Up-celling: the biology of commerce
Way back in the early 90s, when I was cobbling together the BLP (book-like product) that eventually became Cosmic Relief, I created a throwaway ad parody headlined, "The Jargon Basement" and touting "designer buzzwords at everyday low prices." The "ad" proclaimed, "Now it’s easier than ever to talk like an Expert. At The Jargon Basement you’ll find a huge selection of prefixes, suffixes, compound words and technical terms that will put you on the leading edge of newspeak. Sound educated – for less!"
The visual was a simple cartoon of shoppers in silhouette, with balloons containing various words that were fashionable at the time among certain types of forward-thinking folks. One of the words I threw in was "epigenetic," a reference to an emerging science that had been gleefully embraced by some of the forward thinkers of my acquaintance.
Another ad parody in the book featured the Cell-U-Anything Wellness Clinic, which offered cutting-edge ways to heal all sorts of diseases "at the cellular level." In those days there was quite a bit of buzz about "cellular healing" in the new-age lifestyle magazines, and I wasn’t about to pass up a joke op.
Okay, so those were cheap shots at some pretty easy targets. And, regarding epigenetics, I was pretty sure that within a few years, that term would have been forgotten, at least by the new-agers. As for cellular healing, I thought that too would fall by the wayside when something else newer and more exciting emerged from the ethers. Well, after years away from the cosmic-potshots game, I’m back, more or less…and in many ways, things haven’t changed at all.
Many argue that things have changed, that at least a few of the things I made fun of have since been validated by science, or are in the process of being validated. In support of that argument, a growing number of folks are invoking the name of cell biologist and evolutionist Bruce Lipton, Ph.D. , who is being lauded for his research in the field of...yes...epigenetics. Let me state right now that Dr. Lipton is a real person, as opposed to the completely fabricated Dr. Wayne Wired from the previous post. (I reserve the right to occasionally be almost serious in this blog.)
I have been seeing Dr. Lipton’s name quite a bit these days, and that could be because he is making the rounds to promote his recent book, The Biology Of Belief: Unleashing the Power Of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. There is of course an excerpt on Amazon, but go to the official B.O.B. website for an overview of the book.
Dr. Lipton has some interesting ideas that are thrilling quite a few people, and, as I mentioned, he is currently on the keynote-speaking circuit to promote The Biology of Belief and talk about those ideas. According to one promotional piece for an upcoming Lipton appearance, the man has even figured out how trillions of cells living in harmony within the human body can provide a strategy for world peace and prosperity.
I have to confess that when I read that, I stopped in my tracks. Intrigued by the idea that my cells could hold the key to world peace (and wondering if this had anything to do with those "terrorist cells" that seem to be threatening peace – and our very lives — these days), I did some further research. Maybe, just maybe, Dr. Lipton was on to something. If, for example, enough people whose bodies are filled with peacemaker cells could get together and share some love or at least maybe smoke a bowl with the people who are filled with terrorist cells…who knows what could happen? Maybe if our leaders can’t accomplish anything by talking to each other, their cells could chat for a while.
In several minutes of intense research that involved some pretty strenuous Googling, I found nothing about terrorist cells, but I think I did discover the rationale for Dr. Lipton’s idea of cells as a model for world peace, or world whatever. It centers around his concept of "cells as miniature humans," a notion that apparently came to fruition while he was teaching a group of American medical students in the Caribbean. These were students who hadn’t quite made the cut for med school in the US, and Montserrat was their last desperate hope for becoming docs, other than playing one on TV.
Dr. Lipton himself was a refugee from the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine, where he had been an associate professor who often chafed at having to follow the stuffy curricula. Here in the Caribbean he had more leeway with his teaching, and something about "the salt air and sweet scents" of his new venue loosened him up and opened his mind to new ideas.
I know just how he felt. Something similar happens to my sweetie and me when we go to the beach, only it generally involves our getting a little…umm…frisky. Ron and I never experience anything so potentially world-changing as a revelation that cells are actually tiny people, but we do manage to have a very good time. Ah, the salt air, the sand, the brown, shark-infested waters of the Gulf of Mexico…Now, where was I?
Actually, the cell-as-mini-me concept had been roiling (his word, not mine) in Dr. Lipton’s brain for several years, but the intoxicating milieu of Montserrat helped coax it out. He already knew, as biologists have for quite a long time, that cells are not just random blobs of matter; they are actually quite intricate, and each one has a specific purpose. Heck, even the scientific "dogmatists" know that. Even I know that.
But this notion of cells as miniature humans was quite a leap, and Dr. Lipton realized this. Still, the idea would not leave him alone, and so he began a new career as a science heretic whose name does not appear on the "epigenetics" page of Wikipedia. (Which, I hasten to add, does not invalidate his contributions to the science. It just means that as of now, no one has added his name yet to the page. I am sure this oversight will be corrected at some point.)
In fairness to Dr. Lipton, what he seems to be suggesting is that people should model their lives after "smart cells" that band together for a common good. On that I am sure we all agree. Alas, what people should do, and what they are actually likely to do, are two entirely different matters. And frankly, I don’t think that a gaggle of well-dressed, progressive-thinking, spiritually-growing suburbanites attending a Lipton talk are going to persuade Hezbollah to stop throwing bombs on Israel and vice-versa. But then, maybe I am underestimating the power of ideas.
In a promotional piece for one of Lipton’s summer appearances, the copywriter describes epigenetics as "the new science of how environment and perception control genes." The Wikipedia definition, on the other hand, states that, "Epigenetics is the study of reversible heritable changes in gene function that occur without a change in the sequence of nuclear DNA." (Okay, I know I invoke Wikipedia a lot on this blog, but I am a little lazy, and also in a hurry. However, if you follow the link above, you’ll find more links to more info. Besides…what’s the problem…cat got your Googling fingers?)
That copywriter’s definition isn’t entirely inaccurate. In fact it would seem to be a fairly accurate, if oversimplified, definition of epigenetics as most scientists use the term these days – were it not for the addition of the word "perception." This is key, for that new and improved definition provides yet another layer of meaning – and ostensible scientific credibility – for the classic new-age/new-thought tenet, "You create your own reality."
If you’ve schlepped around in the new age at all you’ve probably heard a lot of this before: you can change your reality – even your physical reality, both inside and outside of your body – by changing your thinking and altering your perceptions. In other words, believe in it strongly enough, and it will come to be. Conversely, refuse to believe in it, and it will go away. (If you really want it to go away, or to have never been there in the first place, it is also helpful to put your hands over your ears and make a really loud sustained noise.)
It should be obvious by now that I am not a scientist, whereas Dr. Lipton, judging from the c.v. on his web site, emphatically is. I am not even one of the Western-science dogmatists that Dr. Lipton and his followers decry. (Matter of fact, there are several areas in which the skeptic community and I do not always see eye to eye, particularly in the realm of alternative medicine – but I’ll save that for other posts.) Striving to keep an open mind, I would be no more inclined to dismiss all of Dr. Lipton’s ideas – especially without having read his book – than I would be to vote a straight Republican ticket in the next election.
I even think there is validity to Lipton’s argument, as explained by a writer named David Pratt on his Exploring Theosophy website, that "scientists are messing around with our genes and environment without understanding how interconnected everything is." To be sure, the interconnectedness idea has also been thrown around casually by the new age factions, and don’t think I haven’t gotten my digs in at that. But this doesn’t mean the notion is completely unworthy of consideration. There are, obviously, many ways that Western science and technology have run roughshod over the natural order of things, without consideration for long-term consequences. Heck, humans in general are pretty much a selfish, live-for-today species, and probably always have been.
At this point, my quarrel with Lipton is not so much with his ideas as it is with his followers who are turning him into yet another cult hero. Some would say I shouldn’t blame the messenger, only those who misinterpret and misuse the message. But you know the old saying: it takes two (or two million). However serious his basic intent, I do think that, like so many before him, Lipton is pandering to these hero worshippers.
So far, Dr. Lipton’s book has a four-star average among reviewers on Amazon (of course, many of us know to take Amazon reviews with a grain of sea salt, but they are often revealing nevertheless). One five-star-reviewer headed his comment with this announcement: "Dr. Lipton's views are being accepted by many scientists." He doesn’t actually specify which scientists are coming around to Dr. Lipton’s point of view, and everything he writes after the headline indicates to me that The Biology Of Belief is more about personal growth than it is about science. But I suppose that’s okay, since everything is interrelated and all that. (I’m sure there is some quantum physics in the book too, since Dr. Lipton began studying quantum physics in the early eighties, in an effort to find out how it could be applied to his own research.) Besides, it may very well be that the reviewer I quote was looking for the personal-growth messages in Lipton’s book, so that’s all he saw.
Perhaps most notably and least surprisingly, Dr. Lipton is selling more than his book. He is also making a pretty penny traveling around performing lectures and workshops that promote his ideas, and he seems to have a finger or two in the PSYCH-K pie as well. PSYCH-K, according to its originator, Robert M. Williams, teaches techniques to reprogram your brain using, as Williams puts it, "a kind of ‘mental keyboard’ to your own brain." Once you access this keyboard, "You can increase ‘cross talk’ between the two brain hemispheres, thereby achieving a more ‘whole-brained’ state, which is ideal for changing subconscious beliefs."
My brain is already full of cross talk, and sometimes unkind words, especially when I am arguing with myself and one or the other of me is really ticked off. I don’t care for the inner dialogue to get any more cross, so I will pass on the PSYCH-K, thank you.
But there is a point here. As devoted as he may be to his beliefs, Dr. Lipton seems equally devoted to upselling. Now, I am not for a moment suggesting that The Biology Of Belief was written solely as a vehicle to promote PSYCH-K. But that promotion does seem to be on Dr. Lipton’s agenda. One disillusioned reader on Amazon.com wrote, "I agree with the 1 star reviews of this book. This book said nothing new and then at the end the author is pushing another new age process that cost in excess of $350 to do. Save your money and time and skip this book."
But I will leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about the book. Read it and share your thoughts here, if you wish. I am open to hearing from all sides in this matter.
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My own skepticism notwithstanding, I am thinking that there may be something after all to this "you create your own reality" stuff. As I was pondering "epigenetics" on Monday, that got me mulling over the prefix "epi". Naturally this reminded me of the "Epilady" hair-removal and torture system, which got me to thinking about a more traditional hair-removal / torture system: waxing. Which naturally made me start thinking about those "Brazilian waxes" that have become so fashionable (no, I am NOT going to link to any pictures). Feeling smug because, as the owner of a Remington Titanium razor, I will never have to resort to such barbarism, I wandered into the living room, where The View was on TV.
To my amazement, the ladies were talking about…hold on; this gets really spooky…a wax museum. In fact, there was a wax Holy Family (Saint Brangelina and The Baby Shiloh) right there on the set. Unreal. Did my thoughts about waxing create the wax-museum segment on The View? They must have; it couldn’t have been the reverse, because I was in another room of the house when I began having these thoughts, and I couldn’t even hear the TV. In the end I suppose it doesn’t matter, but as a narcissist I have no choice but to believe that somehow, it all had something to do with me. And possibly my trillions of cells.
Let me share something else with you: these things happen to me all the time. I have long since concluded that this world is full of wonders, some of which, as difficult as it is for me to accept, don’t have anything to do with me at all. The universe, I’ve come to believe, is a place of boundless mystery.
And I don’t need any Lipton tease to convince me of that.