April 9th, 2001

Newly Revealed Human Genome is Synergic

From the February 19, 2001 issue of the New York Times on the web:

Humbled by the Genome’s Mysteries


Two groups of researchers released the formal report of data for the human genome last Monday — on the birthday of Charles Darwin, who jump-started our biological understanding of life’s nature and evolution when he published “The Origin of Species” in 1859. …

“The fruit fly Drosophila, the staple of laboratory genetics, possesses between 13,000 and 14,000 genes. The roundworm C. elegans, the staple of laboratory studies in development, contains only 959 cells, looks like a tiny formless squib with virtually no complex anatomy beyond its genitalia, and possesses just over 19,000 genes.

“The general estimate for Homo sapiens — sufficiently large to account for the vastly greater complexity of humans under conventional views — had stood at well over 100,000, with a more precise figure of 142,634 widely advertised and considered well within the range of reasonable expectation. Homo sapiens possesses between 30,000 and 40,000 genes, with the final tally almost sure to lie nearer the lower figure. In other words, our bodies develop under the directing influence of only half again as many genes as the tiny roundworm needs to manufacture its utter, if elegant, outward simplicity.

“Human complexity cannot be generated by 30,000 genes under the old view of life embodied in what geneticists literally called (admittedly with a sense of whimsy) their “central dogma”: DNA makes RNA makes protein — in other words, one direction of causal flow from code to message to assembly of substance, with one item of code (a gene) ultimately making one item of substance (a protein), and the congeries of proteins making a body. Those 142,000 messages no doubt exist, as they must to build our bodies’ complexity, with our previous error now exposed as the assumption that each message came from a distinct gene. …

“The collapse of the doctrine of one gene for one protein, and one direction of causal flow from basic codes to elaborate totality, marks the failure of reductionism for the complex system that we call biology — and for two major reasons.

“First, the key to complexity is not more genes, but more combinations and interactions generated by fewer units of code — and many of these interactions (as emergent properties, to use the technical jargon) must be explained at the level of their appearance, for they cannot be predicted from the separate underlying parts alone. So organisms must be explained as organisms, and not as a summation of genes. …”

Stephen Jay Gould’s entire New York Times article can be read  here.

As Buckminster Fuller explained: “Synergy means behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately.

We humans are  a synergic phenomena.


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