Karma and epigenetics

Theravāda in the 21st century - modern applications of ancient wisdom

Karma and epigenetics

Postby Pannapetar » Wed May 05, 2010 4:30 am

This topic is a bit along the lines of the "Buddhism and science" thread, but I promise to keep it free of quantum mechanics. The field of research I'd like to direct your attention to is epigenetics, which is a relatively new branch of study in genetics. In a nutshell, epigenetics concerns itself with gene expression and the non-genetic aspects of phenotype development. Another way to put it is that epigenetics deals with heritable changes not based in the DNA. If this still sounds too abstract, think of it as the field that covers the gap between "nature and nurture". I think it is important for the public understanding of science, because the media and popular culture (for example the 1997 science fiction film "Gattaca") often give rise to the false idea that phenotypes -including human beings- are programmed from birth and entirely predetermined. If only we know how to deocde the genome, we could predict at which age we come down with what disease, for example.

Well, this idea turns out to be not only in discord with Buddhist philosophy, but also with present day science. According to the Buddhist understanding, we cannot change existing karma, but we can change the generation of new karma and we can influence the way in which existing karma comes to fruition. The research in epigenetics comes to a parallel conclusion: "In the nucleus of eukaryotic cells, genomic DNA is highly folded and compacted with histone and non-histone proteins into a dynamic polymer called chromatin. Gene expression, chromosome segregation, DNA replication, repair, and recombination all act, not on DNA alone, but on this chromatin template. The discovery that enzymes can (re)organise chromatin into accessible and inaccessible configurations revealed epigenetic mechanisms that considerably extend the information potential of the genetic code. Thus, one genome can generate many 'epigenomes', as the fertilised egg progresses through development and translates its information into a multitude of cell fates. [...] This suggests that "We are more than just the sum of our genes", and that biological complexity depends less on gene number, and more on how those genes are used (expressed), which is largely due to epigenetic mechanisms."

In simple terms: our fate is not (necessarily) encoded in our DNA.

There is a wonderful little documentary Nova Science Now that introduces epigentics in a very accessible way: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/3411/02.html

Cheers, Thomas
User avatar
Pannapetar
 
Posts: 326
Joined: Wed Jul 29, 2009 6:05 am
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Re: Karma and epigenetics

Postby mikenz66 » Wed May 05, 2010 5:11 am

Hi Thomas,

Yes, some people in my biology department think that the idea that DNA is the only heritable thing and that other chemical processes affect how organisms develop is a really unfortunate oversimplification. In part, because legislation about genetic stuff tends to assume that DNA is all there is to genetics...

But can you explain the discord with the Dhamma? Exactly how organisms develop and how DNA works doesn't seem to me to be an issue. But I may be missing something...

Mike
User avatar
mikenz66
 
Posts: 10112
Joined: Sat Jan 10, 2009 7:37 am
Location: New Zealand

Re: Karma and epigenetics

Postby Pannapetar » Wed May 05, 2010 7:24 am

mikenz66 wrote:But can you explain the discord with the Dhamma? Exactly how organisms develop and how DNA works doesn't seem to me to be an issue. But I may be missing something...


Well, my DNA is the single most important aspect that determines the qualities of my body and (as Richard Dawkins argues in "The Extended Phenotype") of my behaviour. It is the blueprint of my bodymind, the phenotype or namarupa thing that carries my name. It determines my existence like no other thing in the world. What could possibly be more karmic? According to the Buddhist teaching, there are five niyamas -or causal principles- that work together creating the world of samsara. Among these five niyamas are bija niyama which roughly corresponds to the biological/hereditary aspect of becoming and karma niyama which corresponds to the moral/karmic aspect of becoming. The other three are utu niyama (physical anorganic principles), dhamma niyama (the laws of nature) and citta niyama (psychological principles). Now, if phenotype expression -and in a larger sense hereditary properties- were entirely determined by bija niyama, or the DNA configuration at birth if you will, where would that leave karma niyama? Can you see the relevance? The conclusion is that our actions and choices have effects on our physical being in this lifetime and thus there exists indeed interaction between these principles. According to the insights gained from epigenetics, these effects do not only include morphological, developmental and pathological aspects of our body, but spread right into the genome, the very heart of our (physical) existence. I find that quite exiting.

Cheers, Thomas
User avatar
Pannapetar
 
Posts: 326
Joined: Wed Jul 29, 2009 6:05 am
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Re: Karma and epigenetics

Postby mikenz66 » Wed May 05, 2010 7:37 am

Hi Thomas,
Pannapetar wrote:Can you see the relevance?

Not really. Perhaps I'm not thinking clearly. As you say, karma niyama is one cause. The biology stuff is another. The causes interact. That's what the Buddha-Dhamma says, isn't it? Can you quote something from the Tipitika that you think is contradictory to the current understanding of biology (which is, as you say, exciting...)?

Mike
User avatar
mikenz66
 
Posts: 10112
Joined: Sat Jan 10, 2009 7:37 am
Location: New Zealand

Re: Karma and epigenetics

Postby Pannapetar » Wed May 05, 2010 8:08 am

You are thinking quite clearly. It just appears that you misunderstood the negation at the beginning of the second paragraph in my first post.

mikenz66 wrote:As you say, karma niyama is one cause. The biology stuff is another. The causes interact. That's what the Buddha-Dhamma says, isn't it?


Precisely. And that is what epigenetics concurs with. I am far from making any sensational claim such as "modern biology proves Buddhism". I just observe that this aspect of the theoretical structure of modern biology is in agreement with the theoretical structure of the ancient teaching of the niyamas in Buddhism, both of which claim to be an accurate representation of the world.

mikenz66 wrote:Can you quote something from the Tipitika that you think is contradictory to the current understanding of biology?


I did not say that. I apologise if I phrased it ambiguously. What contradicts the Buddhist teaching is not science, but the popular view that DNA is everything and that our fate is predetermined at birth. This is an inaccurate view of genetics that has spread through popular culture (I cited the movie Gattaca as an example). Scientists know better.

Cheers, Thomas
User avatar
Pannapetar
 
Posts: 326
Joined: Wed Jul 29, 2009 6:05 am
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Re: Karma and epigenetics

Postby mikenz66 » Wed May 05, 2010 10:32 am

Hmm, yes, sorry, I see I misread the statement in your original post... :reading:

Mike
User avatar
mikenz66
 
Posts: 10112
Joined: Sat Jan 10, 2009 7:37 am
Location: New Zealand

Re: Karma and epigenetics

Postby chownah » Wed May 05, 2010 2:32 pm

I didn't even realize that there were people who actually believed that DNA defines destiny.....although I guess that DNA is more relevant to destiny than is astrology....I guess....not wanting to start an arguement though.....hahhahahahah

It seems like epigenetics would be interesting to study but for me the response to the news that DNA does not define destiny is a yawn and a nod......
chownah
chownah
 
Posts: 2564
Joined: Wed Aug 12, 2009 2:19 pm

Re: Karma and epigenetics

Postby Pannapetar » Thu May 06, 2010 4:38 am

chownah wrote:I didn't even realize that there were people who actually believed that DNA defines destiny


Perhaps that is putting it a little too strongly. May be we can say that there are a lot of people who believe (with some justification) that the DNA defines not their destiny but their physiological destiny, such as physical and mental abilities, susceptibility to certain diseases, and so on. For instance, the reference to one's supposedly innate deficiencies is often used as an excuse: "I am not build for that (athletic performance)..." or "may brain just cannot grasp calculus...". I'd argue that these are very likely lame excuses. Almost everybody is equipped for adaptive muscle hypertrophy or learning calculus.

From the 1960s onwards there was this idea that people are programmed at birth, and only the humanities were continuing the nature versus nature debate. Since the recent emergence of epigenetics, this debate has found its way back into "hard" science on account of which it is perhaps taken more seriously.

There is one striking image in the documentary film I mentioned. It shows coloured areas on chosen pairs of chromosomes of identical twins that indicate differences in gene expression. Young children show very few difference; the chromosomes are almost identical. The chromosomes of the older twins show lots of differences, suggesting that our choices, such as life style choices, do leave visible traces in our genes.

Cheers, Thomas
User avatar
Pannapetar
 
Posts: 326
Joined: Wed Jul 29, 2009 6:05 am
Location: Chiang Mai, Thailand

Re: Karma and epigenetics

Postby Khemadhammo Bhikkhu » Thu May 06, 2010 7:36 am

Apart from the issue of whether modern developments like epigenetics are showing similarities with the Buddhadhamma, these developments also show that there is a lot we do not know yet. I often found that talking with people on the topic of epigenetics or other developments in science, can make people feel that there is more to learn. It then becomes possible to converse on topics in the Dhamma that are otherwise easily disregarded, such as kamma or rebirth.

Metta,

Khemadhammo Bhikkhu.
He stopped and called out to the Blessed One: "Stop, recluse! Stop, recluse!"
"I have stopped, Angulimāla, you stop too."
(M ii.100)
http://www.meditationthai.org
User avatar
Khemadhammo Bhikkhu
 
Posts: 29
Joined: Mon Sep 21, 2009 7:38 pm
Location: Lede, Belgium

Re: Karma and epigenetics

Postby chownah » Fri May 07, 2010 2:54 pm

The chromosomes of the older twins show lots of differences, suggesting that our choices, such as life style choices, do leave visible traces in our genes.

I think that the differences found in the older twins suggests that chromosomes change with time and that they changed differently in each of the twins.....in and of itself it really does not suggest how or why this happens....I think that you are suggesting that choice and lifestyle cause these changes and the mere fact that there is a change does not itself suggest it.
chownah
chownah
 
Posts: 2564
Joined: Wed Aug 12, 2009 2:19 pm

Re: Karma and epigenetics

Postby adosa » Sat May 08, 2010 12:57 am

Pannapetar wrote:
chownah wrote:I didn't even realize that there were people who actually believed that DNA defines destiny


Perhaps that is putting it a little too strongly. May be we can say that there are a lot of people who believe (with some justification) that the DNA defines not their destiny but their physiological destiny, such as physical and mental abilities, susceptibility to certain diseases, and so on. For instance, the reference to one's supposedly innate deficiencies is often used as an excuse: "I am not build for that (athletic performance)..." or "may brain just cannot grasp calculus...". I'd argue that these are very likely lame excuses. Almost everybody is equipped for adaptive muscle hypertrophy or learning calculus.




Cheers, Thomas


Sure but there's a limit and what keeps it in check, at least from a scientific point of view, is DNA. A cow is a cow. It doesn't ever turn into a dog. At least that I know of.


adosa :smile:
"To avoid all evil, to cultivate good, and to cleanse one's mind — this is the teaching of the Buddhas" - Dhammapada 183
User avatar
adosa
 
Posts: 263
Joined: Thu Apr 09, 2009 11:08 pm

Re: Karma and epigenetics

Postby Khemadhammo Bhikkhu » Sat May 08, 2010 10:20 am

It is interesting to note that the Thai word for genetics, kammapan (กรรมพันธุ์), is sometimes also used by the Thai for the Judeo-Christian idea of original sin! Actually, from a Buddhist point of view, you could say that genetics in its basic assumptions is actually not that different from the concept of original sin. And both may easily be used to justify a lack of effort on the spiritual path, because 'this is just the way I am, because my parents are like this, because I am just sinful, etc'.

The Dhamma doesn't say anything about genetics, but says that kamma is our "womb", and our relations. The Buddha also said that people associate "by means of element", which means that we often gravitate to people of similar dispositions. When a child is born, it has and develops similar physical attributes as the parents, because of kamma ripening that is similar to the parents' kamma. DNA would seem to me just to be a mediating cause.

The development of epigenetics indicate that scientists are discovering what the Blessed One taught two thousand five hundred years ago: we are the owners of our kamma, we are our own refuge. In other words, we are the architects of our own destiny.
He stopped and called out to the Blessed One: "Stop, recluse! Stop, recluse!"
"I have stopped, Angulimāla, you stop too."
(M ii.100)
http://www.meditationthai.org
User avatar
Khemadhammo Bhikkhu
 
Posts: 29
Joined: Mon Sep 21, 2009 7:38 pm
Location: Lede, Belgium

Re: Karma and epigenetics

Postby j.ayanth.d » Mon Sep 17, 2012 12:27 pm

Very interesting discussion- I Googled "karma and epigenetics" in trying to find my own blog of that title from many months ago and came across this one! My take on Karma and Epigenetics is here:

http://jayanthdevasundaram.blogspot.com ... karma.html

The most recent item in the news is regarding honey bees and their epigenetics that reminds me of the Hindu caste system that is very karmic in notion!

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2 ... sfeed=true

I went rthrough a phase in life of looking into Buddhism, but I believe the Truth lies somewhere in between all the "isms"
Cheers,

J
j.ayanth.d
 
Posts: 2
Joined: Mon Sep 17, 2012 12:22 pm

Re: Karma and epigenetics

Postby j.ayanth.d » Mon Sep 17, 2012 2:23 pm

Pannapetar wrote:
mikenz66 wrote:But can you explain the discord with the Dhamma? Exactly how organisms develop and how DNA works doesn't seem to me to be an issue. But I may be missing something...


Well, my DNA is the single most important aspect that determines the qualities of my body and (as Richard Dawkins argues in "The Extended Phenotype") of my behaviour. It is the blueprint of my bodymind, the phenotype or namarupa thing that carries my name. It determines my existence like no other thing in the world. What could possibly be more karmic? According to the Buddhist teaching, there are five niyamas -or causal principles- that work together creating the world of samsara. Among these five niyamas are bija niyama which roughly corresponds to the biological/hereditary aspect of becoming and karma niyama which corresponds to the moral/karmic aspect of becoming. The other three are utu niyama (physical anorganic principles), dhamma niyama (the laws of nature) and citta niyama (psychological principles). Now, if phenotype expression -and in a larger sense hereditary properties- were entirely determined by bija niyama, or the DNA configuration at birth if you will, where would that leave karma niyama? Can you see the relevance? The conclusion is that our actions and choices have effects on our physical being in this lifetime and thus there exists indeed interaction between these principles. According to the insights gained from epigenetics, these effects do not only include morphological, developmental and pathological aspects of our body, but spread right into the genome, the very heart of our (physical) existence. I find that quite exiting.

Cheers, Thomas


Thanks for this thread of thought, Thomas! I agree, it is exciting.
j.ayanth.d
 
Posts: 2
Joined: Mon Sep 17, 2012 12:22 pm


Return to Theravāda for the modern world

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 6 guests