Monday, January 26, 2004

The Brain is Like a Fish. It Breathes through its Gills…

Popular accounts of how DNA works remind me of ads for sea monkeys. One is left with somewhat exaggerated expectations. At the very least, folks should be informed that the genetic material does not contain the full instructions for a living thing. Indeed, if you cast your genome upon the waters, you won’t even get icky little brine shrimp. To get a new generation, the absolute minimum requirement is quite elaborate, namely an entire cell. Omnis cellula e cellula, as Rudolf Virchow put it back in 1855. Even so elegant a molecule as deoxyribonucleic acid requires, among many other things, a whole suite of enzymes and an environment kept within fairly narrow limits of pH and temperature to do anything whatsoever.

I suppose I shouldn’t blame popularizers for promoting a misleading version of biology. They know their market; an essentially magical version of how things happen is bound to be more attractive than a complex and sometimes prosaic reality that requires real effort to comprehend. Besides, it may be a mistake to introduce real science into popular discourse. When people sense the inadequacy of the usual accounts, their skepticism generally takes a form indistinguishable from the grossest credulity, hence the enthusiasm for homeopathy, morphic resonance, Lamarckian inheritance, and various sorts of vitalism among the middlebrow. It would be nice if somebody bothered to learn some real biology before they ran off to listen to Sheldrake the Magician or some other charlatan, but that doesn’t seem to happen very often.

For the record, I’d like to point out that nothing prevents the famous, though more often postulated than sighted, intelligent layman from digging into real biology. College textbooks are often very good sources of information if you can supply your own curiosity. And there are a select group of popularizations that actually attempt to introduce their subjects instead of providing cocktail party ammunition or an intellectual pacifier. I have in mind, in particular, authors like Carl Zimmer whose book on parasitology, Parasite Rex, manages to convey the genuine weirdness of living things in a form as compulsively readable as pornography. There are also academic historians of science like Jan Sapp whose writings, perfectly accessible to a reasonably well-educated person, provide an indirect but reliable picture of the real and continuing controversies of life science. Reading Sapp’s Genesis: the Evolution of Biology (2003) is what got me thinking again about the inadequacy of the usual accounts of biology.

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