Go to NetFuture main page

Science, Technology, and Human Responsibility


Issue #187            June 20, 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/Jun2013_187.html
Contents of This Issue
bullet  Editor’s Note arrow
bullet  Revolution in the Making? Notes from the Biological Literature arrow
Stay up-to-date with a new feature on the “What Do Organisms Mean?” website
bullet  Have Biologists Really Overcome Gene-Centered Thinking? arrow
Change is in the air, but the grip of outdated thinking is remarkably strong
bullet  About this newsletter arrow


Editor’s Note

I have recently been wondering what role, if any, NetFuture can continue to play in my work. As readers will have noticed, virtually all my efforts are currently focused on the project I have entitled, “What Do Organisms Mean? Toward a Biology Worthy of Life”. This project has a website of its own, and most of what I expect to write in the next couple of years (at least) will be published on that site.

There seems no good reason to duplicate those contents in NetFuture. On the other hand, if NetFuture does nothing but point to new content on that website, then it becomes just an email alert, without claim to being a newsletter worth archiving in its own right.

My thoughts about what I might do with NetFuture are rather inchoate at the moment. I’ll need to resolve the issue one way or the other over the next several months, and would welcome any suggestions from readers. What would you find most useful in the newsletter? Feel free to write me with your thoughts: stevet@netfuture.org. And my thanks to you for your patience during this transitional period.

A New Book. A book by my Nature Institute colleague, Craig Holdrege, has just been published. It’s called Thinking Like a Plant — and I suggest you think of the title less as a casual or superficial simile than as a pointer to a deep connection between the worlds of thinking and of growing plants. If you’re curious, take a look at this brief description of the book, where you’ll also find ordering information.


Return to table of contents


Revolution in the Making? Notes from the Biological Literature

Many NetFuture readers will recall the “old” days when this newsletter dealt primarily with technology — especially computer technology — and when I regularly ran a section entitled “Quotes and Provocations”. That section typically contained shorter articles intended to provoke strong reactions. (Those articles, like all the contents of NetFuture, remain available at http://netfuture.org, and are particularly accessible by means of the topical index found there.) Anyway, I have, after these past few years, now resurrected something like that “Quotes and Provocations” section, albeit in a rather gentler — if still occasionally barbed — context. The feature will be found, not in this newsletter, but on the “What Do Organisms Mean?” website, which is now the main focus of my activity.

My aim is to post — I hope at fairly frequent intervals — gleanings of special significance from the molecular biological literature. In these posts I will attempt to digest the latest findings for non-technical readers while at the same time conveying some of the excitement now afoot in much of biology. By “excitement” I mean the almost palpable sense — partially repressed though it may be by worn-out philosophical biases — that momentous discoveries are now transforming our entire understanding of organisms and their evolution.

You will find the new feature at http://natureinstitute.org/txt/st/org/comm/news.htm, where the following items have already been posted:

Return to table of contents


Have Biologists Really Overcome Gene-Centered Thinking?

Stephen L. Talbott

Go immediately to the full article.

In one of its many forms, a cliché of our day declares that radical new ideas first provoke scorn, then a sense of revolution, and finally a yawn: “What’s the big deal; we already knew that”.

The once-unthinkable idea that “genes are not after all the essential internal determiners and explainers of the organism” has come at least part way along this clichéd trajectory. Certainly chastisement remains for those who too loudly disdain the old conviction. But at the same time an undercurrent of excitement, rising to an occasional rumor of revolution, are unmistakable in the pages of just about any technical journal you choose to look at. And, yes, you can already encounter a dismissive shrug of the shoulders by those advanced few who would like to think they “knew it all along”.

But the actual situation is much more complex than the cliché would have it. It’s not just that the three phases overlap one another, nor that any full acknowledgment of “paradigm change” awaits the passing away of the Old Guard. Crucially: even in their apparent triumph, new ideas may become acceptable only in a distorted or trivialized form — a form concealing old ways of thinking — long before they are understood.

The presence of the past. I, too, have heard the dismissive remark, “We’ve known this for a long while; what you are saying is old news” — this in response to my various claims that the organism manages its genes more than the other way around. But are genes today really seen in proper perspective by any substantial part of the molecular biological community? And do those who shrug their shoulders actually understand what they are so casually assenting to?

I suppose the first thing to note is the unapologetic and widespread defense of old views. There is, for example, one of the grand old men of genetics, Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, who recently wrote that because DNA is the bearer of information,

“the whole of biology must be rooted in DNA, and our task is still to discover how these DNA sequences arose in evolution and how they are interpreted to build the diversity of the living world” (2012a).

Referring to the organism as a kind of computer known as a “Turing machine”, Brenner claims that “at the core of everything are the [DNA] tapes containing the descriptions to build these special Turing machines (2012b).

Then there is Craig Venter, who rode in with his white hat (or black hat, depending on who’s looking) to “save” the Human Genome Project just in the nick of time. In a New York Magazine profile of Venter, Wil Hylton (2012) describes a conversation with the highly accomplished scientist and entrepreneur, who is probably regarded as the leading synthetic biologist of our day:

When I asked Venter about his reception among scientists, he was uncharacteristically nonchalant. “Some senior biologists, who in theory should know better than anybody else, keep talking about the importance of the cell,” he shrugged. “They argue: ‘Well, the cell contributed something. It can’t just be the DNA’.” That’s like saying God contributed something. The trouble for these people, it is just the DNA. You have to have the cell there to read it, but we’re 100 percent DNA software systems”.

Usually the assumption about DNA’s primacy is rather less “in your face” than Venter’s brashness might suggest. But it commonly remains no less definite even when the language is toned down. ...

Read the full article, the contents of which are briefly indicated here:


The Presence of the Past

The dethronement of the gene as the master controller of the cell and organism may have been widely heralded over the past decade or so, but not many biologists have actually gotten the message.

The persistence of cause-and-effect thinking

The most fundamental problem lies not with the gene as such, but with the cause-and-effect thinking that has fastened itself upon the gene. Until this thinking is overcome and made more appropriate to the plastic organism, efforts to resist the centralized tyranny of the gene will result only in the distributed tyranny of many molecules.

The irresistible pull of the gene

Moreover, all these little tyrants will tend to become mere servants of the gene as long as cause-and-effect thinking prevails. This is because genes offer the only (supposedly) stable elements of the sort required to anchor such thinking.

Go to the full article.

Return to table of contents


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.

NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not survive without them. For details and special offers, see http://netfuture.org/support.html .

Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:


To subscribe or unsubscribe, go to


If you have problems subscribing or unsubscribing, send mail to:


This issue of NetFuture: http://netfuture.org/2013/Jun2013_187.html.

Return to table of contents

Go to NetFuture main page

Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #187