November 14, 2007

MIT Biology Class - Reading Between the Lines (3)

Lecture Note:

Many physical characteristics, like eye and hair color, are the direct result of having certain dominant genes. However, there are some genes that may be dominant in an individual yet do not manifest themselves except under certain conditions. I believe that a predisposition to heart disease and diabetes were mentioned as examples, where lifestyle choices can be the deciding factor in appearance.

My thoughts:

My thought here is more social commentary rather than evolution related.

Let's say that researchers did manage to find the elusive "gay gene." There is good reason to think that such a gene would not have a determinative effect, like those for eye color, but would merely provide a susceptibility to the condition. Indeed, this must be the case, since identical twin studies demonstrate that more than 50 percent of homosexual twins have heterosexual siblings. Compare this with 100% parity between twins (as far as I know) for things like eye and hair color. If this condition were actually genetically caused, then twins would always be either both or neither homosexual.

If we would then compare the "gay gene" with the "heart disease gene" we would come to a problematic conclusion. That is because if we think about the actual onset of heart disease, we generally find that it is accompanied by poor diet and exercise. That is to say, the predisposition for heart disease may only manifest itself under adverse conditions. It can clearly be said to be a "bad" thing, in that it is a case of the normal operation of the body gone wrong. In such cases, the related gene is not actually a new and distinct gene from what other healthy persons have; it is due to an alteration (mutation) of an existing gene that serves a valuable purpose.

All this is to say that finding a "gay gene" would not have the desired effect of making homosexuality into a "natural" human variation, like male/female, blonde/brunet, and white/black. At worse, it could be seen as a deleterious mutation of a right-functioning gene (and in Darwinian terms, a non-breeding gene-bearer is clearly at a disadvantage). At best, it is only a gene that may result in homosexuality under certain conditions — conditions which may even be characterized as "unfavorable," meaning something has gone wrong. And any condition which may only be influenced by other factors is a condition which might also be avoided or, perish the thought, reversed. I know, this is all politically incorrect science. But it is a fiction that science is the exclusive domain of white-coated priests of impartiality and truth. Which leads to my next topic.

Lecture Note:

One of the professors recounted several cases of major scientific breakthroughs, some of which were well ahead of their times, that were met with indifference and even rejection by contemporary peers. An example would be the discovery that chromosomes are involved in heredity.

My thoughts:

When I was a young man I had a rather starry-eyed view of science. I imagined that scientists were primarily concerned with truth at all costs and that science dealt with objective concerns that were insulated from the more biased realms of values and religion. I believed that new, paradigm shattering discoveries were welcomed with excitement and that progress was the mutual goal of all. And then I grew up.

Scientists are human, too, and prone to the same biases and mistakes that people make in every other area of life. In fact, there are some ways in which the sciences present unique opportunities for bias. Pet theories must be proved out and ferociously defended if one has hopes for a Nobel Prize. Valuable grants must be courted by way of politically expedient research agendas. Fraternal orthodoxies must be carefully negotiated if one expects to publish in the best journals. I have heard it said that most Nobel laureates had great difficulty getting their original theses past peer reviews and had to publish privately or in minor journals.

But the most troubling (and often most denied) of all are the metaphysical biases that inhibit some ideas from consideration on principle alone. No one is immune to the influence of personal convictions, and some theories have greater ramifications for those convictions than others. The acceptance of big bang theory is one recent example in which personal bias was at work against the mounting evidence and growing consensus in its favor. As Sir Arthur Eddington wrote in 1931, "The notion of a beginning is repugnant to me ... I simply do not believe that the present order of things started off with a bang. ... The expanding Universe is preposterous ... incredible ... it leaves me cold." And more recently, Phillip Morrison of MIT said in a BBC film on cosmology, "I find it hard to accept the Big Bang theory; I would like to reject it."

While atheists have found creative ways to shrug off the implications of a "creation" event, the stakes for a rejection of naturalistic evolution are perhaps even higher; for if nature has not shaped us, then exactly who has? Let me just end here by quoting Harvard geneticist and evolutionary biologist, Richard Lewontin, who publicly summarized the materialistic (and his) bias better than I could ever hope to.

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

If Intelligent Design is indeed the cause of biochemistry, then we shall never know it so long as the gatekeepers of "science," like Lewontin, stand guard to insure that only pre-approved ideas are admitted for consideration.

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At 11/19/2007 1:04 PM, Blogger Chris said...

Thought you might find this interesting in reference to your statements on the "gay" gene.

I bet instead of being excited about finding a cure for homosexuality (like they would be for finding a cure for alzheimers, or schyzophrenia) they will laud this as proof of it's "naturalness".

At 12/28/2007 9:18 AM, Blogger larryniven said...

"All this is to say that finding a "gay gene" would not have the desired effect of making homosexuality into a "natural" human variation, like male/female, blonde/brunet, and white/black. At worse, it could be seen as a deleterious mutation of a right-functioning gene (and in Darwinian terms, a non-breeding gene-bearer is clearly at a disadvantage)."

What makes you think "natural" can't also mean "evolutionarily detrimental" or "wrong-functioning" (assuming, even, that we can make a general statement of how genes ought to function)? Quite clearly it can mean those things - otherwise evolution as a theory regarding nature would be utter nonsense - so this entire argument of yours is patently absurd. Further, nobody is trying to "make" homosexuality natural - it's natural all on its own, just as any number of other gene-predisposed but not gene-caused features of life are. You may argue that it's not what God intended, but that is evidence more so against your God than it is against homosexuality being natural. This is an abysmal and almost certainly bigoted argument you're putting forward, and I'd love to see you try to defend it more thoroughly, because such an effort can only fail.

"any condition which may only be influenced by other factors is a condition which might also be avoided or, perish the thought, reversed" mean like heterosexuality? If a person's sexuality, as you're arguing and as is probably the case, is at least partially determined by nurture (other factors than genes), then what you've just said is equally true of heterosexuality as it is of homosexuality. So it's not clear what your point is supposed to be. The argument for homosexual rights wasn't that people are forced into being gay specifically by their genes, but rather that the matter is out of their hands. While genetic determinism is one possible way for this to happen, it certainly isn't the only way. Again, after analyzing this argument, it doesn't seem like anything more than one-sided, badly informed propaganda.

I also want, for the sake of efficiency, to comment on your ideas about evolution and creationism. Since only one of them is capable of producing predictions (evolution), only one of them is science - by definition. You may contend that evolution is a weak scientific theory, or that creationism should be taught elsewhere, but it is plainly contradictory to argue either that evolution isn't science or that creationism is. You arguing that science is biased and therefore should be ignored in this case would be like me arguing that Christianity is biased because it refuses to accept a naturalist explanation for the universe, and therefore we should ignore it in this case. This entire project of yours deserves nothing more than ridicule.


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