The (non-) Determinism of DNA

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Proust Was a Neuroscientist is an endlessly entertaining read, containing more passages to underline than not. It is one of those books in which it might be wiser simply to cross through the extra few lines one does not wish to reconsider in subsequent readings. While the author's attitudes and conclusions are sometimes at odds with my own, his presentation of hard data is fascinating.

from Proust was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

What makes us human, and what makes each of us his or her own human, is not simply the genes that we have buried in our base pairs, but how our cells, in dialogue with our environment, feed back to our DNA, changing the way we read ourselves. Life is a dialectic. For example, the code sequence GTAAGT can be translated as instructions to insert the amino acid valine and serine; read as a spacer, a genetic pause that keeps other protein parts an appropriate distance from one another; or interpreted as a signal to cut the transcript at that point. Our human DNA is defined by its mulitplicity of possible meanings; it is a code that requires context. This is why we can share 42 percent of our genome with an insect and 98.7 percent with a chimpanzee and yet still be so completely different from both.

By demonstrating the limits of genetic determinism, the Human Genome Project ended up becoming an ironic affirmation of our individuality. By failing to explain us, the project showed that humanity is not simply a text. It forced molecular biology to focus on how our genes interact with the real world. Our nature, it turns out, is endlessly modified by our nurture. This uncharted area is where the questions get interesting (and inextricably difficult).

Add to these observations the fact that they stem from and flow back into discussion of great poets, novelists, painters, and even chefs, and you can see how the book might be a fascinating discussion of neurobiology and the human mind.

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Very interesting, as was the line about a new dish being more compelling than a new star.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 19, 2009 7:38 AM.

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