Lecture 8: Genetics

 Foundations of Liberty
The Intellectual Crisis of the Modern World

A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke

In the last lecture we saw how Darwin, though he believed he explained the evolution of biological species solely in terms of mechanistic causation, i.e. chance and necessity, without any reference to purpose or intention, all the while had unwittingly introduced purpose and intention, in the form of natural purposes, into the heart of his explanation by resting it on the struggle for existence, not noticing that this is a teleological activity.  Generations have accepted his account at face value, also not noticing the crucial point, and have drawn the natural but mistaken conclusion that the universe is devoid of any sign of purpose or intention beyond our own human purposes. And we looked briefly at some of the drastic cultural consequences of that conclusion in the religion, philosophy, art and literature of the Western world.

Modern Biology: Genetics

In the century that has elapsed since Darwin science has made notable advances. Among them, as we already saw, was Gregor Mendel’s discovery of the laws of heredity. His research demonstrated that inherited traits are not blended together, as previously assumed, but are transmitted as discrete units. On that foundation has been built the new science of genetics, which has vastly expanded our understanding of the mechanistic processes that occur in living beings. This in turn has brought with it a new formulation of the concept of evolution. As evolution is now generally understood in the bioscientific world, it no longer has to do with the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest, or at least not so centrally, nor does it pay so much attention to the distinction between varieties and species, though it retains natural selection. Rather, it has become a matter of biochemistry. The basic concept of the new understanding is the gene. The gene is the unit of heredity. It functions on the micro level of the molecule. Qualities or traits are passed on from one generation to the next by means of codes of instruction contained in the genes, which govern the building of proteins for the living body. Although all the genes of a being exist in

each of its cells, only certain ones are activated or “expressed” in any particular cell. The codes can be very long, containing many thousands of molecules. New species evolve out of old ones through changes in the genetic codes. The principal source of these changes is mutation, the alteration of the chemical components of the code. Some few of these mutations are favorable to the preservation of the organism, though  the vast majority are destructive. Through preserving and building up the favorable mutations over time, the genes eventually result in the formation of what we consider to be a new species.

Richard Dawkins

In the popular-science account given by Richard Dawkins, the gene is not only the unit of heredity and so the basic concept of genetics but is also the fundamental unit of natural selection and evolution.  The living plant or animal, in his dramatic telling, plays only a subordinate evolutionary role to its own genes: it is just a machine that the genes make use of to perpetuate themselves. “The argument of this book,” he states in The Selfish Gene, “is that we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes.”[1]  “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”[2]  Genes themselves are machines, in his view, so we humans, and all animals, can be described as machines containing machines.

So far as we are concerned here, the main question is whether Dawkins is any more successful than Darwin in truly, and not merely apparently, excluding purpose from his explanation of evolution. He certainly insists there is no role for it.  Evolution begins, according to his account, from the simple fact that some molecules are more stable than others. This fact, “differential stability,” is his equivalent for the struggle for existence and the survival of the fittest. “There is no need to think of design or purpose or directedness.” (Selfish Gene, Ch. 2)  The curious reader might be inclined to ask what it means, in that case, that we are “programmed to preserve” something, since being “programmed to” do anything rather strongly suggests design, purpose and directedness; and it is not all that clear how that could be “blind.” Similarly, what does it mean for a gene to be “selfish” if not to be motivated by a particular goal? But Professor Dawkins assures us he is only speaking the language of metaphor, in order to save time. However, that language of teleological metaphor often becomes in fact his main language, and he makes forays back into the literal language of mechanicism often only briefly; and it is an interesting and legitimate question why the language of teleology should prove so indispensable in describing living beings if it is nothing more than metaphor. A first question, even for the most determined mechanicists like Dawkins, on discovering some new feature of a living being, such as a small, previously unnoticed organ, is to ask what it is for, what purpose it serves. Why is this? Why does it seem so natural to say the heart exists for the purpose of pumping blood, when we believe on theoretical grounds that we must immediately correct ourselves and say that is only a figure of speech, and what we should be saying is that by chance a muscle has developed in animals which merely happens to have the effect of pumping blood?

To return, however, to Dawkins’s theory. In order to have evolution with its multiplication of new species, he asserts, all that is necessary is to have a machine that can make copies of itself. The whole complex process of evolution will follow from that automatically, he believes. He calls this machine the Replicator. He admits such a machine is extremely improbable. But he reassures himself, and attempts to reassure us, by reflecting that it only needs to happen once and it has many millions of years to do so. Here is his scenario of how such an accidentally self-reproducing machine could come into existence purely by accident:

Think of the replicator as a mould or template. Imagine it as a large molecule consisting of a complex chain of various sorts of building block molecules. The small building blocks were abundantly available in the soup surrounding the replicator. Now suppose that each building block has an affinity for its own kind. Then whenever a building block from out in the soup lands up next to a part of the replicator for which it has an affinity, it will tend to stick there. The building blocks that attach themselves in this way will automatically be arranged in a sequence that mimics that of the replicator itself. It is easy then, to think of them joining up to form a stable chain just as in the formation of the original replicator.

We should pause here for a moment to take notice of the vocabulary Dawkins uses, and first the words “mould or template.”  In ordinary usage moulds and templates are invariably constructed by human beings for a purpose. They are teleological conceptions.  This is also true of “building blocks.”  Further, we should notice the word “affinity,” which can have similarly teleological implications.   He proceeds:

As soon as the replicator was born it must have spread its copies rapidly throughout the seas, until the smaller building block molecules became a scarce resource, and other larger molecules were formed more and more rarely.

We notice that although the Replicator was described at first as a machine, it is now portrayed as being “born,” which is not a feature of very many machines.

The scarcity of building blocks would lead naturally to the next stage, competition, he tells us. Different varieties or strains of replicator must have competed for the now scarce building blocks. There would have been a “struggle for existence.” Our author now admits he is using language which could be taken to imply purpose and teleology.  But he hastens to correct any such impression, telling us he only means that “any mis-copying that resulted in a new higher level of stability, or a new way of reducing the stability of rivals, was automatically preserved and multiplied.” (my italics) We see that the replicators have suddenly acquired an active desire for self-preservation, involving aggression. They have become “proto-carnivores.”  Here are some more examples of teleological “metaphor”:

Some of them (replicators) may even have discovered how to break up molecules of rival varieties chemically, and to use the building blocks so released for making their own copies.

Replicators began not merely to exist but to construct for themselves containers, vehicles for their continued existence. The replicators that survived were the ones that built survival machines for themselves to live in.

And so on.  Although he has asserted that there is no purpose to be found anywhere in nature, we find nevertheless that almost his entire vocabulary is purposive.

But can we find any of these replicators in our existing world today?  Yes indeed. They are the molecules of DNA that each of us carries around in each of our cells, he tells us.

These purposeless replicator molecules of DNA which are said to be sufficient to explain the whole (automatic, mechanistic and accidental) course of evolution are worth examining a little more closely. They happen accidentally to create plants and animals which happen accidentally to preserve them in existence. The plants and animals of course are alive, otherwise they would not contain the DNA. Is the DNA alive? “Who cares?” exclaims Prof. Dawkins. “…no conclusion of substance would be affected… Whether we call the replicators living or not, they were the ancestors of life; they were our founding fathers.”  In other words, they are not alive. For they are just codes of instructions “assembled by natural selection” i.e. by accident.  What do they do?

“DNA molecules do two important things. Firstly they replicate, that is to say they make copies of themselves. This has gone on non-stop since the beginning of life.” (entirely by accident, of course.) The “second important thing DNA does” is that “It indirectly supervises the manufacture of a different kind of molecule—protein.”  “The coded message of the DNA…is translated (again entirely accidentally, we are to presume) in a simple mechanical way into another alphabet. This is the alphabet of amino acids which spells out protein molecules (accidentally, in case you had other thoughts).”  But of course if you use your computer to make an automatic translation of a paragraph from one language into another, this is by no means a purely mechanistic activity but altogether a purposeful and teleological one.

But there is a puzzle here. Aristotle many centuries ago pointed out correctly that a mere concept—such as a number, or a figure like a triangle—has no power of itself to effectuate anything.  A number cannot be an efficient cause.  To this we might add, neither can a chemical code or formula. The fact that we describe water as H2  O does not of itself produce any material effects.

According to reports, scientists have succeeded in deciphering the DNA of the 5,000 year old Ice-man, given the name Oetzi, whose intact body was found buried in the snows of the high Alps some years ago in 1991. If DNA code by itself were sufficient to replicate itself, or to preserve life, Oetzi would still be alive. Why is that not the case? Because, with all due respect to Prof. Dawkins, who in other respects no doubt is a learned man, many people have thought there is at least a slight difference between being alive and being dead.  Any power that the code of DNA has to accomplish anything in the real world comes from the life-force, that is, the teleological causative power,  of the living being in which it exists. Even if we can imagine a long code of instructions coming into existence by accident (in ordinary language an “instruction” invariably has a goal, such as to be read and obeyed, a point we shall return to in a moment), or a machine that purposelessly and entirely by accident makes copies of itself for thousands of years, manufacturing protein in a living being is clearly a teleological activity. It is for the purpose of helping it grow and function.

Prof. Dawkins is adamant that the process of evolution should not be described as a matter of “chance,” “accident” or as “random,” because it is cumulative.  He  evidently  feels it is detrimental to the cause of Darwinism from a public relations perspective to speak of chance, for it suggests the process is irrational. If a particular trait proves to be advantageous for the continued existence of the being, this fact will influence or “guide” the subsequent adoption of other traits, and in this sense that adoption will not be random or a matter of mere chance. This may be true. But it is also irrelevant and misleading. The only reason for speaking of chance in regard to evolution is not to deny that it is the product of laws, but to deny that there is an intelligence or mind , i.e. God, guiding the process.  This kind of approach, concealing difficulties rather than facing up to them and answering them, casts an unfortunate aura of deliberate deceptiveness over much of Prof. Dawkins’s writings, as noted by other commentators, such as Prof. Antony Flew.  To give another example, he makes extensive use of computer calculations to show what marvellous effects can be achieved by sheer mechanical reproduction, without recognizing that computers are operated by people with minds and wills. In other words, he will not allow that his theory involves any genuine difficulties. But the rational and fair-minded approach would be to acknowledge the difficulties that exist for it, and to show why they are not decisive. There can be no doubt Prof. Dawkins’s writings have been widely read. But he is a dangerous source to rely on, since he is often more concerned with achieving a dramatic effect than with the strict telling of truth.

Mainstream Genetics

Let us leave at this point the idiosyncratic conceptualizations of Prof. Dawkins, despite their popularity with the reading public, and return to the more serious work of mainstream biologists. To repeat, we saw in the last lecture that Darwin wished to suggest a mechanistic theory of evolution, but could make it plausible only by,  no doubt unwittingly, smuggling teleology and purpose back into his theory. The struggle for existence, we saw, is inherently teleological. What then is the situation in this regard with modern biology? Has the change of focus from the Darwinian struggle for existence to the gene and biochemistry made a difference in regard to teleology and purpose?

Let us reflect for a moment on the idea of a code, on which we raised a red flag a moment ago. The gene is important because it contains the code for the building up of the plant or animal. The code is a set of instructions. What is an instruction? In normal parlance it is a message, specifically a command, to act in a certain way. The concepts of an instruction and a code are inherently teleological and purposive. To see the difference, compare Sherlock Holmes detecting, from the fact that Watson had injured his elbow, that he had been an army doctor in Afghanistan. (A Study in Scarlet) The elbow injury conveyed information to Holmes. But it was not an instruction. It would become a message and an instruction only if it was deliberately intended beforehand to convey information. When present-day biologists refer to the code of instructions contained in DNA, they assume this operates mechanistically, a series of causes that happen to produce certain effects. But in point of fact it is teleological. We can see this from the effects of the genes. For they carry out the design of the living body. In other words, the explanation modern biology gives for evolution, though it purports to be mechanistic, as the methodology of science requires, is in fact teleological, as common sense requires, and as Darwin’s explanation was, despite himself. Like Darwin with the struggle for existence, modern biologists beg the question, assuming what they have to prove, which is that the phenomenon of life can be completely explained by mechanistic causation.

I hope it is clear from my earlier lectures that in saying this I am not finding faulty with science or scientists. Science has been splendidly successful and should continue to do what it has been doing. I am arguing that there are certain insights into the nature of life and reality that are not available to science but are nonetheless indispensable for human beings, including those who practise science.

Natural Purpose or Design

A design, as we saw in a previous lecture, is a shape that is intended or purposed. In what follows I will speak only about purpose, for the sake of convenience, but everything I say about purpose applies equally to design.

Usually when people speak of purposes, they mean conscious purposes, the kind of purpose that we experience only in ourselves and other human beings. These purposes are, in our experience, always the product of a mind. But the purposes we have been discussing in these lectures are not, in our experience, the product of a mind, but of nature. They are to be found in all living beings, though not in inanimate beings. They are such things as the desire for survival, growth and reproduction. Can natural purposes be placed on the same level, or possess the same significance, as conscious purposes?

I believe they can, for the following reason. A cause in general is something that gives rise to an effect. A purpose in general is a unique kind of cause.What we today ordinarily call a cause is something that makes, produces or brings about the effect. The cook who cooks a dinner is the cause of the dinner in this sense: he makes it.  Now the maker of a dinner must exist before the dinner he makes. This is a fairly elementary point of logic. The dinner comes into existence only after the maker of the dinner has come into existence.  A purpose or goal is also a cause, but of a very different kind. This kind of cause does not come into existence before the effect, but only after it.The cook makes the dinner for a purpose: to entertain his wife and guests, let us say. But this entertainment of his wife and guests will only happen after he has cooked the dinner and they eat it. Before he cooks the dinner the cook no doubt has an idea in his mind of the dinner, and of the entertainment of his wife and guests that he hope will result. But the idea of dinner is no substitute for dinner. The goal or purpose is not the idea but the reality.

Now the assumption on which scientists have been working for some 400 years is that ultimately all purposes will prove to be explainable by causes. But that is logically impossible, for the two kinds of cause contradict one another. For one thing, as we have already noted, mechanical causation is never in itself either good or bad, but teleological causation is always about the good and the bad. This is true not only of conscious purposes but also of natural purposes. People’s conscious choices are always of something they consider good in some way or other. Likewise the natural purposes of plants and animals are always for something they consider good: to stay alive, to grow and to reproduce. But the operations of a machine have no implications for good or bad unless the machine is employed for a purpose. Although natural purposes are not conscious purposes, their causation is of the same kind.

The Uses of Natural Purposes

Science as an enterprise has no need to recognize natural purposes, and it has no means of doing so, for it can only recognize mechanical causes, and it has been fantastically successful at doing that. But human beings, including scientists, have a vital necessity to recognize natural purposes in order rightly to understand themselves, other living beings, and the universe.  Just as Darwin’s work, portraying living beings and therefore the universe as entirely mechanical, undermined the entire realm of meaning, freedom of the will, and value for human existence, so the recognition of natural purposes in the realm of living beings provides a basis for the restoration of meaning, freedom and value in human life.  We will see more about this in a subsequent lecture.

[1] Ch. 1, p.2.

[2] Preface to 1976 edition.