Earlier, I called attention to this longish but very informative article by Carl Zimmer, “Now: The Rest of the Genome” (The New York Times, November 11, 2008). It pretty much blows the genetic reductionism I grew up with out of the water. The “gene” – that little coil of sugar that ran our lives back then – is a dead idea.
Now here’s an exchange that caught my attention:
“The way biology works is different from mathematics,” said Mark Gerstein, a bioinformatician at Yale. “If you find one counterexample in mathematics, you go back and rethink the definitions. Biology is not like that. One or two counterexamples — people are willing to deal with that.”
More complications emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, though. Scientists discovered that when a cell produces an RNA transcript, it cuts out huge chunks and saves only a few small remnants. (The parts of DNA that the cell copies are called exons; the parts cast aside are introns.)
Actually, the biologists flatter themselves. They underbussed vast discrepancies between their belief system and the evidence – along with lots of people who insisted on discussing their implications – until finally, the system is collapsing in the gene’s “identity crisis” (Zimmer’s phrase).
Thomas Kuhn was right. Old paradigms don’t get disproven; they collapse from their own unworkability.
One thing about this article, it is mercifully free of rubbish about evolution.
We actually don’t know what most of the stuff in the genome does. So why not wait until we do know before we begin to describe its history? That will save a lot of rewrites down the road, maybe inconvenient ones.
(Note: Re the business about cutting out huge chunks and saving only a few small remnants … Brings back memories. We textbook editors used to do that when we were racing a deadline. We would copy a whole chapter from the master copy of the manuscript to date, and then select only a few pages for which final revisions had been ordered. Then we just recycled the rest of the pages of the chapter. Wasteful? Yes, of paper. But not of time. Under deadline panic, the most important quantity was time, not paper. And we knew from experience that our method was slightly faster. So I would recommend caution to anyone making claims that such methods show that the system cannot be the product of design. When we editos did it, that’s precisely what it was – design.)