Gautama's Darwinian boost?

Scientists have identified a brain-related gene which emerged in a place and time consistent with the historical Buddha, giving rise to the intriguing possibility that his enlightenment was aided by genetic factors.

The research was done by scientists at the Howard Hughes Medican Institute and is reported here. Or, you may prefer the New York Times version.

The gene in question, known as ASPM, is associated with brain size (this gene was identified due to its role in causing microcephaly—shrunken brains). Such a gene is of obvious interest, since increase in brain size is a hallmark of human evolution. The researchers had already done phylogenetic studies showing that these genes were more evolved in humans than in apes.

In the latest research, in a sample of humans from around the world, the scientists found unusually common groups of “haplotypes” (genetic variants), but also slight variants from those common haplotypes, indicating that their evolution was ongoing. This gave rise to the headlines in your local newspaper screaming “Evolution of Brain Continues!” Well, why would anyone have thought it had ever stopped?

The most intriguing part of the research was how it walks back in time , using the statistical characteristics of the genetic variations, to estimate when—and where (based on the geographically diverse group of subjects)—the current dominant form of the gene evolved. For ASPM, the conclusion was that that a new allele emerged 5,800 years ago. and occurs more frequently in in a band running east-to-west from the Mediterranean to India.

The scientists muse that 5,800 years ago was when writing emerged in those regions, and agriculture , and settlements, and wonder if a connection could exist there. I’m more interested in the uncanny match with the time and place of the historical Buddha.

If we believe that genetic changes and resulting changes in brain size or structure could predispose people to reaching transcendant states or making progress on religious paths, some interesting neurotheological conclusions could follow. We could in theory develop genetic tests to identify good candidates for spiritual training. We would want to reverse the trend for advanced practitioners to remove themselves from the gene pool by becoming celibate—perhaps a monks’ sperm bank could be set up. Most interestingly, we may have grounds for optimism that as humans and their brains continue to evolve, as long as we don’t kill ourselves first, evolution will eventually bring the race to a perfected neural state where everyone can enjoy divine grace.

2 Responses to “Gautama's Darwinian boost?”

  1. Alex Says:

    Just found your blog, and I’m really enjoying it, but I have a question about your dates. Everything I’ve read has put Buddha at 2,500 years old, but the articles state the changes occurred around 5,800 years ago. How are you seeing a correlation?

    I’m curious because if you have something else to back this up, and I just missed it by accident, it could also lend credence to the idea of an ‘axial age’ at that time when a number of prophets arose independently around the ancient world.

  2. Bob Myers Says:

    Alex is correct that the dates are not consistent (off by 3,300 years) and I do not have any additional evidence for a correlation. Thanks to him for pointing this out.

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