Friday, December 26, 2003

The Central Dogma of modern biology is wrong. Formulated in 1957 by Francis Crick, the idea that "DNA makes RNA, RNA makes protein, and proteins make us," guided molecular research in biology for nearly fifty years, yet from its first inception there were cracks in the edifice. Now it seems that emphasis on DNA and genes may actually be hindering progress in biology. But this knowledge has not spread to the public, who still speak in terms of genes acting and determining traits.

A brief history of the idea of "gene" may help explain my bold claim. The word was coined in 1909 to give a fresh vocabulary to the units of elementary heredity discovered by Mendel and rediscovered in 1900. In spite of this, everyone carried two assumptions over to the new term: that genes are elemental and somehow particulate, that is that they are real chemical entities analogous to atoms in chemistry and physics. The second is that the stability of the gene (as a particle) was responsible for the stability of development and type: that the Hapsberg lip was passed on from generation for hundreds of years, for example. These assumptions were dramatically vindicated in 1953 when Crick and Watson (that jerk) solved the structure of the DNA double helix and showed that the gene was a particle, DNA, and that it could replicate by copying one strand into another by complementary base pairing. This replication provided a mechanism to pass on the genes stably from one generation to the next.

Then the problems start in. It turns out that DNA mutates at about 1/100 base pairs due to copying errors and environmental insults, and so it needs to be maintained by elaborate DNA repair mechanisms: a dynamic process involving many proteins. So the DNA is not really a stable elemental repository of information. And it turns out that DNA is not active-- to say a gene does something or has some purpose is to cease talking about DNA--all DNA does is code for RNA which codes for proteins which do all the work (a la Central Dogma). But one DNA sequence makes many different kinds of RNA through alternative splicing and proteins are regulated by external signals, so the question becomes what exactly is a gene? Cannot be just the DNA sequence, but RNA and protein don't seem to be very good candidates either.

It was initially naively assumed that one gene makes one protein (wrong) and that a combination of genes acting could explain the development of an egg into a frog. However it was shown that there are regulatory elements that turn genes on and off (Jacob and Monod 1961); some of these elements are genes, and others seem to be different kinds of nucleic acid elements (ie non-coding sequences). In any case genes cannot be thought of as the agents of control anymore. Whole chromosomes are inactivated in mammals (women have one X turned off so as not to have too much expression of the X genes) and other complicated effects of the cell milieu acting on the genetic information have shown that the program for development has equal parts cytosolic and genetic components. It is the mother of all chicken and egg problems, and the answer has to be that the chicken (organism) and the egg (DNA / genes) both had to come first. (HA!)

So to sum up, although DNA codes for RNA codes for protein, there is no causal priority to the genes in the DNA. Genes are made and maintained by dynamic processes in the cell that are also inherited. Levels of control at the transcriptional (making RNA) and translational (making protein) and protein activity levels are dynamic and controlled by stimuli. Of course the information to make molecules comes from the DNA and that is crucial. But it is not the only story, and is not even the main story. You can expect to see a lot less emphasis on genes (maybe we'll even lose the word) in science and focus on systems instead.

An early researcher named Waddington saw the shift from old gene talk to dynamic systems way back in the 50's and made the connection to the process philosophy of A. N. Whitehead. I think more needs to be made of this link. I find this exciting as process theology is one of the primary ways of thinking about Mormon theology at the current time. This new biology has important things to say about biological determinism and even about implications for evolution that seem to fit into a process and mormon theology. Similar to the proteins and DNA inside a cell working together in a dynamic way to determine development in the absence of a controlling "genetic program," we see men and God working together in a dynamic process fashion to strive toward perfection in the absence of a omnipotent controlling Thomist deity.

Monday, December 22, 2003

The scientist writes well of the notion of Mormon eschatology. However ought we really say that Mormon eschatology emphasizes a "sameness" or "repetition of the same" over "difference"? I'd point out that, as discussed, Mormons speak of having their own world to create as they will. Further, unlike the more mystic forms of religion emphasizing the unio dei, Mormons believe salvation essential consists of having their own body. While we speak of "one heart and one mind" they way it is conceived seems essentially a union based upon difference and not the elimination of difference.

I'd note that Brigham Young, as good a pragmatist as those in the association we take as a namesake, agrees with those comments of John Taylor the scientist has quoted.

"When all nations are so subdued to Jesus that every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess, there will still be millions on the earth who will not believe in him; but they will be obliged to acknowledge his kingly government." (JD 7:142)

What an odd saying if we have an eschatology which supposedly suppresses such matters. What then is the unity we speak of? Brigham Young once again offers an aid.

"A perfect oneness will save a people, because intelligent beings cannot become perfectly one, only by acting upon principles that pertain to eternal life. Wicked men may be partially united in evil; but, in the very nature of things, such a union is of short duration. The very principle upon which they are partially united will itself breed contention and disunion to destroy the temporary compact. Only the line of truth and righteousness can secure to any kingdom or people, either of earthly or heavenly existence, an eternal continuation of perfect union; for only truth and those who are sanctified by it can dwell in celestial glory." (JD 7:277)

This suggests that the unity is a unity of principles upon which rational thought proceeds. One must well note that the potential acts resulting from any principle is infinite. Indeed, if we take the meaning of any principle to be precisely those acts that logically follow if the principle be true, we can see how any such principle maintains within it a diversity of opinion and thought. To place it within the more common conceptions of science, we simply note that we are all of one mind towards mathematics. Yet the manifestations of mathematics within the sciences are truly myriad, to say nothing of the practical applications to which science is placed in service.

Hugh Nibley has called Brigham Young a pragmatic genius. Perhaps then, in following in the steps of the metaphysical club of old, we ought well call Mormon eschatology a pragmatic eschatology?

Sunday, December 21, 2003

G. HOMER DURHAM: I have to confess that I am not as familiar with John Taylor as I ought to be. Gospel Kingdom is a fun book, and I have read some of the "political" passages of the book. What I wonder is how much of that book is Taylor and how much is G. Homer Durham, who was the editor.

Generally, those who follow Mormon Studies are supposed to hiss when G. Homer Durham comes on stage. The reason is that he is the GA that the Twelve braught into be Church Historian when Arrington was sent packing to BYU, and the so called "Camelot" era of the Church Historical Department came to an end. However, long before that, before Durham even became a GA, he was a very young professor of political science at Utah State in the 1940s. His ambition was to use Mormonism to discuss issues of political philosophy. He published a good little book with Bookcraft called Joseph Smith The Prophet-Statesman, which collects Joseph's political writings. More interesting, he published a couple of articles using Mormonism that appeared in mainline political science and philosophy journals like Ethics.

Durham never completed the project. He got tapped to prepared a bunch of "teachings of the prophets" books. Then he got a job at the U. of U. and I understand from talking with some of his former students that his Mormonism had to go underground. After that, he went to Arizona State as an administrator and then became a GA. However, it seems that he had a model of Mormon studies that was at least two and possibly three generations early.

Who knows, someone might pick up his project yet...
Pluralism in Mormon Theo-Democracy?

Mormon eschatology is often seen as absolutist, reducing all differences into sameness as we aim for a Zion society where all are of one heart and of one mind. Although we allow for the good of the eath to repent in the spirit world, we maintain that our ordinances are necessary for the highest degrees of salvation. The millenium is often seen in these same intolerant terms; we predict the further polarization of the sacred (us) and the secular (those responsible for the current moral decline), until the final cataclysm and destruction where the wicked are destroyed and Christ comes to reign personally on the earth. Call it a certain mormon "zionist" triumphalism.

So you can imagine my surprise when I read these words today, describing a Mormon view of the millenial reign:

"The Lord will be king over all the earth, and all mankind literally under his sovereignty, and every nation under the heavens will have to acknowledge his authority, and bow to his sceptre. Those who serve him in righteousness will have communications with God, and with Jesus; will have the ministering of angels, and will know the past, the present, and the future; and other people, who may not yield full obedience to his laws, nor be fully instructed in his covenants, will, nevertheless, have to yield full obedience to his government."

Thus it seems that in spite of the destruction of the wicked, many good people will live under Christ's reign and revere his civil authority while not partaking in the Mormon rituals. There is room for good but non-Mormon people in the Mormon kingdom. I find this very surprising coming from John Taylor (The Gospel Kingdom) who spent his last years in exile and was prone to Deseret Nationalism. It seems that much of this book is Taylor's attempt to construct a political philosophy based on the American system of democracy while establishing a theocratic Deseret regime. I wonder if our Lawyer has researched the writings of Taylor in his interests in legal mormondom, and if this would also be interesting to our Lit Crit who is enamoured of all things theo-democratic. For example he emphasizes the importance of sustaining church officials, referring to the idea of Vox Dei, vox populi. His writing is very engaging with a wonderful sermon style, and he clearly thought through these issues quite a bit.