Friday, February 24, 2012

DNA Defence Systems

What is fundamental to all life that we have ever encountered?  The answer, is DNA.  Unless you count RNA viruses as alive, every single bit of life on this planet encodes the genes for its offspring using DNA.  While DNA may be the tool life uses to reproduce, this is actually a bit of a self-centered way of looking at things.  We don't so much use DNA as DNA uses us.

We are taught that the basic unit of life is the cell.  And a cell is simply a self replicating structure built around a particular collection of DNA.  Granted the DNA couldn't self replicate without all the supportive proteins, but those very proteins would not have their particular arrangement without DNA.  But this wasn't a problem for some of the earliest strands of replicating nucleic acids.  The conditions they formed in gave them just enough material to, by pure chance, construct a way to replicate themselves.

As mutations accumulated in the various offspring of this first replicating DNA strand, different populations began to compete over resources.  Those early units of DNA that could make the most efficient use of resources, as well as gather it the fastest, were able to replicate the most readily.  As time went on, the accumulation of mutations would guide different populations down different roads.

Some would eventually construct full cells around them so that they could move out of the chemical cradle that formed them.  Some would have only the most basic of covering and would hijack the support structure of the self-replicating ones.  Novel forms that made the best use of the environment would soon thrive where as those that stagnated would be out competed at faster and faster rates.

More complex cellular structures became required if the DNA that operated the cell hoped to be able to continue to replicate.  Competition became fierce and the changing forms constantly found more exotic forms to be able to survive.  These new forms were expensive to form and maintain, but as other niches filled up, they became the only way a lineage of DNA could hope to compete with other lines.

Some lines that diverged eons ago would begin to work together for the common goal of self-replication.  The first Eukaryotes arose and, with their larger and more complex cells, found their own niche to exploit.  Some of these newer models for DNA replication began to work together for the common goal.  For if even one of them would replicate, then the shared DNA lineage would continue.  Such communal behavior allowed for the first multicellular life.  DNA no longer would just encode for a single replicating unit, but for the eventual diversification of its own progeny into more efficient ways for the DNA itself to replicate.

Eventually such multicelled life would take on even more elaborate formations to compete with other lineages of the first DNA.  Such larger forms allowed for new resources to be exploited, including the dismantling of other DNA and their cells to maintain their own functionality.  While such tactics was not new, the size of multicellular life allowed for an arms race of size to develop.

As size increases, more regulatory systems were required, especially with other complex DNA structures to contend with.  One of these regulatory systems is the first nervous system.  It allows for quick communication between cells so that the whole can find resources faster, escape predation more efficiently, as well as reproduce more readily.

The DNA strands that had the more efficient variations in this nervous system would become more successful under different conditions.  It became so successful that the nervous system had to centralize if it had any hopes to quickly responding to the new stimuli its nervous system allowed it to detect.  This line of DNA, began finding itself quite successful in a myriad of environments. All thanks to the DNAs extended support structure that we know as the central nervous system.  Lines of DNA with this trait would compete amongst themselves just as their ancestors did and, eventually, the nervous system became able to make predictions about its environment.  Intelligence is born.

Intelligence allowed for an understanding of the outside world.  It allowed the DNA to respond to even more complex stimuli then it ever had before.  One line of DNA eventually amassed the requisite genes so that the nervous system became advanced enough so that it could ask, "What am I?"

Being an imperfect system, this newly formed self-aware intellect could only make wild guesses as to what it was and where it came.  Myths began to form to answer these questions.  These myths would compete amongst one another, extensions of the DNA that spawned the minds themselves, if indirectly.  Some would allow for greater survival, some less so and thus, were selected for.

The idea of experimentation arose and the DNA that exploited such refined ways of understanding the world thrived enough so that this tool of science was passed on.  Eventually, after millenia, this intelligence had uncovered enough about itself and its world through its questions and resulting experiments that it could begin to accurately describe its own origins. 

This line of DNA had, for the first time, understood what it was that life had been doing blindly for billions of years.  Here, the supportive structure the DNA used to propagate had actually described its very existence.  Natural selection, after going through a seemingly endless menagerie of new DNA defense and replication systems, developed a form that could see itself for what it really was.

There was no soul, no creation event, no supernatural guidance.  Just strands of interconnected nucleic acids doing its best to out compete itself. 
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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Porbeagle Shark, Lamna nasus

Courtesy University of Denver
The Porbeagle (Lamna nasus) appears to be, at first glance, the very stereotype of the shark.  Its streamlined body and strong jaw give it away as a fast and efficient predator.  But there is more to this shark then one would expect.  In fact, it can even be described as adorable.

Other than the vaguely smile like appearance of the mouth, you might be asking yourself what one could find cute about this shark.  The reason can be found in their behavior.  Porbeagles have become well known for actions that can be described only as playing.  Young sharks have been seen rolling around in kelp until they are covered in it and then speed off, while other Porbeagles will then give chase trying to grab bits of the kept off, but never harming the entangled shark.  Soon, another shark will start rolling around until tangled as well and the group then begins chasing this individual.

Some originally thought that the sharks were trying to find small prey items hidden within the kelp, but they were never observed eating anything.  Others suggested that the action was done to remove parasites, but this idea was also shown to be lacking.  The only explanation that has been provided that makes any sense is that the behavior is done for play.

Another play like behavior can be seen when these sharks come across a floating object.  They will grab at the object in a way that goes beyond mere investigation and will even go so far as to throw their 'toy' out of the water repeatedly.  The idea that it is more then just curiosity at a novel object can be seen when multiple Porbeagles gather around a single object.  They will each attempt to play with it and have even been seen passing the object from one to another!

The leading hypothesis as to why Porbeagles engage in play is related to why most other organisms are thought to play.  It is a learning process, helping to develop and maintain their hunting techniques.  If this is accurate, then such playfulness likely gave these sharks an evolutionary advantage over those species that never developed this unusual behavior.

Porbeagles can be either solitary or gregarious, especially in the case of juveniles, but adults have been witnessed in groups for reasons other than mating as well.  Though these groups are often transitory.

They primarily reside in colder waters though the females will migrate to warmer climates to birth their pups.  To combat the cold, they are able to thermoregulate, making them endothermic.  They conserve heat produced by their muscles through a series of specialized blood vessels known as the retia mirabilia, or wonderful net.  This allows them to maintain an active lifestyle despite living primarily in cold waters.  Their ability to raise their body temperate is among the best of all sharks, second only to its close relative the Salmon Shark (Lamna ditropis).

A member of the order Lamniformes, the Mackerel Sharks, they are closely related to other more well known fast swimming predatory sharks such as the Great White and the Makos.  The Porbeagle is, like its relatives, aplacental viviparous, which means that the eggs are internally fertilized and the young will hatch before being fully developed and continue their gestation internally.  The Porbeagle also displays what is known as oophagy.  When the pups, still within the uterus, have exhausted their yolk supply, the female will begin to release unfertilized, yolk rich eggs that the young can feed on.  Once fully developed, the female Porbeagle can give birth to, on average, a litter of four, two from each uterus.

These sharks are harmless to humans with only three attacks being recorded.  One was a provoked non-lethal attack on a person, the other two were on boats.  Considering that they are common game fish, this is not surprising.  In fact, the over fishing of these sharks has led to them being listed as vulnerable.

Have a request for an article?  Leave your suggestion in the comments and I shall do the best I can to answer your question.
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Monday, February 20, 2012

Why a unified fight for rights is vital

The idea that there is a schism between various human rights issues is dangerous.  While there is often a variety of reasons for the lack of basic human rights in differing groups, this does not mean they are unrelated.  Nor does it mean that each individual struggle against oppression operates in a vacuum.

The belief that different human rights movements should not work together is one of the single greatest ways for any and all of those movements to be greatly hindered, or even blocked entirely.  For a group to say that it only wants the aid of those fighting the same fight does nothing but strengthens the opposition and reduce the support base of those working for their own rights.

I mention this because of Erin Nanasi's recent post "Women’s rights and LGBT: It’s not a competition".  Both in her article and in the comments that follow, there is mention that women are in no place to complain when the LGBT community has it so much worse.  There is also mention that for the LGBT rights movement to join forces with women's rights and the atheist community would "cloud the issue at hand".

These claims utterly ignores certain key facts, ones that have consequences for all human rights groups.  Whenever any group of individuals has its basic rights under attack, those that look to revoke these rights are rarely content to stop there.  To those in any of these groups who think that the fight for their rights is a stand alone issue, I ask you this:  Do you really think that they will be content to stop with just one group?

Time and time again we have seen such bigots and hate mongers use their successes in opposing or removing the rights of one group as a test bed for future attacks.  If their backwards views can be accepted against one group, they will quickly begin to branch out and start targeting other groups more openly and with increased vigor.

The rolling back of women's rights has dire consequences for the LGBT movement, and vice versa.  For the more radical of a 'win' against one group, the more bold they will become and the more they will want.  It tells them that just because rights have been established in the past, there is nothing stopping them from stepping in and taking that all away.  If they succeed in their attack on women, what is to stop them from more aggressive attacks against the LGBT community?

In fact, the LGBT community has a lot to lose with the loss of rights for women.  By setting up such a standard, not only does it make future attacks against them more likely, but it also reduces the influence of half of its own population.  When women's rights are mentioned, it is not just straight women, it is every woman.  This would be a set back the LGBT community can not afford.

But the inverse is true as well.  Any gains in rights of one group can strengthen the cause of the others.  Any win for those who see all humans as deserving of basic rights not only stop the advancements of the bigots, but it also frees up many supporters to help in the fight for rights in other areas.  While this has, sadly, not always happened, we must not let dissension from the past carry over into our future.  With every win, those in favor of rights have had other violations revealed to them for which they can fight against.  We cannot afford to be content with one area of success and must strive for more as the forces against us never tire.
With disgustingly large numbers of those in the LGBT community faced with the possibility of rape, women's rights become even more vital.  For if a straight woman cannot get the proper care after being raped, what hope will someone that the establishment sees as less have?

To those who claim that such a unified fight clouds the issues at hand, I will admit there is some truth to this based on the nature of politics.  It is impossible to strive for all rights in one fell swoop and they must be fought on a myriad of fronts.  Sometimes, the establishment will use the connection of one group to another against them, saying that they are supported by 'immoral' individuals.  But this misses that such statements are attempts to scatter and dis-empower those who fight for their rights.  It is a move to shatter the support base and reduce the number of voters in support of an issue.  We cannot allow such tactics to win because we believe that we have to play by their rules.  We are the ones who are in the right after all.

Now this should not be seen as a statement in support of those who struggle in one area to drop what they are doing and focus on something else.  This would only destroy what those groups have fought so hard for.  Instead, I am stating that the work of one group does not negate the work of another and can help their ultimate cause in the end.  The fight for human rights is a universal thing, it is something everyone who has been seen by society as less deserving wishes to correct.

So to every group that has been pushed aside by those in power.  To everyone who has had their rights kept from them because of the beliefs of the religious.  To all that want more for their future, let us not fall into petty quarreling that will only hinder us all.  Let us fight side by side against a common enemy so that, one day, none of us will have to be afraid.
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Friday, February 17, 2012

The We Are Woman March

With all the idiocies that the GOP led congress has put forth and all the state led offenses, enough is far more than enough.  Bearing the blunt of such assaults has, quite often, been women.  A prime example of this being the recent congressional hearing on contraception that denied women the chance to speak.

The list of offenses is both large and infuriating.  Still more seem to be coming daily.  So to combat this, a new group is starting up and plans to demonstrate against such ignorance and intolerance.  And by new I mean it is just being organized now.

The group has been named The We Are Woman March on Washington D.C.  It has been started by Erin Nanasi, fellow writer and, I would like to think, friend over at Mad Mike's America.  Erin composed a video to explain the reasoning and need for this, which I have included to help spread the word (the original post can be seen here).

So please, spread the word, the time for this sort of action is well past due.  If this idea can come to fruition, then perhaps there is a chance to work towards getting some change done.  Or at the very least, prove to the GOP that we are not about to stand back and let them do as they wish, that, as Erin said, women are not chattel.

I shall include more information in future posts as it becomes available.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The song of Archobollus musicus Within a sparsely populated coniferous forest, night is quickly approaching.  As twilight pushes on and the sun slowly disappears from the horizon, the nocturnal singers of the forest begin to awaken.  Joining the choir of amphibians and other mistrals of the night a lone katydid begins to play its chirping melody.

Staying low to the ground, the katydid hides amongst the foliage of the giant fern Caniopteris.  It sings its song as it scrapes its wings together, passing one along the rides of the other.  Quieting down only when a small mammal or dinosaur becomes too curious about the source of the ethereal sound.  A scene that would play out nightly for millions of years.

For, like the katydid, the forest died long ago.  But in the mid-Jurassic, both thrived in what is now northwest China.  This particular katydid, known as Archabollus musicus belonged to a family known as Haglidae, a group of Orthopterans that existed from the early Triassic until ultimately becoming extinct in the late Cretaceous.

Orthoptera is the order of insects that includes all crickets, grasshoppers, locusts and katydids.  Like so many of its now living relatives Archabollus musicus produced sound through the process of stridulation (the action of creating sound by the rubbing together of the wings or the legs).  This process can produce one of two types of sound, resonant or non-resonant.  The non-resonant producing insects create a wide variety of tones where as the resonant, or musical insects, produce pure-tones.  A. musicus was a member of the later and more ancestral group, producing a resonant sound at 6.4 khz, well within the threshold for human hearing.

One might wonder how we can know the specific frequency of sound produced by an insect that lived 165 million years ago.  The answer comes from a particularly well preserved fossil recently unearthed.  In it, the wing is so well preserved that the stidulatory file, the series of ridges along one of the wings that the other wing scrapes along to produce sound, is almost perfectly preserved.

As the plectrum, the appendage that scrapes along the file, passes over each tooth, the resulting vibrations produce sound.  The shape and spacing of the teeth dictate the kind of sound that will be produced, just like how the sound of running your thumb over different combs produce different sounds.  And just like with combs, how fast the plectrum passes over the stidulatory file affects what kind of sound will be produced.  Based on the shape and size of the teeth, there is a specific speed that produces the optimum tone.

The fossil wing of Archabollus musicus next to a representation of the stridulatory file.
Using this knowledge, Fernando Montealegre-Zapata of the University of Bristol in the UK and his colleges Jun-Jie Gu, Daniel Roberts, Michael S. Engel, Ge-Xia Qiao, and Dong Ren were able to begin work on reproducing the sound of this long extinct katydid.

From the cavernous expanse of deep time, a sound that has not been heard upon this Earth for 165 millions years begins to resonate.  It is a sound both familiar and haunting.  While it is a simple sound, it is one that deserves respect and elicits awe.  It is the sound of our own curiosity and ingenuity.  It is the sound of beauty.

Gu, J., Montealegre-Z, F., Robert, D., Engel, M., Qiao, G., & Ren, D. (2012). Wing stridulation in a Jurassic katydid (Insecta, Orthoptera) produced low-pitched musical calls to attract females Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1118372109
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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Darwin Day

On this day in 1809 in the town of Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, a man was born who's name would become synonymous with the diversification of life.  Described as a "gentleman naturalist" by his friend and botanist, John Stevens Henslow, Charles Darwin would become one of the most celebrated scientists in history.  On this day, 203 years later, we celebrate the life of a man who's curiosity and passion for the natural world allowed humanity to understand its connection to every other organism that we share this planet with.

His insights gave us the first scientifically rigorous explanation for the diversification of species.  While his concept of evolution through natural selection has seen many changes throughout the years as new data has been incorporated, the core tenants of his idea are still essential to all of biology.

In fact, one cannot even hope to understand any part of biology without viewing it through the lens of evolution.  To do so otherwise would be like trying to understand cosmology without taking gravity into account.  And while his revelation has changed the very way we see ourselves and all life, his young self would never have guessed what he would one day accomplish

He started out confused about his future and eventually found himself enrolled in a theological school as a last resort.  It was here, oddly enough, that he began his in depth exploration of the natural world.  It was through the writings and his friendships with various 'natural theologians', those that believed that through the study of the natural world one could understand the mind of god, that he got a varied training in the sciences and his recommendation for a spot on the H.M.S. Beagle.

He began the trip with the belief that the Bible was a true account and quoted it frequently.  But as his work during the voyage continued, he quickly began to have doubts.  He noticed that many of the fossils of mammals he unearthed in South America resembled those of living organisms.  He started to see connections between organisms all around him.  He saw geological evidence for a changing world that acted through entirly natural processes.

He could not fathom how a deity would allow for the extinction of entire species, nor why those extinct species and living ones would share so many common traits.  As he continued his sampling of the natural world and his eventual study of those samples over many years, he could not doubt the connections between the various animal species around him.  By the time he returned from his voyage, he was openly critical of the bible that he once held so dear and began asking why Christianity would hold a special place in the pantheon of religions.

The more questions he asked and studied, the more he doubted.  By the time of his father's death, he had abandoned religion entirely.  Though he still would attend a Unitarian church with his wife, Emma, for her sake.  He loved her immensely and knew that she did not share his lack of belief.  Though many of his children did inherit their father's curious nature and love of science, three of which would go on to become members of the Royal Society, one of the most prestigious scientific groups of the time.

Besides his great insights, Charles Darwin was also remembered for his talent as a writer.  Even while still away exploring the world, he gained notoriety within both scientific and popular circles.  His notes and journal entries became so well known that his journal, originally a part of a collection of books revolving around the second voyage of the Beagle, had to be published independently to meet public demands.  Everything he wrote sold astonishingly well, from his On the Origin of Species to his final work The Formation of Vegtable Mould Through the Action of Worms.

He had a love of the natural world and through it, found inspiration and understanding.  And today, on the aniversary of his birth, we celebrate a life that has forever changed our views on the world and ourselves.

To find out if there are any planned events today in your area, look at those registered through The International Darwin Day Foundation.
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Friday, February 10, 2012

Earliest animal fossil was the size of a grain of rice. During the Cryogenian, a tiny organism began to spread across the shallow seas.  750 to 550 million years ago, these tiny organisms, just  0.3 to 5mm in length became a dominant force in the ancient oceans.  But despite their size, their importance cannot be underestimated.  For they are the oldest animals to be discovered, predating any other animal fossil by 100 to 150 million years.
Scanning Electron Microscopy of Otavia antiqua taken from the Kuibis Subgroup of the Zaris Formation near Kliphoek in southern Namibia.
Given the name Otavia antiqua and found in the oldest rocks in Namibia, they show that animal life has it roots much further in the past then had been previously expected based upon earlier fossil evidence.  They thrived during a time known as the Cryogenian, the second period of the Neoproterozoic that lasted from of 830 to 635 million years ago.  A period that gains its name from two events where global temperatures plummeted causing the most extensive glaciation events in our planets history, known as the Snow Ball Earth events. During these occurrences glaciation covered most, if not all of the planet, if the hypothesis is correct that is.

The earliest Otavia a. fossils predate the first of the two predicted glaciation events, known as the Sturtian.  Fossils persist up until till the end of Precambrian, where the rise in numbers of complex animals truly begins.  They were simple animals, believed to be Poriferans, sponges.  They have most of the features shared by modern sponges with the exception of spicules (shards of hardened material that are produced by the sponge for structural support), though they may have possessed these too but due to their tiny size and ancient age, little trace is left of them.

They had a very simple body plan.  Most were ovoid to globular in appearance with three distinct sections.  The outer layer was covered in many small pores, known as ostia with a size of 5 to 20 microns in diameter.  These let water into the second section, the peripheral labyrinth.

This section most likely allowed for the start of absorption of nutrients via consumption of algae and bacteria, making Otavia a simple, if sessile, predator.  This section lived up to its name with many winding passages, allowing for the most surface area, increasing nutrient absorbtion as well as gas exchange.

Water would then pass into the central chamber that made up the majority of the internal space of the animal.  This spongocoel (called a paragastric chamber in the paper) would have, most likely, been lined with choanocytes, just as the peripherial labyrinth would have been.

These cells, common to all sponges, beat the water with their flagellum to create a current to aid in respiration and bring in new nutrients.  Water is then evacuated from the spongocoel through the largest opening, known as the osculum.  In Otavia, this opening would have attained a size of many tens of microns in diameter in the larger individuals. 

Otavia also features a trait common to most sponges, mineralization.  While the exact mineral is still in question, Calcium Carbonate or Dolomite are the two most likely suspects based on the composition of Otavia fossils.  This shows that by the time these tiny sponges evolved, they had already begun mastering the process of depositing minerals within their internal structure to provide a more rigid structure.  In essence, the earliest evidence for something akin to a skeleton.  While non-living and quite different from the skeletons that would emerge later within the animal kingdom, it still sets a precedent.

The genus name for these tiny creatures comes from the rock structure where the most specimens were discovered, and by chance, the oldest known individuals.  They were removed from a black limestone portion of the Otavi Group of Namibia.  Combined with the other rock structures that Otavia specimens have been recovered, over a thousand fossils have been recovered, suggesting that they were an incredibly successful group.

While the emergence of these creatures predates the occurrence of any other animal fossil by at least a hundred million years, the discovery was not totally unexpected.  In what is sure to become yet another famous success story in the field of molecular biology, the first animals were predicted to have a common ancestor at exactly the time period when Otavia dominated.

Using a process known as a molecular clock, genomes of various organisms are compared to one another to look for both commonalities and how far apart various genes are.  By understanding just how differences in genes arise through evolution, we can look into the deep past and predict when organisms shared their last common ancestor.  These predictions have been supported by fossil evidence time and time again.  The emergence of Otavia at precisely the time when the last common ancestor of all metazoans was predicted to have lived, suggesting that it may very well be the ancestor of all modern animals, or lived along side it.

This suggests that we owe our very existence to an organism hardly the size of a grain of rice.  A rice grain that survived some of the most hostile climatic changes that our planet has ever experienced, allowing for the vast array or animals seen today to differentiate and spread into every ecosystem on the planet.


Brain, C., Prave, A., Hoffmann, K., Fallick, A., Botha, A., Herd, D., Sturrock, C., Young, I., Condon, D., & Allison, S. (2012). The first animals: ca. 760-million-year-old sponge-like fossils from Namibia South African Journal of Science, 108 (1/2) DOI: 10.4102/sajs.v108i1/2.658
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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Karl Marx and the "Opiate of the people"

"[Religion] is the opiate of the people" is probably the most often quoted line from the collective works of Karl Marx.  To many, this is all the exposure to Marx that they truly have, other then some vague lines about his views on government that they might remember from a history class.  It has been argued as a critique of religion by most and even as being in support of religion by a few.

But what does Karl Marx really have to say on the subject?  What is the source of this oft quoted line and what is the actual context?  When prompted, few can give the actual source or its significance.  Something I find quite sad as it reveals much more about his views on the nature of religion and says more then most have been led to believe.

The quote comes from Marx's Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and the entire quote is thus:
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
 To put this in further context, we must consider the piece Marx was critiquing, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel's Elements of the Philosophy of Right.  Without getting to far into detail, Hegel's work can be loosely summed up as the argument that humans cannot experience true free will outside of the confines of an established government of some sort.  His arguments include such things as humanity having the chance to be free from the basic needs of survival in the wild as well as access to such state sponsored services such as education and protection.  He further argues that such establishment of government is the direct will of god.

To clarify, he never argued that any and all governments held sway by divine right, just that the abstract concept of a central government was divinely willed.  This is crucial, as his philosophies, like those of Nietzsche's have been hijacked by fascist and totalitarian governments in the past, the most famous being Mussolini's.

While Karl Marx agreed that a government was key to humanity reaching its potential, he was highly critical of how it had gotten to its point of power and the intentions of current forms of government.  His views on class warfare are still highly relevant today and he saw the ruling class as essentially parasitic upon the lower classes.  He argued, and I believe rightly so, that for any form of equality as well as the free will that Hegel saw dependent upon government to exist, there had to be a gross restructuring of government.

While I do not agree with everything Karl Marx had to say, I believe he was on the right track.  The fact that so many of his works had been hijacked has made his name almost taboo in some circles.  This I believe is unfair as it dismisses what the man actually had to say on a vast array of subjects within the field of government and human freedoms.  His views on religion are a prime example of this.

"[Religion] is the opiate of the people" is one such line.  It is often embraced as the end all be all argument against religion, as an argument for religion as a sort of salve for the common 'man', or as the foolish ramblings of a mad man.  But it is, in reality, none of these.

It is an argument that takes one of (though surly not the only) the root causes of the modern choke hold religion has upon both the multitude and so many governments and succinctly exposes it to the light of logic.  Karl Marx argues that religion is a numbing agent used by the down trodden masses.  That in a society that seems unfair and uncaring, religion offers an escape for those that might see no other.

This may sound like an argument for religion, but it is anything but.  While Marx was highly critical of religion, he was not entirely without sympathy for those who followed it.  He knew that, at least at the time of his writing, that many had no hope of escaping their place in life, either due to those in power or due to their own upbringing, or even the religion itself.

He also knew that religion was a tool of those in power to keep those it dominated in their place.  We now believe that government and religion co-evolved together.  Religion gave those in power a reason to have their power and those that received such blessing of the dominant religion allowed the religion to flurish.  While there is a symbiotic relationship, there is also an arms race between the two.  If the government became too powerful and independent, it would negate the need for religion.  If those in power were too quick to shun those who controlled the religion, they could be ousted and replaced with a more submissive ruler.

Marx saw religion as the very tool those in power used to maintain their dominance.  The fact that he likened it to opium is no mistake.  Opium is a central nervous system depressant.  Those who are users will become lethargic and clouded in mind.  It will ease their pain, but only temporarily and by over riding the pain signals, not by curing the ailment.  Its addictive properties were not lost on Marx either in his analogy.  He knew, just like opium, the more a religious 'user' devoted themselves to a belief, the more they would need it.  And the more they needed it, the more they would defend its use.

The fact that religion had become the source of the masses oppressors power would be lost on many, something those in power counted on.  Marx argued that the only way for humanity to be free would be to shake off the shackles of their addiction and see past their own illusion.  See the very classes that strove to control them and keep them in a place of dependence and weakness for their own gain.

Karl Marx went beyond labeling religion as a simple stupefying substance and as a part of a power play that has existed longer then history has been able to record.  He saw it as a tool of subservience and control.  In many ways, his views reflected those put forth by Plato in his Allegory of the Cave, a series of illusions meant to keep the human mind docile.  Illusions that could be broken by the bright light of day that would, at first, leaving those that experienced it afraid and overwhelmed, but would soon become the source of their joy, enlightenment, and freedom.
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