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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.