21 March 2009

Biology of the Spirit

My first reaction to the above phrase, I admit, was rejection. It seems that my mind naturally selects duality over unity to conserve some semblance of convenience and order. Fortunately, my spirit kicked in at this point to redirect my mind towards unity even if this step led into murky waters.

The interview with this title turned out to be much more challenging and rewarding than I had initially imagined. Sherwin Nuland, interviewed on Speaking of Faith by Krista Tippett, shares his ideas about the relationship between the body and the human spirit from his perspective as a clinical surgeon. Bear with me on the following quotes from the interview as they are powerful:

"Notwithstanding the tragedies that humankind has visited on itself individually and collectively, and the havoc we have wreaked on our planet, we have become endowed nevertheless with a transcendent quality that expands generation upon generation, overcoming even our tendency to self-destruction. That quality, which I call spirit, has permeated our civilization and created the moral and aesthetic nutriment by which we are sustained.

As I define it, the human spirit is a quality of human life, the result of living, nature-driven forces of discovery and creativeness; the human spirit is a quality that Homo sapiens by trial and error gradually found within itself over the course of millennia and bequeathed to each succeeding generation, fashioning it and refashioning it — strengthened ever anew — from the organic structure into which our species evolved so many thousands of years ago. It lives while we live; it dies while we die. It is neither soul nor shade. It is the essence of human life.

There is a word that the neuroscientists use when talking about why a certain series of circuits or group of circuits in the brain is activated. The word is value. There are pathways of the brain that have survival value. So when a stimulus comes in and the brain has 50,000 different ways of responding to it, some of those are useful for survival and some of those will either prevent survival or mar survival, and the human brain, in classical evolutionary pattern, will pick the one that is healthiest, that gives greatest pleasure. What gives greater pleasure than a spiritual sense? So I think of this as natural selection in a form, in an emotional form, and I think it is almost like choice because when you're talking about selection in the brain, there are processes of choice. The brain has a way of evaluating what is best for the organism. And what is best for the organism is not just survival and reproduction but beauty, but an aesthetic sense.

The human spirit can be the high road to the fulfillment of my greatest hopes, but it can be the grim pathway to my self-destruction. Either way, it is the transcendent product of my body and its wisdom and of the most complex structure on the human planet, the three pounds of human brain."

I can imagine that many of you are reacting similarly to how I reacted when I first listened to this. Dr. Nuland anticipates this and responds by speaking of the origin of human spirit in this way:

"So if all Homo sapiens share it, one of two things has to be true: either God gave it to everybody, or it's a universal within our — on some level of awareness or it's in our DNA or something of this. I choose to think it's biological."

Concluding this discussion by recognizing that this whole matter boils down to a personal choice about the origin of the human spirit would miss the point entirely and would be too simplistic given the challenging issues Dr. Nuland raises. For example, what is the role of natural selection in the emergence of our spiritual capacities? What role does the brain play in this process? Is the brain's natural inclination toward beauty the prime mover behind both material and spiritual evolution?

To begin answering these questions the following quote by 'Abdu'l-Baha beautifully explains the brain's relationship with the our spirit:

"The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul; and these two names -- the human spirit and the rational soul -- designate one thing. But the mind is the power of the human spirit. Spirit is the lamp; mind is the light which shines from the lamp. Spirit is the tree, and the mind is the fruit. Mind is the perfection of the spirit, and is its essential quality, as the sun's rays are the essential necessity of the sun."

The brain decides to express spiritual capacities built by our spirit. This expression and the confirmations received upon doing it, refine and mature the spirit providing further impetus for the brain to continue on this path. As beauty is found on this path the spirit and the mind cooperate to feel the joy of approaching it. This is natural selection and can also be seen as an essential interaction between religion and nature.

"[T]he Bahá'í concept of the world is at its core both organic and evolutionary. Nature and religion are defined in virtually identical terms in the Bahá'í Writings as 'the essential connection' inherent in 'the realities of things.' So the two 'books' (of nature and revelation) and are both inextricable parts of a single evolutionary story which begins with the first primitive cell and culminates with the emergence of global consciousness."

Even though we may not agree with Dr. Nuland on the origin of the human spirit and how its special relationship with the human body began, his assertion that "the human spirit is a quality that Homo sapiens by trial and error gradually found within itself", that its growth process is so intertwined with the evolving mind that they are like tree and fruit to each other, provides us with powerful evidence that religion and science are much less distinguishable than we had previously imagined.


All quotes taken from:

1. Biology of the Spirit , Inverview of Dr. Nuland on Speaking of Faith
2. Perspective: Crossing the divide between science and religion: a view on evolution