Dark Matter, The Human Genome, and the Wisdom of Not Knowing

by Stuart on May 2, 2010

 As things stand today, we know more about the planet Mars than we do about the human  brain. However, if you pay attention to the phenomenal revolution in brain resaersch discoveries that just a few years ago were considered the stuff of science fiction, and if you learned about that brain research and learned to apply techniques based on that research, you can expect a lifetime of enhanced levels of personal achievement.  – Dr. Richard Restak

 

I’m going to use this post to digress momentarily from our usual musings on the state of education today, and instead turn our attention to the 3 silent bombs that went off in our society towards the beginning of this 21st century. As our technology improved, the world we were looking at changed. To see how, we’ll examine the realm of the very very small, the very, very large, and the in-between.

The first endeavor (the very small) to come under our scrutiny is the Human Genome Project. This massive undertaking (funded by venture capitalists) was designed to map the entire series of genetic sequences that act to manage the protein creation responsible for the existence of every cell in your body. By identifying which gene controlled which protein sequences, it would be possible to ‘fix’ (through pharmacology) those sequences that had genetic defects leading to disease proliferation and cellular death. Since there are approximately 125,000 different proteins in your body, it was believed that we’d find 125,000 genes plus some 25,000 expected regulatory genes that supervise the whole thing. All in all, scientists figured on finding somewhere around 150,000 genes present in the human genome.   Unfortunately, that’s not what they found.  It’s not even close.

Present in the human body are 25,000 genes….that’s it. To put it in perspective, a worm has 24,000. There is less than a 10% difference between the genetic structures of you and the plants in your home. Obviously something other than genetics is playing a powerful role in the determination of biological forms. Yet when you watch or read the news it’s as if this never happened, and you will regularly see stories that say ‘scientists have discovered the gene responsible for….’ 

It all sounds neat, predictable, and orderly except for one small problem….things don’t work that way. The body can be viewed as a biological machine employing the cause and effect principles of Newtonian physics if one chooses to do so. But as David Baltimore, the Nobel Prize winning geneticist at the heart of the genome project said, “as it relates to the emergence of biological diversity and the arising of complexity, something else is going on…and we don’t, as yet, know what it is.” Hmm…..

Next up is the realm of the very, very large; namely astrophysics, and the study of the infinite, expanding universe with all the mysterious entities that populate it. Over the past few years outer space technology has continued to develop, whether the Hubble telescope, Mars Surveyor, Pioneer solar system flybys, Lunar L Cross, and we’ve seen images of nebulae, galaxies, stars dying and being born, water in our own solar system and more. As our technology has improved, questions have arisen (technology will do that sometimes), questions that are not so easy to answer. One such question has necessitated the postulation that most of the matter comprising the universe is…dark.  In other words,  invisible.

Dark matter was conceptually born to account for the fact that in observations of the orbital velocities of galaxies in clusters, there was insufficient mass to account for the gravitational forces needed to keep the thing together. Galaxies should spin apart, but they don’t. So, either our theories about the fundamental nature of reality were wrong, or there had to be some invisible matter present keeping everything together. Hence the creation of dark matter,which apparently accounts for 23% of the mass-energy density of the observable universe,  while old-fashioned ordinary matter accounts for only 4.6%. In other words, most of the matter in the room you’re in right now is not visible to you. Better be careful walking around!  

Finally, we move into the realm of the in-between, our no-noonsense 9 to 5 world of predicability, the evening news, and stuff that we just know is true, and the way things are. Surely there is no question about that dimension of reality, right? Well, sorta yes and sorta no.

Since everything we know about the world comes about through perceptions filtered through our brains, we’d have to have the brain fairly well figured out before we could say we really ‘knew’ anything. If the brain had a habit of lying on Tuesdays, that would be important to know, right? So, what do we know about the 3 pound mass of jell-o sitting on top of our necks? Well, we could ask the experts, but the answers we get would depend on when we ask them. If we asked the greatest minds in the world in 1980 how many brain cells we are born with, they would have said “somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million or so.” If we moved ahead 10 years to 1990 and surveyed the greatest minds in the field, they would have told us that under no circumstances does the brain ever grow new brain cells…ever.

Moving ahead 10 years to 2000, we find the following; we are born with substantially more than 10 million brain cells – in fact, the human fetus creates 10 million brain cells every 40 minutes for the entire 9 months it is in the womb. And, the human brain does create new brain cells, in a startling process now called neurogenesis.

So, in closing, we can say the following with some degree of confidence; One, the idea that we are the products of our genes, and destined by our genetic inheritance, is not supported by contemporary science; Two, that our understanding of the universe we live in is profoundly incomplete, and; Three, that the actual capacities of the human brain have nothing in common with the body of scientific thought amassed over the last thousand years. It seems that taking a position of ‘Not Knowing’ might be a pretty wise thing to do.

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