The Complexity of Life’s Building Blocks

I just discovered a site called The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society. It features in-depth, apparently very articulate essays on science and society, which seem pretty awesome to me, although they are certainly on the long side. A recent article called “What Do Organisms Mean?” caught my eye – it seems to be a discussion of materialism, that will inevitably go into the question of what makes life “alive” – I must read it! 

It’s the third essay in a series though, so I faithfully started at the beginning, with “Getting Over the Code Delusion” (Update: my takes on the second and third essays). It discusses how the formerly popular assumption that DNA sequence determined everything about life has been changing as science delves into epigenetics (can’t seem to get away from that topic!) and the mind-boggling complexity of DNA’s structure.

… The most striking thing about the genomic revolution is that the revolution never happened. Yes, it’s been an era of the most amazing technical achievement, marked by an overwhelming flood of new data. It’s true that we are gaining, even if largely by trial and error, certain manipulative powers. But our understanding of the integrity and unified functioning of the living cell has, if anything, been more obscured than illumined by the torrent of data…

The human body is not a mere implication of clean logical code in abstract conceptual space, but rather a play of complexly shaped and intricately interacting physical substances and forces. Yet the four genetic letters, in the researcher’s mind, became curiously detached from their material matrix. In many scientific discussions it hardly would have mattered whether the letters of the “Book of Life” represented nucleotide bases or completely different molecular combinations. All that counted were certain logical correspondences between code and protein together with a few bits of regulatory logic, all buttressed by the massive weight of an unsupported assumption: somehow, by neatly executing an immaculate, computer-like DNA logic, the organism would fulfill its destiny as a living creature. The details could be worked out later.

… The central truth arising from genetic research today is that the hope of finding an adequate explanation of life in terms of inanimate, molecular-level machinery was misconceived. Just as we witness the distinctive character of life when we observe the organism as a whole, so, too, we encounter that same living character when we analyze the organism down to the level of molecules and genes. One by one every seemingly reliable and predictable “molecular mechanism” has been caught deviating from its “program” and submitting instead to the fluid life of its larger context. And chief among the deviants is that supposed First Cause, the gene itself. We are progressing into a post-genomic era — the new era of epigenetics.

The essay quickly becomes a rather detailed description of just how insanely complex DNA is, and the factors that determine how it’s read. I think it’s accessible to anyone with a basic biology background but it does get pretty heavy. If you want to feel like a genetics boss, you should dive in; a few minutes’ reading will teach you a lot, and maybe give you a good dose of humility about the organized insanity that’s going on in our cells. 

Based on this article, and Wikipedia’s description of The New Atlantis as “traditionalist conservative,” I can’t help but feel that I’ll disagree with the last essay’s conclusion – I assume, that there is something inherently unquantifiable, or supernatural, about life – but it promises to be an interesting and informative read in any case, so I’ll go on to part 2 tomorrow.

Edit: Further research has shown that the author has this to say about this series of essays:

They are attempts to describe our reigning (and mostly unconscious) cognitive habits, the limitations of conventional science, and the redirections required for a new, qualitative science. By virtue of its qualitative character, such a science will be holistic and irreducibly ethical (or unethical).

So… now I’m pretty confident that I’m going to disagree with whatever it is he concludes. But that makes it more interesting, doesn’t it? We’ll see how this goes over the next couple of days. (Update: check out my posts on the second and third essays in the series.)

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