Tuesday, January 13, 2015


I do not hear as much today the phrase “It’s bred in the bone,” when a behavioral trait is considered familial.  While I was growing up in the 1940s, it implied a deeply ingrained commitment to an idea, career, or moral position.  Instead, I hear today the phrase, “It’s in my DNA” or “It’s in our DNA” to describe an equally strong commitment to a point of view or career.  Humans have often sought an effective phrase to describe their passionate beliefs and sometimes these can be destructive, especially if they are tainted with racism, religious bigotry, or class distinctions. But even if they are innocent of those harmful implications, they can create an illusion of a hereditary basis for what are just social or cultural beliefs. What is really meant by these phrases is more accurate but hardly useful for our conversation.  By saying it is bred in the bone or in our DNA we are saying, “I don’t know why some people have such a deep-rooted commitment to their career or belief, but it makes those persons stand out”.    We have dropped many phrases that used to be uttered a lot when I was growing up: “to Jew it down” meant to bargain for a lower price of a good.  “Nigger in the woodpile” was a horrible phrase for an eavesdropper.     I am glad they are gone.  Those were outright bias-based popular idioms.  “Bred in the bone” and “It’s in our DNA” are more subtle. They create a belief that the hereditary basis for a behavioral trait is taken for granted.  Bred in the bone is even worse because there is an added assumption that Lamarckian inheritance works and if our family does something to excess it becomes hereditary.

              My first encounter with “It’s in our DNA” came in the 1970s when I was I reading and my son Anders’ record player was playing a rock song and a phrase entered my awareness:   “Hey hey hey hey, it was the D.N.A. Hey hey hey hey, that made me ....” That was my first experience of the term DNA entering popular culture.  Anders told me it was the rock group Cream that was performing.  [Cream Lyrics (c) 1977 EMI Music Publishing Ltd/ Queen]. When I looked at the entire lyrics, I found that sexual conquests, drinking, using drugs, and having a good time were all attributed to the singer’s (or lyricist’s) DNA. Unfortunately that unexamined claim of innate cultural behavior is widespread.  I am not saying it is wrong but I would like evidence for it.  Geneticists try to interpret the phenotype (the appearance of a trait) using some scientific analysis (tests for environmental or inherited causes), especially if they are dealing with human behavioral traits. That evidence may come from pedigree analysis, isolating specific genes involved, twin studies and other direct or indirect ways of shoring up a hereditarian interpretation. For those who like their innate claims of behaviors being in our DNA, I have to apologize.  “It’s in my DNA” to refute you.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014


I have read a lot about race as a biological or, (more accurately, for humans) as a pseudoscientific idea. There are no human races. There is only one living species of humans, Homo sapiens. We don’t speak of red roses and yellow roses as races of roses.  We speak of them as varieties.  There are many varieties of humans. Some differ in skin color, some differ in hair texture, some differ in the shape of eyes, some differ in size, and when it comes to what we cannot see, like blood groups, HLA types, and “genetic markers” in our DNA, we get even more numerous varieties of humanity.  The varieties measured by skin color are different from the varieties measured by blood group or by DNA markers.  In general darker skin color correlates with equatorial distribution.  In general lighter skin correlates with northern latitudes.  We know that humans had an out of Africa origin about 50,000 to 100,000 years ago and spread across the world. When a baby is adopted by an American couple from Africa, from Rumania, from Colombia, or New Guinea, that child will speak English, share American cultural values of the state in which she or he is raised, and reflect the values and culture of the nurturing parents.  What we call race in popular usage is really our perception of cultural or ethnic differences.
I am skeptical that we have innate fear of other races or cultures.  Young children tend to play together without regard to racial difference unless their culture makes them biased. That happens a lot.  It leads to a fear of those who are seen as a cultural threat. The police officer who killed an unarmed black youth (firing 12 times) saw him as a threat, a menacing hulk, although both were 6 feet 4 inches tall. The police officer saw himself as cowering and frightened by this perceived threat. Even if this were true, it tells us that there was something missing in his police training. If our police officers are to shoot first out of fear, civilians would be at risk. Every black youth would have to wonder: Do I respond to a police officer by lowering my head?  Do I say Yes sir at the end of each sentence?  If I lift up my arms in a surrender pose, will he see this initial movement as a threatening movement?  Will I hear him accurately?  Did he say don’ t move or did he say move out of the way?  If I respond will he think I am defiant?  Those questions are not as likely to run through the head of a white youth confronted by a white police officer.
I suggest the following. Use stun guns more frequently than bullet guns when dealing with unarmed suspects.  There are fewer deaths from jolts of electricity to subdue a suspect. Train police officers to deal with their panic and fears.  They could try role playing and imagine how they would respond if they were black and confronted by white police.  Hire more black police.  Use more black police to patrol black neighborhoods (they would help reduce the crime rate in such neighborhoods).  Stress community building in which police help youth with projects that better their neighborhoods.  Provide schools in black neighborhoods that at least have the same standards and quality as most white public schools. Provide opportunities for employment: clearing abandoned property and constructing pocket parks, community centers, and play grounds. Change use of drugs and minor drug dealing to misdemeanors and eliminate mandatory sentencing. Provide more lighting in public streets.

Racism is difficult to eliminate. Changes that improve education, safety, employment opportunities, and fair treatment are easier to change because they are specific and not theoretical.  Remember, too, that those incidents involving the shooting of unarmed black youths happen once or more each year and ask yourself, when was the last time you read about a white officer shooting an unarmed white youth? 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

How the World Works: Great People or the People’s History?

I like to read different slants on topics.  I learned that from my father, an elevator operator, who brought home the discarded newspapers of the clients he took to their floors. He brought home the New York Times, the Daily News, the Herald Tribune, the New York Post, and PM. I learned there was a left, right, and centrist view on how the world worked, which included war news, business news, the events of interest to New York City, politics, and World News. I also liked the variety of political cartoons and comic strip pages. Some saw President Roosevelt as First Dictator of the Republic (FDR) and others as a saintly presence who cared for the laboring man and his family.  I enjoy reading books like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. I also enjoy reading biographies of Washington, Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Taft.  The historians bring out the human side of names that otherwise just test items on an examination.  Implied in Zinn’s history is that “We the people” are both participants and creators of that history.  We like to single out the few great names (Presidents, financiers, scientists, writers) but their work would have been impossible without the ordinary tinkerers in the arts, mechanics, farming, business, and politics. 

I know it is true that every word in this Blog had an individual inventor whose name is mostly unknown to us.  Who first used read, topic, elevator operator, newspaper, comic strip, historian, inventor, or family?   Was it first used in English or did it get translated into English? We could ask that authorship for even simpler words like but, the, a, how, of, in, or that.  We might track down “newspaper” but who first used “the”?  The same is true for the first shirt, underwear, socks, shoes, or hats.  Much of it might be prehistoric. The people’s history of a country or a field of knowledge (like science) brings out the practical people of unknown name who first used the stars to navigate, who figured out how to make fire, who figured out how to harden copper into bronze, and who discovered which herbs were of medicinal value and which were poisonous or inert. The authors of people’s histories also include the stories of who first made bricks or urns or blades from metal instead of from flakes of stone. At the same time, it becomes harder after the industrial revolution for ordinary people to enter science without undergraduate and college coursework and laboratory experience. No amateur could work out the structure of DNA without some knowledge of x-ray diffraction or biochemical familiarity of the nucleic acids and their chemical components. No amateur could work out the function of the mitochondria without some knowledge of how living things oxidize the digested foods we eat to produce energy, carbon dioxide, and water as outcomes of the process.  We still need tinkerers and amateurs to improve the original findings, devices, and theories which are often not quite as accurate as they are claimed to be.  Thousands of papers have been published since 1953 clarifying the mechanism and circumstances for DNA replication, structure, and function.  Biographies and histories of fields of knowledge and the arts give us a richer insight into many of the wonderful accomplishments of civilization.  It is not an either/or choice.  Read both. They enrich our understanding of how civilization works. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Holism and Reductionism are to biology as liberalism and conservatism are to politics

I try to read widely so I not only can plug my knowledge of genetics into the liberal arts, but into unconventional ways others see science.  One recurrent theme, as old as the history of biology is the idea of holism.  It is an outlook shared by those calling it vitalism, elan vital, enteleche, or mneme. More modern terms, like Gaia and systems theory, have been introduced in the last half of the twentieth century.  They share a belief summed up in the popular phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”  Opposed to this outlook are a variety of terms used by scientists who oppose holism.  They call themselves mechanists or reductionists or in an older terminology, positivists.  What they share in common is a belief that the material (non-supernatural) world can be analyzed into its components by scientific methods using experimentation and new technologies.  Their approach has given us the complex composition of atoms worked out by physicists, the combinatorial components of atoms in molecules worked out by chemists, the germ theory of disease, worked out by microbiologists, and the theory of the gene worked out by biologists.
              The danger of reductionism in the life sciences, its opponents claim, is its tendency to oversimplify how life works or how traits and the intact organism are shaped.  The danger of holism, its opponents claim, is its tendency to obscure explanation, substituting a fuzzy explanation or term for complex systems that are not fully resolved. Reductionist virologists claim they not only can take apart viruses into their protein and nucleic components, but reconstitute the viruses from these components, or more remarkable, they can use “off the shelf chemicals” to synthesize the proteins and nucleic acid of a virus and make a live infectious virus from it as has been done for polio.   The debate becomes polemic on both sides when human behavioral traits or human health issues are studied.  Holistic thinkers properly condemn what they call genetic determinism for social traits like pauperism, criminality, psychosis, mental retardation, or inappropriate personalities. They invoke the abuses of the eugenic movements which tried to tie these social failings to Mendelian genes.  The science of that social movement was sloppy and repudiated by many geneticists. Some genetic determinists today invoke molecular lesions in alleged genes for these traits. The media tend to report alleged genes for alcoholism, criminality, phobias, belief in God, altruism, selfishness, territoriality, sexism, and racism. They rarely report in the same detail follow-up reports that fail to confirm such alleged genetic determinants.

              Most puzzling to me is  how to interpret holistic interpretations of life. There is no doubt things are complex.  Cells are complex.  Organisms are complex. Ecological systems are complex.  Cell biologists have worked out functions for many cell organelles.  While viruses can be synthesized from simple chemicals, bacteria or nucleated cells cannot with today’s available techniques and knowledge.  I would prefer acknowledging what we do not know than trying to create an alternative holistic explanation that tells us little about the processes involved. How does such an explanation differ from invoking a homunculus in each living cell? We could call it a “cellular soul” that regulates the dance or symphonic coordination, or multiple systems moving back and forth from the environment to the genes, changing them in subtle ways.  How can this be so plastic if we look at the physical bodies of identical twins throughout their lives from birth to death?  They are usually strikingly similar.  But in behavior, occupation, or personality, they can be quite different.  Doesn’t this tell us that the physical body is more fully controlled by the functioning of our genes?  In contrast, does this not tell us that most social or behavioral traits are controlled chiefly by upbringing and culture?  

Friday, September 26, 2014


I was invited by the Molecular Biology Institute and Biology Department at Indiana University in Bloomington to give a talk in their weekly seminar series. My host was Michael Lynch a well known molecular population geneticist whose work on mutations, evolution, and mutation rates is well known and appreciated among geneticists.  I gave the lecture on H J Muller, my mentor and Indiana University’s first Nobel laureate.  I had never used Power Point before and the day before my lecture I visited Lynch at his office in Jordan Hall.  He downloaded my disc onto his computer and showed me what I would have to do to move slides back and forth.  The lecture was in Myers hall where the Molecular Biology Institute is housed.  The auditorium holds about 300 people and at 4 PM it was packed.  I botched the moving of the slides from the computer to the large screen but fortunately Lynch came to my rescue.  But I was in full control in delivering the lecture which was rich in anecdotes.  Nedra said that I hadn’t lost my touch (she took my genetics course in the summer of 1958). Equally engaging was the question and answer period.  I showed two pages from my notebook for Muller’s course in Mutation and the Gene which I took in early 1955. I was interested in Muller since my high school days and when I took his course I wanted to see how he thought. So not only did I take notes on the “winning of the facts” as he called it, but his reasons for the course and the value of knowledge of the history of genetics.  My talk was well received and afterwards Nedra and I were invited to a dinner at a steak house where I enjoyed a margarita (which I shared with Nedra). It was delightful to have two hours of conversation and a superb filet mignon. I thanked my host because I felt rejuvenated.  It has been about 14 years since I have given a lecture to a large audience.  It carried me back to the endorphin rushes of lecturing in my Biology 101-102 course at Stony Brook University.  It gave me great satisfaction to discuss Muller’s life and the significance of his work in radiation genetics and evolutionary genetics and his efforts to help humanity. Muller denounced the racism, sexism, and class prejudice of the eugenics movement in the United States. He condemned (in Moscow in 1937) the attacks on genetics by a politically backed view of heredity whose advocate in that audience (T D Lysenko) Muller denounced as a charlatan.  During the Cold War, Muller was a leading critic of the abuses of radiation exposure.  It was also important, I felt to show his flawed personality, and I included a photocopy of his suicide note in 1932 in Texas when psychological depression made him feel unworthy of carrying on his career or life.  Fortunately he recovered and found positive outlets for the insecurities he harbored. The capstone of my pleasure was that I was giving this lecture at Indiana University where I had gotten my PhD working in Muller’s laboratory.

Saturday, September 20, 2014


In my youth I read with great excitement Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People.  In it the hero, Dr. Stockmann, warns his city officials of a potentially dangerous outbreak of typhoid fever from bacterial infested waters of the town spas. Instead of springing into action and responding to Stockmann’s advice on how to prevent the epidemic, he is castigated and branded as an alarmist whose concerns would scare away tourists and shut down commerce.  I think of Ibsen’s play when I listen to the slow as molasses response the world is making to the outbreak of Ebola virus in now four African countries. The infections are spreading and shifting to exponential growth (every 21 days) because of public ignorance, a mixture of fatalism, belief in magic spells, suspicion of foreign sources spreading the disease, and denial.  When Nedra and I were on Semester at Sea and visiting Capetown in 1992, I found a similar wishful thinking that the spreading epidemic of AIDS in Uganda and Kenya would not reach Capetown. In Madras (now Chennai) I was told by some Indian professors that AIDS was not a problem to worry about because Indian males are monogamous and faithful. Sadly, both Capetown and Chennai have experienced a different outcome than their wishful thinking. No doubt, if tens of thousands were dying from Ebola virus infections each day, the world would spring into action but the problems of containing the epidemic would be far more challenging than early intervention with public health measures and effective quarantine and treatment. This indifference is unlikely to happen in the US because our Centers for Disease Control would quickly isolate each new or suspected case.  A very similar response occurs to concerns of the overwhelming majority of scientists who study oceanography, geography, atmospheric science, marine biology, and meteorology.  Despite the overwhelming physical evidence of climate change from the contributions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other industrial pollutants deniers have stymied action in the US and many other industrial nations.    They deny that massive discharges of these gasses from industry, home heating, outdoor cooking (for much of the undeveloped world), and energy used to drive cars, locomotives, jet planes, and ships at sea, have anything to do with the climate changes published in peer reviewed journals.  Instead, a number of reasonably educated individuals, like Dr. Stockmann’s peers in Norway, prefer to blame the messenger for false information, seeking to profit from worthless attempts to solve a problem that doesn't exist in their minds.  Unfortunately many people do not know the difference between science and magic, between pseudoscience and carefully reasoned, tested, or controlled evidence. Most of our elected officials have had no more than one year of science in a college liberal arts degree.  Most of those who complete a high school degree are fortunate if their biology course has not been purged of any science that might contradict religious, ideological, or political beliefs because of a fear that science will question the wishful thinking that governs much of our lives.  

Friday, September 12, 2014

A Thought Experiment on Imagining the Future

Suppose you could go back 200 years to 1814.  Imagine that you could hear and ask questions but were not allowed to reveal anything of the future you knew. You would enter a world where no would know that our body is composed of cells, that fertilization involves the union of one sperm with one egg, that there are components of cells called chromosomes, that chromosomes contain genes, that genes transmit hereditary information to the offspring, that genes are composed of nucleic acids, that there are organic compounds made of carbon associated with living matter, that there is a metabolism that takes place in our cells, that organisms evolve by natural selection, that infectious diseases are caused by microbial organisms called bacteria and fungi, that the warmth of our bodies is caused by oxidative phosphorylation in our mitochondria.  People would not know that there are galaxies as big or bigger than our own Milky Way.  They would not know there is an expanding universe consisting of billions of galaxies. They would not know how stars generate their light and heat. They would not know there are x-rays that can penetrate solid objects and can be used to locate foreign objects or reveal their skeletons. They would not know that mass and energy are related. There would be no photography, no electricity to light up a home, no telephones, no jet travel, no railroad system, no postal system, and no automobiles. 
During this trip to the past you would be frustrated because you could not tell those with whom you converse any of this future information and you would have to listen to debates in which one wrong approach is contested against another wrong approach. One physician might argue that illness is caused by unhealthy air and another physician might ague that an imbalance of vital humors was the cause of illness.  One might treat disease by copious bloodletting.  Another might recommend warm enemas to purge the toxins from your system. If you were talking about an epidemic of influenza, you would be frustrated that the idea of flu viruses is not mentioned and immunization against the disease was possible but no would think of this future possibility.

I suggested this thought experiment because I think of it when listening to debates today on topics where we have incomplete knowledge.  Is consciousness a biological phenomenon or is there some sort of non-material soul or being that exists in your body, especially your brain? Neurobiologists will favor a mechanistic explanation and use present day tools to find genes associated with brain formation and function or tools that reveal where in the brain different activities take place. Theologians and philosophers who see the mind as separate from the body will invoke either a divine insertion of a soul or some emergent property of matter that cannot be detected by reductionist techniques and tools. Neither side says that we cannot answer that question because we do not yet know enough about how the brain works or what the genes do that make our brain an anatomical and functional unit.  Confessing ignorance is often considered a cop out.  Just as the answers to the questions raised in 1814 required hundreds of findings, experiments, and new tools to reveal the very small and the very large and to tear cells into their components to see how they worked, a similar abundance of new tools and new findings and new testable theories will emerge in the decades or centuries ahead before we have answers that cannot be imagined today. Humility is not rejecting science in favor of guesswork going back some two to three thousand years ago, but recognition that we cannot know the future and it takes patience to get reason-based answers, not all of them coming in our own life times.