Excerpt from When Science and Poetry were Friends by Freeman Dyson:
An important step toward an understanding of the genome is the recent work of David Haussler and his colleagues at the University of California at Santa Cruz, published in the online edition of Nature, August 16, 2006. Haussler is a professional computer expert who switched his interest to biology. He never dissected a cadaver of mouse or human. His experimental tool is an ordinary computer, which he and his students use to make precise comparisons of genomes of different species. They discovered a small patch of DNA in the genome of vertebrates that has been strictly conserved in the genomes of chickens, mice, rats, and chimpanzees, but strongly modified in humans. The patch is called HAR1, short for Human Accelerated Region 1. It evolved hardly at all in three hundred million years from the common ancestor of chickens and mice to the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans, and then evolved rapidly in six million years from the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans to modern humans.
During the last six million years, eighteen changes became fixed in this patch of the human germ line. Some major reorganization must have occurred in the developmental program that this patch helps to regulate. Another crucial fact is known about HAR1. It is active in the developing cortex of the embryo brain during the second trimester of the mother’s pregnancy, the time when the detailed structure of the brain is organized. Haussman’s team found another similar patch of DNA in the vertebrate genome which they call HAR2. It is active in the developing wrist of the human embryo hand. The brain and the hand are the two organs that most sharply differentiate humans from our vertebrate cousins.
The discovery of HAR1 and HAR2 is probably an event of seminal importance, comparable with the discovery of the nucleus of the atom by Ernest Rutherford in 1909 or the discovery of the double helix in the nucleus of the cell by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953. It opens the door to a new science, the study of human nature at the molecular level. This new science will profoundly change the possible applications of biological knowledge for good or evil. It may give us the key to control the evolution of our own species.
In response to this insightful commentary by Dyson that offers us a glimpse into why biology may soon become the dominant science, an execrable response come from Rod Dreher at BeliefNet, who argues that advances in biology and technology must be counterbalanced by religion, that belief in the supernatural is a necessary counterbalance to understanding the natural. To ‘inform’ this view, Dreher calls our attention to an experiment that involved the mixing of very specific parts of the genomes of pigs and humans, which Dreher takes as an example of how this pursuit of knowledge in the biological sciences ‘dehumanizes’ us and will inevitably lead us into holocausts and totalitarianism without the proper moral compass we can only get from religion.
Enter PZ Myers, who first explains what the experiment was actually about and how it was done and makes the following points:
Anyone who thinks tinkering with the sequence of a few genes “eliminate[s] what it means to be human” has no place talking about what it means to be human at all. It’s always the people who know the least about biology who make these naive and sweeping claims that humanity is defined by the arrangement of our chromosomes or the order of our nucleotides, failing to appreciate the variations in those attributes already present in our population — variations that do not diminish our humanity in the slightest. Dreher invokes the specter of the Holocaust to argue that we’re on the slippery slope to dehumanization, but I’d argue the reverse: that nightmares like the Holocaust arise when people fail to see that the nature that deserves respect and protection is in our minds, our culture, our interactions, not in our lineage or our genes.
There will be a New Age of Wonder brought in by a coming century of biology, but it won’t be because it changes a few physical properties of our bodies. It will be because, if it lives up to its potential, it will liberate us to some degree from the tyranny of our native biology. It does not make me a better person that I’ve probably inherited my father’s propensity for heart disease; it does not make a woman stronger to carry a familial pattern of breast cancer; no child is enlightened because they are born with a birth defect. We’ll have an Age of Wonder if we can get beyond Dreher’s way of thinking that our body is ourselves, to a better way of thinking of the body as a vehicle for our minds, and that that vehicle can be improved without making us subhuman.
Pz’s not done, of course. Dreher concludes:
What troubles me, and troubles me greatly, about the techno-utopians who hail a New Age of Wonder is their optimism uncut by any sense of reality, which is to say, of human history. In the end, what you think of the idea of a New Age of Wonder depends on what you think of human nature. I give better than even odds that this era of biology and computers identified by Dyson and celebrated by the Edge folks will in the end turn out to have been at least as much a Dark Age as an era of Enlightenment. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t think I will be wrong.
In response, PZ states with refreshing accuracy:
Excuse me, but after writing a long piece in which he wallows in his religiously-motivated darkness, in which he demonstrates that he knows nothing about the biology he is decrying, I don’t think he gets to accuse these “techno-utopians” of lacking “any sense of reality”. Religion is the darkness, and knowledge is the light — it’s no accident that the era when religion ruled Europe without question is called the Dark Ages, and that period when a new and secular way of looking at the world began to glimmer is called the Enlightenment. So no thank you, please crawl back into your dim cathedral of the superstitious spirit, and don’t even try to pontificate on the consequences of knowledge. You never had any, so your advice on the matter is about as relevant and informed as a celibate making recommendations about my love life.
Oh, wait…you’ve got that covered, too. I see — it’s a tradition.
One last fact that nobody reading this will find surprising. That arrogant ignoramus Dreher is employed as the director of publications for the Templeton Foundation. They really do aspire to quality at that institution, don’t they?