Evolution, Big Brother, and the Day My Little Brother Turned the Universe Upside Down

Perry Signing Evolution 2.0 Books
Dear Planet Perry Member:

Right now - as in today - you can edit DNA as easily as a blog post. Sophomore biology students are re-arranging genes every day all over the globe.

Artificial Intelligence promises to usher in the next utopia... or will it unemploy all of us with self-driving cars and computers smarter than humans? The world is perched on the edge of chaos.

We’re besieged with uncertainty... yet at the same time we’re not allowed to admit we don’t know the answers. Experts claim to know, but every camp has wildly different views...and the camps don’t talk to each other.

We must find a way.

When I was five…

I desperately wanted to see the inside of my dad's transistor radio. Curiosity was making me crazy. I had to see how it worked, what was inside.

So I smashed his radio open with a hammer. Suddenly wires were hanging out of his radio. It was really cool looking - and permanently busted.

Dad was not too happy about that incident. But I still have warm memories of dad feeding my curiosity. My parents bought me erector sets and Legos and digital watches. Dad helped me build my first pair of speakers when I was 13. He was even pretty tolerant of my music, considering he hated rock & roll.

Dad was a pastor. He worked for an organization called Back To The Bible. Our lives revolved almost entirely around church.

When I was 12, my mom went bipolar, with mild schizophrenia. For a year and a half, our house was total bedlam, living with a mom who was mentally ill. Except we didn’t know she was mentally ill.

All we knew was, as soon as you walked in the front door you were marching into a war zone. I’d come home from school and find she’d tossed boxes of my stuff in the garbage.

She’d say embarrassing things to my friends. She insisted dad wasn’t really her husband. She said he was a man who looked just like Bob and she was sentenced to live with him until the ‘real’ Bob came back. When he came home from work she would hurl accusations at him.

My brother and sister and I would complain bitterly to him about how she was treating us. And then dad also started getting heat from his boss, the senior pastor, Mr. G, who didn’t like the fact that one of the pastors’ wives was “out of line.”

In the middle of all this, I got into a fist fight at school. Came home with two black eyes. Bad report cards. Complaints from teachers.

All the while Dad was casting about for solutions. Finally he stumbled onto a psychiatrist who correctly diagnosed Mom and put her on meds. The meds started to work immediately...

...but the Board of Elders at the church had already found out Dad had seen a psychiatrist.

In their book, psychiatry was a secular conspiracy against Christian faith. They asked my dad to resign, step down from his position and take an administrative, non-leadership job.

The very next Sunday morning, the pastor announced to 2,000 people that “because of problems with Betty and the family, Bob has resigned...”

Some people wouldn’t even talk to us anymore.

Within a year my dad was diagnosed with cancer. He fought hard through treatment. I was 17 when he died.

After dad’s departure, I hotly pursued science. I went to engineering school. By the time I was in my 30’s I was married with three kids. The kind of Christian community we were a part of was a far cry from what I grew up in, but Christianity was still at the heart of our lives.

While I had spent my twenties pursuing a career in engineering, my younger brother Bryan - one of the smartest people I know - got his master’s degree in an ultra-conservative seminary.

By the time I was in my early thirties, Bryan was a missionary in China. He was there four years, and in that time he went from being more conservative than me, a right-wing Christian guy, to almost atheist.

We’re very close. He would email me all of these questions. For years I had run a Seeker’s Group at a megachurch in Chicago, so I was quite used to probing questions. I thought I knew a lot.

But you have not had a theological argument until you’ve had it with a guy who knows Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and who has spent four years of his life rummaging through the back alleys of the Old Testament. Bryan had a fire hose of questions and I was drowning.

I paid him a visit in China. We’re on this bus in the foothills of the Himalayas and we’re arguing again. This is argument #237 at this point, and I’m finding myself retreating to what I know best: science.

We get on to the topic of evolution. The church we grew up in had waged a long-standing war against science. And now suddenly I discovered a spate of new questions - this time about the origin of life.

“Bryan, look at the hand at the end of your arm. I’m an engineer, and your hand is a nice piece of engineering. You don’t think this is an accumulation of random accidents, do you?”

Bryan shoots back a well-crafted response. Evolution by natural selection. I'm not exactly buying his answer. But I immediately realized two things:

  1. I knew most biologists would agree with him not me.
  2. Because I’m an engineer, I know there are a LOT of things in science that are very counterintuitive. I could well be wrong.

I decided right that moment: I’m going to let science decide this for me. I’m going to lay this question on the science and engineering anvil and pound as hard as I can. And if what I find out makes me lose my faith too, then so be it.

I stopped arguing with Bryan. But when I got home from that trip, I started buying books like a banshee.

I wasn’t going to take anybody’s word for it. I had to for hard facts and verify things were really true. I dove into the very foundations of science itself.

I worried about Bryan. He left his missionary job and moved back to the US. He turned his entire life upside down. He stopped going to church. His politics and views on controversial issues changed. Many of his old friends stopped returning his phone calls. He started hanging around with new friends.

Suddenly, having Bryan around our house during holidays like Easter and Thanksgiving and Christmas was tense. He doesn’t agree with us. He doesn’t believe this stuff anymore. He thinks we’re gullible marks.

I wanted to know the real truth. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t chugging my own pink koolaid. Whenever I would think I made a cool discovery, I would ALWAYS doubt if it was right. I had a website, so I would put everything on the anvil of public debate. Could I defend my position?

I specialize in Google advertising so I used Google ads to drive millions of visits to my website. My email list swelled to 175,000 people - people of every kind of religion, opinion and belief you can imagine, from all over the globe.

Whenever I made a discovery, I would write about it and send it to that email list.

All replies went straight to me. And I decided I would take on ANY reasonable person who was willing to discuss or debate these issues.

It became apparent I had a LOT of beliefs I couldn’t defend at all. I grew up being taught that the universe is 6,000 years old. I found out you can’t defend that scientifically. But that also led me to discover the astonishing precision of the Big Bang.

My beliefs got whittled down to the core as I became more and more certain about fewer and fewer things. It was an 80/20 worldview purge. Eventually I found myself being challenged in public on the biggest websites in the world.

But I still needed to know about evolution. I started digging through a mound of books. Man was I lost. I didn’t even know where to start. I flailed helplessly until one day I had a huge epiphany:

“DNA is digital CODE - just like in computers!”

I learned about code from engineering jobs and writing an Ethernet book. I can figure this out!”

This meant evolution was really about the software of living things. DNA is software! Suddenly I knew how to break it down. But I was far from sorting it out.

I felt schizophrenic, because it seemed like a lot of evolution had happened... but I was never quite satisfied with the explanations of how. They seemed oversimplified. I kept searching. I held on to an open mind.

I stumbled onto a scientist named Barbara McClintock, who was “hacking” corn DNA in the 1940s. She discovered that if you damaged DNA, the plant would re-program its own genes in minutes!

Her colleagues thought she was insane. She was forced to go underground with her research. For 20 years she didn’t even publish her findings.

More about her in a minute.

Bryan had always been a great sparring partner. If I spouted BS, he could be relied upon to kick me in the teeth. But when I showed Bryan an early version of my book on evolution, he said, “You’re going to need to find somebody else to spar with. I’m done.”
Today, Bryan takes trips with my kids - to them he’s “Uncle Bryan.” He’s teaching photography to my 14 year old son and my 8 year old daughter who’s adopted from China adores him. He’s also the president of my company.
Anyway, the minute I heard about Barbara McClintock, I realized this: Whatever is going on inside of living things, it’s light years beyond anything I was ever told before. And I started noticing a pattern: every time I discovered an answer, it led me to another, deeper question!  Barbara’s work illustrated this fact that every truth reveals a new question.
I learned you shouldn’t trust anyone who claims to have all the answers. What we still don’t know is infinite. That’s something Bryan and I can both agree on. We both have profound respect for anybody who’s willing to look hard at these questions.

Bryan found liberation in not having to know; for me, a whole universe of scientific discoveries opened up that nobody was talking about. We both believe the same things about science.

Spiritually, we each make our own leap because the questions are infinite.  Whatever your beliefs, we acknowledge we don’t fully understand it all.

We live in a world where we’re not supposed to say we don’t know. We’re not supposed to consort with people in opposing camps. We’re not supposed to acknowledge our doubts. We’re not supposed to have real conversations that might actually lead to answers…

After my dad was demoted and publicly humiliated for taking mom to a psychiatrist, he stuck it out at his lowly church job. A lot of people (including our relatives) told him to cut ties and walk away. Who would blame them?

But dad saw how the meds improved mom’s condition almost immediately. And he was angry at how his boss, Mr G had treated her. She was so much better now, she was hardly the same person. Dad had vindicated himself, so he demanded an apology.

Eventually, he got the apology. Mr. G wrote my mom a letter expressing his confidence in her.

Nine months later, dad was reinstated.

Two weeks later, dad found out he had cancer. It was just before Christmas. Our church family came around us and supported us. People shoveled snow and brought hot meals. One man bought my dad plane tickets for all his cancer treatments.

During this time, I started my first business, building stereo equipment. After I began selling my brand through my first dealer, a local stereo shop, I went to the hospital and told him about it. He beamed with pride.

Dad’s cancer treatments worked for awhile, but eventually dad started going downhill.

Dad’s boss, the senior pastor, Mr. G, knew that my dad had always dreamed of taking a vacation to California. Dad had never been, so Mr. G sent a secret letter to the congregation, raising money for a last hurrah.

One Sunday, Mr. G ended the service early and called my parents up to the stage.

They had no idea what was going on. He teased them for awhile, finally revealing that $10,000 had came in. (!!!) They stood there and wept in front of everybody.

Not only was this enough money to take us to California, our family took a five week vacation including Alaska and Hawaii as well.

Dad’s health was steadily going downhill even during the trip. It was evident he wasn’t going to last much longer. We had poignant conversations about what life would be without him.

I felt so uncomfortable spending that much money on this one trip, when such an uncertain future loomed ahead. Especially with my mom as a widow and me as a senior in high school. But dad insisted that our time together would never return and we should celebrate to the fullest. So we did.

That trip was one of the great memories of my life. And when dad died three months later, all of those same 2,000 people who had heard the announcement about his demotion came to his funeral. Yes, two thousand people came to my dad’s funeral. It was amazing.

A year later I started engineering school.

Remember Barbara McClintock, the scientist who discovered corn can reprogram its own DNA?

She was derided as a “mystic.” Her colleagues thought she was crazy. She went incognito for awhile... but she won the Nobel Prize 40 years later. Her picture now appears on a U.S. postage stamp.

Midway through my research on evolution, I heard a fantastic lecture by a scientist. I was going to be coming through his town, so I reached out to see if we could have lunch.

He declined. “Associating with you might harm my reputation, because you have a religious agenda.”

I said, “I completely understand, I don’t want to hinder what you are doing,” and wished him the best.

Sometime later, I wrote a letter to a publication, discussing the ideas in his lectures. I pointed out how hard this guy was trying to create civilized dialogue in the midst of a bitter, contentious war zone.

Then I got an email out of the blue. It was from this same scientist: “Hi Perry, I saw your letter. When I read it out loud to my wife, she started to cry. Yes… we can meet for lunch.”

Several months later, I made the journey to go see him. I spent the entire afternoon picking his brain. It was exhilarating. I met many more scientists like him who paid a heavy price for disturbing the scientific status quo.

Today, people in many parts of this debate are still unable to speak to one other. People in the science camp aren’t allowed to mix with people in the religion camp, and vise versa.

I resolved to create a place where people can come together and honestly discuss these questions.

We urgently need to explore these issues. Because today we can edit DNA as easily as adding a photo to your website. Evolution isn’t just about science and religion anymore. It’s about medicine and technology and AI. Misunderstanding evolution could be catastrophic.

Oh... and you know all those prognostications about Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity and Big Brother and all that?

When you blend Electrical Engineering with biology, you get a very interesting perspective on what’s most likely to happen.

I call this safe discussion space “The De-Militarized Zone.” One of my tools in the DMZ has been to create a $5 million technology prize. Nobody knows how to get a code without designing one; so maybe life is designed… or maybe science will find an answer. We’ll never find out unless we ask.

In my efforts to bring warring camps together, I recruited judges. One is the leading physiologist at Oxford; he’s Buddhist. Another is the top geneticist at Harvard Medical School. His parents were Jewish and Catholic. Another is an expert in the philosophy and history of science. He grew up Quaker and today he’s a famous atheist.

In the DMZ I have a few rules:

  1. Put down your weapons.
  2. No hiding behind screen names.
  3. Assume other people have reasons for believing what they believe.
  4. Get to the truth not the sale.

I’m inviting you to step into the DMZ with me and join a group of people who are exploring some of the most pivotal questions of our time.

This conversation encompasses everything: engineering, biology, marketing, business strategy, philosophy, politics and religion. Little questions… and big ones.

If we don’t discuss them…. Who will? And if we don’t discuss this now… then when???

Fill in the blanks to pursue this conversation further… and journey with me down a rabbit hole that goes very very deep:

P.S. If you don’t like where this conversation wanders, each email will contain a link to unsubscribe from this particular channel. That way, you can still get your usual hits of Planet Perry news whether or not this is your cup of tea.

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