Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Malcolm Gladwell - guru or parasite? & Is the notion of genes just a lot of baggage?

Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink) has a new book - Outliers - about what makes a superstar - genes? happenstance? 99% perspiration? Some think he is a pop-psych guru, he thinks he's just a parasite, according to a New York Magazine profile by Jason Zengerle.

Hat tip: Books, Inq.

And speaking of genes, what an awful segue, today's Science Times devotes itself to the subject.

Article on RNA interference - proteins are supposed to be the foundation of what happens in our body. Many proteins are the switch for whether a gene facilitating a certain process is "turned on" or "turned off." Our RNA provides a template for the construction of proteins. This process would not try to destroy proteins once their made but instead would inhibit their formation altogether.

Carl Zimmer writes informatively on The Rest of the Genome, which includes a good primer on terminology you might see tossed around in reading about the latest genetic news in the popular press - genome, chromosome, intron. The article addresses the fact that although the decoding of the genome was announced in 2000, that covered only the parts that carry the information for encoding proteins, leaving nearly 99% of gene as terra incognita. Now what?

Natalie Angier's shorter article is my favorite of the three. She explores the more philosophical side of the subject. If genes don't account for every cell in the body - what does?
Scientists are also learning that many of the gene-free regions of our DNA are far more loquacious than previously believed, far more willing to express themselves in ways that have nothing to do with protein manufacture.
Historian of science, Evelyn Fox Keller says that the language of genes is a holdover from chemistry and physics:
The language is historical baggage...It comes from the expectation that if we could find the fundamental units that make stuff happen, if we could find the atoms of biology, then we would understand the process.

But the notion of the gene as the atom of biology is very mistaken...DNA does not come equipped with genes. It comes with sequences that are acted on in certain ways by cells.
Most of our understanding of science likes to reference common structures. Atomic structure is like the solar system, crystal structure is like tinker toys, and we love to anthropomorphise the mechanisms of pretty much everything in the body. Neurons are said to "talk." The brain's processes are described to resemble thinking. RNA is said to "read" sequences of amino acids encoding proteins. This article says that if we try to reduce a gene to something we already know, we may never understand its complexities.

1 comment:

Rebecca H. said...

I like Gladwell's writing a lot. He may be a bit of a parasite, but I say anybody who can write as well as he does about a whole range of things is doing something right.