Monday, January 24, 2011

"It's in your genes" theory fading in the wake of epigenetics?

In "Getting Over the Code Delusion" (The New Atlantis, Summer 2010), Steve Talbott
muses on the mystique around the genetic code in past decades, especially in the light of modern findings:
Meanwhile, the epigenetic revolution is slowly but surely making its way into the popular media — witness the recent Time magazine cover story, “Why DNA Isn’t Your Destiny.” The shame of it is that most of the significance of the current research is still being missed. Judging from much that is being written, one might think the main thing is simply that we’re gaining new, more complex insights into how to treat the living organism as a manipulable machine.

The one decisive lesson I think we can draw from the work in molecular genetics over the past couple of decades is that life does not progressively contract into a code or any kind of reduced “building block” as we probe its more minute dimensions. Trying to define the chromatin complex, according to geneticists Shiv Grewal and Sarah Elgin, “is like trying to define life itself.” Having plunged headlong toward the micro and molecular in their drive to reduce the living to the inanimate, biologists now find unapologetic life staring back at them from every chromatogram, every electron micrograph, every gene expression profile. Things do not become simpler, less organic, less animate. The explanatory task at the bottom is essentially the same as the one higher up. It’s rather our understanding that all too easily becomes constricted as we move downward, because the contextual scope and qualitative richness of our survey is so extremely narrowed.

The search for precise explanatory mechanisms and codes leads us along a path of least resistance toward the reduction of understanding. A capacity for imagination (not something many scientists are trained for today) is always required for grasping a context in meaningful terms, because at the contextual level the basic data are not things, but rather relations, movement, and transformation.
It could be pared down to a long inscription in marble, and worthy a monument too.

I, for one, believe that the pop gene revolution has been socially harmful. To the extent that people look for the "infidelity gene", the "violence gene", the "religion gene", the "altruism gene", they are refusing to explore the actual ways they made up their minds about things. Like all junk psychology, it's way too easy to be true.

I wonder what nonsense will grow from epigenetics.