Religion, science, and believing.

I don’t usually talk about my personal views on this blog. However, this topic is something that I have contemplated for a while now and think is fair to be open about. I am still learning and evaluating my outlook on approaching this subject. Below are some bits revolving around the themes of religion and personal belief systems that were hidden away in my drafts folder for a long time. I have decided to publish all of them together. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about this topic in the future, but here’s a start.

***

Recently, I had a conversation with a fellow grad student about religion and his personal beliefs. Most academics shy away from this discussion in a professional (and sometimes even in a personal) setting. It is considered uncommon or rude to talk about it and people keep it to themselves. It is often acknowledged that as scientists, “we do science for science’s sake”, or that “a person’s religious beliefs has no place in his/her scientific pursuits.” This is something that has always boggled my mind. As a biologist and an atheist, I have confidence in my work/study because the underlying laws of biological systems are established and follow a set of proven scientific principles. For example, when we design an antibacterial drug against a particular strain of resistent bacteria, we know for a fact that the bacteria has mutated (or evolved) and therefore the old drug doesn’t work anymore. Similarly, we use mouse, worm, and other animal models for testing compounds in vivo because we have evidence to prove that humans are genetically related to other animals through a common evolutionary ancestor. Therefore, we can study the effects of the drugs in other animals before testing them to humans. The empirical evidence that exists as the basis of our research is inherently acknowledged to be the underlying force that drives scientific research. Now, how can someone who does similar work in a laboratory setting have a completely contradictory viewpoint in his/her private life? How can someone believe in a book (or many books) that preaches blatant falsehoods about our understanding of the universe and at the same time come to work every day and do science with a conscious mind? For me, science is deeply woven into our personal lives. No, I cannot pretend that science does not affect my personal views about the world. Similarly, my conscious will never let me pretend like my personal views have no affect on my scientific work.

***

One of the most common arguments that I have come across during such discussion is that people often say “I don’t believe in *everything* that this book says. I only believe in a few things that are important for my moral framework.” This is complete BS and hypocritical. One cannot disregard a particular theory written in a book (for example, “the earth is 6000 years old”, or, “when humans die we come back as another life form on earth”), and at the same time believe in another theory written in the same book. One can’t pick and choose what you want to accept and reject from a book, and then claim the book to guide one’s moral framework.

And then there is an argument that science is not perfect and that not everything published in all of the scientific literature is true. This is absolutely correct. This is why science is constantly changing – because our understanding of the world is constantly changing. This is why scientific literature constantly undergoes modifications and updates to accommodate our latest understanding of the world and the universe.

This is not the same with religious texts. These texts were written hundreds and thousands of years ago and are obsolete in this day and age. These texts were written to accommodate the worldview of an ancient time period. They are not relevant to the 21st century and we certainly do not have to submit to these texts in order to live within a moral framework of society. As of 2017, we have discovered around 8.7 million species on earth and can estimate a hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. We have achieved things that were once considered unfathomable by humankind. Why do we have to be stuck in the ancient past and live by some 12th century law in order to be considered as “good humans”? Of course, religious texts provide interesting insight into various philosophical questions that one can ponder over. However, they do very little to the understanding and practice of science in this day and age.

It is also often argued that we need religion to understand morality and differentiate between good and evil. Religion does not equal morality. One does not have to be a good human just to please an invisible supreme being or to go to heaven. Altruism and kindness can exist on their own.

***

Talking about scientists with personal religious beliefs, I remember a wonderful conversation between Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss many years ago. I can’t help but bring up a part of their conversation while thinking about this topic –

Krauss: I’ve had people write to me and say “I’m a medical doctor and I don’t believe in evolution.”

Dawkins: That’s a disgrace. I’m not supposed to say that, especially in this country (referring to the US) because one’s private beliefs are supposed to be irrelevant. But I would walk out of a doctor’s office and not consult him anymore if I heard that he said that. Because what that doctor is saying is that he’s a scientific ignoramus and a fool.

Krauss: In fact, in that regard, it is interesting to me at the same time how people can hold beliefs which are incompatible with other beliefs they have. And in some sense, everyone is a scientist and they just don’t realize they are, and yet in the time of crisis, that’s when.. (breaks). The example I gave is when George Bush was president, he said intelligent design must be taught alongside evolution so the kids will know what the debate is all about. And it wasn’t a stupid statement at priori, it was ignorant because he didn’t realize that there’s no debate. And that’s fine. I don’t mean ignorant in a pejorative sense, I just mean he wasn’t aware.

Dawkins: Ignorance is no crime.. you just don’t want to consult a doctor who’s ignorant.

Krauss: What amazed me is that in the same administration, when the avian flu was going to be a problem and mutating to humans, president Bush said “We’ve got to find how long it takes before the avian flu will mutate into humans.” And what amazed me is that no one in the administration – not a single person said “It’s been designed to kill us, forget about it.”

Dawkins: That’s a very good point. This kind of split-brain business which you’ve been referring to, the most glaring example I know, is more in your field (referring to Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics) than mine. I was told by a professor of Astronomy at Oxford, about a colleague of his who’s an astronomer and an astrophysicist, who writes learned papers – mathematical papers, published in astronomical journals, assuming that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. But he privately believes that the universe is only 6000 years old. How can a man like that hold down a job in a university as an astrophysicist? And yet, we are told “Well, it’s his private beliefs, you mustn’t interfere with this man’s private beliefs as long as he writes competent papers in astronomical journals”.

Krauss: Well, I mean, as long as he doesn’t teach his private beliefs.

Dawkins: Well, let’s hypothetically suppose that he teaches absolutely correctly – that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. How could you want to take a class from a man who teaches one thing and believes in something that is so many orders of magnitude different?

***

About believing in science.

My advisor once pointed out not to use the word ‘believe’ when someone said “I believe that..” during a lab meeting presentation. Back then, I didn’t understand what was wrong in saying we “believed” in something. I now understand. As scientists, we evaluate something on the basis of observation, experiment, and evidence. The evidence is dependent on the observations made and experiments performed. Therefore, something is either likely or unlikely to occur. It is either more probable or less probable. We don’t have to believe in evolution or the big bang theory. We accept the evidence that supports them. Believing in evolution or not doesn’t make it true. The evidence for evolution suggests that it is true. Belief is not a part of rational enquiry. Belief relies on faith and not on evidence.

Giraffe and Evolution – Not just a long (neck) story

Feeding on acacia leaves
Feeding high up on acacia leaves

In the early 19th century, Lamarck proposed a theory of evolution by studying the behaviour of giraffes. He believed that giraffes evolved to have long necks as they began reaching for higher leaves on trees. He called this “change through use and disuse”. According to this theory, an organ or a character that is used more often becomes stronger and better. Therefore, over the course of history, giraffe’s neck got longer as it began stretching it a lot more than usual. Lamarck also proposed the “law of inheritance of acquired characteristics” according to which the improved characteristics of an organism are passed on from one generation to the next. These improved features persists and the disadvantageous features disappear.

The Lamarckian theory was eventually abandoned* as it could not explain the genetic basis for inheritance of acquired characteristics (traits obtained after birth due to environmental changes, accidents, use and disuse; these traits are not inheritable). Lamarckism also predicts that simpler life forms will disappear from the earth once organisms become more complex. While we see some organisms evolving into more complex systems with intricate functions, the simpler life forms like the single celled prokaryotic cells still exist to this day.

Darwin’s theory of evolution on the other hand, can account for the continued existence of the simpler life forms on earth. Darwin believed that complexity is a result of adaptation to the environment from one generation to the next. In the Origin of Species, Darwin proposed a theory of evolution driven by natural selection. According to this theory, there is variation seen amongst individuals. Certain environmental conditions favours certain variations and the species exhibiting these variations adaptsurvive. The unadapted species which do not exhibit the favoured variations do not survive and become extinct over generations of time.

Applying this to giraffes, the long neck species are considered dominant and have greater chances of survival during harsh drought conditions compared to the short neck species that have to rely on ground habitation for food. This of course is just one theory amongst many other. The long necks are also used to reach deep inside trees that other competing animals cannot reach, and is therefore more advantageous. One of the latest proposal is the theory of sexual selection. Male giraffes fight with other males by “necking” to compete for female partners. As it turns out, females prefer males with longer and stronger necks. Natural selection again, favours long neck males.

“Animal Autopsy”, a show on National Geography channel dug deep into giraffes – quite literally! – to explore the physiological and anatomical features of this intriguing mammal to unravel some of its evolutionary secrets.

During the autopsy, Richard Dawkins talks about one of the evolutionary disadvantages caused due to the long laryngeal nerve that starts off in the brain and ends in the larynx (which is in fact situated very close to the brain). This nerve runs all the way down the neck, loops around one of the arteries in the chest and returns to the larynx on top. Why does the nerve take such a long route when it can simply connect from the brain to the larynx directly without having to pass through the entire neck? Also, consider this – giraffes with a long necks must also bend much lower to drink water from the ground. The contracting of the muscles along with the tension in the elastic tissue in the neck utilises way more energy, and is considered to be another evolutionary flaw. Another interesting fact to chew upon is that due to its long neck, giraffes have to pump blood to the brain that is ~2.5 meters above the heart – against gravity – by using extremely high blood pressure. How does the long neck favour such distant positioning of the heart and the brain?

Biologists consider different perspectives to understand the evolutionary reasoning behind the advantages as well as the flaws caused due to the long necks of giraffes. As more pieces of this puzzles are put together, it is quite remarkable to think about the imperfections that are caused due to evolution. Imperfections that somehow adds up to the making of such a marvellous mammal on our planet.

*New research reveals the epigenetic basis for the inheritance of acquired characteristics. In the article “A Comeback for Lamarckian Evolution?”, Emily Singer of the Tufts University School of Medicine provides evidence for the largely abandoned Lamarckian theory of evolution. Read article on MIT tech review here.

How Genetics can help rescue endangered species – Case of the whale sharks

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean and are about eighteen to twenty meters long. They weigh around twenty tons and can live up to a hundred years. Though normally pelagic animals, whale sharks are seen in large feeding aggregations in certain parts of the tropical and warm temperate zones around the world, like the Gulf of Mexico and the Indian Ocean. They are known to consume twenty kilograms of food per day that mainly includes plankton, small fish, crustaceans, and coral spawn1.

Source: Wikiemedia Commons
Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The decreasing number and size of whale sharks at some aggregations suggests the species may be declining2. While they are protected in many parts of their range, whale sharks are fished legally and illegally for food (especially for their fins in the Asian markets) and medicinal purposes. Their slow growth and late maturation (when they are 25-30 years old) prevents them from being recovered from over-fishing or habitat disruption.

Whale Shark Habitat Around the Globe. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Whale Shark Habitat Around the Globe. Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Genetic analysis can tell us about whale shark migratory behaviour, social structure and breeding habits. The genetic drift between their populations can help us study the gene flow and interbreeding.  A key question for whale shark conservation is whether the fish aggregations represent isolated populations, or whether whale sharks are migratory and comprise a single global population.

The highly polymorphic microsatellite DNA sequences undergo frequent mutations over time and aid in understanding the population genetics of the species. These mutations are passed on to the offspring and thus provide great resolution for studying the variation and differentiation between populations. The degree of relatedness between different whale shark groups tells us about their migration and breeding patterns (closely related species have similar genetic sequences). For their research, Dr. Schmidt and her colleagues at UIC tagged the satellite sequences to pool the whale shark samples geographically into Pacific Ocean animals, Atlantic Ocean animals and Indian Ocean animals for analysis3. Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) was used to amplify and analyse DNA sequences and Principle Components Analysis (PCA) was done to examine the population differentiation. Through DNA analysis of 68 whale sharks from 11 locations, it was shown that the species found in different locations were in fact, quite similar. The little genetic variation among populations confirmed the migratory behaviour and interbreeding among populations. These results further calls for more stringent conservation plans to protect the big fish of the ocean.

As to this day, whale sharks mating has never been observed. The location of their mating is not known either. None of them have been observed giving birth and very young whale sharks are rarely seen. These facts pose a lot of questions regarding the whale shark reproduction. In 1995, a litter of more than 300 whale shark embryos were found inside of a captured female animal at Taiwan5 (the only pregnant female whale shark ever studied scientifically) which suggested that whale sharks are ovoviviparous animals i.e., they give birth to live young that hatch from eggs within the uterus. Paternity analysis through DNA fingerprinting suggested that a single male fathered all the embryos4. Since multiple paternities is common in many shark species, genetics could be used to determine whether the embryos were sired by a single male or multiple males.

The ability to use genetic analysis to study the whale shark behaviour, population and breeding patterns can help us design appropriate tools for their conservation across the oceans. Conservation genetics is an important tool and should lead the way for rescuing many other endangered species around the globe.

Sources:

  1. World Wildlife Org –  http://worldwildlife.org/species/whale-shark
  2. Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus) Issues Paper by The Department of the Environment and Heritage, May 2005, Australian Government – http://www.environment.gov.au/node/15909
  3. Schmidt J.V., Schmidt C.L., Ozer F., Ernst R.E., Feldheim K.A., Ashley M.V., Levine M. (2009) Low genetic differentiation across three major ocean populations of the whale shark, Rhincodon typus. PLoS One, 4:e4988.
  4. Schmidt J.V., Chien C.C., Sheikh S.I., Meekan M.G., Norman B.M. and Joung S.J. (2010) Paternity analysis in a litter of whale shark embryos. Endangered Species Research, Vol 12: 117-124.
  5. Over 300 embryos found in pregnant whale shark – http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/science/over-300-embryos-found-in-pregnant-whale-shark-41759.html

Understanding sexual parasitism and cannibalism

The mating ritual of the deep-sea anglerfish is one of the most bizarre in the animal kingdom. The female anglerfish are larger, reaching a length of around 10 centimeters, and the male fish are just a fraction of this and can be more than ten times smaller. These peculiar (read ugly) looking creatures live at a depth of 1 to 3 kilometers in the ocean.  In the darkest depths of the waters where food is scarce, finding a mate is problematic. It is estimated that 80% of the females never encounter a male in their lifetime (which is around 30 years). These fish have adopted a way as to resolve the issue of nutrient and mate acquisition through evolution.

Female deep-sea anglerfish with attached male. Photo: Dr. Theodore W. Pietsch, University of Washington
Female deep-sea anglerfish with fused male (circle). Photo: Dr. Theodore W. Pietsch, University of Washington

The larger female anglerfish release chemical factors known as pheromones into the water for the males to find them. Upon finding her, the male bites onto her skin (the ultimate love bite in the animal kingdom, if you ask me) and gets fused to her permanently! His internal organs degenerates – except for the gonads which are used to impregnate the female – and he now survives solely on the female’s blood vessels to acquire nutrients. He never has to hunt for food in his life. The female can fuse with multiple males (around 6 to 8) ensuring a fresh supply of sperm throughout her life! The males are reduced to a mere small lump of tissue on the female’s skin.

While the anglerfish’s mating ritual serves as a classic case of sexual parasitism, another interesting and even bizarre reproductive behavior is seen in Australian redback spiders, in which the males are consumed (yes, eaten!) by the females during copulation. A male redback spider performs a somersault behavior during sperm transfer and positions it’s abdomen on top of the female’s jaws. The female starts to feed on the male during the duration of copulation. One may ask, why would the male spider want to risk his life and sacrifice himself? The answer is simple: survival of the species through increased reproductive success.

A female Australian redback spider. Photo: Toby Hudson on Wiki Commons

A female Australian redback spider. Photo: Toby Hudson on Wiki Commons

Darwin in 1871, wrote The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, where he proposed sexual selection to explain how some traits evolve to give an advantage in the struggle for reproduction, but reduce the probability of survival. This is exactly what happens in Australian redback spiders. Sexual cannibalism is favored by selection because the cannibalized male spiders receive two paternity advantages. Through a series of behavioral experiments, Maydianne C. B. Andrade found that cannibalized males copulated for longer periods of time during which more eggs are fertilized (advantage #1). After consuming their first male, females reject subsequent males for copulation. This increases the paternity of the first male since the female only produces his off-springs and reduces the probability of her mating with a second male (advantage #2). This explains why sexual cannibalism is in fact, an adaptive strategy for male redback spiders since it increases their reproductive value.

These wild mating rituals of certain creatures may seem strange and even outrageous at first. However, one can appreciate these reproductive strategies when they’re understood in the light of evolution.