Re: Genes and Development Conference

Tim Ikeda (
Fri, 02 Apr 1999 00:11:41 -0500

Brian wrote to Kevin...
> But I don't think your answer is quite to the point I was
> trying to make. How could we predict ancestry ["how a new species
> would evolve from an old species"] from a theory which decouples
> form from ancestry?

Genetics, molbio, biochemistry... There is no reason to assume that
the decoupling will occur at all levels. And there are many good
reasons to think this is not the case.

Earlier Brian included exerpts from Webster and Goodwin:
"We suggest that what is required is the development of a specific
causal-explanatory theory of form, a theory of morphogenesis
in the most comprehensive sense, and that such a theory will
be as fundamental to biology, if not more so, at least as
the theory of evolution. We contest the current view that
such a theory is merely a supplement to the theory of
evolution and, consequently, that it should be couched in
terms of a 'genetic programme'. [...]"

This is where I think Goodwin et al are guilty of making a bit of a
strawman, re: evolution & genetic programs. Most biologists/biochemists
(& etc) have understood for years that simply knowing gene sequences or
"genetic programs" would only provide one part of the puzzle. One reason
why molecular biology has had so much airtime is that it has gotten _so
much easier_ to do. We simply focus on the problems that have accessible
solutions. Molbio also provided us with tools to crack problems that we
couldn't before. But through this whole process, most of us stayed grounded
in the understanding that having sequence data alone will not answer many
of the questions we're interested in. We knew that "pacman" models of
transcriptional activators only told a part of the story. We knew that
genomics is of limited use in studying things like the mechanics of
metabolism. So when people like Goodwin rail against the dogmas of gene-
centricity, I think that they should be submitting their comments to
"Duh!" the scientific journal of the bloody obvious (I've made similar
comments of Coyne's writings previously). Sure, it's an easy rhetorical device
to make a boogeyman of genetic programs, but that's not a dogma held by most
of the biochemists I've encountered.

These people (Goodwin et al.) make grandiose statements about where their
"new" paradigms will take them in answering the mysteries of life -- but
inevitably their concepts are absorbed and assimilated (or spit out) without
the predicted bloodbath of a violent revolution. Hardcore biochemists are
like the Borg, and as difficult to impress.

- "Did you know that your old vacuum doesn't sweep up everything? There are
carpets that don't work according to models of simple Mendelian

- "Well, 'Duh!' That's why we're picking up some things slowly, by hand. Have
you got anything that works better?"

- "Err, no, not yet, but we're developing specs for a holistic megafield
It will be powered by a platonic generator so you'll never have to worry
tapping into messy historical contingencies ever again. It's vaporware at
moment but I promise we'll have an alpha version out real soon, anytime now.
But, I'm so sure that it will completely supplant anything else on the
market that I think you should get your order in, TODAY!... how many of these new babies should I put you down for?"

[a door] *Slam!*

Tim Ikeda (despam address before use)