Welcome to the Genomics Forum blog

Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Next Meeting Thursday 28th July Traverse Bar

Where we'll be talking about morality and nature...the attempts over the years to find moral guidance in the world around us...or justification for being amoral, of course...

In the meantime, I thought I'd share a bit of a play I've been working on with you. It's an adaptation of The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins I was working on in Aberdeen last week with a splendid team of actors...

This particular speech, maybe, betrays some of my own pre-occupations with such questions:


It’s everywhere. It’s all around…it’s in you and me and the trees and the stone…it’s all the one thing. It’s all the one substance. Matter. You see? Every creeping thing. You can’t fight the truth…you have to submit…you have to agree…you have to say…yes…

(He stops suddenly. Then suddenly starts again)

if there’s no God, and no soul….if all there is…is trees and stone…then there is no me or you…is there?…not really… And when we die…we vanish so you can’t believe it was ever real, that there was ever life, that there was ever…

(Pause. He starts again, mechanically)

…people get shot in the head…don’t they? …their bodies are still there…but where are they?…they’ve gone…bodies in a pit, covered in sweaty earth, naked, white, rotting…what are they? What is the difference between a dead man and a living man…can you feel that?…can you touch it?…no…you can’t…it’s not a thing…

(Sudden pause. Sudden resumption)

…what happens if we just stop? What happens if we just stop? When we die…or have a stroke…or get hit in the head…if we can stop being ourselves, what are we? Hah? What are we?

(Pause….he’s got something. The following is more considered, rising to triumph)

We pretend to be ministers or doctors or soldiers or fathers or wives…we just pretend…it’s not true…we know it’s not true…we know we’re nothing…we’re not anything…we’re the world… we’re all made of the same stuff…we know that’s all we are…and sometimes we can see it, we can feel it… there’s nothing…nothing but the forest and the fear and the pain and the joy and the feeling…the feeling…that we’re all one thing…I’m not me and you’re not you…it’s all just…we feel it….

(Pause. He slides into despair and terror)

And we’re scared …we don’t want to be alone…we don’t want to know , we don’t want to see it…but sometimes we do see…we can’t help but see ourselves, and there’s nothing for us…no hope, no joy, no meaning, no purpose, no wars no world no stars no flesh no skin no trees no stones…there’s just …it…this dead…horrid…huge…nothingness…but I see it…I see it now…right now…it’s all lies…all of it…all of it...all of it…

Well...you see the kind of thing...

Come for a jolly chat!

Thursday, 14 July 2011

The Altruism Equation


Yup. That's it. That's everything explained right there.

Where "r" is relatedness...how closely genetically related you ( the subject) are to the recipient (object) of your kindness...


"B" is the benefit this cousin of yours acquires from your sacrifice...

Then if the product of these two is greater than (>) the cost (C) to yourself of that sacrifice or expenditure of energy...

Then you won't eat your grandson at Christmas instead of getting him a book token.

Or, if you're a drone bee or worker ant, it's why you will still contribute to the hive when you aren't, personally/reproductively speaking, going to get anything out of it. You may die but your genes will thrive. To put it yet another way, all social (or familial) behaviour is really nepotistic survivalism in disguise.

This equation was Bill Hamilton's way of accounting for selfless behaviour within the "selfish" paradigm of Darwinian Nature. He came up with it in the sixties, and it's still quite popular.

It's an early highlight for me in my current reading for this project, which is Oren Harman's biography of George Price "The Price of Altruism".

(See that clever thing he did there with the title?)

The first part of the book sets the scene for Price's own work...and strange demise...by an historical survey of the various ways that various minds have tackled this paradox, from Kropotkin's Anarchistic reading of nature as modelling "Mutual Aid" as the answer to all our problems, to the neo-liberal free market in genes offered by Dawkins et al that is our current orthodoxy.

(I know whose side I WANT to be on...I know who I WANT to be right)

But it begs the question - do we really read nature as it is, or do we map our desires and values onto it? Like we used to do...still do...with God? Isn't the word "nature" itself an instance of that?
And a further maybe broader question...which I think will be the theme of our next gathering in the Traverse Bar

(Thursday July 28th 2pm to 4pm- be there or be excluded from kinship selection) -

Can Understanding Nature Ever Tell Us How to Be Good?

I'll try to dig up some interesting stuff to look at...meanwhile, here's some bees.

Religion and science fiction

My contribution to the Guardian discussion on SF and religion is now online.
If science is the theology of nature – with the wilder reaches of physics standing in for its scholastic philosophy – SF is its mythology, its folklore, its peasant superstition. Television, film, anime and computer games supply the statues and holy pictures, which (this time) really do move.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Humans 1 Potatoes 2

In today's Metro you may have seen a piece showing that the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, of whom we are very proud, have just completed sequencing the Spud Genome. My title today refers to the comforting fact that it turns out potatoes have got roughly double the number of active genes as you have.

Why do I find this comforting? Well, it's just another demonstration that the cultural assumption that humans must be the most complex of nature's creations because we're (allegedly) the smartest...is based on a false paradigm of "evolution as an advance in complexity" with us at the top of the pyramid.

It's what Thomas Kuhn called a "paradigm shift". Suddenly, everything looks different because the frame of reference within which we interpret the world has been irrevocably altered by the genome's eye view that has been emerging into "viewability"over the last twenty years.

That which was carved in stone now comes with quotation marks round it. There are some, like the philosopher John Dupree who is attached to this forum at the Exeter branch - "Egenis", check him/them out - who would have it that it is becoming less and less meaningful to talk about "genes" at all.

Which has got what to do with the price of potatoes? Well, the lovely little things are afflicted every so often with virulent and catastrophic crop failure...and having a DNA map may well be useful in understanding and dealing with that...Potatoes are the third most important carbohydrate source we've got. (After rice and wheat).

And if someone could do for rice what Norman Borlog did for wheat back in the sixties (some deft hybrid making...dwarf wheat it's called, and it has saved millions of lives) then that might give us some options when the environmental whip comes down.

(And, yes...that's going on too in a lab near you)

Finally, I have been reminded by correspondents that the number of areas of possible human interest opened up by my having this opportunity are, pragmatically speaking, limitless. My choice of focus has to partly be driven by circumstance as well as volition. But please keep suggestions coming.

One of these circumstances is that another of my colleagues here, Steve Sturdy, is chairing a discussion at the Edinburgh Book Festival with Oren Harman, who has written a biography of George Price called "The Price of Altruism".

This is, even at a glance, an extraordinary story...into which I'm going to be delving over the next couple of weeks. It's all about altruism...the puzzle of kindness...of selfless behaviour...and the attempt Price made to mathematically reconcile "good" with the imperatives of natural selection...

To put it another way, it's asking what sound you get when you bang two paradigms together.

I'll let you know what I hear...and keep you updated about our next Gene Therapy Session at the Traverse Bar.

Friday, 1 July 2011

After the Bar

Well how was it for you?

We had our first informal gene therapy session in the Traverse Bar the other day, and a small but select band of pilgrims came to view the relics of my digging around in the genome. (see left)

I brought along the Act passed in the Tennessee Senate banning the teaching of evolution in 1925 -the act that John Scopes deliberately broke, thus prompting the three ring circus of the Dayton Monkey Trial, the founding act of political theatre in the long, still ringing tale of the post Darwinian culture wars...

I brought along another piece of legal history, the US Supreme Court Decision of 1927 (written by Oliver Wendell Holmes, no less) upholding the enforced eugenic sterilization of Carrie Buck - "three generations of imbeciles is enough" - from 1927...

And more up to date, the current hoo ha around the stem-cell regenerated pitching arm of Bartolo Colon of the New York Yankees...

And a story from last week about women in the States being prosecuted for harm done to the children they were carrying through pregnancy... up to and including murder...that I found in the the Grauniad last week.

(Why are all of these stories AMERICAN? Maybe because us Brits are too buttoned up to argue about belief in public. God Bless Michelle Bachmann! - He will if He knows what's good for Him!!!)

I didn't really have an agenda...and I don't know if we were any further on towards discovering one by the time we got to the end and I needed some Dutch lager.

But it was stimulating anyway. The conversation. And the lager.

We'll be doing it again in a while...and soliciting responses and contributions to the online poetry/prose poem/thought anthology "The Human Genre Project"

(My contact details are on there)

But in the meantime, having looked at the genome at the top of this posting, have a swatch at the cladogram below.

This is the modern take on the "Tree of Life". With a topologically appropriate model of "descent with modification."

Once again, if there really is a paradigm shift implicit in "Genomics" it has to be something along the lines of "sameness" - the homology of all life at the genetic level. Something to do with the near enough inestimable privilege of being alive at all...on a ball of dirt on the edge of the western spiral arm of the Milky Way. And how, Goldilocks like, by bizarre yet accountable happenstance, the primordial soup turned out to be "just right". And here we are. All of us. Even Michelle Bachmann.

Whatever else it does, it has to give us pause from living to have a look at life.

Or stop and smell the cyanobacteria or something...

Back the week after next!