The Genetic Side of Being Human

This is the 4th Blog in this series which began with Science and the Church:  Are the Facts In?  The previous blog is The Mystery of Ourselves.  We are now looking at some of the ideas and claims of James Le Fanu in  his book,  Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves.   Le Fanu raises some serious questions regarding the limits of evolution to explain the how and why of genetics.   He argues that there really is much more mystery to being human than evolutionary theory admits.

“… there is not the slightest hint in the composition of the genes of fly or man to account for why the fly should have six legs, a pair of wings and a brain the size of a full stop, and we should have two arms, two legs and that prodigious brain. The ‘instructions’ must be there, of course, for otherwise flies would not produce flies and humans humans-but we have moved, in the wake of the Genome Project, from assuming that we knew the principle, if not the details, of that greatest of marvels, the genetic basis of the infinite variety of life, to recognising that we not only don’t understand the principles, we have no conception of what they might be. We have here, as the historian of science Evelyn Fox Keller puts it: one of those rare and wonderful moments when success teaches us humility…”  (Kindle Loc. 413-19)

One of Le Fanu’s insightful questions has to deal with “why?”   Whereas geneticists might be able to link a particular gene or series of genes with a particular body trait (2 arms, large brain, etc), still that doesn’t answer the question why it is so.   Le Fanu sees in humans, as well as in all creatures, an awesome mystery.  We have discovered genes, the genetic code, the genome, but we have no way of knowing the principles which govern how the genes “know” what it is they are to reproduce.  This is a mystery which causes Le Fanu to marvel, and to criticize science for not recognizing the awesomeness of what it built into nature.

“Why then, one might reasonably ask, is there not the slightest hint in the Human Genome of those unique attributes of the upright stance and massively expanded brain that so distinguish us from our primate cousins?”  (Kindle Loc. 545-46)

All genes for all living species basically are made up of the same few proteins.  Yet in those same  few chemical components are all of the codes which enable the genes to make not only a particular organ but to have it be in the exact right location of a particular life form.  But what makes it just so, remains a hidden marvel.

“So, while the equivalence of the human and chimp genomes provides the most tantalising evidence for our close relatedness, it offers not the slightest hint of how that evolutionary transformation came about – but rather appears to cut us off from our immediate antecedents entirely.”  (Kindle Loc. 874-76)

These are the questions which Le Fanu believes evolutionary theory and genetics cannot answer.  He sees this as a serious limit to the theory, but more importantly they raise issues whose explanation may lie far beyond what science is capable of answering.  They suggest that there are forces at work in the gentic code which are not physical/material but which are real and essential to life.

“The elegant spiral of the Double Helix, like Newton’s law of gravity, combines great simplicity with phenomenal power. But the practicalities of what it does, how it imposes the order of ‘form’ and all the complexities of life on the fertilised egg, are of a qualitatively different order – and for the obvious reason that ‘life’ is immeasurably more complex than ‘matter’.”  (Kindle Loc. 2112-15)

The amazing capabilities of genes give Le Fanu pause – is not life more than simply matter?

“This automated factory carries out almost as many unique functions as all the manufacturing activities of man on Earth … but with one capacity not equalled in any of our most advanced machines – it is capable of replicating its entire structure within a matter of a few hours.”  (Kindle Loc. 2137-39)

Of course science often responds to such claims of wonder and marvel with the words “yet.”   We cannot answer the questions “yet” but one day we will.   And many are convinced that the answers will be found in matter since the empirical world is the only world which exists.   The questions Le Fanu raises are sometimes thrown into a category of being questions that focus on the “gaps” in our knowledge, and believers often attribute these gaps in our knowledge to God.  Which causes some to characterize these doubts about evolution as the God of the gaps.  But then the scientists believe that in due time our scientific efforts  will fill these gaps.

And some scientists do marvel at nature.  The November issue of DISCOVER magazine (“The Bug with Built-in Sidekicks”) reported the marvel of the citrus mealybug, which contains within it the bacteria Tremblaya princeps.  Neither species can live without the other.  But then within this bacteria is an even smaller microbe Moranella endobia and again all three species are interdependent on each other for survival as they each contribute some of the amino acids that are necessary for all there to survive – no one of the creatures is capable of making all the amino acids necessary to live.   The scientists studying the bug-within-a-bug have no idea how this arrangement evolved or how it works.  “It’s a fascinating quirk of evolution,” said one.   Indeed, life in its most simple forms (Tremblaya has the smallest genome of any living thing) elicit wonder.

Next:  The Genetic Side of Being Human (II)

3 thoughts on “The Genetic Side of Being Human

  1. Pingback: The Mystery of Ourselves | Fr. Ted's Blog

  2. Pingback: The Genetic Side of Being Human (II) | Fr. Ted's Blog

  3. Pingback: Environmental Clues, Shaping Behavior and Free Will (2) | Fr. Ted's Blog

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