July 28, 2012

Of Whales, Elephants, Apes and Men

Religion tells us that God has a plan for us. Science helps us to understand just how that plan works. The two sides haven't always communicated so good, but both are essential if we are ever to understand mankind's place in the grand scheme of things, a struggle that been going on ever since we began painting images on a cave wall and burying our dead with flowers.

From the beginning, religion emphasized our uniqueness, even as science confirms our existence as the consequence of many antecedent developments. The Bible gave us dominion over "the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." If there was a plan, it was just for us.

I have long disliked the notion that we are somehow apart from the rest of creation. I believe, instead, that we should consider all of creation as bound together in a whole, be it animate and inanimate. I have no problem believing in a plan; I just think everything is a part of that plan, not just a single species that has been around for the wink of an eye.

This leads me to spindle neurons. I first learned of them in an article in New Scientist. Spindle neurons are a specific kind of brain neuron--cells that communicate with each other inside our brain via electrical and chemical triggers--that are found in significant numbers and always in the same two parts of the brain in only four species: humans, great apes, certain whales (humpback, fin, sperm, and killer), and elephants. And new research suggests you can add dolphins to the list. A pretty elite group.

The evolution and purpose of spindle neurons--more properly called von Economo neurons after the Romanian scientist who discovered them in the early 20th Century--is still being explored. Some scientists trace them back to food. Sensing what is safe and what is poisonous requires fast work inside the brain, and spindle neurons are designed for speed, especially in large brains where the signals have, comparatively speaking, much greater distances to cross. The understanding of what food is safe also has importance for the group as well as the individual. So, spindle neurons seem to have played a role in social communication. The more of them you have, the higher the degree of social development.

It is true that many species have a very complex social existence, ants and bees being a prime example. Yet, somehow we know that they are very different from us, as different as Star Trek's Borg are from mankind. But apes and whales and elephants and dolphins ... we can see a reflection of ourselves in their eyes and in their actions. Elephants mourn their dead. Dolphins and whales have a complex language. Apes ... well, they are an obvious choice.

What does it mean, these spindle neurons that link us so closely and uniquely? I don't know, but my gut says that whatever plan exists, there is most likely a Plan B ... a replacement that can move in if we falter. Given how things are working out, that might not be such a bad idea.

One final thought. To the list of whales, elephants, and apes, I would add dogs. We are so deeply connected to them ... you have to think that maybe they have spindle neurons ... or maybe some other as yet undiscovered neuron in charge of unconditional love. Now that would be something to think about.

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