November 6, 2010
We human beings spend an inordinate amount of time fussing over our differences – skin color, eye color, height, weight, sexual preference, speech patterns, social, political and religious beliefs and, at least when I was a kid in school, handedness. I have friends who are even suspicious of people who are too happy or too sad.
And all this angst over differences seems to be exacerbated during times of widespread threat or change such as our current economic, energy and climate crises. We had an election this past Tuesday. Republicans swept the house and made considerable gains in the senate. Suddenly, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell and other Republicans are talking about “the people” having spoken and doing the will of “the people”. Well wait just a minute, Mr. Boehner, which “the people” are we talking about here? After all, I’m a liberal Democrat and I’m just as certain that the particular will of this person will not be done by you and Mr. McConnell as the conservative Republicans were that President Obama and former speaker, Pelosi, have not done their will. Nor do these versions of “the people” necessarily take into account the will of more liberal Republicans and more conservative Democrats.
Whatever our ethnic or racial makeup, our social, religious or political beliefs, we humans tend to congregate in like groups. We tend to be suspicious of change and the diversity that is both a cause and a result of change. Especially in hard times, we grow more certain that if those “others” (whoever those others may be) were only more like us, everything would be all right. Sometimes we’re so certain, in our fear of change and diversity, that we try to force this conformity through law, war or even genocide.
Personally, I think that’s the wrong attitude – especially in times like these, when we have a real possibility of causing an extinction level event – not because I’m a liberal, tree-hugging hippie who believes we should all join hands and sing, “Kumbiya”, but because change and diversity made us humans. After all, if nothing had changed in the billions of years of life here on earth, we might all be bacteria.
One reason life on earth has changed so often is because the earth itself has changed over the eons and life had to have a way to change with it or die out. Since all life here on earth that we know of is DNA based, the main mechanism for change has been genetic mutation. Every cell of every organism contains threads of DNA called chromosomes. Stretches of chromosomes that contain codes for the manufacture of particular proteins are called genes. Humans have about 40,000 genes. Mutations can occur in any part of the chromosome, but mutations in genes that encode the proteins (of which we are mostly composed) can be especially detrimental.
Mutations can also occur in the DNA of any cell in the body, though only mutations that occur in the germinal cells (the sperm or egg) can be passed on to the next generation. It is possible, however, that in a population of billions of humans, the same genetic mutation or mutations will occur in the somatic (non germinal) cells of many people exposed to the same environmental challenges, thus creating pockets of people with the same beneficial mutations.
Some mutations are detrimental under one circumstance and beneficial under another. For example, because we humans inherit a set of genes from both our parents, inheriting the gene for sickle cell from only one parent conferred resistance to malaria, while inheriting the gene from both parents caused sickle cell anemia, which can be deadly. Some mutations are beneficial, conferring an adaptive advantage to the organism and some appear to be neutral, conferring neither advantage nor disadvantage. However, some mutations can be “pre-adaptive” in the sense that they don’t necessarily confer an advantage when they occur, but turn out to provide an adaptive advantage in a future environment.
One of the articles I read this week (you can find the article here http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20101105_Researchers_find_another_piece_to_the_AIDS_puzzle.html ) discussed a group of AIDS patients who, although they had antibodies to the HIV virus, showing that they had been infected, did not become ill – even after many years. Scientists had finally discovered that this difference was due to “a set of genetic differences that allow about 1 in 300 infected people to keep the virus in check.” Those genetic differences may have conferred no advantage when the mutations first occurred, but in the era of AIDS, they conferred a serious advantage for those patients in whom they had been lurking all this time.
This is why I think we should not be so afraid of our diversity, especially now, when we’re facing so many problems that could permanently alter our environment and possibly bring about an extinction event. All the external differences we fear and argue about are manifestations of the ongoing changes brought about by millennia of mutations and adaptations at the genetic level. For all we know, the hidden genetic differences lurking beneath our differing appearances and behaviors could be the very changes that allow at least part of the human race to adapt and continue through the changes ahead. It’s the best reason I can think of to celebrate the fact that “they” are not like “us”.