Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution forever changed the world of biology. We began to believe in the survival of the fittest and attributed genes to be the deciding factor. But is that all there is to it? In recent years, more and more scientists have begun to question if genes have been overestimated and that maybe there is more that contributes to evolution than we realise.
Many new theories have been put forward as new biology takes on the traditional and reveals the processes which contribute to the evolution of mankind.
In this book summary readers will discover:
- Cooperation versus competition
- What determines our biology
- Our survival depends on growth and protection
- Parents contribute more than just DNA to their kids
- The power of our minds
- We are formed from the universe
Key lesson one: Cooperation versus competition
Before Charles Darwin began theorising about evolution, a biologist named Jean-Baptiste Lamarck started on his idea of evolution. Of course, Lamarck’s was different to Darwin’s – he believed in cooperation between species as the driving force of evolution. Lamarck also suggested that species evolve because they have to adapt or fit their surroundings.
At the time, Darwin’s theory of evolution became far more popular than Lamarck’s but nowadays, our current understanding of evolution might lean closer to Lamarck’s ideas. Our immune system, for example, adapts to new environments by producing antibodies in response to viruses and can pass this on to its offspring. Also, Lamarck’s idea about cooperation is something that is seen often in symbiotic relationships. The bacteria present in our guts are a great example. Without them, we would be unable to digest our food and get the nutrients our bodies need.
So, maybe Lamarck was on to something. Maybe cooperation is more essential to evolution than competition. Modern science is also leaning towards this train of thought as it was discovered that genes don’t necessarily have to be passed on through reproduction. Even more telling, is the fact that a cell can still function without a nucleus. That means removing the genetic material does not have an effect on the way a cell functions. Instead, receptor and effector proteins that are present inside the cell membrane react with the environment that the cell is in and triggers its actions. Therefore, the cell can function without its nucleus and genetic material but not without these proteins.
Going back even further and considering how complex lifeforms came into being, cooperation was a big part of it. Single-celled organisms were the beginning of all life. Through time they eventually came to realize that competing with each other was less beneficial than working together. Thus, multicellular organisms came into being.
Key lesson two: What determines our biology
Towards the end of his life, even Darwin questioned if he had ignored the environmental factors that contribute to evolution. Many spots of weaknesses were described in Darwin’s evolutionary theory over the years. Genetic determinism, for example, refers to the thinking that genes alone govern biology. This would mean that genes make up an organism’s body by determining the production of the proteins necessary. However, this theory has a flaw. If genes alone determined our biology, then there needs to be one gene present that codes for each protein in our genome. The human genome contains a lot fewer genes making this impossible.
If genes are not the only contributing factor to our biology, what else could it be? As discussed earlier, the regulatory proteins in our cells play an important role and work in response to our environment. When the proteins receive signals from the environment, they are triggered into action and allow specific codes of DNA to be activated. This essentially means that what our cells become is dependent on their environment.
Key lesson three: Our survival depends on growth and protection
As a whole, our bodies act on two basic behaviours. These are growth and protection. They are best exhibited when cloned human cells are placed in a culture dish and exposed to different chemicals. If the substance is toxic, the cells move away from it and if the substance is nutritious the cells move toward it. The former is called a protection response and the latter a growth response. These behaviours cannot occur at the same time as their actions are the complete opposite.
Growth can only occur when we are in a healthy state. Thus, if we are in a protective state due to any form of stress, growth cannot occur. The protection response is complicated as a number of processes are involved. For example, internal threats like viruses and bacteria are handled by the immune system. Then there are external threats, like when we are faced with a predator. Our body experiences the famous fight or flight response which is actually controlled by the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis or HPA axis. The response of the HPA axis has developed over the evolutionary process and exposure to external threats.
However, the HPA axis is also easily triggered in any stressful situation. It’s why some people start panicking before a speech or before an exam. Therefore, in these situations growth cannot occur. This means that we have to control our stress levels in order to maintain a healthy state and allow growth to occur.
Key lesson four: Parents contribute more than just DNA to their kids
One of the most important things parents can do when raising a child is to provide a healthy environment in which they can thrive. Given that we now know that our cells react to their environment and that stress inhibits growth, the environment parents subject their child to is of utmost importance.
Genetic determinism told us that parents role in a child’s life is not important as the child already has all the genes they need. Modern science, however, shows that this is not the truth. When in the womb, a foetus is already being influenced by its surroundings. There are scientists who have theories that the conditions we are subjected to whilst in the womb can actually determine if we will be susceptible to illnesses later on in life. This is why it is so important for parents to give their kids the best possible start in life from conception. A healthy diet is important to ensure that a womb is a place in which the foetus can thrive.
Even after birth, it is imperative for parents to be mindful of their actions and behaviours when around their child. The way a child experiences the world is through these actions and behaviours. They will ultimately determine what a child finds stressful and what they are comfortable with. This, in turn, shapes the adults they grow into. Even though adults can overcome the fears and stresses that they developed as a child, it would be better if they had a good foundation, to begin with.
Key lesson five: The power of our minds
If you ever had a doubt about the power of our minds all you have to do is consider the placebo effect. It’s when people have a reaction to medication that is actually just sugar pills. They believe that something occurs as a result of the medication so it does. But how exactly does this occur?
Believe it or not, both the subconscious and conscious mind work together to regulate our body. Candace Pert, a scientist also discovered signal molecules that are present throughout our bodies and not just inside our heads. The molecules send signals to the brain and the brain can also send information back. Pert also found molecules of emotion that are created by our conscious mind to make our body feel better. This makes our minds a powerful tool. We can use our conscious minds to overpower our automatic responses if need be, thus influencing our behaviour.
However, this can have a negative effect as well depending on how we have been conditioned growing up. If we have heard negative things about ourselves from our parents or teachers, we could actually start believing them and it can affect our behaviour negatively. If we were called dumb or stupid, we might begin to believe it and refrain from pursuing higher education, jobs or even voicing our opinions.
So, our mind has the ability to make or break us. Once again, it all depends on our surroundings and what we are exposed to.
Key lesson six: We are formed from the universe
Science has proven yet another remarkable point when it comes to mankind, one that is more spiritual. There is a somewhat religious notion that we are made in the image of a higher power. Science considers this higher power to be the universe.
As discussed, if our cells are influenced by our environment, then surely our very identity is created from our environment. What is truly fascinating is that there is evidence that suggests we continue to exist after death. How? Well, the membranes of our cells have identity receptors that are unique. If someone else had to have the same identity receptors, you would technically exist once more. It seems a bit far fetched, but it is scientifically correct as our cells carry our identity in a specific environment.
The key takeaway from The Biology of Belief is:
Science is always full of new discoveries. It is easy to understand why genes were considered central to life and evolution for so long. However, new research has proven that our surroundings have an influence on our genes as well. Our cells are influenced by our environment and the implications of this are of utmost importance. The sooner we are able to understand these influences, the sooner we will be able to master our own genes and achieve great things.
How can I implement the lessons learned in The Biology of Belief:
Being stressed means that your body is not in a healthy state. Your immune system is negatively impacted and your cells cannot grow nor can you achieve anything positive. Try to alleviate stress in your life and think positive thoughts. You must not condition your mind to believe the negative thoughts as this will further impact your reactions in life. Try implementing exercise or meditation as a tool to alleviate stress.