Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

An intimate connection between ‘belief’ and (human) biology?

Have you ever heard of a biologist (more precisely a cell-biologist) called Bruce Lipton, who is a bestselling author as well, and an internationally known keynote speaker on what is known as the “new biology”? You will find him through several links on YouTube. It is worth reading his books, The Biology of Belief and the more difficult Spontaneous Evolution (which I have only glanced at), which, even though they sound very New Agey and might therefore put off a lot of potential readers, contain a wealth of insights into the relationship between one’s biological makeup and one’s more encompassing being at various levels.

If I were asked to summarise Lipton’s position in one sentence, it would be something like this: Instead of the widely held, largely deterministic belief among biologists about genetics, namely, that our genes “control” or “determine” us, it is rather the case that our genes respond to cues in their environment, such as one’s experience and perception of, or beliefs regarding your own life.

This could make all the difference between believing that “single” cells, with their particular genetic “programming”, could determine the health of the “community” of trillions of cells comprising one human body – something increasingly accepted as true since the discovery of the double helix-structure of human DNA (the “secret of life”) by Crick and Watson in 1953 – and holding out on the possibility that the environing community within which they exist (of cells, but also of human consciousness and belief, all of which make up a human being), crucially influences the relative well-being of single cells.

In Lipton’s own words (The Biology of Belief, Hay House Inc, 2008, p. xiii): “My life-changing moment occurred while I was reviewing my research on the mechanisms by which cells control their physiology and behaviour. Suddenly I realized that a cell’s life is fundamentally controlled by the physical and energetic environment with only a small contribution by its genes. Genes are simply molecular blueprints used in the construction of cells, tissues and organs. The environment serves as a ‘contractor’ who reads and engages those genetic blueprints and is ultimately responsible for the character of a cell’s life. It is a single cell’s ‘awareness’ of the environment that primarily sets into motion the mechanisms of life”.

If one thinks holistically, as Lipton does here, it is not difficult to extrapolate already from this the implications, on a much broader scale, for single human individuals unavoidably living in a specific environment, which is in its turn embedded in an even more encompassing environment or ecology. Rather than being able to control one’s own life decisively (on one’s own), as so many people believe, and are led to believe by pop psychologists of the “Yes you can!”-variety, one’s awareness of the character of one’s environment crucially influences one’s own individual (genetic) “blueprint”, which responds to it in a “co-creative” manner. In other words, deterministic explanations are wrong: neither your social and natural environment, nor one’s genetic constitution “determines” what you are and do separately; BOTH play an equally important role.

Lipton proceeds as follows in this spirit (pp. xiii-xiv): “As a cell biologist I knew that my insights had powerful ramifications for my life and the lives of all human beings. I was acutely aware that each of us is made up of approximately fifty trillion single cells. I had devoted my professional life to better understanding single cells because I knew then and know now that the better we understand single cells the better we can understand the community of cells that comprises each human body and that if single cells are controlled by their awareness of the environment so too are we trillion-celled human beings. Just like a single cell, the character of our lives is determined not by our genes but by our responses to the environmental signals that propel life”.

Lipton places this life-changing discovery on his part in the context of what he had been taught by mainstream biology, which he had in turn been teaching at a reputable medical school in the US, and from which (together with a personal life that had disintegrated) he had escaped by taking up a teaching position at a small medical college in the Caribbean Sea. Importantly, being away from orthodox, mainstream scientific influences on a veritable island paradise with a rich, diverse and easily perceivable ecosystem, created a receptivity on his part for what Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm-switch (p. xxiii):

“Sitting quietly within garden-like island jungles and snorkeling among jeweled coral reefs gave me a window into the island’s amazing integration of plant and animal species. All live in a delicate, dynamic balance, not only with other life forms but with the physical environment as well. It was life’s harmony – not life’s struggle – that sang out to me as I sat in the Caribbean Garden of Eden. I became convinced that contemporary biology pays too little attention to the important role of cooperation because its Darwinian roots emphasize life’s competitive nature.”

It should be clear from Lipton’s paradigm-challenging experience, away from a “reputable” mainstream university, that the force of orthodoxy in science – not only the natural sciences, but the human sciences as well – is not to be underestimated. If you doubt this, read Foucault’s inaugural lecture at the College de France, “The Order of Discourse” (included in the 1972 translation of The Archaeology of Knowledge with the somewhat misleading title of The Discourse on Language), where he elegantly uncovers the discursive constraints on introducing anything really novel into a scientific discipline.

And I mean really NOVEL; so much so that it would take a paradigmatic revolution in the Kuhnian sense for such a novel insight or theory to be accommodated and acknowledged in the hallowed corridors of dominant scientific discourse, otherwise known as orthodoxy. From Lipton’s and other scientists’ work it seems that such a paradigmatic change may just be under way in the biological domain.
He lists two new disciplines that reflect the new receptivity to such holistic thinking in biology (p. xv), to wit, Signal Transduction (the investigation of the “chemical pathways by which cells respond to environmental cues”) and Epigenetics (“the science of how environmental signals select, modify, and regulate gene activity”). According to him, “[t]his new awareness reveals that the activity of our genes is constantly being modified in response to life experiences. Which again emphasizes that our perceptions of life shape our biology”.

Throughout the book he stresses the role of “belief” in all of this: it was the rigid, orthodox “beliefs” (I would say “discourses”, which is the same thing, just articulated in terms of language) that initially held him captive, and from the influence of which he literally had to remove himself before he was receptive to an earth-shattering “epiphany” on a tropical island that pulverized these dogmatic beliefs. It was his beliefs in his own inability to have a fulfilling personal life that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Since the discovery of the insurmountable link between belief and life, his personal life has taken a turn for the better, by the way – this is made clear in the book.) But beware – we are not dealing with arbitrarily concocted beliefs here, but well-founded, experience-rooted belief.

Chapter 5 of the book, titled Biology and Belief, is especially interesting in this regard, because Lipton takes on the “father” of modern philosophy, René Descartes, who held the dualistic belief that mind and body are entirely separate substances, and could exist independently of each other. Although Lipton’s arguments represent something new in biology, however, it is nothing new in philosophy, despite the hyper-rationalistic tenor that still prevails in many of its halls of orthodoxy. Since the time of Nietzsche, and continuing through the work of Husserl, Heidegger and especially Merleau-Ponty, all the manifestations of rationalistic Cartesian dualism have been challenged repeatedly via, for instance, phenomenological investigations demonstrating what is sometimes called the “body-mind unity”. But that is a topic for another occasion.

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    • Maria

      Bert, the implications of Lipton’s innovations in biology are vast when it comes to the looming ecological catastrophe, which is the “environment” in which people live today. Those who are in denial, adhere to an illusory idea of the state of the biosphere, and this has a negative impact on their individual lives as signs accumulate that there is something seriously wrong with the ecosphere. Those who understand the far-reaching meaning of the growing signs of ecological near-collapse, can adapt the way they live, which translates into healthier living for the individual. In addition to what you said about the mind/body unity being known in philosophy around the end of the 19th century already, Saussure’s structuralist linguistics similarly prioritized the whole over the part (“langue” over individual sign), and analogously, structuralist thinkers such as Levi-Strauss in ethnology did the same. Field theory in physics (“the field is more important than the particular entity”) can also be adduced as precursor to the penny dropping in biology.

    • Greg

      Thanks for an interesting article. I hadn’t heard of Bruce Lipton before. As a biologist, I have also had wonderful revelations about the role of the cell & the relationship of the organism to its environment. Unlike Lipton, I was able to integrate these experiences into my operating knowledge without finding it necessary to dismiss the foundations of modern biology. Lipton reverts to a naive creationism to justify his beliefs, while ignoring many of the genuinely novel ideas in modern biology.

      It’s disappointing that you offer Foucault’s critique of the scientific discipline in support of Lipton’s ideas. The claim that one’s discoveries are too novel to fit the current paradigm is the first refuge of the crackpot. This reasoning is standard for anyone who’s ideas are rejected by their peers in any discipline, and enabling them by referring to Foucault and Kuhn does no one any favours.

      Wouldn’t it be preferable for Lipton to remain within established science, suffer the criticism of his peers, and eventually demonstrate the value of his ideas to the world at large? That’s the discipline of Science, however flawed it may be in practice. Look at Rupert Sheldrake – his ideas are heretical, yet he’s tried to remain within the establishment, gather evidence and convince his peers to think constructively about their own beliefs. Unlike Lipton, he’s willing to be proved wrong.

      Lipton has moved into New Age mysticism, where criticism is ignored, but book…

    • Greg

      Also, check out this discussion of some of Dr. Lipton’s ideas here:

    • Rory Short

      @bert as a long time practicing Quaker/Yogi/Buddhist what you say here is music to my ears. Because of my proficiency in maths and physics at school I was encouraged to train as a mechanical engineer. I graduated in 1961. During my first factory job I became very interested in how you organised production in a factory only to discover that it was thought that the data processing power of computers, newly arrived on the market, would be taking over that job from humans. Not wanting to be made redundant by a computer I joined the nascent computer industry and there I worked until I retired in 2004. So in a sense my whole education and working life had a very scientific/mechanistic/deterministic slant to it but at the same time I was not happy in the view of the world, and life in general, that, that slant assumed. I kept feeling that there must be more to life than what that view envisages. In this I was supported, feeling-wise at least, by my experience in Quaker Meetings which I had begun to attend from my mid-twenties onwards. I wanted a conjunct between mechanics and the mysteries of life and now modern science is moving in that direction.

    • Ian Shaw

      The Sopviet charlatan Liszenko also said that environmentally acquired traits are inheritable. If you think about Lipton clearly, he seems to pursue a similar idea which has been totally discredited by all serious cell scientists.

    • Steven

      While I haven’t read the book, as a molecular biologist I need to caution against all these “breakthroughs” and “paradigm shifts” that exist in popular science but don’t seem to make it to the scientific literature. Yes, environment plays an important role in how genes are expressed and the rate (but not the site) of mutation. However, you can do little to change whatever traits your genome confers, and most epigenetic effects are largely secondary to genetic contributions. I am not dismissing the idea that thoughts may alter gene expression – one possible mechanism is that moods may influence hormonal signals, which in turn can affect gene expression. The danger of “alternative healing” books like these, which are full of half-truths and pseudoscience, is that what may be somewhat true under certain circumstances and restricted to a severely limited number of examples, is extrapolated to be a general mechanism of healing and health that will certainly be abused in spirituality and alternative healing circles. If it is too good to be true, it is too good to be true! It seems anyone can write a book about anything these days, and most biologists and scientists would not accept his arguments to be convincing or supported by sufficient evidence.

      As a side note, according to a Scopus search Lipton hasn’t published a scientific article in over 20 years (he stopped at age 50). His lifelong contribution to science is 18 publications – very meager by academic standards.

    • Bert

      Thanks for the interesting responses. Rory, I’m glad you find Lipton’s work consonant with your experiences. Maria, I agree with what you said.
      Greg, Ian and Steven – I realize that, for practising scientists Lipton’s work must be taken with a pinch of salt, as it were. However, to begin with, if you have studied discourse theory, as I have, you will soon discover that even the natural sciences’ theoretical language (their discourse) is shot through with epistemological assumptions that influence the acceptability of formulations in their domain. Foucault demonstrates this well by contrasting Darwin and Mendel’s contributions, showing that, by the time the latter’s work became acceptable to biologists, the presuppositions of the science had changed. I believe that Lipton is challenging the presuppositions of contemporary biology, and whether this challenge will hold water, as it were, remains to be seen. His first book is a fairly ‘popular’ introduction, which I (as non-biologist) can easily understand; his second seems far more scientifically formulated, and one should look carefully at that one before dismissing him as a crackpot. What seems persuasive to me, is that the environment in which cells exist, will decisively affect their functioning; what I would not accept, is the new agey claim (which he does NOT make), that one can affect one’s own biological functioning at will by just adopting a certain belief, arbitrarily.

    • Paul Whelan

      Among the many interesting considerations arising here is how different political positions lead people to read the same data differently.

      Far from showing that ‘environment’ is regulative, this story suggested more to me that ‘environment’ has some ‘core nature’ to confirm, contradict or at the very least to work on. I am a layman, but even I know our genetic structure is not a blueprint, that genes appear to switch on and off in some (as yet?) unknown and unpredictable way and that ‘environment’ from the womb appears to have some influence, also unknown and unpredictable. If I experience no epiphany here, it is very unlikely Science does, I feel, but only Mr Lipton.

      More broadly, I do not believe in popular coinages like ‘paradigm shifts’. It is a saleable idea, plausibly argued, but all experience shows scientific knowledge is a cumulative process involving much trial and error. I don’t believe Einstein represented a ‘paradigm shift’, and I am certain he would not claim to have been one. The notion implies that genius stands outside all previous experience. This is a quick answer for people who haven’t time to research the historical background thoroughly, like the God-of-the-Gaps.

    • Paul Whelan

      And I would add it is true, as Greg says, that the claim ‘one’s discoveries are too novel to fit the current paradigm is the first refuge of the crackpot’ – though the point is, that it is not always true. Sometimes some crackpot does crack it.

      The trick is to know the difference. What’s your methodology for telling the difference, except distilled experience, that is to say, science, in the end?

    • Greg

      “you will soon discover that even the natural sciences’ theoretical language (their discourse) is shot through with epistemological assumptions that influence the acceptability of formulations in their domain.”

      Seriously, what does that even mean? Please provide an example that’s relevant to excusing Lipton from framing his “novel” ideas in basic scientific terms, and participating in the practice of science.

      Again, it’s all too easy to run away from criticism, claiming that “the academy doesn’t want to hear my paradigm-shattering ideas!”

      And you don’t have to look far to find a biologists willing to refute Lipton’s ideas:

      Epistemological assumptions aside, does what Lipton says actually make sense given what we know about how biology works? If not, what are the chances that “Biology is wrong!” vs. the likelihood that Lipton is unwilling or unable to present his ideas in a clear and testable form? An outcome, by the way, which would provide a useful result, as opposed to New Age speculation designed to sell books to the uncritical?

    • Momma Cyndi

      This is not really ‘new’. The placebo effect was proven long ago and the sangoma (and sharman) have been using this since dirt was young. There are well documented cases of it. Most notable cases are possibly the ones revolving around Voodoo and other ‘mystic’ religions.

      Modern medicine has found the relationship between ‘type A’ personalities and higher likelihood of illness and even our grans used to warn us about the effect our bad attitude had on our liver (okay so maybe the liver wasn’t the only casualty but it still has to count)

      My question is, are we simply trying to reinvent the wheel here?

    • Paul Whelan

      @Greg – If I may butt in again, I take the quote you give from Bert, speaking of Foucault, to point out that our truths – ‘conventional wisdom’, ‘discourses of power’ etc, whichever phrase you choose – on any matter, including those in the natural sciences, are self-confirming and rule out the possibility of our seeing other and greater truths, which would otherwise replace them.

      There seems no reason to disagree with that notion in principle and it is well to keep it in mind. But, on the other hand, we are entitled to reject it absolutely as a unarguable description of the world. It borders on the absurd to suggest that ‘science’ is not well aware of this tendency and defenceless before it.

      As I started by saying above, I believe such a claim is rooted in a ‘kind of Marxist take on the world’ – as I think Foucault admitted to somewhere – along with the more mundane frustrations of working in colleges and universities where departments and department heads, as in other institutions, inevitably have their set ways of doing things.

    • Maria

      @Greg and Paul: I believe Bert has already answered you, and if your response is “What does that even mean?” I submit it is incumbent on you to familiarize yourselves with discourse theory (which Bert has explained here, albeit briefly, but also elsewhere on TL at length – see the posts relating to the discourses directing our actions, etc). You would not expect someone not conversant with advanced cell biology to say to you “what does that even mean?” Would you? Work yourself into the discipline of discourse theory and you would understand. Besides, the example of Mendel and Darwin is adequate, but think of the paradigmatic differences between geocentrist astronomers and heliocentrist ones on the cusp of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Tycho Brahe and others’ levering astronomy over into the heliocentric age. The “discursive” assumptions regarding a static geocentric universe on the part of the former would make it impossible for them to grasp Copernicus’ heliocentric hypothesis, which made epicycles redundant in describing the movements of planets and stars, but once one has replaced this with a heliocentric model of a universe in motion, excluding epicycles makes perfect sense. This kind of fundamental discursive changes happens in every discipline.

    • Richard

      I wonder whether this is not simply “repackaging” of the evolutionary principle? We know that organisms respond to their environment (which must occur at a cellular level, since that is the “real” level of our existence as physical, biological, entities) and adapt to them, or else evolution would not occur. Although it is “blind” response (in the sense that mutations either survive or don’t, and if surviving, alter the entire organism), the simple fact that there is a response at all means it occurs. The idea that there is some sort of differentiation or exclusivity at play is what is difficult in this theory. It is from the errors that we make (both as entities and as parts of that entity) that the character of our lives stems. The errors beget alteration, and alteration in response to stimulus is what enunciates character (in all senses of the word). Think of the journey of a protagonist in literature, and you will see this to be true in art as well. The protagonist chooses a course of action, and then responds to the challenges that course of action causes. When primitive life-forms moved from the oceans to the land in response to some mutation, their alteration into land-dwellers introduced further challenges, to which they further responded, ad infinitum. The term “awareness” in its naïve form is not really appropriate in this type of discourse.

    • Greg

      Paul Whelan, thanks for your thoughtful response, which more clearly gets at what I was trying to say re: Foucault.

    • Lindus

      I’ve read Lipton’s book “The Biology of Belief ” but I think he’s quack.

      He even claims that firewalking is “mind-over-matter” although this is something that’s been explained by basic Physics and has nothing to do at all with the mind nor the supernatural.

    • Paul Whelan

      ‘The protagonist chooses a course of action and then responds to the challenges that course of action causes’, says Richard … and I do not see how any ‘self’ can bring him-self or her-self to disagree with that. Even if autonomy is by some argument a complete illusion, we imagine we are the shapers of our individual lives and history and it is that notion that makes us so. However well the case for it is argued, the world is not a prison-house.

      From what I see, Bert, of all people, does not really believe that either. Bert believes Foucault strikes a blow for freedom for those who might miss it. But it will not seem like that to people who are free already.

    • Paul Whelan

      @Maria – You’re right – for many, the majority, the great majority, the overwhelming majority, it would have been impossible to accept the heliocentric view. For all I know, perhaps a lot of people still can’t.

      But even then it was not everyone. Copernicus wouodn’t have been all on his own. His tutor had the same opinion – who gave his tutor the idea? C would have chatted with his mates about his theory over a drink or whatever. Did they think he was nuts, or on to something? They told him not to publish – it might be dangerous – and he didn’t for years, just in case.

      The point is the doubts were there and there was no cage for ‘scientists’. On its own terms, in its own times, the Ptolemaic model’s need for epicycles would have worried some people. It made the heavens untidy. Some people, however few, would have gone to bed unsettled in their minds about it.

    • Charlie

      Just skimmed through the article but on thing stood out “In other words, deterministic explanations are wrong: neither your social and natural environment, nor one’s genetic constitution “determines” what you are and do separately; BOTH play an equally important role.”

      Firstly we have known for some time that it is a combination of nature and nurture that makes you you. The combination of the two makes the system chaotic; this does not mean that it is now not deterministic just that it makes it very difficult to make predictions. I know you said the explanations are wrong but by saying that you are implying that it is not deterministic but random.

    • Paul Whelan

      On my last point, Maria, the discoveries of the Kepler spacecraft right now will not, in my opinion, constitute any kind of ‘paradigm shift’ or give rise to a ‘epistemic break’. There is a straight line between Copernicus and the Kepler that links the many generations in between in a most marvellous way.

    • Garg Unzola

      You’re on the right track in my books. Science is easier in the sense that it is simpler with regards to epistemology. The standard for truth in science is essentially empiricism.

      You’ve highlighted the crisis that the pomo (or is it pocrit this week?) department faces: There is no way they can justify their faith in the likes of Faucault. It’s turtles all the way down that road of ad hoc hypotheses, which of course doesn’t mean that their assertions are wrong, it just means there is no clear epistemological foundation for them. This is of course convenient.

      I suspect that Lipton has overstated the claim and it seems like his convictions amount to a belief in magic. Although in essence, there are some justifications for sociobiology.

      Also thanks for the link, I wasn’t aware that science based medicine dealt with the epigenetics snake oil.