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.   

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A four generation perspective on living in the United States

I am now living into my fourth generation. When I was born in 1931, Herbert Hoover was still President of the United States.  I grew up in New York City during the Great Depression when a subway ride or a hot dog at Nedick’s was five cents. During World War II in public school I collected tin foil, rubber bands, and newspapers for the war effort. My second generation began with the birth of the United Nations and the start of the Cold War. It led in turn to a wave of hysteria about Communist influence on American life.  The witch hunt for current and former Communists made me nervous.  My oldest brother quit the Communist Party when the Lysenko Controversy erupted. As an undergraduate at NYU, I associated with fellow students of the Beat Generation. I left New York for Indiana University and learned to be a geneticist. Some of my high school classmates were killed in the Korean War. My second generation came to a close at UCLA where I witnessed the first Peace Corps volunteers and students who registered African American voters in Mississippi.  Our children formed the Baby Boom generation. The 60’s were transforming and I shifted my emphasis to teaching non-majors biology courses. My third generation was mostly lived while teaching at Stony Brook University on Long Island in New York State. It was an age of greed, the pursuit of wealth, the tearing down of the New Deal that Presidents Roosevelt and Johnson had built. We became the world’s policeman or bully depending on your politics. We became a nation of winners and losers, makers and takers, patriots or subversives.  There was no middle ground and the middle class was disappearing.  My fourth generation began as we entered the twenty-first century.  I retired. I shifted to full time writing.  We moved to Indiana to enjoy its university setting and opportunities to enjoy its theater, libraries, music performances, and ease of access and cost. After 9/11 and the endless wars of a nation engorged with armaments waiting to be used, we are still trying to define ourselves.  We can smash armies that are well armed but we are stymied by terrorists, guerrillas who melt into the jungles, and an amorphous enemy of uncertain size, location, and objectives, partly created by our own failed international policies which reflect our own domestic shift towards a plutocracy dictating legislation favoring the wealthy. The two iconic images of these four generations are the bombing of Pearl Harbor that inspired what some call “the greatest generation” in our fight against fascism and 9/11 which sadly inspired fear, lashing out at the wrong enemies, the loss of privacy, the shift to the perpetual military state, the crushing of labor unions, the demeaning of liberals, the rejection of science, and a contempt for teachers and scholars.  

Monday, September 1, 2014


While in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, my sister-in-law gave me three articles to read that a friend of hers recommended.  My sister in law is the widow of Congressman Ted Weiss (D., NY) so she likes to keep informed.  One article was from the Harvard Business Review and the other two were from Forbes magazine.  These are not left-leaning magazines.  They discussed what went wrong with the last market collapse and why the gap between the rich (the 1%) and the poor (the bottom 10%) has been widening.  I consider myself poorly informed about economics.  I try to be a Platonic liberal arts thinker who avoids mundane things like making money, investing, or admiring those who amass personal fortunes. But I listen to a lot of news commentary on cable TV and this story has not been explained with the detail and clarity these three articles convey.
The Harvard Business Review article was by William Lazonick, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell [“Profits without prosperity”].  He argues that our inequality gap was largely due to a policy of “buying back” the stock of one’s own company to drive up the value of the stock.  Why this is not seen by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) as manipulating the stock market is a puzzle to me, but It is apparently legal (loop holes generally are).  This short term gain is offset by using the increased value to pay executives and major shareholders generous salaries, bonuses, and returns.  But it is not used to invest in expanded business, research and development, or salary increases for the vast number of employees whose higher productivity made the initial high value of the company’s stock.  Lazonick argues that corporations use the credo that the purpose of a corporation is to maximize stock value.  He argues that the function of a company is to make a useful and desired product.  The higher stock value should be a consequence of the sales of those products. The Forbes editorial comments supported Lazonick’s thesis and warned that if the gap continues to widen and if the wealth generated by a company does not go into the processes that benefit the long term interests of a company, there will be a collapse of massive proportions when the over-inflated bubble bursts.  Corporate boards do not usually take up this issue because its members are usually fellow CEOs who benefit from such inflated salaries and bonuses.
What puzzles me is the relatively scant discussion of the “buy back” policy, the lack of curiosity by the press to go after the SEC, major corporations, and congressional supporters of this dangerous policy that the Forbes articles described as a “negative Ponzi scheme.”  The “buy back” practice depletes funds from the company, puts a lid on worker pay raises, reduces or eliminates health and retirement benefits, and shifts the burden of stagnant or reduced worker income to the taxpayer.  This leads to worker discontent and loss of loyalty.  

In the 1890s and early 1900s there were journalists and writers like Ida Tarbell, Frank McClure, Upton Sinclair, David Phillips, and Louis Brandeis.  We need more “muckrakers”, as they were then called, for the twenty-first century.  Where are they?  What are they waiting for, another 1929 type of stock market crash?

Sunday, August 24, 2014


I grew up in the 1930s and 1940s in New York City. My ideas of race were influenced by the movies I saw, the radio programs I heard, and the conversations on the city streets where I lived. I think of the Marx Brothers as they formed a type of conga line with African Americans (then called negroes) in Cocoanuts. I think of Al Jolson, in blackface, on his bended knee singing Mammy.  I think of Amos and Andy and their comic characters (whites playing blacks on radio, but black actors in the 1950s when it shifted to television).  I also think of Jack Benny’s sidekick valet, Rochester [Eddie Anderson], and their comedy routines. I think of the song lyrics “Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo-choo?  Track 29.  ‘yes, sir’  … then, boy, you can give me a shine.”   Offsetting this I recall two black friends, one when we lived in the Bronx near Brook Avenue and I was in third grade who taught me how to make a ring from a peach pit. The other was a classmate in junior high school whose father was a movie house film projectionist and whose house I visited in Brooklyn. But by far the most influential experience I had on who African Americans were came when I walked into the freshman English class at NYU.  My teacher was Charles Davis (then Mr. because he was still working on his PhD).  He was brilliant and took an interest in his students and read their essays aloud to the class with the same analysis as the short stories and published essays we had as homework to read.  Later he would take me to coffee at a nearby Chuck full o’ Nuts and ask me about my progress.  When I thought of switching from Biology to English he talked me out of it because he said the books I was reading showed my love for science.  Davis later became the first black professor at Princeton and the founding director of the Black Studies program at Yale. I learned from him the importance of mentoring students and I frequently took students to lunch to teach them generosity as he did for me.

There is an erratic zigzag path to finding our “better natures.”  The abolitionist movement before the Civil War was supported by many white intellectuals, ministers, and men and women of conscience. The Civil rights movement had numerous white supporters of a movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr who spoke to the moral sensibilities of white people.  The Supreme Court set aside prejudicial laws and the federal government took an active role in enforcing civil rights in the old segregationist south. Despite these victories, discrimination in housing and social discrimination lagged behind.  We also liked to believe that electing an African American as President was the last nail in the coffin of segregation and racial prejudice. The response to the deaths of young black men seen as “uppity,” confrontational, or potentially murderous has led to tragedy with largely unarmed men in their teens being shot in a country that still has too many citizens who believe in shoot first, ask questions later, for perceived threats.  Despite these setbacks generating self-doubts about our progress, we need to remind ourselves that there has been progress and there will be progress as we learn to accept our diversity as a nation and see our nation as one that fosters the liberty and equality of opportunity that motivated so many of those who framed our founding documents as a nation.