Even the Royal Society now concedes: genes aren't the explanation for the diversity of life; rather they are "merely a means of specifying polypeptides." In the recent paper, whose title says it all, "Genes without prominence: a reappraisal of the foundations of biology," the authors highlight that the incredible complexity in biology is summarized as follows: "everything depends on everything else, and phenotypes are emergent properties of their systems."
What This Means:
The observable characteristics and behaviors of any organism, humans included, are an infinitely complicated result (i.e. - an emergent property) from countless actions, interactions, and reactions (i.e. - systems); and no one culprit (least of all genes, let alone a single gene) runs the show. More importantly, this is the death knell for the belief that you cannot change. As already pointed out in the previous post, Genes Don't Make You Fat, a total externalization of self devolves into incoherence.
Consider this line of reasoning:
I'm not responsible for having that drink, the devil is, my genes are, my Freudian complex is, the society I live in is, Obama is, Fox News is, the Big Bang is, the Multiverse is, the alignment of the stars is, the lunar cycle is, etc.
Even if we could prove some non-self blame game, what would be the practical long term benefit of believing in it? Human progress is about controlling nature, not looking for every conceivable way to not control it.
Presence and Expression Are Not The Same:
Think of the genome as a banquet hall. Everything in it, the attendees, the silverware, the cups, the punch, the entertainers, are genes. Knowing every detail about every attendee, every type of food present, every chair will not tell you what happened at the banquet, its purpose, or who did what with what or whom, or even how, when or why. Just because Pavarotti was there does not mean that he sang Nessun Dorma at 9pm, nor whether the deaf attendees enjoyed it, if they were still awake, nor whether anyone of the deaf attendees is a writer for the Times, nor whether any Times' subscribers cited it on their own blogs, nor whether it was a blogpost that went viral with Facebook likes. That Pavarotti's assigned seat was next to Sammy Davis Jr. might be of interest, but not if Sammy got sick and left the party before he had a chance to talk with anyone. If Sammy did leave early, did Pavarotti know about the extra slice of cake; and, if so, did he eat it or turn it down?
How Epigenetics Crushed the Gene Myth:
You need only one example to wrap your head around this: bees. The worker bee and the queen bee are GENETICALLY IDENTICAL. There isn't one single gene dissimilarity. Not one.
That is to say, their banquet halls are set in the precisely same way down to the placement, angle and fold of each individual napkin. Not even one salad fork is a nanometer different than its counterpart in the other banquet hall.
How Mutation Crushed Our Hope in DNA:
It's fair to say that many once hoped the study of heredity and DNA meant we had acquired the lynchpin to understand and control all of biology. However, for over 100 years the fruit fly has been relentlessly pummeled with mutation, environmental pressures, and specific countless genetic alterations in innumerable ways in myriads of laboratories, the results of which are... fruit flies. That's right, they may be a really sickly, normal, or dead fruit flies; but changing their DNA can't turn them into a horse fly. Thus, DNA also doesn't provide the comprehensive explanation for why they are a fruit fly at all.
Monumental genetic mutation and DNA alteration does not even seem to impact basic body plans for a particular organism. Because of this, the field of epigenetics has come into being and many researchers are now looking to the role of the "membranome."
How ENCODE is Turning the World Upside Down:
If we return to the banquet illustration, the discovery of DNA was like becoming aware that banquet halls exist in buildings. Knowing they were there, we could open the doors and look inside. The next 50 years we spent cataloging the contents of banquet halls, one in particular (that of humans). Within that time we surmised that the only important part of the hall was the caterer's detailed buffet plan and the rest is junk, leftovers from various attempts at making banquet halls, some successful, some less so. That caterer's buffet plan is responsible for the layout of the buffet, accounts for about 1% of the banquet hall contents, and is very similar from banquet hall (humans) to banquet hall (chimps).
A project entitled ENCODE started in 2003 with the aim of finding out what purpose the other 99% of the banquet hall and its contents might have. Needless to say, what they've found is extremely complex - everything likely plays a role, and every role can change depending on what food is brought in through the kitchen, how the ventilation system works, what the restroom upkeep is like, and on and on and on.
Why This is Important:
There are few beliefs (maybe none) more empowering than the understanding that you can choose to be whatever you want. It's the bedrock understanding of a free society. Beyond that, it's true. Every 1/43rd of a second genetic transcription occurs, meaning that you literally become a different person every moment. And, in each moment, the sum adding up over time, you can "choose" (also a very complex system of actions, interactions and reactions) who next you'll be.
As such, there are few beliefs more disempowering and pernicious to the human spirit than determinism. In my previous post of why genes don't make you fat, I took on this dark ages myth as it applies to losing weight; but that post did not go far enough.
Think back to the queen bee. Remember, her genes are no different than those of her attendees or drones. Somehow, through a process so complex we call it random, "she" is selected to consume royal jelly continually. The royal diet suppresses the expression of certain genes and allows for the expression of others, resulting in not just structural and functional differences, but behavioral and selection preference differences.
Why We Keep Getting Sucked Back in:
Genetic determinism is just another attempt at outsourcing responsibility. The logical conclusion of any determinism is that something else way down the line did it. Though seemingly more contemporary and in vogue, genetic determinism is no different than all its predecessors whose logical conclusions were bigotry, slavery, apartheid, the caste system, and extermination of "others."
Deterministic X made me superior; deterministic Y made you inferior. Insert whatever you want in place of X and Y and it doesn't give us any reason to think we can, could or should change.
But if determinism in any form is such apparent nonsense, why do we keep reformulating it?
This is perhaps a bit too philosophically hefty, but let me venture a guess. We want simple and elegant answers. Life is neither; so it's answers are most likely messy and overcomplicated. Despite that, we seek a path of reductionism, explaining psychology by biology, biology by chemistry, chemistry by physics, and physics by physical laws, which are merely descriptions of how the tallied constituent bosons and fermions act. Why do they act that way? Well, just ignore that question. In quantum mechanics, theorists have admitted defeat in trying to concretely explain the most fundamental particles, coming up with very sophisticated abstractions like superposition, entanglement and uncertainty. Remember, these abstractions are supposedly the floor level of why you are the way you are.
Never mind that at the bottom of reductionism is our understanding and estimation of the basic, the very formulation of which is derived from actions of the mind (i.e. - reason, observation, testing, prediction, etc.) or more properly psychology, the same point at the top of the reductionism tree that we were hoping to explain. This annoying little bugbear of a paradox shows you that there is no such thing as a drawn line of reductionism, but more so a circle of evaluation. Then, when one adds to the mix the confounding concepts of consciousness, mind, change, freedom, will and effort, well, it gets really difficult to neatly explain or explain away outcomes via reductionism anyway.
Determinism is anti-science. At least in biology, it is neither empirical (we cannot repeatedly test, observe, verify or falsify it) nor pragmatic. We can't get to it by means of reductionism; it just seems like we must. It is an assumption, an unproven and unprovable article of faith, an axiom upon which we fit the data. It is a wall, beyond which there is no inquiry, no challenge, and no choice. Thus, its explanatory power is bankrupt. Worse, it carries no weight to compel a better self. Everything just "is." There's no "ought."
But isn't that its charm? Isn't that its elegant appeal? Determinism is agelessly wrong, but yet simultaneously amenable to every current popular trend. And I think that's how we keep getting sucked in.
What You Can Do About It:
Remember the queen bee? You know how she becomes the queen bee? Royal jelly.
Great. But do you know how she stays the queen bee? By acting like one. What does that mean? Among other things, she keeps eating royal jelly.
You see, it isn't enough to select a certain outcome in the banquet hall for a day, a week, a month. If you have accorded a certain function and purpose, the opposing epigenetic expressions to hold your new course must be more than commensurate to the previous inclinations.
More plainly, you have been expressing the genes that have put you where you are for a certain amount of time. You must express the genes that will put you where you want to be for at least as long.
If you want to be the queen bee, eat Royal Jelly for at least as long as you haven't been.
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