Genomics: Finding the Secular Grail

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During the Blitz of London in World War II, the authorities prepared bomb shelters in the subway. People were far safer there than on the surface of an area attacked repeatedly, especially at night. Henry Moore did a series of evocative drawings of the hushed and constrained life.

As the planning of the shelters proceeded, evidently it turned out that there was no existing map of the subway overall. Instead, teams of old-timers who had worked in the underground for years were mobilized to produce together a comprehensive picture of what happened beneath the concrete. A system had arisen over time, and finally a picture of the whole pattern was assembled. And yet of course the underground had been working fine for years.

That's a metaphor for the recent unveiling of the human genome by the two groups separately pursuing the same Secular Grail. Like the moron in Moliere's play who discovered that he had been speaking prose all his life, we have been speaking genomics almost forever. The dust is beginning to settle, and we can reflect some on what the accomplishment means.

One of the most amusing outcomes was the discovery that we boast some 32,000 genes rather than the 100,000 conjectured before the facts were in. This estimate was a back-of-the-envelope number produced by Nobelist Walter Gilbert in the mid-1980s?and he stands by his estimate. Commentators from editorial writers at the Guardian of England to the relentlessly sanctimonious Stephen Jay Gould leaped in to say something like, "Aha, you see, genes are not that important. The environment is what matters. So all you reductionists, go back to your ill-lit cave. This proves that genes have been overestimated factors in influencing human behavior." (Gould is a brilliant scientist with an enormous inability to see the connection between the work he does so well and human behavior. In this respect, he resembles Natalie Angier, who writes excellently about the biology of social life, except for issues involving sex, when she becomes politically correct in a dingily uninteresting way.)

But the interpretation of the meaning of the number of genes is almost majestically stupid. First, all that has happened is that a mistaken and essentially boastful estimate has been corrected by real information. And more important, logically speaking the fewer genes there are, the more important each is. If you have a car with three gears, each is more active and hence influential than if you have 30 gears.

Furthermore, 32,000 of anything is a substantial number. There are only 26 letters in the English language yet the variations in using them are phenomenally numerous. What if we had 32,000 letters in the alphabet? The fact is, the complexity inherent in this number of information carriers about the process of living boggles the mind.

There is a variety of different levels of meaning in the publication of the picture of our underlying system. Inevitably, it is a vindication of the Darwinian approach to evolution and patterns of life.

As I have written here before, there should be rapidly enhanced understanding that the distinction in the modern university between social and nature science is unnatural and increasingly pathological. Its continuation will doom social scientists to flat-earther irrelevance. The deprivation among natural scientists of social science insights into organizational complexity may reinforce miscalculation of the effect of industrial and technical processes on human beings and our societies. It has taken years for even physicians who are confronted with real people to recognize they have to deal with the whole patient, not just the specialized piece of meat on which they focus.

The fact that we have shared millions-years-old genes with everything from watercress to worms suggests the profound interconnectivity of forms of life. It also provides a basis for anticipating future environmental movements of drastically enhanced sophistication and sensitivity. Worms R Us, and as the world becomes more crowded with people, substances, objects and processes, the sharing of genes may begin to generate a sharing of common interest.

Meanwhile, the information that at the DNA level all humans are 99.9 percent identical will have to affect racial politicians of all colors, bigotry levels and ideology. This should speed up the removal of the race category from inventories like the census, and curtail its role in supporting the various demographically remedial schemes of concernocrats who try to stage-manage the world according to fake norms of diversity based on fake notions of racial continuity. The diversity is already in the system. We are genetically diverse enough. Seeking social equity on the basis of a spurious category will continue to create problems. Spurious theories generate frail realities and run a high risk of producing barriers to genuine change reflecting genuine diversity.

The genome publication will surely generate some enhanced nervousness in the seminaries and on the pulpit?more than there already is. It is idle to propose there is no conflict with religious belief, which so often depends on notions of special creation of human beings. The scientific knowledge is real and coercive that not only did we not begin our journey in Eden but have in fact been sashaying through the planet, leaving genetic trails tens of millions of years old and still not cold. After the publication of the genome picture, Cardinal Ruini, the cardinal vicar for the Rome diocese, said, "The Church has no reason to fear discoveries about the human genome," because "Man is a rational animal," and hence unique among the creatures of the world. But we know that other animals possess consciousness and display the ability to reflect on their problems and opportunities.

Furthermore, the genome work has underscored how extensively brain cells call on genes to construct, wire, power and maintain the nervous system in which the brain is the major player. It has been estimated that anywhere from 40 percent to "most" of the genome plays a role in what the brain does. This may have important impacts on, for example, learning how mental dysfunction emerges, and which brain factors such as dopamine transporters?which vary between people?may be responsible for more or less susceptibility to addiction. But since similar patterns occur among the other primates, notions of special rational privilege become ever more tricky to sustain. And it's even more dangerous to insist upon A Special Relationship to higher powers when an effort is under way to find relief from clear medical problems.

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