Thursday, November 25, 2004

Religious doctrine for sale

I just thought of a nice variant on reincarnation, which I thought I'd offer to anyone looking to start a new religion--say a disaffected Baha'i, since my understanding is they like to stay close to views of modern science. Instead of imagining individuals being reborn as other individuals, why not just say individuals are reborn "as others"? That is, an indeterminate number of others. I think this metaphor is a lot more true to how genetics works, not to mention to at least one folk notion of it ("All a them's got their grammy's eyes and uncle Jimmy's crooked nose!"). This way it becomes quite reasonable to imagine yourself as Napoleon or Cleopatra. I mean, the odds against having Napoleon or Cleopatra in you are now tremendously reduced: Through the miracle of DNA replication, now it doesn't matter through how many generations the human population might have swelled since the days of your hero of choice. Barring natural selection, there's a geometrically increasing amount of hero to go around. Plus, because complex traits depend on not one gene or allele but on a particular and potentially very large combination, it doesn't matter if every last one of your ancestors came over on the Mayflower two centuries before Napoleon. Napoleon's parents threw together his gene combo entirely out of elements from their extended family and the population at large. It could happen again! So stuff hand in coat and stake that claim. Genetically, Napoleon-ness is untraceable.

Now, keep in mind just how cosmically unlikely it is that you're the whole Napoleon or whole Cleopatra. You're only getting a few traits. But you can have some juicy complicated ones, say a particular insouciance or manner of conniving.

What? You are objecting that Napoleon was a creature of his times and environment as much as of his DNA? Oui, oui. But even people who believe in a perfect transplantation of souls don't believe Napoleon in 21st century Iowa will lead Iowa through a musket-ball-for-musket-ball repeat of 19th century European history. I'm only talking about cloning here, not turning back time. Of course, that doesn't circumvent the impact of environment on personality, personhood and phenotype in general. A doubter could still wonder how 21st century Iowa is supposed to cultivate a Napoleonic characteristic. No problemo, my would-be disciple! First of all, if biologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, historians or any other group of scholars had reached a consensus on which aspects of the environment shape us and how, I have not been made aware of it. What about you? Is it the dynamics of the nuclear family? The contour and blight of the urban landscape? Playground politics? DDT in the water? It's completely up for grabs--for the foreseeable future (don't believe that genomics hype). So nobody they're going to put opposite you on CNN is going to have any academic leverage on you, my fine would-be ideologue. Let me stress, however, this is not a prophesy that every person's genetic inheritance will outfit them in every corner of Iowa for the Napoleonic trait of their choice. You don't get to choose your parents, right? Maybe it'll just be a second-rate Cleopatran wince. The point is, what my religion offers you is near eternal plausible deniability. If you choose to believe that the most important shapers in the environment are hunger, competition, mother- love--anything you choose to designate as "primal"--then Iowa is full of plots that can nurture a Napoleon. Every village of a certain size is practically bound to have one, if we tweak the variables right. So if you buy my doctrine (and I do mean "buy,"because high quality dogma isn't cheap), then if you think Napoleon is living in your head, or if you simply want others to think so, then you're going to have a leg to stand on. I'm going to let the bidding start at 2 cents. If this is going world-wide I want to minimize the commission to Ebay.

[August 13, 2006: At last the Associated Press is on the story: "Even without a documented connection to a notable forebear, experts say, the odds are virtually 100 percent that every person on Earth is descended from one royal personage or another." And note my religious doctrine comes complete with the perfect celebrity proponent with which to vie with Tom Cruise and Scientology: Brooke Shields.]

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