Friday, April 21, 2006

Genes. Code. For proteins.

I know you know this, Discover. I know you know that genes don't code for eye color, or mental health, or body fat percentage, but for proteins that affect these things. I know your mental picture of the double helix doesn't include tiny little flags that say "intelligence!" and "double-jointedness!" and "sensitivity!"

I know you know this because at the end of the article "The Violence Gene," there's a nice even-handed quote:
There are many possible factors at work, he says, and violence is an extremely complex behavior. "Whether or not any given person in any given situation will become violent is known to be almost impossible to predict."

But the findings are still significant, Meyer-Lindenberg says, because, "...it gives us a handle for the first time into a genetic risk for violence."
But did you notice that this article is called "The Violence Gene"? Come on, Discover, you're not helping. A world where you can read Discover, which is a pretty decent lay science publication, and still be under the impression that there's such thing as a "gene for violence" is not a world I want to live (or teach college) in.

I was very much struck by Blake Stacey's beautiful defense of "reductive" knowledge on Pharyngula:
I can certainly appreciate the beauty in a flower or a sunset, say, without going deep into the biology or the physics of it. However, since I do know a little about how the sunset happens, I can appreciate the combination of phenomena which go into the spectacle. I can connect the reddening of the sunset on a dusty, hazy evening to the reddening of distant stars seen behind dust clouds in astronomical photographs. My sunset relates to many other things: scientific knowledge allows all sights to become metaphors.

...

"Reductionism" is a decent enough concept, I suppose, yet it doesn't capture what I have experienced as a fairly common occurence among people who have a scientific worldview. Knowledge keeps adding to beauty, I find. It enhances the multiplicity of meaning. Some days I think that all the words we use to describe the "scientific method", words like reductionism and materialism, were invented by people who had never even tried the "method" out. Now we're stuck with them, and at the very least they make the job of communication harder. More's the pity.
This is so perfectly put, and very close to the explanation I've offered when religious friends ask how I can find any beauty in life yet not believe in the soul. And I think this relates to genetics too. It's so easy to take the truly reductive viewpoint: nature versus nurture. Either everything is environmentally influenced, or everything comes directly from your DNA. Either you're violent because you have a bad dad, or you're violent because you have the Violence Gene. But the truth is so much more complex and subtle, and therefore so much more enthralling (and so much more satisfying). One can still call it reductive, since it presupposes that the tiniest parts of life (genes, proteins, nearly indistinguishable environmental factors) play a role in the development of the human gestalt, but in no way does it actually reduce the profound complexity of life. In fact, it enhances it. And I know that "The Violence Gene" makes a striking headline, but we're not doing people, or science, any favors by taking the glib and easy way out.

So Discover, read your Lewontin and get back to me. (And with that lovely mixed image of a magazine reading a book, I'm off to Target.)

3 Comments:

Bill Hooker said...

Genes. Code. For proteins.

Or functional RNAs, like rRNA, microRNA and tRNAs.

4/24/2006 10:38 AM  
Bill Hooker said...

And by "functional", of course, I don't mean to imply that mRNA is somehow non-functional...

It's a silly nitpick anyway; your main point is well made. I plead uncaffeinated. 'Scusi.

4/24/2006 10:40 AM  
jess said...

Yeah, it's a fair cop. (And if that's as aggressive as you get when uncaffeinated, you're a better man than most.)

4/26/2006 10:34 PM  

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