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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Is DNA the Soul?

Is DNA the Soul?

Author: Reilly Capps/Sunday, May 17, 2015/Categories: natural history

The author was raised with lots of talk about the immortal soul. After he learned, around 8, that there were no dinosaurs in Christianity, he began to lose his belief. If they didn't even know that dinosaurs existed, what chance did they have of being right about souls? 

He has always felt a loss. Without an immortal soul, what are we? Machines? Blobs? Giant viruses? It's depressed him.

Lately, he's been entertaining a new notion that could help fill that soul-shaped void. 

And, in a nutshell, it's this: your DNA sequence roughly equals soul. Is this a crazy idea? Maybe. Let's look. 

Let's start simply: What is a soul? One answer is that the soul is you yourself, in contrast to what you are not -- your body. 

You, for certain, are not the material in your body, or not just. You cannot be. Through the three-part process of creating, sustaining, and dying, your body replaces every atom in your body every seven years or so. So no material is in your that was in your when you were a kid. And if you were you as a kid and you are you now and the material is completely different, then you are not your material. 

Another traditional answer is that soul is the animating principle that moves the material. 

The animating principle. How does the body know how to re-create your body parts correctly, over and over again? The answer: DNA. It is the blueprints, the instruction manual of you, it is the animating principle that moves the material that creates your flesh. Plato might call it the form. (Although, of course, Plato was a wingnut, wrong about pretty much everything.)

Now, your DNA is not like the Christian soul, in that it is will not be preserved in its whole, eternally. When you die, your DNA crumbles, along with every other part of you. But. What if you had children? Then half your DNA would be in each child. And one fourth of your DNA will be in each grandchild, one-eighth in each great-grandchild, and so on. If you have eight grandchildren, it's slightly possible that your entire DNA will be preserved, spread about among eight people. What does it mean that these people will have your DNA? It means these people will have an animating principle that is the same as your animating principle. And since your entire DNA sequence will likely never die, your animating principle -- your soul, in this analogy -- will be eternal. 

The author finds this a nice idea. 

There is a neat little corollary to this. It is one of the most outlandish ideas the author is willing to entertain. It is not contradicted by evidence -- and, in the scientific worldview, you can entertain any idea not contradicted by evidence. The idea is this: the author has often felt, ever since he was a child, as though his soul was not an individual soul, or not merely, but was some kind of group soul. Later, he read great thinkers who entertained similar ideas. Marcus Aurelius writes, "Soul is all one, though it is parceled out among so many bodies." Emerson is one of the most thoughtful writers on this. "Man is a stream whose source is hidden," Emerson writes. "Our being is descending into us from we know not whence... Within man is the soul of the whole. ... The eternal ONE." 

All humans have DNA that is extremely similar. How similar? The letters -- g, a, c, t -- are in exactly the same sequence in all human beings more than 99 percent of the time. It seems likely that, if our blueprints are the same, our thoughts could be much the same, our feelings. It's certain that we have a common ancestor somewhere up the family tree. If we're willing to think of our souls as our DNA, then it's true that your are linked with the most beautiful humans. Some of your soul is in Malala Yousafzai, and some of her soul is in you. 

If DNA is soul, then you have soul in every cell. And your soul will live on after your death, in your progeny, though in different form. And if humans keep going, your soul will spread out until it reaches nearly the whole human family, and each of them will have some part of your soul. 

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