Morality Without Religion

Frans de Waal: Well, religion is an interesting topic because religion is universal.  All human societies believe in the supernatural.  All human societies have a religion one way or another.  Which for the biologists must mean that religion has some advantages – offers some advantages to a society.  Otherwise we wouldn’t have that strong tendency to develop it.  And so for me that’s actually a far more interesting question of whether God exists or doesn’t exist.  That sort of question I cannot answer.  But the question of why we have religions is an interesting question.  And my view is that morality, our human morality, is older than religion so instead of saying morality comes from God or religion gave us morality.  For me that’s a big no-no.  

Our current religions are just 2,000 or 3,000 years old which is very young.  And our species is much older and I cannot imagine that, for example, a hundred thousand years or two hundred thousand years our ancestors did not have some type of morality.  Of course they had rules about how you should behave, what is fair, what is unfair, caring for others – all of these tendencies were in place already so they had a moral system and then at some point we developed these present day religions which I think we’re sort of tacked on to the morality that we had.  And maybe they served to codify them or to enforce them or to steer morality in a particular direction that we prefer.  

So religion comes in for me secondarily.  I’m struggling with whether we need religion.  So personally I think we can be moral without religion because we probably had morality long before the current religions came along.  So I think we can be moral without religion but in large scale societies where we are not all keeping an eye on each other because we – in societies with a thousand people or several thousand or millions of people we cannot all keep an eye on each other.  And that’s maybe why we installed religions in these large scale societies where a God kept watch over everybody. 

And then the question becomes is this really needed?  Now in northern Europe – I’m from the Netherlands – there is basically an experiment going on.  In northern Europe the majority of people are not religious anymore.  When you ask them they say they’re nonbelievers.  And they still have a moral society as far as I can tell.  And so there is a sort of experiment going on there – can we set up a society where religion is not dominant at least?  It may be present but it’s not dominant anymore, there is still a moral society.  And until now I think that experiment is going pretty well.  And so I am optimistic that religion is not strictly needed.  But I cannot be a hundred percent sure because we’ve never really tried – there is no human society where religion is totally absent so we really have never tried this experiment. 

Directed / Produced by

Jonathan Fowler and Elizabeth Rodd

 

I am optimistic that religion is not strictly needed. But I cannot be a hundred percent sure because there is no human society where religion is totally absent so we really have never tried this experiment.

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

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Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?

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