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Health

Arise the vehicle! Arise the cell!

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanOctober 7, 2010 12:00 AM

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A quick follow up to my post Epigenetics arise! Adam Keiper, the editor of The New Atlantis, has graciously sent me a copy of the article, Getting Over the Code Delusion. I've also been told that the piece will be free to all on the website at any moment, so I invite readers to check it out when that occurs [it's online]. First, I want to add that Mr. Keiper doesn't believe that the Wikipedia entry for The New Atlantis is particularly accurate. William Kristol for example has never been published in The New Atlantis, while the Wikipedia entry says he has. I would add though that many of the people associated with the magazine may broadly be considered "conservative." Not that there's anything wrong with that, I too may broadly be considered "conservative"! Others associated with the publication, such as Robert Zubrin, are not known for their politics from what I know. As for Steve Talbott's essay, it's a peculiar beast. It weighs in at 25 pages, but it's only the first of a series. Getting Over the Code Delusion is to a large extent a primer on molecular genetics, cytology, and genomics for the uninitiated. That's a tall order. It's really hard to avoid pitfalls of oversimplification in the space provided, so I'll let readers judge where Talbott misleads or misunderstands in the details. Another definite aspect of the piece which is a bit out of the ordinary is its literary quality, which one does not usually find in primers of this sort. Consider:

...Noncoding DNA could provide the complex regulatory functions that direct genes toward service of the organism’s needs, including its developmental needs. That suspicion has now become standard doctrine....

I think coventional technical writing would have avoided a word like "doctrine" (and I think it also misleads as to the disputes around issues such as the importance of cis-regulatory elements, which are not quite settled). But Talbott's audience does not necessarily consist of individuals who get Science and Nature in the mail every month (or have academic access). So a more thorough judgement probably will have to await the whole series. But I think I can already glean the gist of where Talbott is going: he wants to dethrone the centrality of the genetic sequence in our understanding of how life emerges and is specified. He is right to point out that debates about the importance of gene regulation, higher order genomic structures, and epigenetics, throw a monkey-wrench into a cool reductionist system where the mapping between genotype and phenotype is going to be easy to unravel. In this Steve Talbott is following many others who have objected to the image of genes as "puppet masters" which control our destinies. Included in this set is Richard Dawkins, who felt that the publicity materials around The Selfish Gene, and misunderstandings by other academics, resulted in a distortion of his underlying message. But in any case the science is still very much in flux. The old order may have fallen, but nothing has risen to replace it. Talbott nicely reminds us that 20 years ago mainstream scientists were engaging in genetic triumphalism with the success of family based linkage studies in adducing variants associated with recessive diseases such as cystic fibrosis. But my main worry is that the triumphalists of our age are again speaking too soon. Science is always full of surprises. Addendum: One impression I get from Getting Over the Code Delusion is that the author is eliding the distinction between deterministic processes understood on a molecular genetic scale, and statistical associations on the scale of populations and the level of genomics. Prediction need not be conditional on perfection, and clearly systematic patterns and processes can emerge from a seemingly chaotic welter. That's what developmental genetics certainly teaches. Also, early in the piece Talbot seems to be diminishing the importance of the sequence identity between the chimpanzee and the human, asking that "...we could have done the obvious and direct and scientifically respectable thing: we could have observed ourselves and chimps, noting the similarities and differences." I think this sort of common sense objective phenetics when it comes to humankind's closest relatives is not so easy to come by. A history of the taxonomic and evolutionary confusions as to the nature of relations among the homonid lineage are such that this was one area where phylogenetics informed at the sequence level was very useful. Perhaps it's been overplayed, but it was, and is, a very significant finding, and the perceptions of broad phenotypic differences don't refute that reality.

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