Thursday, October 29, 2009

A monkey's uncle?

[Quote] Their remarkable progress led to a vast, ambitious vision: to spell out the full complement of genes in the human genome. As Walter Gilbert of Harvard University put it, “The search for this ‘Holy Grail’ of who we are has now reached its culminating phase. The ultimate goal is the acquisition of all the details of our genome.”

This astonishing achievement has indeed transformed our view of ourselves, but not in the way that was anticipated. The first surprise was that there were so few genes. Rather than the predicted 100,000 or more, the finally tally of about 25,000 was very puzzling, and all the more so when compared with the genomes of other animals much simpler than ourselves. There are about 17,000 genes in a fruit fly and about 26,000 in a sea urchin. Many species of plants have far more genes than we do–rice has about 38,000, for example.

In 2001, the director of the chimpanzee genome project, Svante Paabo, anticipated that when the sequencing of the ape’s genome was completed, it would be possible to identify “the profoundly interesting genetic prerequisites that make us different from other animals.” When the complete chimpanzee sequence was published four years later, his interpretation was more muted: “We cannot see in this why we are so different from chimpanzees.”

In the wake of the Human Genome Project, the mood has changed dramatically. The old assumption that life would be understood if molecular biologists knew the “program” of an organism is giving way to a realization that there is a huge gap between gene sequences and the way living organisms grow and behave.

R. Sheldrake, Morphic Resonance (Park Street Press 2009), xvi-xviii.


  1. With all due respect, Sheldrake? :)

    In any case, the claim that the number of genes presents some insurmountable puzzle is simply incorrect; as far as the relationship between apes and us, the quote appears taken out of context (I am going to look it up and will comment in the future). The simple fact remains that there aren't that many differences between great apes and humans (which is to be expected; after all, we are closely related). Those differences that exist are present on a continuum (reasoning abilities, for example); and the genetic loci for drastic differences (vitamin C metabolism) have been known for some time now. In short, none of these findings are drastic in the sense that Sheldrake (and by extension, this blog) seem to imply.

  2. What's wrong with quoting Sheldrake? He had a world-class scientific education along with field experience:

    "Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than 75 scientific papers and ten books. A former Research Fellow of the Royal Society, he studied natural sciences at Cambridge University, where he was a Scholar of Clare College, took a double first class honours degree and was awarded the University Botany Prize. He then studied philosophy at Harvard University, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow, before returning to Cambridge, where he took a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge University, where he carried out research on the development of plants and the ageing of cells. At Clare College he was also Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology. From 1968 to 1969, based in the Botany Department of the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, he studied rain forest plants. From 1974 to 1985 he worked at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Hyderabad, India, where he was Principal Plant Physiologist."

    With all due respect, is Jorgon Gordon?

  3. The problem with Sheldrake is that he has been promoting his rather wacky morphofenetic field theory, against all evidence, for quite some time now. That has caused his standing within academia to take a bit of a nosedive. I am not the one to claim guilt by association, but you would notice that the morhic resonance is often associated with the Face on Mars and other hijinx of that sort.

    And I am not interested in presenting my credentials, to tell you the truth: appeals to authority may be a favoured tactic of many believers, but they are not for me.

  4. His theory may be wacky (would you say the same thing about memes?), but he investigates natural phenomena which many ideologically straightjacketed scientists simply ignore because it doesn't fit into their paradigm.

  5. LOL, rhetoric is fun. What do you expect me to do? Publish a peer-reviewed paper? Refer you to the basic texts on the philosophy of biology? I am sure that you have access to a library. Taking Behe, for example: his specific examples were shown not to hold, in response to which he reformulated his concept of IC to avoid criticisms. When his claims about HIV turned out to be based in nothing, he clammed down and ignored objections (except for resorting to true ad hominem attacks). Dembski, on the other hand, seems to ahve a weak grasp of what really constitutes complexity (his usage of it does not correspond to any definition I have seen before). Ultimately, theirs is a more sophisticated version of the god-of-the-gaps argument; what has been called "an appeal to personal incredulity": I cannot imagine how a particular process may have taken place, therefore it couldn't have. It reminds me of an old joke about an Englishman taken to the zoo to see a giraffe. He looks at the beast for some time, then shakes his head and says, "No, such a ridiculous creature has no right to exist; therefore it does not exist". ID theorists are like that.

  6. And you claim I am guilty of "rhetorical finery"? The appeal to hidebound blinkered scientists that ignore everything outside the boundaries of their obsolete paradigm is as obsolete as it is silly. Even when Kuhn wrote about it it was not correct (observe the acceptance of GR or QM in scientific community, for example). No, all Sheldrake has to do is provide some significant results and he will be in line for a Nobel (in medicine? :) So far, his claims have the same credibility as those of homeopathists, for example.

  7. Oops, wrong thread. See? Everybody makes mistakes...even me...:)

  8. The god-of-the gaps allegation has been addressed on various occasions. You offer no counterargument.

    And all you're done here is to give a one-sided version of the argument. I've read the back-and-forth on this enough times that it carries no presumption.