Monday, July 25, 2005

Unified Theory

  • Humans and chimps are said to share 98.5% of their genetic code.
  • Biologically the distinctions of race are "meaningless", because the variations between ethnic groups are very minor compared to those within them.

Observations like these continually crop up in popular science. They suggest answers to old questions whilst provoking new ones that few have yet been able or willing to address. How for example can we account for the fact that some differences, however small, are in effect more equal than others?

I suspect that the existence of two alternative, equally fundamental approaches to the natural world is acting as a barrier here that future thinkers will need to acknowledge, if not clear:

Selfish Gene - all creatures great and small are epiphenomena resulting from the all out war of the autonomous and randomly-inclined bits of code we call genes.

GAIA - Nature is one big connected system whose parts can only be fully understood in terms of the behaviour of the whole.

Just like the argument between relativity and quantum theory in contemporary physics, these apparently irreconcilable models appear to both be true at the same time. Significant? We may come to appreciate just how so if we could only stop trying to resolve the putative argument between them once and for all.

I'd like to think that a 'Gaia' approach to human differences may help us overcome some of the sensitivities surrounding biological inheritance in human beings. We could then start to treat species as working systems in which different layers of variation, themselves of variable proportion in the population, could be shown to influence adaptability in relation to different strata of environmental factors.

Such an approach would inevitably provide insights on the following issues that surround the operations of the gene pool:

- How many result from 'random' mutation and how many patterns could be predicted with some degree of probability?

- How many might have co-evolved with culture? To what extent has culture become part of the system?

I think we shall find that race is significant, though differently so to some of the other clusters of physical and psychological traits that can be identified across the species. And certainly not for the reasons that racial scientists in the last century imagined.

1 comment:

Inner Diablog said...

Following this post I came across this very relevant piece in the Guardian Review by Stephen Rose:,,1533701,00.html

This is a review of 'Four Dimensions' by Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb, a book which outlines the four 'tangled' levels on which the authors suggest variation can occur:

- DNA shuffling
- Epigenetic modifications in DNA meaning
- Behavioural traditions
- Symbolic inheritance

"Despite the attractions of its doctrinal simplicity, important strands of biological thinking have never accepted this genocentric view of the world, and many doubt that Darwin would have either. The late Stephen Jay Gould, for example, insisted that selection acted at multiple levels, not just on individual genes, but on populations of organisms and indeed on species and ecosystems as a whole. In this perspective, Dawkins' lumbering robots become players in their own destiny...think about the fact that humans are just under 99% genetically identical to chimpanzees, yet no one would confuse the two. The origin of the differences between the two phenotypes lies in their development, which in turn depends on which genes are switched on or off at any time - a process regulated by the cellular environment in which the genes are embedded. Genes do not exist in isolation, but as part of a web of interactions extending in time as well as space."