Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Meaning of Complexity

Science stories like this always make me suspicious and not just when they are in The Independent. Scientist makes announcement. Journalist asks questions beginning, 'Does this mean that...?' Scientist shrugs and says, 'Well, yes, I suppose so.' Headline announces, 'World Changed Utterly: It's Official.' Anyway, leaving such doubts aside, the gist of this story is that the human genome turns out to be far more complicated than we thought. When Watson and Crick deciphered the molecule of DNA in 1953, there was general rejoicing at the fact that it all seemed so simple. Our blueprint was written in a code consisting of just four chemical letters. This simplicity has since been progressively revealed as ever more illusory. The complexity of the system means that it remains far beyond our understanding. When, some years ago, I interviewed Craig Venter, one of the leading figures in the genome project, he said something startling - 'It's clear from deciphering the genetic codes of viruses, bacteria, insects and humans that this is not something that man could have built. Billions of years of evolution have produced something more complex than the human mind can comprehend. It leaves the window open for some doubts...."
Watson and Crick were militant atheists. They thought their discovery in its computer-like simplicity was a blow against religion. Ironically, it has turned out to be a window on yet further mysteries.


  1. How wonderful that 'militant atheists' should be doing God's work through science. It brightens up my day to be reminded that God works through all his creation - even people like silly old Richard Dawkins, however much he rages about it.

  2. When Watson was recently on Charlie Rose I wanted Charlie to ask him who created DNA?

  3. Unsurprisingly, The Independent article is misleading. In fact, it was in the 1990s that it was discovered that people differ in the number of copies they have of certain genes. James Lupski discovered in 1991 that a disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome was caused by the number of copies of a particular gene-sequence. The discovery announced this week is merely that this variation occurs throughout a larger proportion of the genome than prevously thought. But, of course, both the scientists and the journalists collaborate to make each research announcement sound more dramatic and significant than it really is: the scientists want to justify their expenditure and promote their careers, whilst the journalists want to promote their careers by writing stories which will help sell newspapers.

    Note also the fallacious reasoning of the scientists: 'The number of gene copies varies between humans, and human form varies, therefore the variation in gene copies must be responsible for some of the variation in human form'. I don't see any evidence that the scientists have an understanding of a causal mechanism which would explain variation in human form from variation in gene number.

    Robert A Heinlein wrote in 'Time Enough for Love' that 'Most scientists are just bottle-washers and button-sorters'. When I first read this as a teenager, I didn't really know what he was talking about. I do now.

  4. You are, as ever, Gordon, an expert tonic for the science sceptic.

  5. 'It's clear from deciphering the genetic codes of viruses, bacteria, insects and humans that this is not something that man could have built. Billions of years of evolution have produced something more complex than the human mind can comprehend.

    Precisely. And yet it's a giant step from this to saying it was the hand of a creator. But when you take all the little anomalies and complexities together, then it seems difficult to come to any other conclusion but that there appeared to be some intelligence at work. Maybe scientists from the planet Zog.

  6. Nice odd little poem here on the birth of the human organism!

    Fifth Philosopher's Song

    A million million spermatozoa All of them alive;
    Out of their cataclysm but one poor Noah Dare hope to survive.

    And among that billion minus one
    Might have chanced to be Shakespeare, another Newton, a new Donne--
    But the One was Me.

    Shame to have ousted your betters thus,
    Taking ark while the others remained outside!
    Better for all of us, froward Homunculus,
    If you'd quietly died!

    ’Aldous Huxley (1920)

  7. Sorry, in my albeit limited experience as a former bottle washer (if a post-doctoral research chemist is sufficient qualification) this is not how it goes at all. What really happens is this:
    Marketing man/journalist - so can it do what we want? Scientist - It might, I'll have to make more tests. Marketing man/journalist - Right. (writes down experiment is success).

    Most 'bottle-washers' I know are conservative creatures - because they generally have to face the flak when the over-exaggerated claims fail to live up to expectations.

  8. Forgive me, Clare, I was exaggerating to make my post sound more dramatic and significant than it really is.

    I think you're right to point out that many scientists are, in fact, innately cautious individuals. However, I don't recognise your picture of the innocent scientist being deliberately misconstrued by the journalist or marketing weasel. There is copious evidence of scientists, in their own words, either at press conferences, or in magazine/newspaper articles, or on television documentaries, or in their own books, making exaggerated and misleading claims for the success or future prospects of their discipline or personal research. This is particularly the case in cosmology and modern genetic biology.

    Perhaps one could make an argument for saying that many scientists have been led astray by the funding mechanisms in modern science, and by the opportunities provided by the media for feeding the ego of the scientist.

    And, by the way, I'm a former button-sorter.

  9. That I can show how a telephone works doesn't do much in the way of proving that Alexander Graham Bell didn't invent it. All these Watsons and Cricks under the impression that if they can show that the universe works or at least how some aspects of it work, then there are some grand conclusions to be reached regarding the absence of an intelligence behind it. That life "works" surely not an issue anyone would have been arguing against nor imagining that their philosophical stance somehow depended on it not doing so. As a piece of logic "Genes work in this manner. Therefore God does not exist," seems roughly on a par with, "Kettle boiled. Therefore God does not exist." This without even having to go into how life's mechansims are so much deeper than the Cricks and Watsons of this world thought, and lets face it, hoped. Something deeply wrong with the person that takes the immense profundity and ineffability of life as a personal insult. Oh but using their reasoning they will claim it is wrong to use such terms as intelligence or profundity in relation to life; this of course being the same life which produces the intelligence which enables their reasoning to say that one must not use such terms as intelligence or profundity in relation to life. Such a deluded little mindset wishes to make a Tower of Babel out of reason and ascend to the heights while insisting that these heights are in reality mere hillocks. And as for there being no world "out there" at all but that this is all, better leave them to their aspirations of solving the mysteries of life by looking into test-tubes and computer monitors.

  10. Gordon: Aha, a fellow former button-sorter, I immediately think of you in a different light!

    And yes, I suppose I have to admit there are certainly a few scientists that do seem to have been led astray by the funding mechanisms in academia(though more fool them - because unless they move rapidly on they will have to reap the consequences). The temptation is certainly there.

    But there are many who stand firm, I think - annoyed by the over-optimistic claims of journalists, who are out for the story. I spoke to an expert in th field of stem cell technology last year who was especially annoyed at the way his field was being presented by journalists ...though I suppose they must have heard the story from somewhere...

  11. Where did my comment here yesterday disappear to? Bryan, you haven't censored me, have you? I swear I've been nice.

    In any case, after reading the other comments, I have to say that scientists aren't so dumb as to be so easily misled by journalists. It's a two-step process.

    1. Scientist wants to make own work seem valuable so paints things in a slightly brighter light.

    2. Journalist wants to make piece seem valuable and stretches the truth a little.

    End product: (Gross) Exaggeration.

    To some extent, it's good to make research seem exciting, interesting, and vital. But it's not good if it raises false expectations and misconceptions.

    Me? I'm a former key puncher/bottle washer.

  12. Sorry, Hsien, no censorship involved. it just didn't appear. Blame Blogger. Doesn't you name mean Immortal incidentally?

  13. Waaah. You need to get off Blogger and try WordPress!

    As for my name, I wish it were THAT xian. Sadly (?), my grandfather gave me the character that means "/to stay idle/to be unoccupied/not busy/leisure/enclosure/." Not too far from the truth after all.

    In any case, your book is definitely on my reading list for 2007! Any way to get mine autographed?

  14. In fact, Hsien, is it not traditional in blog-land for the owner of a blog to host a Christmas event in which the blog contributors can meet, and obtain, in this case, signed copies of 'Understanding the Present'? What say you, Bryan of the Appleyard?

  15. Gee, Gordon, what can I say? I fear that such an event might turn out to be like the meeting of Frasier's fan club which he organises when stricken with guilt at being 'a bad celebrity'. Some dodgy characters turn up. I'm happy to sign books, however. May I suggest - tentatively as I am not sure about this - something in the New Year as I will then be doing stuff relating to the new book? It could become an event in itself.

  16. Probably wise given some of the posts, actually; I wouldn't want to meet that 'Tony Blair' character in particular.

    Incidentally, I wandered into my local library the other day, and saw a copy of 'Understanding the Present': it was betwixt a copy of 'The Science of the X-Men', and 'The End of Science'. Almost like a one-line book review in itself.

  17. What those scientists were probably talking about was "post-translational modification". There are not that many genes in the species' genome. So a lot of things happen to them inbetween the genotype and the phenotype (the code and the object being coded). I don't think we have to bring in religion yet. Sure religion is (always) an option if the person is so inclined, but empirical science is still in the game in terms of having a shot at explaining what is going on ...give it time.....

  18. I wasn't bringing in religion Maxine. I was making a point about contemporary vanity.

  19. I'm actually a very nice person if you get to know me, Gordon. However being a member of the great and ignorant unwashed as you presumably are, I'd say that's unlikely to happen, wouldn't you?