Change without changing the genes – the crowd

We have all been inundated with DNA discussion for the last few years as more and more study produces a much deeper understanding for the working scientists and a greater familiarity with the basic concepts for the rest of us.  I remember the O. J. Simpson trial where the prosecution sought to prove his guilt through DNA evidence; DNA as proof was new enough in law that a misfitting glove triumphed over the DNA; the witnesses talked of the statistical accuracy and the defense scofted and pointed out a “vast” potential for error.   However since 1995 a great deal has changed with the use of DNA evidence and with scientific knowledge.  Scientists now use it to date species separation millions of years ago, prove that humans had sex with neanderthals and testify in court to convict and imprison or to obtain the reversal of conviction and realease of a great many people – it has become routine, the daily fodder of criminal trials.

In a simple sense the DNA is genetic coding the determines who and what every living thing is and who and what their offspring will be; if you know the DNA code you know everything about that being.  Well, sort of, below the DNA anlaysis lies another field – epigenetics.  Epigenetics indicates another kind of code, one that can overrule the DNA genetic code without changing the genes and yet produce in one generation adaptions that are different from the parent – that can mean appearance changes or behavioral changes and under some circumstances those changes can be passed on – an idea that was a sacrelige previously.

It seems there are off and on switches – standard DNA theory sees the switches always in the same position, resulting in the same characteristics being exhibit and passed on to the next generation.  However, changing environmental conditions, like weather or fires,  can cause some of those switches to go from off to on, or from on to off result in a different characteristic.  That new characteristic can be something very different from it predecessor.

Epigenetics makes  great metaphor for thinking about crowd behavior.  I watched two very different videos of crowd behavior today and both times I was drawn into the emotions of the crowd.  The first was from a basketball game, students from the University of Wisconsin were doing a dance-like chant and sway expression of support for their team. It last about 5 minutes and the longer it continued the more people joined and the more I could feel the rhythm and the emotion, it filled the gymnasium, but it also filled my chest. The other video – actually videos – is from streets of Cairo; it is not unlike the Wisconsin situation, the longer the demonstrations last the more people participate and the more their behavior alters from what might be termed “normal,” regular, daily behavior of the average citizen of Cairo.

Somehow being exposed to the raw emotions of a large group of people alters our emotions and our behavior.  In Cairo and in Wisconsin, it moves individuals from a simple expression of opinion to a crowd expressing of mass emotion – that can be a good or a bad thing – but in either case it can be powerful enough to change the course of history. When it is over both the students and the protesters will experience a code change, the switch will move from on back to off and they will go home, eat dinner and pass on their genetic code to the next generation with the switch on off – until something happens to switch it to on. Although for the people in Cairo and other cities in Egypt it that switch back to off may not happen for days.

The UK Guardian proved the picture; for the Guardian the tanks in the streets provoked memories also, but unlike mine of the Vietnam era in the United States or Russian power in Prague, the events in Egypt evoke the fall of the Berlin Wall.  I hope they are right and I am wrong – using my model takes years of pain to make the change and bring peace. The Berlin model brings the peace with emotions of the demonstrators – instantly. Go Berlin!


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January 2011
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