For virtually all of my adult life, I had heard that the human appendix is an evolutionary vestige that no longer served a useful purpose. When it gets infected, as sometimes happens, you just take it out. In addition, I had always heard that the purpose of fat cells was energy storage for the lean times. Other than that, fat is bad. Recent scientific discoveries have revealed how very wrong this conventional wisdom has been – a different kind of medical reversal.
In the past decade, research has confirmed that that the appendix plays a key role in the development of the human immune system, and in serving as a repository for good gut bacteria. When dysentery or flu depletes the micro biome of the human gut, the appendix can help re-establish it once the illness has run its course. Perhaps more significantly, lymph tissue accumulates in the appendix after birth and helps train the immune system and its systemic response to threats. It is remarkable to realize that these functions were undetected just a few years ago. References: What Does the Appendix Do?, Global Healing Center (2015); Gut – The Inside Story of our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Enders and Ender (2014)
As for fat tissue, it turns out that fat tissue is a complex human organ and is a rich source of stem cells – more so even than bone marrow. Stem cells have the ability to divide and grow into a wide variety of tissue types. Fat stem cells have been shown to grow into bone, cartilage or muscle tissue, and researchers are now exploring the opportunity to treat injuries or damage in these tissues with a patient’s own fat tissue. This is certainly a lot deeper story than the one reflected in conventional wisdom. See: Fat Cells Mend Bone, Cartilage and Muscle, Science News (2016).
These are good reminders that the truth is not always what we think it is.
Brian Nosek is a professor of psychology and Executive Director of the Open Science Project dedicated to improving the transparency and credibility of science. Earlier this year he and his team reported the results of a project seeking to reproduce 100 psychology studies published in top journals. The results, reported in Science, Nature and this Econtalk podcast, indicated that less than half the findings could be reproduced. According to Nosek, the point is not to critique individual papers but to gauge just how much bias drives publication in psychology. He believes that other scientific fields have the same problem – one analysis found that only 6 of 53 high-profile papers in cancer biology could be reproduced – and new reproducibility efforts are getting underway. Hopefully, the critical self-reflection represented by this effort will spark debate on science research and publication, and greater humility among scientists. For additional posts dealing with the problems of bias, see:
Nathaniel Comfort, in Better Babies – Aeon Magazine, offers an interesting take on the history and current trends in human genetic engineering. The idea has a very long history – back to Plato, even. It took a nasty turn in the 20th century – did you know California had a very active Eugenics (forced sterilization) program well before Hitler? Thankfully neither are in place today, but in the last few decades, new promises are being hyped for designer babies and genetic cures for disease – these are supposed to be just around the corner. As the article points out, this is very unlikely. Genes encode proteins, not human traits; Genes (and proteins) play multiple roles; The same gene will have both upside and downside effects; Genes act in clusters and cascades; Genes express differently and at different times for different reasons. Notwithstanding the moral questions of human genetic engineering, the technical barriers are profound. The author concludes: “The qualities we want in a child or in society can’t be had by tweaking a few nucleotides. There are no short cuts. To think otherwise is to conflate power with knowledge, to overestimate our understanding of biology, and to overestimate the role of genes in determining who we are.”
EconTalk this week hosted physician Robert Aronowitz to discuss his newest book, Risky Medicine, which deals with the risk/reward tradeoffs we struggle with in addressing health risks. Specifically, he notes the dilemma in routine PSA screening for men and routine mammograms for women: randomized trials suggest minimal benefits in terms of documented life extension but significant consequences in terms of heightened anxiety, high numbers of false positives and unnecessary follow-up procedures and surgery. These are difficult questions with inadequate answers – the dialogue is timely. As noted in an earlier post in this forum, (More Data is Not Enough), in the face of uncertainty, more data does not solve the problem – ultimately we have to take a leap of faith in making a decision. The best we can do in the case of decisions about health is to explore and be informed about both the science and the psycho-social dynamics of the issues, while accepting that most of what happens is beyond our control. This is exactly the advice found in Reinhold Neibuhr’s serenity prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
The winning essays in the 2014 FQXi contest, including The Tip of The Spear, have been published in a compendium “How Should Humanity Steer the Future?”. The volume, edited by Anthony Aguirre, Brendan Foster and Zeeya Merali, has been published by Springer, a leading science publisher. Thanks to those of you who read and commented on this essay.
Congratulations this year go to an distinguished list of writers: Sylvia Wenmackers • Matthew Saul Leifer • Marc Séguin • Tommaso Bolognesi • Kevin H Knuth • Tim Maudlin • Lee Smolin • Cristinel Stoica • Ken Wharton • Derek K Wise • Alexey Burov, Lev Burov • Sophia Magnusdottir • Noson S. Yanofsky • Nicolas Fillion • David Garfinkle • Christine Cordula Dantas • Philip Gibbs • Ian Durham • Anshu Gupta Mujumdar, Tejinder Singh • Sara Imari Walker for the winning and placing essays. All are well-written and interesting, but none answer the foundational questions raised in The Hole at the Center of Creation. This essay unfortunately did not make the finals. We will do better next year!
Dr. Lisa Miller, in a new book, The Spiritual Child, The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving, reports on recent psychological research that documents an affirmative link between spirituality and health. She defines spirituality as “an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding”. The research shows that children who have a positive, active spirituality are: 40% less likely to use and abuse substances; 60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers; and 80% less likely to have dangerous or unprotected sex. They also have significantly more positive markers for thriving including an increased sense of meaning and purpose, and high levels of academic success. For a review, see David Brooks in the NYT: “Building Spiritual Capital”.
This is good news – and reinforces the importance of providing children with spiritual nourishment and encouragement. As noted in an earlier post on Why Do Children Believe in God, children are born with a natural propensity to believe in God. If that belief is not grounded in the language, tradition or culture of parents and communities, it can whither and die.
This is a loaded question for most people. Some people deride the notion of life after death as irrational superstition – others have deep convictions and even personal experience that vividly confirms the truth of a transcendent spiritual world for them. Many of us, perhaps most of us, have a mixture of belief and doubt. Lacking a personal transcendent revelation, we sort through the claims and counterclaims with questions, perhaps with hope, and maybe even with faith.
There is, however, a substantial body of testimony that strongly supports the claim even in the modern, scientific era, from credible sources such as Emmanuel Swedenborg, Dr Raymond Moody, Dr. Eben Alexander, and many others. While the debunkers continue to claim fraud or hallucination, a dispassionate assessment has to admit that there is credibility and consistency to the personal stories and experiences offered by these individuals. They are worth a listen
On June 4-7, the Fifth Annual Afterlife Awareness Conference will be held in Norfolk, VA. Those with an open mind may wish to check it out!
The RSA has released its final report on a two-year research initiative on revitalizing spirituality to address 21st century challenges. The report provides a serious critique of secular materialism and a passionate appeal for a new, shared commitment to a universal spirituality – the existential ground which all humans share. A few interesting quotes:
- It’s not so much that a marketised spirituality has hijacked religion, but that, while religion was looking the other way, capitalism hijacked spirituality.
- Spirituality is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; Our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation.
- It seems fair to argue that religions are the particular cultural, doctrinal and institutional expressions of human spiritual needs, which are universal.
 The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (http://www.thersa.org), a 260 year old non-profit organization headquartered in England, is dedicated to enriching society through ideas and action. One of their initiatives, The Social Brain, is targeted to understanding humans as a fundamentally social species and to changing the rational individual construct that helped us plan our economies and organize our societies but fails to appreciate the social context that is the defining feature of how we think, learn and behave.
This is the second installment of a four-part series on the Human Race and The Technology Race. Chapter I has been published: The Human – Technology Interface. Chapter III and Chapter IV will follow.
This link provides a full PDF copy of Chapter II (which in my opinion is much easier to read).
This post (Golden Ratio Also Relates To Space-Time And Biology) from redOrbit.com on new theories about the role of The Golden Ratio, the “cosmic constant” in various scientific disciplines, caught my eye today. There is something magical in the properties of this very special “transcendental” number. It seems to provide a foundation for understanding movement and growth across the complete range of scientific inquiries.
The topic brought to mind this article (Is there a Spiritual Significance to the number Phi), which I wrote for The New Philosophy, The Journal of the Swedenborg Scientific Association, in 2005. In the article I speculated on the spiritual meaning of the Golden Ratio as an infinite unfolding of finite creation. The concepts are quite surprising and far-reaching!
The original concept of the ISAS name for this forum came from its goal – Integrating Science and Spirituality – and from a mental wordplay that came from sounding out “is as.” Part of what the forum does is to explore life and the world, from the premise that there is an objective world that we can access to and learn to know. The world “is as it is”, but we have been given the gifts of perception, rationality and insight as well as motivations for exploring and understanding that world.
Unfortunately, a very similar acronym, “ISIS, ” representing an entity that seems to have quite different goals than knowledge and understanding, is getting considerable and quite negative attention on a daily basis. Several wise people have suggested I change the name of the forum, and I am going to do so.
If you have any thoughts on a new name and acronym, I would welcome hearing about it. For the time being, we will continue to use “Integrating Science and Spirituality” but will no longer use the acronym.
A short, insightful article on Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) appeared in The Philosopher’s Mail (a publication of the School of Life in England) last week. Aquinas integrated Greek notions of reason with Catholic theology, establishing the concept that “natural law is a subsection of eternal law, and it can be discovered through the faculty of independent reason.” This “broke a logjam in Christian thinking… and opened the Christian mind to the insights of all of humanity from across the ages…” Through his works, Aquinas helped open the doors to natural philosophy (at a time when they were being closed in the Islamic world), leading ultimately to the scientific revolution in subsequent centuries.
George Gantz is the featured speaker for the Wayland Great Presenter’s Series on Tuesday November 4, 7:30PM at the Wayland MA Public Library:
Has technology advanced beyond our ability to control it? Some believe this is a good thing and will lead to a marvelous “Singularity”, a point where self-replicating machinery will largely replace human labor, freeing humans to pursue whatever they want. Others are less sanguine about the impacts of technology – warning that the earth and the human race itself may be headed for disaster. George Gantz will lead a discussion on these profound questions, starting with our own experiences with digital technologies and recent research on the human – digital interface.
As reported in The Independent, the leader of the Catholic Church has declared that evolution and the Big Bang Theory are real and do not conflict with faith in God. This is a remarkable statement from the world’s largest religious organization and perhaps may soften the rhetoric in the science-religion debate. This is the same Pope who, several months ago, revealed his Top Ten Secrets for happiness, the 9th of which is to respect others’ beliefs. “We can inspire others through witness so that one grows together in communicating. But the worst thing of all is religious proselytism, which paralyzes.” Good advice for theists and atheists alike.
An opinion piece posted by Gary Gutting October 13 on the NYTimes website summarizes his series of interviews with philosophers on religion. Some of his findings echo themes we have touched on previously (see Miracles for example). While the author is “agnostic” and finds that to be the most defensible ground, he identifies areas of weakness for both atheists and theists (outnumbered almost 5 to 1 in his interviews), in the debate.
There have also been some interesting posts recently about what might be called the sociology of alternative beliefs. In recent weeks, I participated in a Linked-In exchange with the provocative title: Is there a lack of civility and empathy in the atheist community? Do you find many atheists come across as arrogant/ haughty/ belittling/ ostentatious/ offensive?
Last winter, Big Questions Online also carried an extensive exchange with the somewhat tongue-in-cheek title: “Is Atheism Irrational?”
Along a corollary line, research was reported that those who believe in God are happier and healthier.
And a sharp controversy recently flared up on the question of why atheism may be male oriented:
There is nothing definitive about any of this material, as it is dealing not with truth claims per se, but with the demeanor of the combatants. Nevertheless, there may be lessons to be learned. Who would you like to spend more time with? Who would you trust most in a pinch? What is the better pathway to a better and happier life?
Last April, George Gantz submitted The Tip of The Spear in the FQXi essay contest titled “How Should Humanity Steer the Future?” A total of 155 essays were submitted and were rated by other essayists during an extended community comment period. The Tip of the Spear earned a 4th place rank, joining the 40 top-ranked essays in the final judging by a panel of experts, and was subsequently awarded a fourth prize at the announcement held on August 21.
The Tip of the Spear traces the latest findings of empirical science in the fields of mathematics, physics, biology and evolution to determine what the guiding principles are for the evolution of the physical universe and how they can help us in steering the future of humanity. The conclusion is that, while empirical science is the driving force to the advance of human civilization, the tip of the spear should be armed with our highest human empathic qualities – in a word, with love.
The winning essay, “How to Save the World” by Sabine Hossenfelder, challenges humanity to convert ideas into action: ” We fail to act in the face of global problems because we do not have an intuitive grasp on the consequences of collective human behavior, are prone to cognitive biases, and easily overwhelmed by data. We are also lazy and if intuition fails us, inertia takes over.” Her answer is to make the necessary information accessible to individuals. “To steer the future, information about our dynamical and multi-layered networks has to become cheap and almost effortless to use. Only then, when we can make informed decisions by feeling rather than thinking, will we be able to act and respond to the challenges we face.”
Last year I raised some concerns about the impact of technology on humans (see: Busted). These concerns remain, but in the interest of equal time, it is worth highlighting some of the potentially positive impacts of new technology. In a recent episode of EconTalk on The Sharing Economy, Russ Roberts, in a conversation with Mike Munger, highlights some potentially transformative impacts of technology. They conversation centered on AirBnB, Uber and ParkingMonkey. All three applications connect, through mobile devices, users with needs for lodging, ground transport or parking with potential suppliers, in simple, automated transaction platforms. The applications are potentially transformative in two ways – one economic and one social. On the economic front, the applications make it simple and nearly cost-free to connect under-utilized capital assets (e.g. vacant rooms in your house) with potential buyers – this has potentially immense economic benefits to consumers and suppliers but will be highly disruptive to incumbent businesses that will have to evolve to survive. On the social front, the three applications are also completely outside of the systems devised by government regulation to protect consumers, such as taxi cab licenses (“medallions”), local and state health regulations on lodging, and public access to parking spaces. As peer-to-peer applications, the “policing” is done by reviews by users and the private actions of the application operator (for example, Uber kicks out any driver that gets less than a “4.7” rating by its users), with no government involvement. All three applications depend on the trust of users and the trustworthiness of providers – achieved through transparency and consumer ratings rather than government oversight and regulation. In one sense, these applications are tangible demonstrations of the “democratizing” effect of technology – giving power to people to make prudent choices rather than relying on regulatory compliance. Moreover, the system rewards honesty, credibility and service – virtues that may need reinforcing after decades of self-preoccupation by members of Gen Me, Gen X, and Gen Y …
In a recent EconTalk podcast, William Easterly called for a new “Copernican revolution” in how we look at Economic Development for poor people around the world. Rather than putting the technocratic experts (e.g. the World Bank, Bill Gates, Jeffrey Sacks) at the helm, Easterly calls for putting poor people in charge of their own future by giving them economic and political freedom. The concept is provocative and has important implications for human development and the concept of charity itself – and it echoes Swedenborg’s Laws of Divine Providence. (more…)