We are assemblages of ancient atoms forged in stars – atoms organized by history to the point of consciousness, now able to contemplate this sacred Universe of which we are a tiny, but wondrous, part.
Emotions are a powerful and important part of being human. Arising from deeper, older parts of the brain, they are often overwhelming. Though emotions can lead to both very good and very vicious actions, I would not wish a life bereft of emotion upon anyone. Similarly, emotions are, for me, an essential part of my Naturalistic Paganism. Just as emotions are part of a full life, it seems to me that they are part of a full spirituality. While my Naturalistic Paganism can stir many emotions, perhaps the most moving and prevalent emotions are gratitude for the past, and love for the future. We know more details about the past than the future, so let’s look there today.
Though there are many ways to bring the past to life, I’ve been involved with several DNA-related projects this summer. DNA provides a window into our past, and for me, all the gratitude that those times engender. For instance, my grandfather loved his family. He worked hard, day after day, week after week on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company – car after car, rivet after rivet – to support his wife, son and daughter, waiting at home. He never knew about his daughter’s son, because my grandfather died two years before I was born. But, can you imagine if he could stand here today? If he could meet me, what would he say? Yet, in a real way, I have a letter of love from him, in trillions of cells of my body – in my DNA. My mom and I can tell, from family history and DNA ancestry testing at 23andme, that many identifiable sections of DNA in my sisters and I, are from him. I see this DNA as a reminder of his love for her, her kids, and future generations.
Of course, he got that DNA from his Ancestors. And just how many Ancestors do we have? Well, we each have four grandparents, 8 great-grandparents … 16, 32, 64, 128 … to thousands a couple centuries ago. The numbers quickly climb to include most of those alive on Earth just a few thousand years back. To find out that I’m a child of the whole world fills me with awe!
For all of our Ancestors, if their lives hadn’t happened, none of us would be here (and by “Ancestor” I include both biological parents as well as anyone who significantly contributed to your world). This makes my every minute a priceless miracle! With our modern lives, you and I live better than kings and queens did when our grandparents were born. Think back to the last time you needed significant medical or dental care. Now imagine that same situation just a short century or two ago. Ouch!!
My Y chromosome DNA results place my other grandfather’s great-grandfather in the large R1b1b2 haplogroup, which is common in Germany. We have data to show that he served in the Kaiser’s German army in the very early 1800’s, before coming to America.
For many of us here in America, sometime in the last few centuries your Ancestors may have risked their lives to come to a new land. Picture your 6th or 10th great grandparents leaving their homeland, perhaps driven out by starvation or war, bravely looking toward an unknown future in a foreign land, America! For those of us with DNA Ancestry results from a company like Ancestry.com, 23andme, or FTDNA, we see what regions some of these Ancestors came from. For me, it’s mostly Northern Europe, with a touch of other areas as well.
Before that, going back to the Neolithic, our Ancestors invented agriculture, and lived on farms. A reminder appears on chromosome #2 in our DNA, with the MCM6 gene for lactase production. With domesticated animals, milk became available. And when the famines came, as they always did, any food could mean the difference between life and death. Back then a mutation happened, a G to an A, allowing one adult to digest milk – that person, of course, now had an edge, and survived and had kids. Soon that mutation spread, and so many of us here are now lactose tolerant. So we get ice cream! Wow!
Further still, I look back 2 million years, before modern Homo sapiens. Among the many genetic changes needed for our lager brains, two mutations critical to our growing larger brains than other apes can be found on chromosomes #1 and #8, the genes ASPM & MCPH1.
Before that, our tails were lost due to mutations in the CDX1 and WNT3A genes on chromosomes #5 and #6, and our monkey Ancestors lost the ability to make vitamin C, when their fruit based diet allowed a mutation in the GULOP gene (on chromosome #8) to stick around.
We skip over billions of Ancestors, to the time when our Ancestor fish clambered onto land. Arms and legs are made partially using mutations on chromosome 20, and gills are repurposed into throat structures with mutations now found on our chromosome #22.
Even before life, I’m reminded that the atoms, other than hydrogen, that formed that life were all made in the cosmic furnace of stars, billions of years before the earth formed. Our DNA is made out of stars! Our Ancestors include those stars, giving us the phosphorus, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen needed to make DNA itself. Hydrogen bonding is essential for DNA to work, due to the fact that the bases bond using hydrogen bonds. Too strong a bond would prevent DNA from “unzipping”, and hence from duplicating, while too weak a bond would prevent DNA from forming at all. That hydrogen, of course comes from the Great Radiance, or Big Bang.
These, and the many more, letters of love from our Ancestors in our DNA fill me with many emotions – gratitude, joy, wonder. I’ll come back to the Ancestors when Samhain approaches, but both DNA and a focus on emotion make them unavoidable here in August as well.
In addition to writing the Starstuff, Contemplating column here at HumanisticPaganism, Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (see www.thegreatstory.org, and the blog atevolutionarytimes.org). Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.