Reductionism and Power – BBB009 Transcript

When science was co-opted by the Government, there was a huge argument among university scientists as to whether having the money was worth letting the Government control our research. Of course, I never would have had my career without that money, but looking to the welfare of mankind, I think it was not a good idea, because the Government then got taken over by big business and it has recently become obvious that neither the politicians nor the business-persons understand the power they are unsuccessfully trying to manipulate.

We have ended up somehow believing that we have the power to change the basic laws of nature that permit life to exist on earth. We can’t, and so this is a very dangerous idea. But even if we could, I don’t know about you but I would not want Bill Gates advising God how to run the world no matter how good his intentions. It would be nice to have a someone in power who understands how God does run the world, but we’re still waiting for that.

Anyhow, the bottom line is the basic science was taken over by the government and then the government was taken over by big business, and now we have mostly technology instead of basic science because the goal of big business is to make money. Basic science is the discipline that figures out what are the basic laws of nature. Technology is the discipline that then uses the basic laws of nature to make things for humans. Originally for making tools and toilets and useful conveniences of that sort, but lately mostly to grow wealth.

One of the results of this is that biology has become overwhelmingly reductionist. That means we spend more and more time and money studying smaller and smaller phenomena. This has been very exciting for me as a basic biologist, because my original goal was to understand how genes regulate pigmentation. I wanted to know every thing from the change in a gene — let’s say to make a mouse be an albino that otherwise would have been black — to the change in the phenotype. The phenotype is what it looks like — either black or albino or something else. And we did learn all of that in one century. We learned it by comparing the specific functions of the genes with the phenotypes they control. The questions, of course, are why and how, but I will not answer those questions today because that also is not the point of what I am trying to say.

My point for today is that trying to understand how the albino/nonalbino gene causes pigmentation is not nearly as important as understanding how genes function in general. And that is not nearly as important as understanding how mice and people are alive and stay alive. I have colleagues who study pigmentation and don’t even know what it looks like. Most of our scientists are looking so hard at the trees that they can’t see the forest. Our questions as responsible basic biologists should be about nurturing life as it was created on earth. Because we can not control life, even though we can control individual lives and individual people, and we can cause enormous pain and suffering by trying to control life.

The early biologists were not reductionists. They were lumpers. Linnaeus’ big understanding was lumping together all the organisms that have the same characteristics. So, all the people are lumped and given a name (Homo sapiens), and all the plants were lumped and classified in the plant kingdom, and all the cats, and so on. Out of this lumping came the most fundamental biological understandings of all human time — and no they are not whether or not the cat in the box is dead. That is not biology. They are the sciences of genetics and evolution that know how information maintains the balance of all of life on earth. And how — if we continue to unbalance the smaller things of life — eventually we do have the power to unbalance the entire flow of information through the ecosystem.

Bare Bones Biology will discuss genetics and evolution for the next few weeks.

I have returned, faithful readers, after an inexcusable absence of almost a week while putting the finishing touches on the printed version of Bare Bones Ecology, the Energy Workbook. We go to printer at 11 am today, the first day of Summer.

A little blip of readers comes to my website on the day the radio spot airs, and there is no reason to make them wait until Wednesday for the transcript, so I will post this week transcript later today and from now will plan to post the transcript each week on Sunday, when the spot is first aired. Thanks to Steve for fixing up this week’s edition.

This week began a series of 7 radio spots on the subject of evolution. It will probably not sound to you like any debate you have ever heard about evolution. That’s for two reasons:

1. The fact of evolution is no more debatable than the fact of gravity if you know the real facts.
2. Therefore, people who want to pick a fight must find some peripheral topic that sounds controversial and makes nice sound bites.

Of course, evolution is a huge topic to try to discuss in sound bites, or even in five-minute spots, but I hope this series of spots will provide a starting point. Then, if it perks your interest, there will be a Bare Bones Ecology workbook on that subject before the end of the year.

Meantime — I spent the first few hours of Summer lopping heads off goat weeds. A task that is very satisfying, both in its intent and in its results.