Allow me to take you through a simple explanation of Genetics. This is “Genetics for Dummies”. It’s not meant to get anyone a post-graduate degree, but rather to give ordinary people a sense for the territory which comes under the general heading “Genetics”.
One hundred years before I was born takes us back to the middle of the 1800’s. No, that’s not when I was born! I was born in 1953. (I had no idea working with “Dummies” could be so frustrating!).
OK, all jokes aside, let me take you back to the middle of the 1800’s to a German Monk who patiently and meticulously worked on a theory that heredity is carried by both parents and its impact can be anticipated in advance and measured afterward. This man was Gregory Mendel. Amazingly he conceived his accurate notion of the process before being able to prove it. Here was a great man of science. His experiments with different kinds of pea varieties almost confirmed what he expected. He documented his findings, but in fact he had to doctor the evidence, since there was more inconsistency than he hoped for. (And isn’t that like so many scientists today? Doctoring the findings to make it look like they have discovered something? But I’m jesting again and that’s not a fair way to treat ‘dummies’.)
What most of us were taught about Mendel at school is based on his doctored, summarized, notes, not what he actually found. Which only goes to prove the text book writers must think we are Dummies!
At the same time as Mendel’s work another man of science proposed a theory about superior species outlasting weaker ones. The man was Charles Darwin, and his book was On The Origin of Species.
Mendel was concerned about how each species survived as a distinct entity and how genetic information was passed from parent to child. His landmark work led on to the modern day science involving amazing genetic insights, genome mapping, cloning, medical breakthrough, and so on.
Darwin was concerned about how each species came into existence, as some kind of deviation from previously existing species. His landmark work led on to:
the vain quest for missing links;
hoaxes which deceived men of science and wasted their energies;
genocide and social upheaval through Marxism, Nazism and the like;
erosion of social values through widespread rejection of the Bible; and
No Serious Scientific or Technological Consequence at all.
Darwin’s legacy is confusion, vain quests, dogma, blind adherence to a failed theory and the kind of intellectual tyranny described in Ben Stein’s recent documentary “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed”. (No intelligence allowed – that sounds like the place for “Dummies”!)
Enough of this comparison. Back to Genetics for Dummies. Gregory Mendel, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, opened up for us the most amazing world of genetic understanding. He directed our attention to the human cell as the place where different chromosomes interact to pass on inherited differences. In 1996 Michael J. Behe wrote about the cell, Mendel’s area of interest, as “Darwin’s Black Box”, pointing out how the human cell provides an insurmountable biochemical challenge to evolution. Darwin dismissed the very thing that attracted Mendel, the cell. Mendel was right. Darwin was misguided.
In 1900 interest in the genetic processes in the cell began to gain momentum. But it wasn’t until 1944 that DNA was finally identified as the key to genetic heredity. DNA had first been discovered back in 1869, so it waited a long time for the respect it deserved. In time the spiraling coil of proteins has undergone intense investigation, its sequences have been mapped and chemicals have been identified which allow for people to cut and paste different bits together in new arrangements.
DNA discoveries prompt belief that we can build completely new DNA combinations, creating monsters or developing the perfect race of people. So that leads on to cloning, DNA reconstruction, gene mapping and so on.
Since the DNA pieces specify the physical qualities a person can have it was at first thought that playing with the DNA itself is all that matters. More recent discoveries, however, reveal that there is more to the picture. Other components of the cell are responsible for building new stands of DNA and making sure the new ones are a perfect duplicate of the one being copied. RNA not only helps in the formation of DNA, but it also has a part to play in the process of switching various genes on or off.
Genetics is more than a look at what beads are on the string. We used to think that dominant genes simply over-ruled recessive genes. We now recognize a further process of turning genes on or off. An inactive gene can sit in everyone’s cells, having no impact. But if other processes turn on the inactive gene the impact of the genes is felt differently. It’s not only a matter of what eye colour you have in your genes, it’s also a matter of whether there are proteins at work to pre-select one of those genes.
Recent research has even gone so far as to show that the way a person is treated will impact how their genes are turned on and off. And that’s really interesting, because it goes to the heart of the long debated question of whether heredity or life expearience is more important in making us who we are.
I’ll have more to say on that question in a later post. I trust that the dummies of the world are at least a little more comfortable with the topic of genetics.