Friday, October 29, 2004

Wake Me When the Worms Start Doing the Research

My friend Pastorius sends this link and asks for my comments:

Estimate for Number of Human Genes Slashed

In a blow to human vanity, researchers now say that people have about the same number of genes as a small flowering plant or a tiny worm. The new estimate is down sharply from just three years ago.

"We (humans) don't look very impressive in the competition," said Dr. Francis Collins, co-author of the new analysis by the international group that decoded the human genome.
I don't think I have much to add to what Pastorius has already said, but here are some of my thoughts.

First, the notion that human vanity is tied up in our gene count is rather absurd. When was the last time you walked into a bar and said "Hey, baby! Want to see my genetic profile?" Unless she is a Nazi lover, I doubt she will be very "impressed". As in most things, it isn't the size that matters so much as how you use it.

Curiously, this very point is made by the article in question. Below the fold, of course, but there none the less:
So how can humans be so complex with relatively few genes?

In comparison to simpler organisms, Collins said, humans benefit more from genes that turn out multiple proteins rather than one, and from complex proteins that do more than one job. And anyway, lots of biological complexity is based not on individual proteins but on combinations, which can create lots of variety from the proteins found in people, he said.

Lander said he's not concerned that the number of human genes has turned out to be so limited.

"To the contrary, I think it's great news," he said, "because what it means is we already know a lot about most human genes."
This is an all-too-common tactic in rhetorical journalism: set the emotional tone you want to create in the first few paragraphs then add any contrary evidence at the end, where most people will not read it or, if they do, will read it in the context of the lead. This gives the illusion of balanced reporting without actually providing its substance.

There would be nothing wrong with this if the absolutist statements at the begining had been flagged as open to dispute. Clearly Collins' statement that "we don't look very impressive" is thoroughly contradicted by the fact that we use the limited genetic material much more efficiently. I guess it goes back to what you are impressed by, but the complexity of the genetic code is a major point in the argument for Intelligent Design. Without going too far off the topic, here is a brief description of how this mechanism works.

DNA uses sequences of four basic amino acids (Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine and Taurine) to form its instruction set. These four (usually represented as A, G, C and T) make up the "alphabet" of the DNA code. A sequence of DNA might look like this:


This sequence has 10 characters which would be "read" by messenger RNA three characters at a time to form "words". So the above sequence would be read as


Three words with the final incomplete word being ignored. However, if you start reading at a poiint shifted by one character, it is also possible to read this sequence as


Similarly we could shift two characters and read


This would give us only two complete words and two incomplete ones. Now for some sequences, those alternate readings would be meaningful and for others it would not. But the point is that information can be stored in a very compact way as long as the mRNA "knows" how to get it back out again. Pretty impressive for my money.

But returning to the article, I think the impression they are trying to give is that humans are really nothing special. But, as Pastorius point out, this is certainly not proven by their materialistic analysis. A more instructive comparison of worms and men may be found in Psalm 22:
1 My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?
2 O my God, I cry in the day time, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.
3 But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.
4 Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them.
5 They cried unto thee, and were delivered: they trusted in thee, and were not confounded.
6 But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.
7 All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,
8 He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.
9 But thou art he that took me out of the womb: thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother's breasts.
10 I was cast upon thee from the womb: thou art my God from my mother's belly.
11 Be not far from me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help.
12 Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round.
13 They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion.
14 I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.
15 My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.
16 For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.
17 I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me.
18 They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.
19 But be not thou far from me, O LORD: O my strength, haste thee to help me.
20 Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.
21 Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns.
22 I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee.
23 Ye that fear the LORD, praise him; all ye the seed of Jacob, glorify him; and fear him, all ye the seed of Israel.
24 For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard.
25 My praise shall be of thee in the great congregation: I will pay my vows before them that fear him.
26 The meek shall eat and be satisfied: they shall praise the LORD that seek him: your heart shall live for ever.
27 All the ends of the world shall remember and turn unto the LORD: and all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.
28 For the kingdom is the LORD's: and he is the governor among the nations.
29 All they that be fat upon earth shall eat and worship: all they that go down to the dust shall bow before him: and none can keep alive his own soul.
30 A seed shall serve him; it shall be accounted to the Lord for a generation.
31 They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done this.
It is worth noting that Jesus quoted this psalm from the cross, when he had taken the worm-like sins of men upon himself in order to defeat them. As I said, it depends on what impresses you.

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