteins can be turned off, via release of the usual hormones/endorphins/neurochemicals that relate to particular states of mind, is very important.

Epigenetic changes determine which proteins are transcribed. So far theres three systems which intertwine with each other to silence genes: histone modifications (histone proteins that are the primary components of chromatin responsible for forming DNA that makes up chromosomes), RNA-associated silencing and DNA methylation. 

5-methylcytosine is a is a methylated form of the DNA base cytosine that is involved in the regulation of gene transcription, old perspectives on it's role in this (that did not consider biofeedback and psychosomatic cause of the chemicals in question at the time) while still true have been shown to not be holistic enough; it's now known to be a main epigenetic mechanism, with many 5MC patterns being inherited epigenetically.

Epigenetic changes are an ideal target for disease control, because they are natyurally reversable, whereas sequence mutations in DNA are not. Which would shut a lot of the anti-genetic modification people up. But also likely just move the issue they have to scrutinising epigenetics; unless they actually understand the reversible ramifications it has that have before been a matter of contention.

 DNA Is Not Destiny (source)

"The new science of epigenetics rewrites the rules of disease, heredity, and identity. [.....]

It was a little eerie and a little scary to see how something as subtle as a nutritional change in the pregnant mother rat could have such a dramatic impact on the gene expression of the baby," Jirtle says. "The results showed how important epigenetic changes could be."

Jirtle continues "The tip of the iceberg is genomics.... The bottom of the iceberg is epigenetics"

Dr Moshe Syf from McGill university in Montreal has studied the relationships between rats and their offspring. Some of the mother rats groomed and nurtured their young, and some hardly did at all. Rats that had been groomed as infants showed marked behavioural changes as adults, they were "Less fearful and better adjusted than the offspring of the neglectful mothers" (Epigenetics, The Economist*) They then acted in similar nurturing ways towards their own offspring, producing the same epigenetic behavioural results in the next generation. This shows that epigenetic changes, once started in one generation, can be passed on to the following generations without changes in the gene themselves.

There were numerous chemical changes detected in the rats brains and major differences had developed between the nurtured group and the neglected group, especially in the area of the hippocampus involved in stress. A gene that dampens our response to stress had a greater degree of expression in the well nurtured rats. The brains of the nurtured rats also showed higher levels of a chemical (acetyl groups) that facilitates gene expression by binding the protein sheath around the gene, making it easier for the gene to express. They also had higher levels of an enzyme that adds acetyl groups to the protein sheath.

In the non nurtured rats the changes were quite different, they were anxious and fearful. The same gene repressing substance that Randy Jirtle found in her work (that I cited above), the methyl groups, were much more prevalent in the hippocampi. It bonded to the DNA and inhibited the expression of the gene involved in dampening stress. To test the hypothesis that these two substances were causing epigenetic changes in the Rats they injected the fearful rats with a substance that raised the number of acetyls in the hippocampus. Sure enough, the behaviour of the rats changed and they became less fearful and better adjusted.

Determining Nature vs. Nurture

Molecular evidence is finally emerging to inform the long-standing debate

Psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists have jousted for years over how much of our behavior is driven by our genes versus the environments in which we grow up and live. Arguments have persisted because there has been little hard evidence to answer basic questions: How exactly do genes and environment interact to determine whether someone will become depressed, say, or schizophrenic? And can environmental interventions such as drugs or psychotherapy really alleviate disorders that are largely determined by genes?

The article goes on to note that depressed and anti social behaviour in mice is accompanied by methyl groups sticking to genes, and also extends this research to humans, as the brains of schizophrenics also show changes in the methylation of genes, or acetylization of their protein sheaths.

Experiments have shown a striking link between our state of mind, such as childhood stress, and later disease. ACE (adverse child experiences) conducted detailed social, psychological and medial examinations of some 17,000 people over a five year period. The study showed a strong inverse link between emotional wellbeing, health and longevity on the one hand, and early life stress on the other. People in a dysfunctional family were five times more likely to be depressed, three times more likely to smoke, thirty times more likely to commit suicide, and ailments were much more common in the dysfunctional families, increased rates of obesity, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, bone fractures, hypertension, and hepatitis. The genetic link between nurturing and gene expression in children is also now being traced; "One recent study suggests that children with a certain version of a gene that produces an enzyme known as MAO-A (which metabolizes neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine) are significantly more likely to become violent—but only if they were mistreated as children. In this way, an aspect of human behavior might be a bit like the body of the Bicyclus butterfly, driven to one form or another by genes that switch in response to environmental cues, one genotype yielding two different phenotypes for two different environments." (why we have misunderstood the nature nurture debate - Professor Gary Marcus)

And there are many more examples of our beliefs causing epigenetic changes, the most researched is how our perceptions effect disease progression. Gail Ironson, MD, has shown that there were two factors that are interesting predictors of how fast HIV progressed in the research subjects. The first was the view of the nature of god. Some believed in a punishing god, while other believed in a benevolent god. She observes that, “People who view god as judgemental god have a CD4 (T-helper) cell decline more than twice the rate of those who don’t see god as judgemental, and their viral load increases more than three times faster. For example a precise statement affirmed by these patients is ‘god will judge me harshly one day’ This one item is related to an increased likelihood that patient will develop and opportunistic infection or die. These beliefs predict disease progression even more strongly than depression” (From: View of God is associated with disease progression in HIV. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, March 22–25, 2006, San Francisco, California. Abstract published in Annals of Behavioural Medicine 2006)

Spirituality may be viewed as another type of coping. Men and women with HIV studied during the HAART era who endorsed more spirituality after their HIV diagnosis had a slower decline in CD4+ cell counts and better control of VL over 4 years (18). Fitzpatrick et al. (19) followed 901 HIV infected persons for 1 year and found that participation in spiritual activities (e.g., prayer, meditation, affirmations, visualizations) predicted reduced risk of dying, but only in those not on HAART. Another HAART era study found significantly lower mortality over 3 to 5 years for those with HIV who had a spiritual transformation (20). Furthermore, the spiritual belief that "God is merciful" was protective of health over time, whereas the belief that "God is judgmental and punishing and is going to judge me harshly some day" was associated with a faster deterioration of CD4+ cells and poorer control of the HIV virus (21). Thus, view of God may be either helpful or harmful, depending on the nature of that belief.

Rethinking 'the selfish gene' as more a cultural icon

"genes have been the dominant metaphor underlying all manner of human behaviour, from the most basic to animalistic, like sex, up to and including such esoterica as the practise of religion, the enjoyment of music, and the codification of laws and moral strictures... The media are besotted with genes... genes have for over half a century easily eclipsed the outside natural world as the primary driving force of evolution in the minds of evolutionary biologists." (Dawson Church, the genie in your genes)

To fully accept the arguments of Richard Dawkins (author of The Selfish Gene) and his acolytes, one would be forced to conclude that "we do it" solely because our genes are telling us to reproduce more genes; but genes don't drive evolution, argues Eldredge (curator, American Museum of Natural History), especially in social creatures such as humans. In this popular science work, he discusses a "human triangle" of sexual, reproductive, and economic behavior that has increasingly been guided by culture over the past two-and-a-half million years. Furthermore, Eldredge says, Dawkins' gene-centric view "has profoundly bad implications for social theory and its political implementation."

Unexamined beliefs in this or that gene causing this or that condition are part of the foundation of many scientific disciplines. Such assumptions can be found in various publications, like this one aired on NPS; "Scientists today announced that they have found a gene for dislexia. Its a gene on choromozone six called DCDC2", the new york times picked up on this and ran a story entitled "Findings support that dislexia disorder is genetic" Other media picked up the story, and the legend of the primacy of DNA was reinforced.

The main issue, in the case of Dawkins selfish gene material and related theories, is that it locates the ultimate power over our health in the untouchable realm of molecular structure, rather than in our own conscious actions and descisions.

Dorothy Nelkin in her much cited book entitled "The DNA mystique: The Gene as a Cultural Icon" sums up the point by stating "In a diverse array of popular sources, the gene has become a supergene, an almost supernatural entity that has the power to define identity, determine human affairs, dictate human relationships, and explain social problems. In this construct, human beings in all their complexity are seen as products of a molecular text...the secular equivalent of a soul—the immortal site of the true self and determiner of fate.

Swaying the skeptics

Many people have come up with ways to test epigenetic ideas, and the general trend is supportive. Some of the strongest evidence comes from the 9/11 attacks effects on people subsequently suffering PTSD and how this has made similar PTSD symptoms more likely in their offspring (Transgenerational effects of posttraumatic stress disorder in babies of mothers exposed to the World Trade Center attacks during pregnancyref2 - ref3). Some studies done on hunger and lack of food during historical food shortages in war times can still be evident in offspring a hundred years later in subsequent generations first became apparent in Sweden after a world war. 

The remote, snow-swept expanses of northern Sweden are an unlikely place to begin a story about cutting-edge genetic science. The kingdom's northernmost county, Norrbotten, is nearly free of human life; an average of just six people live in each square mile. And yet this tiny population can reveal a lot about how genes work in our everyday lives. In the 1980s, Dr. Lars Olov Bygren, a preventive-health specialist who is now at the prestigious Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, began to wonder what long-term effects the feast and famine years might have had on children growing up in Norrbotten in the 19th century — and not just on them but on their kids and grandkids as well. So he drew a random sample of 99 individuals born in the Overkalix parish of Norrbotten in 1905 and used historical records to trace their parents and grandparents back to birth. By analyzing meticulous agricultural records, Bygren and two colleagues determined how much food had been available to the parents and grandparents when they were young.

Around the time he started collecting the data, Bygren had become fascinated with research showing that conditions in the womb could affect your health not only when you were a fetus but well into adulthood. In 1986, for example, the Lancet published the first of two groundbreaking papers showing that if a pregnant woman ate poorly, her child would be at significantly higher than average risk for cardiovascular disease as an adult. Bygren wondered whether that effect could start even before pregnancy: Could parents' experiences early in their lives somehow change the traits they passed to their offspring?

It was a heretical idea. After all, we have had a long-standing deal with biology: whatever choices we make during our lives might ruin our short-term memory or make us fat or hasten death, but they won't change our genes — our actual DNA. Which meant that when we had kids of our own, the genetic slate would be wiped clean.

What's more, any such effects of nurture (environment) on a species' nature (genes) were not supposed to happen so quickly. Charles Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species celebrated its 150th anniversary in November, taught us that evolutionary changes take place over many generations and through millions of years of natural selection. But Bygren and other scientists have now amassed historical evidence suggesting that powerful environmental conditions (near death from starvation, for instance) can somehow leave an imprint on the genetic material in eggs and sperm. These genetic imprints can short-circuit evolution and pass along new traits in a single generation.

For instance, Bygren's research showed that in Overkalix, boys who enjoyed those rare overabundant winters — kids who went from normal eating to gluttony in a single season — produced sons and grandsons who lived shorter lives. Far shorter: in the first paper Bygren wrote about Norrbotten, which was published in 2001 in the Dutch journal Acta Biotheoretica, he showed that the grandsons of Overkalix boys who had overeaten died an average of six years earlier than the grandsons of those who had endured a poor harvest. Once Bygren and his team controlled for certain socioeconomic variations, the difference in longevity jumped to an astonishing 32 years. Later papers using different Norrbotten cohorts also found significant drops in life span and discovered that they applied along the female line as well, meaning that the daughters and granddaughters of girls who had gone from normal to gluttonous diets also lived shorter lives. To put it simply, the data suggested that a single winter of overeating as a youngster could initiate a biological chain of events that would lead one's grandchildren to die decades earlier than their peers did. How could this be possible? What does it all mean practically?

Meet the Epigenome

The answer lies beyond both nature and nurture. Bygren's data — along with those of many other scientists working separately over the past 20 years — have given birth to the new science of epigenetics. At its most basic, epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation. These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material — the epigenome — that sits on top of the genome, just outside it. It is these epigenetic "marks" that tell your genes to switch on or off, to speak loudly or whisper. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.

Epigenetics brings both good news and bad. Bad news first: there's evidence that lifestyle choices like smoking and eating too much can change the epigenetic marks atop your DNA in ways that cause the genes for obesity to express themselves too strongly and the genes for longevity to express themselves too weakly. We all know that you can truncate your own life if you smoke or overeat, but it's becoming clear that those same bad behaviors can also predispose your kids — before they are even conceived — to disease and early death.

The good news: scientists are learning to manipulate epigenetic marks in the lab, which means they are developing drugs that treat illness simply by silencing bad genes and jump-starting good ones. In 2004 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an epigenetic drug for the first time. Azacitidine is used to treat patients with myelodysplastic syndromes (usually abbreviated, a bit oddly, to MDS), a group of rare and deadly blood malignancies. The drug uses epigenetic marks to dial down genes in blood precursor cells that have become overexpressed. According to Celgene Corp. — the Summit, N.J., company that makes azacitidine — people given a diagnosis of serious MDS live a median of two years on azacitidine; those taking conventional blood medications live just 15 months.

Since 2004, the FDA has approved three other epigenetic drugs that are thought to work at least in part by stimulating tumor-suppressor genes that disease has silenced. The great hope for ongoing epigenetic research is that with the flick of a biochemical switch, we could tell genes that play a role in many diseases — including cancer, schizophrenia, autism, Alzheimer's, diabetes and many others — to lie dormant. We could, at long last, have a trump card to play against Darwin.

The funny thing is, scientists have known about epigenetic marks since at least the 1970s. But until the late '90s, epigenetic phenomena were regarded as a sideshow to the main event, DNA. To be sure, epigenetic marks were always understood to be important: after all, a cell in your brain and a cell in your kidney contain the exact same DNA, and scientists have long known that nascent cells can differentiate only when crucial epigenetic processes turn on or turn off the right genes in utero.
More recently, however, researchers have begun to realize that epigenetics could also help explain certain scientific mysteries that traditional genetics never could: for instance, why one member of a pair of identical twins can develop bipolar disorder or asthma even though the other is fine. Or why autism strikes boys four times as often as girls. Or why extreme changes in diet over a short period in Norrbotten could lead to extreme changes in longevity. In these cases, the genes may be the same, but their patterns of expression have clearly been tweaked.

Biologists offer this analogy as an explanation: if the genome is the hardware, then the epigenome is the software. "I can load Windows, if I want, on my Mac," says Joseph Ecker, a Salk Institute biologist and leading epigenetic scientist. "You're going to have the same chip in there, the same genome, but different software. And the outcome is a different cell type."As Terence Mckenna first said "culture is your chosen operating system, not a reality"

Other recent studies have also shown the power of environment over gene expression. For instance, fruit flies exposed to a drug called geldanamycin show unusual outgrowths on their eyes that can last through at least 13 generations of offspring even though no change in DNA has occurred (and generations 2 through 13 were not directly exposed to the drug). Similarly, according to a paper published last year in the Quarterly Review of Biology by Eva Jablonka (an epigenetic pioneer) and Gal Raz of Tel Aviv University, roundworms fed with a kind of bacteria can feature a small, dumpy appearance and a switched-off green fluorescent protein; the changes last at least 40 generations. (Jablonka and Raz's paper catalogs some 100 forms of epigenetic inheritance)

Can epigenetic changes be permanent? Possibly, but it's important to remember that epigenetics isn't evolution. It doesn't change DNA. Epigenetic changes represent a biological response to an environmental stressor. That response can be inherited through many generations via epigenetic marks, but if you remove the environmental pressure, the epigenetic marks will eventually fade, and the DNA code will — over time — begin to revert to its original programming. That's the current thinking, anyway: that only natural selection causes permanent genetic change.

And yet even if epigenetic inheritance doesn't last forever, it can be hugely powerful. In February 2009, the Journal of Neuroscience published a paper showing that even memory — a wildly complex biological and psychological process — can be improved from one generation to the next via epigenetics. The paper described an experiment with mice led by Larry Feig, a Tufts University biochemist. Feig's team exposed mice with genetic memory problems to an environment rich with toys, exercise and extra attention. These mice showed significant improvement in long-term potentiation (LTP), a form of neural transmission that is key to memory formation. Surprisingly, their offspring also showed LTP improvement, even when the offspring got no extra attention.
All this explains why the scientific community is so nervously excited about epigenetics. In his forthcoming book The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You've Been Told About Genetics, Talent and IQ Is Wrong, science writer David Shenk says epigenetics is helping usher in a "new paradigm" that "reveals how bankrupt the phrase 'nature versus nurture' really is." He calls epigenetics "perhaps the most important discovery in the science of heredity since the gene."

Geneticists are quietly acknowledging that we may have too easily dismissed an early naturalist who anticipated modern epigenetics — and whom Darwinists have long disparaged. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) argued that evolution could occur within a generation or two. He posited that animals acquired certain traits during their lifetimes because of their environment and choices. The most famous Lamarckian example: giraffes acquired their long necks because their recent ancestors had stretched to reach high, nutrient-rich leaves.

In contrast, Darwin argued that evolution works not through the fire of effort but through cold, impartial selection. By Darwinist thinking, giraffes got their long necks over millennia because genes for long necks had, very slowly, gained advantage. Darwin, who was 84 years younger than Lamarck, was the better scientist, and he won the day. Lamarckian evolution came to be seen as a scientific blunder. Yet epigenetics is now forcing scientists to re-evaluate Lamarck's ideas.

Exploring Epigenetic Potential

How can we harness the power of epigenetics for good? In 2008 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced it would pour $190 million into a multilab, nationwide initiative to understand "how and when epigenetic processes control genes." Dr. Elias Zerhouni, who directed the NIH when it awarded the grant, said at the time — in a phrase slightly too dry for its import — that epigenetics had become "a central issue in biology."

This past October, the NIH grant started to pay off. Scientists working jointly at a fledgling, largely Internet-based effort called the San Diego Epigenome Center announced with colleagues from the Salk Institute — the massive La Jolla, Calif., think tank founded by the man who discovered the polio vaccine — that they had produced "the first detailed map of the human epigenome."

The claim was a bit grandiose. In fact, the scientists had mapped only a certain portion of the epigenomes of two cell types (an embryonic stem cell and another basic cell called a fibroblast). There are at least 210 cell types in the human body — and possibly far more, according to Ecker, the Salk biologist, who worked on the epigenome maps. Each of the 210 cell types is likely to have a different epigenome. That's why Ecker calls the $190 million grant from NIH "peanuts" compared with the probable end cost of figuring out what all the epigenetic marks are and how they work in concert.

Remember the Human Genome Project? Completed in March 2000, the project found that the human genome contains something like 25,000 genes; it took $3 billion to map them all. For some this amounted to a hallmark in biology, for shareholders however it marked the death of the market and more investment. The human epigenome contains an as yet unknowable number of patterns of epigenetic marks, a number so big that Ecker won't even speculate on it. The number is certainly in the millions. A full epigenome map will require major advances in computing power. When completed, the Human Epigenome Project (already under way in Europe) will make the Human Genome Project look like homework that 15th century kids did with an abacus.

But the potential is staggering. For decades, we have stumbled around massive Darwinian roadblocks. DNA, we thought, was an ironclad code that we and our children and their children had to live by. Now we can imagine a world in which we can tinker with DNA, bend it to our will. It will take geneticists and ethicists many years to work out all the implications, but be assured: the age of epigenetics has arrived.