Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #153                                                 January 6, 2004
                 A Publication of The Nature Institute
           Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

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Quotes and Provocations
   Such a Worm as I
   Where Does the User End and PowerPoint Begin?

The Limits of Predictability (Stephen L. Talbott)
   Habits of the Technological Mind #3


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                         QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS

Such a Worm as I

The two nematodes, Caenorhabditis elegans and C. briggsae, are so
alike that only experts can distinguish them.  Microscopic in size and
transparent to light, the simple worms "have near-identical biology, even
down to the minutiae of developmental processes", according to a recent
report in Science (Nov. 27).

And yet, the report goes on to say, the genomes of the two worms turn out
to differ from each other on a scale that dwarfs the differences between
the human and mouse genomes.  That is, genomically speaking, a human being
and a mouse are much more alike than C. elegans and C.  briggsae.  For
example, the worms show about fifty differences in gene organization for
every one difference between human and mouse.  The same ratio holds for
changes in the structure of individual genes.

Another surprise is that the primitive and tiny C. elegans has at least
24,000, and possibly more than 25,000, genes.  With some recent estimates
for the human gene count hovering around 25 - 26,000, the lowly worm is
wonderfully close to outstripping us in genomic grandeur.

If, following the conventional wisdom, you take the genome as the
"blueprint" specifying the organism's construction, and if you reckon with
the extreme difference in scale and complexity between C. elegans and a
human being, then finding 24,000 genes in C. elegans is rather like
finding architectural drawings worthy of the Empire State Building -- but
intended for a one-room hut.  And further (with C.briggsae in mind), it
is as if you found a second but substantially altered set of intricate
drawings for the nearly identical hut next door.

Of course, if you were a sensible person, you would realize that these
genomes couldn't be blueprints at all, in any normal meaning of the term.
The real blueprint at work here is t