Monday

Fly By Night

J!

I tried calling, but you're away. I'm heading home.

Can't talk now, but my flight should arrive Sunday morning - Mexico City airport.

Usual time, usual place?

Friday

Morality

Here’s an interesting articles on the theory that morals are programmed in our genes. I don’t agree with it necessarily, though there are certain points that have a great deal of weight and raise important questions about exactly how much of who we are is governed by our genetics.

Psychologists long ago coined terms like instinct and, in reference to particular animal groups: pack behaviour. There are inherent systems within us and within the animal kingdom that harks back to a distant past and makes us act in specific ways – we are, it is believed by some, derived from the natural evolution process. If you remember my recent articles on Darwin and the Kennel club’s eugenics programme, you can see evolution in practice. This suggests that there is programming within us to do certain things, to act in certain ways.

“Though no one has identified genes for morality, there is circumstantial evidence they exist."

This article does make sense in regard to DNA development and its discussion on frontal lobe damage directly relating to mood swings. However, does that mean that we have a number of immoral people who are specifically capable of carrying out crimes because they are incapable of acting morally? I don’t think so.

“People given diagnoses of ‘antisocial personality disorder’ or ‘psychopathy’ show signs of morality blindness from the time they are children.”

So, just as some people have greater affinity with complex mathematical problems, others are more adept at learning new languages and others still might be more comfortable with a paintbrush than a pen, so too it might be possible that our emotions and our morals are initially governed by our genetic make up.

Consider a child who loves to pain, but never develops the ability to a professional standard – perhaps they become an art critic or dealer instead. Something in their nurturing (their parents / environment) led their want (for art), but genetically they were deficient in being able to turn that thought to the canvas.

But can it be true of emotions and morals?

The article does suggest so, and I quite like the idea. Imagine repairing that criminal’s morals at the genetic level. I’d argue for the possibility that this too could help realign those victims of frontal lobe damage to some extent – however, no one has yet altered a person’s DNA to re-grow elements of their body.

And, as the article concludes, this has some relation (through nurture is my guess) to the perception of the moral code – perhaps it’s more a predisposition to abide by rules!

Thursday

Darwin

Where would we be without Charles Darwin? Darwin, while at the centre of the creationist/evolutionist argument was a great man, prepared to set aside his own religious beliefs, not in favour of something new/different/better, but because of the dictate of logic.

While he couldn’t comprehend the rise of genetics some 100 years after his discoveries and theories at the Galapagos islands, he really provided all the ground work for genetics, the eugenics movement, and a re-assessment of the movement of land masses, the way the world was and now is, and allowed a platform for palaentologists.

Sunday

Eugenics

Every year brings new atrocities in the name of someone’s vision towards perfection. Every year we take another step away from the horrors of World War 2, and yet never learn from it.

Aside from the genocide at the concentration camps, the Germans, led by Adolf Hitler, had a eugenics program designed to breed the best race by ensuring that only those who met this “best” standard could breed the “super race”. Only white, blonde, blue eyes, tall and muscular. The other side of their eugenics programme involved the sterilisation of people deemed as unfit.

Though, this point isn’t as shocking as it should be when you consider that prior to World War 2, eugenics had been investigated as a potential national program in no less than 5 of the major countries – the US, Britain, Japan, Canada, and Australia.

Their classifications, though built upon a basic understanding of Darwinism and evolution, held no scientific basis whatsoever. They were like Britain’s Kennel Club, who recently came under fire for utilizing eugenics to breed dogs that are, really, unfit for purpose (other than a warped idea about what their breeds should look like).

All the programmes favored what they believed were a class system, so that the wealthy and employed had better “genetic worth” than poor, the low paid, and criminals.

It’s amazing to consider the implications of putting such a half-cocked plan into action. Where would the world be right now, with enforced sterilisations? What they never considered was that the world will always have certain levels of poor and blighted. Not everyone can prosper equally – that’s one of the foibles of capitalism.

I only raise this subject as it begs the question from my recent discussion regarding augmenting and perfecting humans. Eugenics is such a taboo word, and yet in Israel they have a programme that ensures that newborns are free of defect (in much the same way that Britain’s Kennel Club is now beginning to breed out defects).

What would have happened to the world had we developed understanding of genetics enough to start manipulating DNA before we’d discussed and argued over the ethics of it?

Wednesday

Repair, Augment, Perfect!

At present the entire geneticist world is focused on understanding DNA sequences in order to solve inherent and genealogical disorders, diseases and disabilities. From human to my own work on crops, we, all of us, are attempting in some fashion to better the world through either repairing, augmenting, or perfecting.

In my most recent work I have been developing research samples to augment maize crop in order for it to survive in high salt content soil, thus providing for its farmers and ridding the world of starvation through a bad harvest.

Others are geared more toward human defects or damage – for example, the loss of a limb could be healed and replaced not through surgery but through the splicing of self-repairing lizard DNA. Let’s not discuss the Vacanti mouse. No genetics were involved there.

But, here’s a discussion on arguments against performance enhancing drugs in sports.

I really do believe that once we’ve got the whole sequence appropriately mapped we will be able to rectify (in childhood) most if not all genetic disorders, leading to a perfecting of the species. But this raises the question of whether we should be messing around with God’s creation – if we were squeamish in that sense we should never have started. We can already see so many benefits from playing God as we have done. But, how far do we take it? When do we leave it up to evolution.

The link to performance enhancing drugs discussion raises another questions of augmentation, and whether it is fair to genetically enhance a person’s physique and athletic ability. Should we, could we, would we?

It may indeed not be fair for one athlete to use performance enhancing drugs when others do not, but what about performance enhancing genetic alteration? Is it fair for one to be augmented when others are not?

Sunday

Naming Conventions

Geneticists are typically geeky (particularly those of that started out as fruit fly geneticists); once someone starts a fashion, people follow on. And that’s how it was with the naming of our genes.

My latest: phoenix

Jackson’s: joust

We name them after video games. Of course, it all began with the Atari back in the eighties. For example, there’s a gene called ‘sevenless’, because when it doesn’t work properly, segment number seven in the fly’s body is missing.

Following that a few geneticists discovered other bits of DNA, genes with similar sequences, and called them things like ‘son of sevenless’, ‘bride of sevenless’.

With Jackson’s, I know that someone named a kind of gene from the fruit fly after an eighties Atari game; ‘Frogger’, I think it was. So when he was looking for a name for his gene, which was sort of similar in that it is a ‘jumping gene’, he called it ‘joust’.

Mine, similarly jumps, hence 'phoenix'.

Tuesday

Conference Nostalgia

Time and collaborations change so quickly, with the tides, if you will. It’s been some three years now since my longest (long-distance) collaboration. And I might have missed the anniversary had it not been for two very different reasons: firstly, my daughter’s dour face when I mentioned that we should go skiing (she doesn’t like skiing it seems, and she likes the cold far less). Secondly, my graduates are desperate (having heard the rumours) to attend one themselves.

It’s not all fun and games, you know!

How much of that week do you remember, Jackson?

The Keystone Symposia, Colorado has always been a well-respected conference, and thankfully for us, it’s as much famous for scheduling the majority of its meetings in American and Canadian ski resorts the somewhat eccentric apr├Ęs-ski poster sessions as for the matters and research discussed.

I won’t lie to you, they’re exhausting: early morning conferences, afternoon skiing sessions, and free martini cocktails. The effect is most cheering; there’s a certain bounce affected by high morale and flowing alcohol, usually with the desired effect of lubricating the channels of scientific communication. The downside being that the evening conference sessions could be poorly attended or populated with poorly attentive, downright sleepy scientists.

And I think that’s why my talks were scheduled for the latter half of the days – did you have a hand in that Jackson?

That’s where we first met, after a very weak sermon I gave on salt content in maize. Cut short, by myself if I remember correctly. Certainly, no one’s in the mood for questions and answers so late in the day. So we headed out for a late session on the slopes, and shared a snowboarding instructor on the powdery slopes of the Arapahoe Basin resort.

I remember that you had a few more days’ experience under your belt, Jackson.

And we met up at the next martini poster session, consumed a more than adequate number of martinis to convince ourselves that our joint research efforts could earn us millions if not actually win a Nobel prize!

It turned out we were working on something which turned out to be incredibly similar. Even though my gene work was from a variety of maize, and yours was from a fruit fly. When I showed you my prediction on the structure of the protein my gene would produce, you could tell by the way the protein folded that the DNA sequence had to be similar.

In retaliation for the poor turn out to my talk, we blew off the evening session in favour of continuing our dialogue into the small hours, designing experiments, covering a small heap of notepaper with sketches of molecules we’d create and abstract drawings of what we theorized was happening in the cell to explain what we’d both observed in our experiments.

It was exactly the sort of union and dialogue the Keystone Symposia is designed to foster.

And, since then, we’ve visited each other on a regular basis, keeping our shared research up to date.