Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Great News Current Biology Supports The Intellectual Basis of The Great Society - Prof Denis Noble - Dance to the Tune of Life Lecture

A whiny comment that came in last night objected to the observation that science does not produce uniform agreement on not only details or even major issues but, sometimes, on huge issues.  One of the first lines of refutation of that which came to me was to suggest that they go to Jerry Coyne's blog and cult,  Why Evolution is True* and search its archives for the name James Shapiro, one of Coyne's colleagues in molecular and evolutionary biology at his own University of Chicago and read the venom with which that champion of rationality and reason, Jerry Coyne frothed like an insane terrier biting at the fence to get to his adversary.

I did that to test it and, indeed, you will find many posts in which Jerry Coyne does that.  I would have also suggested going to Huffington Post where James Shapiro answered Coyne, though not in the manner of an insane terrier for a contrast.

But when I did that I saw that five years ago Coyne went after another scientist, Denis Noble, a biologist who has made notable contributions to mathematical modeling and physiology and who has written about the growing acknowledgement that the neo-Darwinian synthesis that has more or less ruled evolutionary biology and has a strong influence in a number of other fields is, as another eminent figures in recent biology,  Lynn Marguilis has said, is pretty much been overturned by recent discoveries.

I have managed since last night to listen to two lectures given by Denis Noble and the contrast between Coyne's venom spewing and wreckless bomb throwing couldn't be more obvious.  As obvious, given Noble's citations, quotations and lines of reasoning, on such topics as epigenetic modification of organisms, cellular chemistry, cellular physiology, and several things that I hadn't heard about but which really shocked me, he's got more than venom and bombs to back him up.

Here is the complete lecture.  I will note some times of some of the most interesting things below.

If you want to hear just him addressing Coyne, someone has extracted that part of the lecture.

Listening last night, several things really jumped out at me.  One was Denis Noble attributing both a very important idea and a very mistaken idea to Erwin Schrödinger, from his book What is Life.  Given the joke I made last week about what would have to be the claim that the "struggle for existence" would have to leave entire ethnic groups both alive and dead at the same time, finding Schrödinger playing an important part in this lecture was rather surprising.  He's mentioned a few times, the first at about 7:20 - times given for the first video.

In his list of papers demonstrating that DNA, though important, is not important without the cellular chemistry and physiology that makes it work at all the one I found most stunning was the one in which the DNA to produce flagellae were taken out of bacteria but that, even with that removed from the parent cells, within four days its descendants were producing flagellae really impressed me as surprising.  That is at about 24:00

A more general problem that I found interesting was that in passing Noble said there was really no way to prove or disprove that mutations in DNA were truly random. At about 47:00.  Which is interesting for several reasons.  One is whether or not something can be proven to be random or merely random within the limits of human reasoning or ability to come to that conclusion.  I doubt people can ever really know if something happens on the basis of random chance because there is no way of knowing if there is an order which we can't perceive or calculate but which seems to us to be random or chaotic.  Though for a lot of things that doesn't matter since the real concern is conscious manipulation of data or purposeful but perhaps unconscious manipulation of data.  If something is as close to a random order as we can make it, maybe that's enough.  But it still wouldn't tell you if something like mutations out of our control are truly random.  At least that's what I got out of it.

Most important for the purpose of my political blog is the wide range of areas, academic, social, political and legal in which the neo-Darwinian synthesis has spread its influence.  At about 51:40. There is a real reason that things like Dawkins' selfish-gene ideology and neo-eugenics* have had fans in the political right in the United States, Britain and elsewhere.  I mean, when David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan are just some of the fans of science, there's a reason of reinforcing the economic elite and racial and class ordering.   What a successor to the neo-Darwinian orthodoxy that Coyne and Dawkins uphold will do in politics, it's too early to know.

One thing that is definitely not good news for the political right is that the new thinking, especially the idea that acquired traits are real, important and heritable, will make the idea that government should do nothing for the poor, the unprivileged, members of beleagured minorities to improve their lives and prospects - that such things are not fixed in "our DNA" and unalterable and so it's a waste of time and money to do something.   If it will revive The Great Society - hopefully next time without a war to destroy it - is worth thinking about.

I am certainly more skeptical of Darwin and his influence than Denis Noble and I think the reason that many if not most of the neo-Darwinians hate the new thinking so much is a bit different from Nobel's speculation on that.  I think that the reason that Coyne is so unhinged about what he said is the reason he's usually unhinged, God.  The feature of random change, another aspect of probability being their current God substitute is endangered by a lot of what Noble said.  The tale of DNA producing us in all of our features is such a simple creation story that anything more complex, with some features that could suggest purpose would definitely mess up their settled dogmas and doctrines and even their mythos.  Coyne hates it so much because it challenges his religion.

Considering how Noble presents the evidence of recent science, I can't see any reason to believe that mind - not our brains but our minds, OUR intentions, OUR, goals, OUR ends doesn't have a real, biological and durable influence on these things.  His discussion of the inheritable influence on stroking parent animals and the biological mechanisms by which those experiences and the effect of them are communicated to the cells and the genome certainly suggest something like that.  I think obviously increasingly complex nature of not only the working of DNA but how it is controlled, mitigated by and corrected by incredibly complex cellular activity makes it far more respectable to doubt that it is the result of blind, random chance.  While that is certainly not something that science can answer, it's nothing that anyone needs to be ashamed of as a result of some kind of intellectual bullying.   One thing that's clear from Noble's talk, it's the reductionist program of the Coynes and Dawkins that is denying current science out of motives no less ideological.

Of course, Denis Noble doesn't mention The Great Society, that's my conclusion.  I would love to hear the argument against that conclusion.

*  Evolution is true, that's true, but how it happened has produced lots of bad ideas that aren't true.

**  It is stunning how many of those involved in both creating the neo-Darwinian synthesis were full fledged, anti-equality eugenicists.  I'll list some of them if insisted on.  I can't think that is an accident.

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