File spoon-archives/heidegger.archive/heidegger_2001/heidegger.0102, message 24

Subject: Re: <fwd> S.J. Gould on new genome findings 
Date: Tue, 20 Feb 2001 17:41:15 -0000

 Gould's Shameful Schadenfreude. - A Rant.

There is something amusing and sad about the reaction of people like Gould
who begins the Darwin's Birthday address by telling his students that they
are sharing a great day in the history of science and of human understanding
in general, and yet obviously can't wait to gleefully pass on the
information that the genome count was not as high as had been expected.  For
it seems his barely concealed schadenfreude over the so-called 'hubris' of
the scientific community obviously outweighs the benefits for the rapid
easement of human suffering that a simple reductionist outcome would have
provided.  By the tone of his piece one cannot escape the conclusion that he
is GLAD that the number was so low, and that it is 'one in the eye' for the
white-coated ones, and to hell with cancer cures and an end to alcoholism.
Like sly circling hyenas or silently circling yellow-eyed vultures these
spiritualist scavengers at the table of progress swoop down at the slightest
sign of weakness ready to gorge themselves in a feeding frenzy of
transcendentalist hyperbole and psychic barf.
This serio-comic response to temporary scientific postponements is typical
of the mystics and obfuscationists throughout the ages, and similar smug
overreaction to apparent setbacks in medical science are typical of the
introduction of many new methods or treatments - such as vaccination,
immunisation, chloroform, etc - in fact any advance by which human suffering
is expeditiously eliminated which precludes the afflicted from grovelling
piteously at the feet of smelly priests begging them to intercede with God
to assuage their affliction.

OK, maybe I am overstating my case, for I'm sure even Gould would not be the
first to rejoice if the painkilling drugs used in dentistry or child-birth
or cancer or any other of the benisons of reductionism were suddenly
pronounced to be harmful to the body and banned, or the religious opponents
of the cow-pox serum had been listened to and his child had died for the
want of that particular treatment. What price a Gouldian snigger at the
imagined 'hubris' of his benefactors?

The implications of this finding cascade across several realms. The
commercial effects will be obvious, as so much biotechnology, including the
rush to patent genes, has assumed the old view that "fixing" an aberrant
gene would cure a specific human ailment. The social meaning may finally
liberate us from the simplistic and harmful idea, false for many other
reasons as well, that each aspect of our being, either physical or
behavioral, may be ascribed to the action of a particular gene "for" the
trait in question.

 But why does he obviously revel in his premature conclusion? Why is it a
good thing to be 'liberated' from the simplistic idea that each aspect of
our existence, either physical or behavioural, may be ascribed to the action
of a particular gene "for" the trait in question? And why was/is it a
harmful idea, false for many other reasons as well? What are these reasons,
and why if the main thrust of the project is to alleviate human suffering
and prolong the lives of our loved ones - why is it harmful?  We don't need
a crystal ball to see that any harm in a rapid breakthrough that the
'reductionist' outcome would have delivered, would be to Gould's own
preconceived ideas and outdated mindset - in other words - to Gould's
hubris - the very hubris that he identifies in the scientific community.

But the deepest ramifications will be scientific or philosophical in the
largest sense. From its late 17th century inception in modern form, science
has strongly privileged the reductionist mode of thought that breaks overt
complexity into constituent parts and then tries to explain the totality by
the properties of these parts and simple interactions fully predictable from
the parts. ("Analysis" literally means to dissolve into basic parts). The
reductionist method works triumphantly for simple systems predicting
eclipses or the motion of planets (but not the histories of their complex
surfaces), for example.

Gould ignores the fact that these systems were not always seen as 'simple.'
Before the reductionist astronomers of the 17th century, (leaving poor
gagged Galileo aside,) humanity was brainwashed with a puerile astrological
mystical mishmash of 'the music of the spheres' and of an irritable
greybeard at the centre of a concentricity of rings - and crap about the
stars influencing the course of a person's life. But for the analysis and
reductionism of the scientists who Gould so vilifies, we'd still be using
priests to sprinkle water on us to ease the sprouting buboes of our
plague-ridden bodies, rather than have an efficient nurse in a white coat
inject our arm with a life-saving serum.

But once again and when will we ever learn? We fell victim to hubris, as we
imagined that, in discovering how to unlock some systems, we had found the
key for the conquest of all natural phenomena.

Will we ever learn? I hope like hell that we never learn to think like
Gould - for that would mean we simply sat back on our haunches and watched
our buboes spurt their foul liquor over others and infect them too as we
fell backwards in death. No, we must never stop trying to improve our lot
and the lot of others, and if it is human hubris that is the engine of this
drive to improve medicine and find out how things work - then so be it - it
is a small price to pay, and it is a tab that most of us are only too
willing to pick up.

Will Parsifal ever learn that only humility (and a plurality of strategies
for explanation) can locate the Holy Grail?

Stuff the Holy Grail! Humility my ass! Humility equals Christian bonfires
and Nazi ovens and guys having their legs sawn off without chloroform.
Plurality of strategies for explanation? Rubbish! A physical law operates
with known mechanisms that can be predicted. There is only room for one
'explanation' of this phenomenon and that is a concept whose truth can be
proved by scientific verification. In the 1920s religious nuts influenced 20
state legislatures to debate antievolution laws, and four states--Arkansas,
Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee-to their everlasting shame prohibited
the teaching of evolution in their public schools. A spokesman for the
antievolutionists was William Jennings Bryan; three times the unsuccessful
Democratic candidate for the presidency, which said in 1922, "We will drive
Darwinism from our schools. "

The collapse of the doctrine of one gene for one protein, and one direction
of causal flow from basic codes to elaborate totality, marks the failure of
reductionism for the complex system that we call biology and for two major

But it was never a 'doctrine' - a 'belief' (or system of beliefs) accepted
as authoritative by some group or school - it was no more than a
'supposition' hyped by the media and based on the perfectly understandable
extrapolation that the more complex the organism the greater the number of
genes required to run the reproductive programme.
Darwin gathered much evidence in support of natural section, but the
evidence has accumulated continuously ever since, derived from all
biological disciplines and arrived at analytically through the painful
scrutiny and reduction of facts.  Whilst Heidegger and company sat on their
asses mooning on about Falsein and other transcendentalist fictions the
authenticity of the evolutionary origin of organisms was being established -
a scientific conclusion grounded with the kind of certainty attributable to
such scientific concepts as the roundness of the Earth, the motions of the
planets, and the molecular composition of matter.

 This degree of certainty beyond reasonable doubt is what is implied when
biologists say that evolution is a "fact"; virtually every biologist accepts
the evolutionary origin of organisms.  But the theory of evolution goes much
beyond this first issue, the general affirmation that organisms evolve. The
second and third issues involve seeking to ascertain the evolutionary
relationships between particular organisms and the events of evolutionary
history, as well as to explain how and why evolution takes place. That the
scientists in the case of the genome project allegedly underestimated the
gene count in humans was in one way forgivable but on the other hand
strange, for surely they must have considered the fact that nature is a
great economiser - a miser where energy is concerned and an enthusiast for
symmetry.  If a job can be carried out in the simplest way using the minimum
amount of materials and energy Mr Nature is your man.  These modifications
of scale are not only things which happen in the long-term development of
physiological systems either, for in my own case, because I am a life-long
vegetarian and completely clear of cholesterol grunge my arterial and
vascular systems allow unrestricted flow for my bloodstream - result?  My
heart has slowed down to less than the average meat-eaters rate, for the
cardiac muscle does not need to pump so hard to move the venous blood
through unpolluted plumbing passageways.  Is it not obvious that a similar
rationalisation of process will have taken place in the tiny 'message in a
bottle' of the DNA spiral?  Is it not obvious that in the course of a couple
of million years or so the organism will have discovered by trial and error
more expeditious ways of packaging and simplifying the unpacking of
information codes? I must admit although I am a life long and enthusiastic
reductionist that I was surprised that the white coat brigade hadn't latched
on to this and anticipated a more combinatorial outcome with more mutual or
reciprocal interactions; with combinings and affiliatings engendered by
fewer units of code.
Jealous snide attacks and jibes like Gould's  (mainly from the religiously
motivated,) started during Darwin's lifetime.
Until Pope Pius XII in his encyclical Humani Generis (1950; "Of the Human
Race") acknowledged that biological evolution was compatible with the
Christian faith, the theory of evolution was seen as incompatible with
religious beliefs, particularly those of Christianity. The first chapters of
the book of Genesis describe God's creation of the world, the plants, the
animals, and man. A literal interpretation of Genesis seems incompatible
with the gradual evolution of humans and other organisms by natural
processes.  The Christian believes in the immortality of the soul and in man
as "created in the image of God" so presumably God has genes as well - the
same number as me - from whom did he/she inherit these genes?
Pope John Paul II stated in an address to the Pontifical Academy of
Sciences:  "The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and
its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in
order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the
universe. Sacred scripture wishes simply to declare that God created the
world, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of
the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. Any other teaching about the
origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible,
which does not wish to teach how the heavens were made but how one goes to

His argument was clearly directed against Christian Fundamentalists who see
in Genesis a literal description of how the world was created by God.
Biblical Fundamentalists make up a minority of Christians, but they have
periodically gained considerable public and political influence in the
United States and the evil bacillus has recently crossed the Atlantic and
infected Britain.

First, the key to complexity is not more genes, but more combinations and
interactions generated by fewer units of code and many of these interactions
(as emergent properties, to use the technical jargon) must be explained at
the level of their appearance, for they cannot be predicted from the
separate underlying parts alone.

Utter rubbish!  The modus operandi of a reductionist scientist is to
analysis the chemical soup of the combinations and to separate them out into
their constituent parts.  This shouldn't take long - and it won't be to long
either before Gould is eating Hubris/Humble Pie.

So organisms must be explained as organisms, and not as a summation of

Organisms come into existence because the codes written into their DNA
deemed it that way - they also carry within them the information necessary
to have themselves cloned or reproduced in concert with another donor.

 Second, the unique contingencies of history, not the laws of physics, set
many properties of complex biological systems.

But what are Gould's " unique contingencies of history?" other than results
the laws of physics?
An earthquake that wipes out an emergent species?  A meteorite that wipes
out the dinosaurs?

Our 30, 000 genes make up only 1 percent or so of our total genome. The rest
including bacterial immigrants and other pieces that can replicate and move
originate more as accidents of history than as predictable necessities of
physical laws.  Moreover, these noncoding regions, disrespectfully called
"junk DNA, " also build a pool of potential for future use that, more than
any other factor, may establish any lineage's capacity for further
evolutionary increase in complexity.

This merging of matter, the symbionetic, mutually advantageous reciprocally
beneficial interdependence has been going on in the micro and macro-world
since time began - man uses bacteria - bacteria uses man - man uses dog -
dog uses man - parasites live on a host - the host gets protection from the
parasite - sharks have fish that clean their teeth - the fish get a free
ride and free food and so on. There is nothing mysterious in this for we all
have bacteria living in our gut, which help us digest our food whilst they
enjoy a free meal ticket.

The deflation of hubris is blessedly positive, not cynically disabling. The
failure of reductionism doesn't mark the failure of science, but only the
replacement of an ultimately unworkable set of assumptions by more
appropriate styles of explanation that study complexity at its own level and
respect the influences of unique histories. Yes, the task will be much
harder than reductionistic science imagined. But our 30, 000 genes in the
glorious ramifications of their irreducible interactions have made us
sufficiently complex and at least potentially adequate for the task ahead.

Here Gould lays down a conciliatory marker for the time when the
reductionists finally crack the problem - this is no 'failure of
reductionism' but a mere blip on the way to success.

We may best succeed in this effort if we can heed some memorable words
spoken by that other great historical figure born on Feb. 12 on the very
same day as Darwin, in 1809. Abraham Lincoln, in his first Inaugural
Address, urged us to heal division and seek unity by marshalling the "better
angels of our nature" yet another irreducible and emergent property of our
historically unique mentality, but inherent and invokable all the same, even
though not resident within, say, gene 26 on chromosome number 12.

This invocation of Lincoln is reminiscent of the better days of vaudeville -
like the comedian ending on a serious note or with a patriotic song. The
illusion to Gould's performance in this remark is deliberate, and the
article will not do his reputation much good at all - especially in the long

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