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39 chapter two Life, Death, and Sacrifice I stare at slime molds​ —and they’re beautiful. john bonner A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. charles darwin, the descent of man eachingTibetanBuddhistmonksfundamentallychanged the way I think about science, about how easily we can be fooled that “the science we know” is right; how deeply our science is affected by our view of life, our societal and personal philosophy; and how this profoundly affects the questions science asks, who asks them, and thus what science is done by whom and to what ends. This became dramatically evident when teaching Konchok and his friends the most basic processes of biology​ —development from sperm and egg to adult. Buddhism changed everything. In this chapter, we show how. We revisit the processes of development through our experiences teaching them to the monks and nuns, but dig into the crevices of the field and uncover knowledge that is there but is hidden or deemphasized when development is taught and understood in the West, knowledge that became evident and uncoverable only as a philosophic whole when teaching and learning from the monastics. When I learned or taught biology previously, what we focus T 40 the enlightened gene on here was glossed over or entirely omitted, because it does not fit the classic Western philosophic-scientific narrative. From the moment we begin to live, we begin to die. Death is just as exquisitely regulated as life, and the former is absolutely required for the latter. And yet in the West, our focus is on life and living and avoiding death​ —both in the real world and in the classrooms and laboratories . What if death is considered, not as an end unto itself to be avoided, but rather, in the way that Buddhists think, as a sacrifice or as part of a cycle of new life to come? Even before the egg that became you met the sperm that would fertilize it, cells sacrificed themselves left and right toward this end. Men produce sperm prodigiously, as many as one thousand per second. Programmed cell death​ —apoptosis​ —occurs all along the pathway that produces sperm, way back to when your father was a fetus inside his mother. At that time a wave of cell death occurred in order to reach just the right ratio of developing sperm to cells that would eventually nurture those sperm. At this stage and throughout life, regulated cell death also removes faulty sperm, especially sperm with damaged dna. As many as three-quarters of developing sperm kill themselves before maturing. Such death vastly increases the chances that high-integrity life will occur in the next generation. Another big wave of sperm death occurs after sex, in the female reproductive tract. Tens of millions of sperm enter, but only one fertilizes the egg. Why so many at the start? Maybe a community effort is necessary ; so many sperm may be present to ensure that at least one makes it to the egg. One theory is that inside the female, on their way to the egg, different populations of sperm are “activated” at different times in her reproductive tract to help navigate the challenges therein​ —thick mucus and the female’s immune system, which attacks and kills sperm. Unlike fathers and their sperm, mothers are born with virtually all the eggs they will ever have. The egg that became you was one of over twenty thousand pre-egg cells in your mother when she was developing inside your grandmother. Greater than 90 percent of those pre-egg cells died somewhere along the line from the time they were pre-eggs inside your mother when she was an embryo to the time soon after her birth, and this death probably occurred in a carefully regulated fashion to allow for only a small percentage of those eggs, and only healthy ones, to survive. life, death, and sacrifice 41 Think of every cell that lives and then dies as sacrificing itself for the cause. Of course, all our cells die in the end, but billions of others give themselves up along the way to allow us life. Traditionally in the West, we focus nearly exclusively on the one sperm that makes it and the one egg it...


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