Monday, February 4, 2008

The Heroic Gene

Many years ago, Richard Dawkins wrote a book called The Selfish Gene, in which he postulated that a gene will operate like a soulless corporation — entirely in its own interest — even if that means destroying the organism, or culture, that is its host, and that it helped create.

That idea has become conventional wisdom in both molecular biology and our culture. It is cited as a foundational principle by scientists as distinguished as David Baltimore, and by social commentators such as Ralph Nader and John Stossell.

I would like to suggest an alternative view. Genes, and cells, and larger organisms, can choose to broadly cooperate for higher purposes than their own interest. I will give an example from paleovirology.

Humans, anteaters and whale sharks share a common ancestor, one that roamed the seas or land at least 100 million years ago. This ancestor was infected by a retrovirus that threatened its life, even its existence as a species. The retrovirus, similar to H.I.V., possibly even an ancestor, was capable of reversing the flow of information from RNA to DNA, infecting pristine RNA with its parasitic code and then building new cells that served its purposes. It was an entirely selfish organism. The cells it attacked fused together into masses of cells and made thick, solid, malignant tumors.

At the cellular and genomic level, a clever protein chain “decided” that perhaps the attacking virus could be best defended against, not by finding some way to poison it with a novel antibody, but by co-opting its technology. If the defending cells were already fused together, the retrovirus would have no reason to attack, and would look elsewhere. So the protein chain latched onto the strands of code that made cells fuse and wove a barrier of fused cells around its most precious client — the cells that were embryos of its organism’s future selves. The new barrier, made from stolen code, was the tissue we call today the syncytin, the placental wall between mother and fetus whose cells are so fused as to prohibit passage of viruses, bacteria, disease phages, and other potential threats.

By allowing eggs to be replaced with placental sacs inside of the mother, the development of syncytin tissue enabled early mammals to give live birth. It also permitted incubation of the embryo for extended periods with a steady supply of maternal nutrients and the elimination of wastes, something eggs do not have. Mammalian fetuses were able to develop large brains and other advanced specialties in large part due to this nutrient and waste flow.

So, one might ask, why would a rudimentary 100 million year-old protein chain have decided to experiment with adopting virus-like qualities rather than do what it had been instructed to do, which is to defend against viral attacks? Was it a mistake? Was it random trial-and-error? Or was it aikido?

Was it unselfish? Did not the protein choose to regard its enemy as its ally?

Okay, I am going to pause for a moment now and run a side-trip off into something much more controversial. I am going to take on Christianity. I can already feel the backlash.

My ecovillage development hat has me working quite a bit in Mexico these days, and as anyone who has been to Mexico knows, it is a country that is 90-percent Catholic.

How did that happen? The country was deeply religious when Cortes arrived, but the religions that were there bore little resemblance to the Catholicism of 15th Century Europe. Moreover, while the Conquistadors carried the cross, along with their swords, and were on a mission of conversion as emissaries of the Pope, their conduct was hardly something an occupied and terrorized population would likely want to emulate.

I’d venture to say that the conversion of Mexico was a textbook example of how Catholicism spread its meme elsewhere, and, with more than a billion adherents, is the largest organized church in the world today. (Christianity as a whole, with 2.1 billion adherents, runs ahead of Islam, with 1.5 billion, and non-religious or secularists, with 1.1 billion. The world’s remaining 4 billion people are divided amongst some 20 major religions and many lesser ones.)

Any meme is carried along by a powerful central idea, and Christianity has that, in the gospel of its charismatic founder, Jesus of Nazareth. While all of human history is punctuated by a brutal struggle for individual and tribal survival — dog eat dog competition — the central tenet of Christianity is fundamentally pacifistic: return good for evil, all men are brethren, turn the other cheek, sacrifice personal gain for social welfare, and provide special care for the weakest and most oppressed members of society: the outcasts, sick, women, prisoners, prostitutes and thieves.

Muhammad expressly adopted the teachings of Jesus as a central part of Islam. The concept of “jihad,” which seems to run contrary to the message of Jesus, has been interpreted by Sufis to have been intended by Muhammad as a metaphor for spiritual evolution, rather than organized violence. Even Muhammad, it seems, “got” Jesus.

The genius of the Catholic church, extending back to the second century, has been its ability to insinuate itself like a retrovirus into cultures with already well-established religions. The basic Jesus myth succeeded by appropriating elements of both its hosts and its attackers.

The film, Zeitgeist, making the rounds in web distribution, CD and DVD before a planned official release March 15 of this year, reaches like Morpheus into The Matrix and frees us, as Neo, from the world of illusion — opening our eyes to the false myths that surround us.

Our Rites of Spring, celebrating seasonal change, extend back into pre-history, marking the celestial changes hominids observed that enabled us to hunt game, domesticate plants, make babies, build soils, and organize specialized labor classes that birthed our civilizations. Saul of Tarsus, after his fabled conversion to Saint Peter, was a prime adapter, a master meme propagator. He erected his church on the foundation stones of the Pagans, Greeks, Romans, and Jews, building a placental wall of their sacred tenets. Christmas and Easter are taken from pre-existing rituals, based in nature.

As Zeitgeist explains, the three wise men who followed a star in the East were the constellation of the Southern Cross, and at the winter Solstice, a time when days in the Northern Hemisphere are shortest and nature is in its deepest hibernation, the sun at mid-latitudes falls below the horizon and there remains for three days before it rises through the Cross and ascends to its proper place as redeemer of life.

Stepping into mythic legends as old as the pyramids, the Catholic Church imbued Jesus with all of the qualities of the religions it wished to supplant. Rather than challenging the old stories, it merely updated those with a polyglot new story, one that supercharged the high-minded qualities people were drawn to in the first place.

According to some Aztec scholars, Cortes’ papal missionaries were equal to the task of converting as wildly diverse and dis-homogenous but deeply spiritual population as the Conquistadors found in Mexico. It took a few tries, but after returning to Spain at least once, possibly twice, with their cotton serape, the friars recrossed the Atlantic with a third image painted over the preceding two, and that third image was the charm.

The icon syncretically represented both the Virgin Mary and the indigenous Mexican goddess Tonantzin, but contained secret symbols that widened its appeal beyond the Vatican’s wildest dreams.

As the story goes, during a walk from his village to Mexico City on December 9, 1531, a poor peasant named Juan Diego saw a vision of the Virgin Mary at the hill of Tepeyac. Speaking in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs still found in rural Mexico today, Our Lady of Guadalupe asked him to build an abbey at that site. When Juan relayed the miraculous apparition to the Spanish bishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the bishop demanded a sign to prove his claim.

Returning to the hill on December 12, Juan Diego explained his dilemma and The Virgin told Juan to gather flowers, even though it was winter. He found Castillian roses, gathered them on his tilma, or shoulder blanket, and presented these to bishop Zumárraga. When Zumárraga removed the roses, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe miraculously appeared, imprinted on the cloth.

She is a Mestizo woman, the product of marriage between the brown indigenous peoples of the Americas and lighter-skinned Europeans. She wears European silks bearing patterns of cactus flowers, and her robe has 8-pointed gold stars and a gold trim. She stands on a black crescent, like the head of a steer, and under her is a child-like figure, possibly angel-winged, clutching the trail of her garments.

The first written account of these events is the Nahuatl-language Huei tlamahuiçoltica ("The Great Event") published in 1649, but proported to be taken from a Nahuatl story recorded in 1556. The dates are problematic, because Zumárraga did not become Archbishop of New Spain until 1547 and there is no mention of this story in any of his writings.

In 1999 the Archbishop of Mexico commissioned a study to test the relic tilma's age. Leoncio Garza-Valdés, who had previously worked with the Shroud of Turin, discovered that the fabric on which the icon is painted is made of conventional hemp and linen, not agave fibers as is popularly believed.

Garza-Valdés also found three distinct layers in the painting, at least one of which was signed and dated. The original painter was Marcos Aquino, a well-known painter of the Mexican colonial period. The signed date was 1556.

The 1556 layer was much different than the final layer. The Virgin, offset by 15 cm from the top layer, does not have a tunica over her hair and carries the baby Jesus on her left arm. The image bears a strong resemblance to the icon painting in the choir of the Monastery of Our Lady, in Extremadura, Spain, which was painted on wood relief in 1498.

The second image brought out by Garza-Valdés, using infrared and ultraviolet filters, was dated to the 17th Century. After first painting the cloth white, the second painter re-depicted the Virgin, transforming her face to give her more indigenous Mestizo qualities. This second layer was dated at 1625.

The third and final image, coming later in the 17th Century, refines the rays coming from the Virgin so that they resemble agave spines. The Virgin appears to stand on the back of the angel. Some scholars have noted that "Guadalupe" is a corruption of a Nahuatl name, "Coatlaxopeuh,” which translates "Who Crushes the Serpent.” In this interpretation, the serpent referred to is Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec and other indigenous faiths’ God/Man prophet. Images of Quetzalcoatl, said to be a native of Amatlan in the modern state of Morelos, depict him with a pale white face, mustache and goatee. His distinctively non-native, non-Mestizo image is celebrated with masks at annual festivals. Could the person whom the Virgin Mary stands on, crushing him as a serpent, be Quetzalcoatl, rather than an angel? Many of the renditions of the painting that have appeared actually give the angel what appears to be a beard, lending support to this interpretation.

top: Mosaic Virgin of Guadalupe, Photo by Alan Curtis.
bottom: Wooden Our Lady of Guadelupe, Galeria Mi Casa, Austin.

The genius stroke of the final image, however, was the blue-green garment draped over the bodice of the Virgin. A simple Mexican peasant need only invert the painting thus:

Regardless of your origins what you then see is the Popul Vu; the Aztec, Olmec and Toltec creation story; and the entire history of the Americas for thousands of years revealed — as if by magic. The Virgin is none other than Sacred Corn, gift of the Gods.

Inverted, the angel/baby Jesus/ Quetzalcoatl figure issues from a vagina above the ear of corn like an enlarged kernel of silvery smut — huitlacoche, (Ustilago maydis).

Of over 5,000 species of rust and smut fungi, in the Western Hemisphere only huitlacoche is commonly eaten as food, and it originated in Mexico, long before the Aztecs. Native Mexican midwives also apply huitlacoche topically during childbirth to induce labor.

You will probably never see fresh Huitlacoche sold outside of Mexico, but you can sometimes find it canned in the gourmet or Latin section of supermarkets. Here is a recipe I tested in Merida last summer, while sitting out Hurricane Dean.

Huitlacoche Soup
Serves two

1-1/2 cups soy or almond milk
1 cup warm water
3 Tablespoons flour
5 Tablespoons olive oil
4-6 drops mild jalapeño sauce
1 generous cup of Huitlacoche
1 small yellow onion
1 cloves fresh garlic

Blend milk, water, flour, and 3 Tbsp oil. Cook slowly, stirring until the white sauce thickens. Chop finely the onions and garlic and sauté in 2 Tbsp oil with the hot pepper sauce until browned and tender. Add the Huitlacoche last to preserve its strong flavor. Pour the white sauce into bowls, then pour the dark sauce afterwards and swirl once with a spoon, leaving a spiral. Garnish as desired.

Alternatively, you can substitute white corn flour for wheat flour, which produces a thicker and more corn-tasting soup.

In my next entry I am going to relate this story back to peak oil, climate change, population and the fate of the Earth, because it provides important lessons about tipping points.

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