Monday, 28 March 2016

Easter: Eggs, Evolution and Existentialism

Easter is the time of year when card-designers get highly excited about Spring. You can't move without a picture of a lamb, or a chick, or a daffodil, dipping it's yellow head softly in an imaginary breeze; a motion Wordsworth would be proud of, immortalised on a card. As a fan of daffodils, chicks and lambs, I'm not against this in the slightest. But, as an aspiring biologist, as I receive my colourful Easter eggs from kindly relations, and read the cards whose pretty yellow borders sing of sunny Spring, I can't help but wonder what made the human race act like this - why is it that we are so devoted to what is essentially just a Sunday? What makes us hold onto this concept that, because of a story that approximately only 32% of the world population believe in, this day is a special time deserving of celebration?

The surface answers are obvious: for Christians, Easter is a celebration of Jesus' resurrection, raised from the dead, from death on the cross for the sins of humanity, by God. It is arguably the most important date in the Christian calender, and the celebration of the most joy, as it illustrates freedom from suffering, the triumph of life after death. Others perhaps, who are not devoted to belief in Christianity - a group I would currently place myself in - perhaps celebrate and enjoy Easter still for the representation of new life and life defying death, but in the more pagan following of Winter with Spring, respite from the darkness and cold and the beginning of new life in the natural world. Eggs, therefore, represent this new life, and work both for delicious satisfaction and for metaphorical meaning as gifts of joy at this time. 

The deeper question, however, the one I really wanted to answer, is this: genetically speaking, why is it that humans have evolved to have this need to celebrate religious occasions, to come together in this way and celebrate what is, in actual fact, just a Sunday. Evolution, of course, is the answer - an idea that would freeze the hearts of the religious population of Victorian Britain: science is behind religion. 

Religious behaviour has occurred in all societies throughout the world at all stages of population development. It holds a genetic basis, which means it is an evolved behaviour, existing in our DNA because natural selection determined it useful for survival. Evolution in this way has given people a genetic pre-disposition, as is also present for language, to learn the religion of their community. From there, culture, not genetics, determines what we learn and what we choose to believe. 

Scientifically, there are two schools of thought as to why this evolution occurred. The first is that religion itself evolved due to natural selection for survival, and is therefore an adaptation giving evolutionary advantage. The second follows the belief that religion was a by-product of different adaptations, without being initially selected for for its own benefits.

This image belongs to Nick Biemans/Shutterstock
It is easy, perhaps, to see how in a hunter-gatherer society, as the human race began in, religious activities and rituals lead to stronger bonds and therefore higher chance of survival through the age old 'safety in numbers'. Rituals such as dancing created social bonds which lead to greater cohesion and cooperation within the group. This in turn makes it more efficient, and leads to a better chance of survival and reproductive success. Social bonds are illustrated in a similar way in chimpanzee groups, wherein grooming between two chimpanzees leads to increase levels of the hormone oxytocin, which plays an intrinsic role in non-kin cooperation. Religion would have served these early human societies, formed of small collaborative groups, as a sort of intangible law through which individuals would be socially obligated to put the needs of the group before the needs of the self, in fear of a 'divine punishment' or social ostracisation. As a result, the group both had a reason to avoid harm to each other, and a belief to inspire confidence in warfare and conflict, resulting in a society which had greater survival rates and social strength. Groups who had some form of religious structure would hence prevail of those that did not, and the allele frequency of genes 'for' religious thought and ritual would become more numerous until they were universal. Religion also became tied to natural occurrences - festivals in Spring and Autumn helping get the crops planted and harvested among celebration, inspiring labour and organisation. The 'God Gene Hypothesis' suggests that a particular gene, VMAT2, predisposes humans towards spiritual or ritualistic experiences, and is seen by some to act as an agent to increased optimism, leading to positive effects on other factors like health and reproductive success, though this has not been convincingly proven. 

The theory of religion as a by-product follows really the evolution of the human mind for consciousness, the realisation that we are mortal and the realisation that one must deal with their
inevitable death. Religion therefore served a fitting purpose for our anxieties - for ourselves, our lives, and about things we cannot, or could not, explain. The coordinated anxiety with others, through the outlet of religion, may have served a reassuring purpose, in which we feel meaning and can therefore manage our fear through the outlet of action.  

belonging to
It is easy, perhaps, to assume a biologist is an atheist. Indeed, when Darwin first published the Theory of Evolution it was considered incredibly blasphemous, against all concept of religion. But really, the idea of religion as an evolved trait perhaps negates neither atheism or religion. Critics of religion emphasise the negative effects caused by extreme religious leaders - in particular warfare and the act of extremist groups who by no means represent the entire religious population. But religion as a means of social cohesion, as a means for survival, in its most basic function of encouraging morality and humanity, is still very much a part of the functioning of today's society. The beliefs of entire religions is in no way represented by the extremist acts of the few, and even the most solid of atheists feel a unanimity in their mutual unbelieving. As a social bond, and a means of facing the reality of human existence, we can see indeed how religion is a trait naturally selected for to improve our chances of survival, as a species. 

After all, religious or not, we are brought together at Easter, to celebrate together new life in the form of eggs and chicks and lambs and daffodils. Whatever social significance it holds and stimulus it arises from, we all feel it.  


Monday, 14 March 2016

From Death comes Life

There is a small churchyard a few roads from my house. It's where I was christened, where my mother rang the bells for twenty years, where my younger brother was christened and countless family friends married. Though I myself am not overtly religious, I still value the church for its memories, and for the tranquillity that can always be found there.

Surrounded on three sides by roads, one of which I walk home along every day, the quiet and stillness maintained between its walls are a small miracle, and this time of year, the yew trees and tall building are lit below with a riotous carpet of colour, the beginnings of Spring.

As I first enter the churchyard, through the small wooden gate that so many different versions of me over the years has passed through, the sound of the road dies away and is replaced by the soft song of a blackbird, hopping along the path in front of me. As I crouch to admire the tree's blanketing cover of crocuses, a robin watches me from the branches, small beady eye daring me to try to get closer to him.

I think about the birds beginning their nests, as I walk the transition from crocuses to primroses to snowdrops, the occasional lesser celandine just starting to poke its head in too. Most of the graves hold cut flowers, but some have beds of living daffodils planted over them, bowing gracefully in the light chill breeze.

While I'm not sure how I feel about religion, I know how I feel about science, and to me the understanding of how these plants death and life and the death and life of the humans around them all influence each other in nutrient cycles to keep new life going, is almost reassuring. The cyclical nature of the seasons and life in this way comforts me in it's simplistic success: it gives death a reason, maybe. I read an article a few weeks ago about renewable ways for your body to return to nature after you die, one of which included using your ashes to plant and grow a tree. I would like that, I think. To give something back.

As I round the corner by the crumbling wall of the church tower, down rows of planted beds of flowers - hyacinth, bell hyacinth, row upon row more daffodils - and my blackbird friend hops behind me, I note the lack of one thing - insects. Perhaps it is too early in the year, the frost still biting too sharp, but I miss them. The lazy butterflies of summer moving gently from flower to flower, first sighting of  a Brimstone and then the Orange Tips and Whites and Blues. But butterfly species are really suffering, at the moment, with a 76% decline of the UK's resident and migrant butterflies in abundance or occurrence over the last four decades ( Butterfly Conservation UK). It makes me sad to think we might run the risk of losing even some of their beauty, so in addition to the huge buddleia bush that flowers decadently at the back of my garden every year, I'm going to try to introduce more butterfly-friendly species into my garden this year, including Ox-Eye Daisies, Dahlia, and Marigolds, all of which will also help support bees, my personal favourite insect, despite the fact I'm allergic to them. I'm also going to try to get involved with the Garden Butterfly survey also run by Butterfly Conservation UK, to do my bit towards their conservation. It's easy, free, and encourages you to sit in the garden just enjoying the life there for a while! For more information follow the link:

I would also encourage all of you to go and spent approx. 15 minutes in your local churchyard, like I did, not only to admire the beautiful life that has a chance to flourish in its sheltered habitat but also, as I did, to find peace.