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Science, Technology, and Human Responsibility


Issue #186            February 28, 2013


A Publication of The Nature Institute
Editor: Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

On the Web: http://netfuture.org


This issue of NetFuture: http://netfuture.org/2013/Feb2813_186.html
Contents of This Issue
bullet  Editor’s Note arrow
A lot has been going on
bullet  What Do Organisms Mean? — A New Website arrow
Toward “A Biology Worthy of Life” — via a highly browsable web resource
bullet  Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory (Stephen L. Talbott) arrow
The essential heritable material is not DNA; it is a living organism
bullet  Supplemental Articles arrow
Putting Genes in Perspective
The Seat of Power: Nucleus or Cytoplasm?
Free Life and Confining Form
Indefinable Genes and the ‘Wild West’ Genomic Landscape
Missing Heritability — Or Whole-Organism Inheritance?
bullet  About this newsletter arrow


Editor’s Note

It has been eight months since the last NetFuture, but I hope you will find the wait has been worth it. The centerpiece of this issue is an article toward which I have long been working: “Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory”. In it I attempt to show the hollowness of what we might call the core logic of conventional evolutionary theory. If my thesis is correct, then this theory as we have it today is remarkably disconnected from the reality of living organisms. The essay is accompanied by five supplemental articles on diverse topics. Moreover, all these articles are part of an ambitious new web collection (introduced below) with an emphasis on convenient browsing and readability.

I no longer intend to include the full text of most articles in the newsletter. Instead, you will find here summaries or brief descriptions, along with links into the new website.

Finally, don’t forget to check out the forthcoming week-long summer courses at The Nature Institute. You can read the course descriptions at http://natureinstitute.org/calendar.


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What Do Organisms Mean? — A New Website

I have for over three years now been producing a series of articles dealing with various aspects of molecular biology, focusing on genetics and gene regulation and, more recently, evolution. But the underlying concern has always been the nature of the organism. I have worried, however, that the length and the dense, sometimes technical nature of the articles makes them heavy going for many readers.

Now I am tackling that problem, and one result is the initial phase of a new web presentation entitled “What Do Organisms Mean? Toward a Biology Worthy of Life”. I needn’t say much here, since you are only a click away from investigating it for yourself. It is enough to point out that I have gone to great lengths to make the site eminently browsable according to your interests, and without a requirement that you read through long and challenging articles in order to find material that will excite you. There are article summaries, over 100 article excerpts organized by theme, brief descriptions of forthcoming articles, and various supporting materials.

I expect the site to become a valuable resource for professional biologists, students, and laypeople, and will be working continually on its upgrade over the coming months and years. Your comments and suggestions will be most welcome, as also your recommendation of the site to friends and colleagues.

As for that single click, here it is: What Do Organisms Mean? I suggest that, to begin with, you take just 60 seconds to scroll down the main page and get a feel for what is there.

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Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory

Stephen L. Talbott

What you see below is the summary of “Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory” as it is presented on the new website described above. There is a link leading to previous summaries, and, at the end of the summary, a set of excerpts. Each excerpt contains a link to its location in the larger article. You’ll need to visit the new website in order to browse the collected excerpts from all the articles. If you wish to do so now, you can also go straight to the full text of “Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory” — or else click on the link at the end of the summary.


Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory


Evolution is said to occur inevitably, given (1) trait variation among members of a breeding population, (2) at least some inheritance of parental traits by offspring, and (3) differential fitness of organisms possessing different traits. This core logic of evolutionary theory has been strongly grounded in DNA: the heritable substance consists essentially of DNA; variation equates to random DNA mutations; and differential fitness derives from the phenotype (observable features) of the organism, which in turn derive from instructions in DNA. This entire logic is so far abstracted from the life of organisms that, by itself, it tells us little if anything about the actual possibilities or likely character of evolutionary change.

Three lines of thought have supported the conviction that DNA is the essential hereditary substance. One is rooted in the belief that DNA is digital, consisting of stable and discrete (“atomic”) units that are reliably replicated from one generation to the next, subject only to occasional mutations. Advantageous mutations can then spread in the population through natural selection, while disadvantageous ones are eliminated. This measured change against a background of stability is supposed to be what makes possible the cumulative development of complex adaptive features in an evolutionary lineage.

Another key conviction is that DNA, in some fundamental sense that is never made clear, explains the organism. Whatever is critically important for explaining the organism is naturally assumed to be critically important for inheritance. And, in the third place, there is the longstanding disconnect between evolutionary studies and those, such as embryology, related to organismal development. This disconnect is symbolized by by the isolation of DNA from its cellular surroundings and, on a larger scale, by the isolation of the germline from somatic cells. And it is strengthened by the apparent failure of Lamarckianism (inheritance of acquired characteristics, such as the enlarged biceps of the blacksmith): if traits acquired by organisms during the course of their development cannot be inherited, it must be because they cannot find their way into the decisive heritable substance (DNA).

We can recognize in all the foregoing the Genetic Dogma of Evolutionary Theory: The tale of evolution is, in one sense or another, the tale of a single, overwhelmingly dominant, stable heritable substance slowly changing over time and explaining the organism. This heritable substance is DNA.

The misdirection in this dogma lies in the fact that it posits DNA as a clearly definable and static thing, a single substance that can be analyzed out of an almost infinitely complex, functioning whole and treated in this disconnected state as if it held the decisive causal explanation for the canonical form and character of that whole. In reality the organism is a living agent whose life as a whole is a pursuit of its own ends and meanings. Its significant bequest to future generations consists of an elaborately chosen projection of its own life — not some single “controlling” molecular element — into a nascent life that is never less than a complete organism. This organism, as a physical entity, is without a beginning in any absolute sense. Its life is a continuation and transformation of the developmental and purposive existence of its progenitors.

The developmental powers of the individual organism are illustrated in the dramatic processes of metamorphosis whereby, for example, a crawling larva is transformed into a flying butterfly with the same DNA, and in the equally dramatic processes by which the single-celled human zygote differentiates into hundreds or thousands of cell types with the same DNA. Here we see the power of the organism as a whole to transform — radically, coherently, and stably — its cells and its overall form without this transformation being attributable to DNA as First Cause.

After all, it makes no sense to say that the numerous divergent pathways from the zygote to the various cell types of the body are explained by the one thing in the cells that remains more or less the same, namely, the bare DNA sequence, unstructured by the organism’s developmental processes. There is no foundational explanatory power offered by some fixed structure to which molecular nuts and bolts, gears and levers — or informational “particles” — can be neatly added, subtracted, or substituted for each other in isolation from larger processes. Yet every lineage of cells proceeds along its path in a perfectly coherent, well-organized way, with transformations occurring in a proper, adaptable, and fluent order.

The zygote’s transformation along the pathway from single, fertilized cell to mature organism is an activity, a story, of the entire cell and entire organism. Life scientists, from molecular biologists to naturalists, routinely do describe the organism’s life in narrative terms (see “The Unbearable Wholeness of Beings”), and it is the character of the narrative that must change in a coherent manner from generation to generation if evolution is to occur. It must change in the only way an integral narrative context can change, through a continual mutual adjustment of directed activities.

The one-celled zygote is the heritable substance. And it is absurd to imagine it developing into an organism under the autocratic control of just one of the contents it effectively coordinates; it already is the whole organism.

The belief that evolution depends overwhelmingly on the literal replication of a single type of molecule has been assumed more than it has been defended. It certainly has not been adequately defended against the idea that evolution is rooted in whole-organism inheritance — inheritance such as we find embodied in the coordinated and stable intentions of a living zygote.

What really needs perpetuation in an evolutionary lineage is a distinctive, cognitively informed dynamic of growth and development. And this is exactly what nature shows us. Every feature of the organism, considered as a thing (the blacksmith’s arm, with enlarged biceps), is a product of the organism’s life, not the life itself. It is a product of the ever-striving, adaptive capacities that define this kind of organism. In relation to a living notion of inheritance, the traditional arguments against the inheritance of acquired characteristics are irrelevant. We don’t need a woodenly literal passing on of isolated features in order for offspring to receive a meaningful bequest from their parents. The true bequest reflects (as does every cell of the parents’ bodies) something of the parents’ life experience in their particular environment.

Before we claim that the organism’s wisdom in pursuing its own development has nothing to do with evolution, we might want to ask ourselves whether there is reason why any creature should be less expert at managing its reproductive organs and gametes in relation to their distinctive purposes and environmental context than it is at managing its heart and lungs. A great deal of research today focuses on the various processes that make a lie of the supposed isolation of the germline cells from the organism as a whole.

With the demise of the gene as the single, decisive heritable substance, the core logic of received evolutionary theory is shown to be an empty shell, disconnected from living activity.

bullet Previous Summary
bullet Jump to full text of “Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory”
bullet Return to “What Do Organisms Mean?” project overview
Selected excerpts from the chapter
bullet The organism as agent of its own development (1)
bullet The organism as agent of its own development (2)
bullet The organism as agent of its own development (3)
bullet The organism as agent of its own development (4)
bullet Development is a transformation of the whole (1)
bullet Development is a transformation of the whole (2)
bullet The organism is an activity, not a thing (1)
bullet The organism is an activity, not a thing (2)
bullet Contexts and activities, not things, are inherited
bullet Acquired characteristics versus active potentials
bullet The organism manages its own germline (1)
bullet The organism manages its own germline (2)
bullet The organism manages its own germline (3)
bullet The organism manages its own germline (4)
bullet A logic hollow at its core
bullet Yes, holism is difficult

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Supplemental Articles

I will be writing a number of sidebar articles, or supplements, to accompany the main articles. These will have a narrow focus, and will serve to support one or another point in the larger essays. The following supplemental articles were all written in support of “Genes and the Central Fallacy of Evolutionary Theory” — although the integrated character of the entire “What Do Organisms Mean?” project suggests that the supplemental pieces will often be relevant to more than one primary essay. Anyway, what follows are brief indicators of the contents of the newly posted supplements, along with links to the full articles.


“Putting Genes in Perspective”

There are many phenomena showing how the organism contextualizes its DNA in an active, directed, and stable manner. The DNA, like all parts of the cell — and like all parts of the organism as a whole — is subordinated to larger purposes. Depending on the organism, we find that identical genomes can reside in different sexes, or in different insect castes with widely disparate behavior, or in altogether different morphological configurations. Other phenomena, such as induced pluripotency and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance also testify to the power of the organism to “bend” the genome to its own requirements.

bullet Read “Putting Genes in Perspective

“The Seat of Power: Nucleus or Cytoplasm?”

There has been a century-long debate about the relative roles of the DNA-containing nucleus and the surrounding cytoplasm of the cell, seen as two contending spheres of influence. Now, developments such as the cloning experiment that produced the sheep, Dolly, together with just about the entire literature of molecular biology, have made it abundantly clear that we ought not to seek a “controlling” element in the cell. The nucleus and and cytoplasm are strongly differentiated parts of the cell, but the characterization of one as a command center and the other as recipient or executor of the commands is no longer tenable.

bullet Read “The Seat of Power: Nucleus or Cytoplasm?

“Free Life and Confining Form”

The living dynamism of the organism is reflected in a fundamental polarity exhibited by every living thing — a polarity involving the interpenetration of, and creative tension between, two principles: on the one hand, relatively fixed structure and organization; on the other, plastic energies. Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke of an irreducible polarity between “confining form” and “free life”, and it is indeed impossible to have life without structure, identity, and already achieved form, just as it is is also impossible to have life without movement, flexibility, and change.

bullet Read “Free Life and Confining Form

“Indefinable Genes and the “Wild West” Genomic Landscape”

The concept of the gene has been on life support for a couple decades. With the publication of a series of papers from Project ENCODE in late 2012, the official death certificate appears to have been signed. Moreover, a substitute “atomic unit” of inheritance has been suggested. But, for an atomic unit, it looks remarkably fuzzy, and it’s not clear how it will serve the evolutionary theorist at all.

bullet Read “Indefinable Genes and the ‘Wild West’ Genomic Landscape

“Missing Heritability — Or Whole-Organism Inheritance?”

There is an ongoing controversy about complex traits and the problem of their “missing heritability”. Heritability, in this context, is a technical concept having more to do with the statistical characterization of populations than with what we normally think of as the inheritance bequeathed from one generation to the next. Nevertheless, a consideration of missing heritability and of the confusions endemic to current discussions of it helps to point us toward the real difficulties in coming to an understanding of inheritance. And inheritance, of course, is a central concept in evolutionary theory.

bullet Read “Missing Heritability — Or Whole-Organism Inheritance?

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About This Newsletter

NetFuture, a freely distributed electronic newsletter, is edited and mostly written by Stephen L. Talbott (http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st), author of Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in the Age of Machines. Copyright 2013 by The Nature Institute. All rights reserved.

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Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #186