Monday, October 7, 2013

We Need More Spooky

You know how physicists say ludicrous things? For example: An electron can be in two places at once. Or: With enough gravity, you can bend space. We fiction writers rely on this stuff. (Thanks guys.)

But, do you ever notice how biologists DON’T do this? In 2001, Nobel prize winner Paul Nurse predicted that biology was about to go through a revolution similar to the one experienced in physics a hundred years ago. 

And here we are in the much-vaunted century of biological revolution. So where are the kooks?

Biology has some deep, dark problems at its core: it still has to explain how the complexity of life arose from a chemical goulash. 

It also has to explain how the component parts of a single cell in the body manage to find one another. The currently accepted answer is that enzymes just go bumping into everything until they stumble into the right partner

Gosh, if these were physicists, they'd be talking about twelve dimensions and quantum tunneling. 

A group of enterprising scientists, led by one Dr. Steven Benner, have recently proposed that life may have formed on Mars. Not too shabby. And a team of British scientists seems to have found proof of DNA coming into our atmosphere from outer space. We're getting closer to an alien theory, but seriously, where is all the weirdness in the world of the small?

Will it matter?

One guy, Dr. Fritz Albert Popp, dared to propose that DNA produces photons and that this creates a "dynamic web of light" inside the body. This web of light may be responsible for orchestrating the behavior of cells, tissues, and organs. Essentially, this is saying that DNA is like CENTCOM, a command station that talks to -- and controls -- many far-flung parts.

Einstein was disturbed by quantum mechanics, in particular “the problem of the total renunciation of all minimal standards of realism." Your disturb-o-meter might hit the same mark with biophotons. They are light. And energy. Little packages of stuff. But they are not thinking beings. And they certainly do not have the complexity of mind to run CENTCOM. The idea that they’re not only talking to one another, but sending out precisely the right information to thousands of different receptors, hundreds of thousands time a day… It all starts to sound, well, spooky.

Dr. Popp, you rock! 

But where is he? Why isn't his science all over the news? Wikipedia politely describes his claim as “controversial.” People have speculated that understanding biophoton behavior could help us cure cancer. That biophotons are related to why acupuncture works. That they may even help explain the emergence of consciousness. Wikipedia filed this last one under the stunningly condescending title of “Esoteric Claims”.

What is “esoteric” but an insult? A mainstream way of saying that the poor schlump who proposed this idea is clearly on the fringes. And yet, isn’t that where scientists ought to be? Isn’t that where string theory – now decidedly in the realm of popular physics – dared to tread? And how is it that physicists can claim twelve dimensions, and while people may scoff, they ultimately accept that this is what science does. But when biologists claim that photons may play a role in understanding the emergence of consciousness, they get called “esoteric” by a mainstream website that supposedly has rules against slanted points of view

Schrodinger that!
Dr. Popp's science is fascinating (there's a great article here), but the Wiki page for Dr. Popp is currently under dispute for “neutrality” issues. The dispute seems to have arisen because of comments like this one from the Wiki moderators: “Popp is only known in esoteric circles and new-age.” 

This man has a Ph.D. and was a professor at a major German university. He was also head of numerous research groups, an invited member of the New York Academy of Sciences, as well as founder of an International Institute of Biophysics. He is credited with discovering the presence of photons in the body. It does not seem that this man is “only known in esoteric circles.” But shoot, how dare he prove his own theories, going so far as to create an institute with 19 research groups in 13 countries

Energetic Places

On the other side of the biology spectrum stands the field’s most public thinker: Richard Dawkins. The Wiki page for Dawkins is long, detailed and solidly invested in sharing his philosophies. And to read this quite carefully, it is apparent that all of this Wiki love points to a consistent theme in Dawkins' career: his skepticism. 

Dawkins…

“has consistently been sceptical about non-adaptive processes in evolution”
“is particularly sceptical about the practical possibility or importance of group selection as a basis for understanding altruism
“has also been strongly critical of the Gaia hypothesis
“was highly critical of fellow biologist E.O. Wilson's 2012 book The Social Conquest of Earth.”
“is a prominent critic of creationism
“has ardently opposed the inclusion of intelligent design in science education"
“became a prominent critic of religion
“has been a critic of pseudoscience and alternative medicine"
He’s even critical of debate:
“…[Dawkins] refused to participate in formal debates with creationists because "what they seek is the oxygen of respectability""
"Dawkins also regularly comments in newspapers and weblogs on contemporary political questions; his opinions include opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq... the British nuclear deterrent, and the actions of US President George W. Bush"

Is this a list of accomplishments? This looks more like a love poem to an idol of destructiveness, one that manages to tell us everything Dawkins doesn’t believe in. The most famous figure in biology today is someone who appears to have become famous for disputing everything. What’s odd is that when 95 percent of the world believes in some kind of god or another, viewpoints like Dawkins' are by definition “esoteric.” 


Sorry, somebody needs a little Fox. 

Einstein and Bohr: enemies chilling.
Dawkins's first, and arguably most famous work, The Selfish Gene, postulates that evolution occurs through the survival of competing genes. In other words, by applying the “macro” concepts of evolution to the “micro” world of the gene, he seems to have co-opted the entire realm of biology. But what if our cells are not Darwinian monsters? And what if they can do all the weird shit that quantum particles can do?  

Imagine if Einstein had gotten famous for telling priests that they were stupid for believing in God. Imagine the quantum geniuses of his day cast to the fringes of respectable academia, their theories being treated as if they were nonsense. Did this happen to Bohr? To Heisenberg? No. In fact the debates between Einstein and his peers are legendary examples of scientists attempting to solve their problems together, despite their radically different points of view, and their mysteriously contradictory evidence.  

Einstein spent his career searching for a unified theory of physics that would draw all of these contradictions into a sensible picture. He failed. But his openness of mind and his ambition helped set physics on the right path. Physicists have spent decades and billions of dollars attempting to comprehend the dark center of this mystery. And out of this drive comes some remarkable stuff: superstring theory, M-theory, causal sets, and the quest to understand dark matter and dark energy.

It seems that the most public, energetic places in biology today are those places where Dawkins is accusing his fellow scientists of being traitors and "compliant quislings" for agreeing to talk to religious folk. 

So off I go in quest of a little more spooky. First stop: Science Set Free by Rupert Sheldrake - another radical biologist who, in speaking about his book, was banned from TEDx when their "Science Board" deleted his talk from their site. Interestingly, Sheldrake seems also to have done some intellectual heavy lifting with a physicist, David Bohm. 

This quote from Sheldrake's first book, A New Science of Life, encapsulates the kind of Spooky I think more biologists should be exploring:

“Most biologists take it for granted that living organisms are nothing but complex machines, governed only by the known laws of physics and chemistry. I myself used to share this point of view. But over a period of several years I came to see that such an assumption is difficult to justify. For when so little is actually understood, there is an open possibility that at least some of the phenomena of life depend on laws or factors as yet unrecognized by the physical sciences.”

3 comments:

  1. I am a fan of your novels and happen to be a biologist (specifically a biologist who conducts eco-evolutionary research using mathematical and statistical models as well as field and lab experiments). While I understand that your post suggest that radical thinking within any field can result in important discussions that can lead to the truth about the universe or the nature of life, I don't think that this is the case for Sheldrake's morphic resonance or biophotons. In fact, while biologists agree that the evolutionary theories of natural or sexual selection are important process about the origin of life, other non-evolutionary mechanisms are equally important. Epigenetics, the study of heritable changes in gene activity which are not caused by changes in DNA highlights a mechanism for genetic and biological diversity and does not involve evolution.

    I also don't think comparing moprhic resonance or biophotons to string theory or quantum mechanics is an apt comparison for three reasons:

    1) There was mathematical evidence for both string theory and quantum mechanics. The numbers matched up in analytical formulas, but it was hard for people to comprehend the outcomes of these equations as bieng true within the context of cosmic theory at the time. Furthermore, these analytical formulas were checked and rechecked by the entire physics community before being accepted. This is not the case for biophotons and the morphic resonance. In fact, a very simple experiment can be conducted for measuring whether DNA produces photons or not. All you have to do it hit the DNA molecule with a photon, and measure the energy output. If the energy output from the DNA molecule is greater than the energy input from the photon, then DNA is producing extra energy than expected. Thespectral signature of this energy can be examined to determine the particle is being produced. So the fact that Dr. Popp has not applied a rigorous empirical or mathematical test of his theory is pretty much damning. In the case of morphic resonance, this can be tested mathematically and Sheldrake has yet to produce any formulae that can withstand mathematical criticism (continued in next comment...

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  2. 2) While you rightly point out that that string theory and quantum mechanics were considered radical for their times and faced much criticism and yet were found to be true in the end, extending this example to biophotons or morphic resonance due to the fact that all of these theories challenged the status quo at the time ignores that there were many other radical theories (see Steady State Theory of the Universe, Expanding Earth Hypothesis, or Cold Fusion) that were wrong about the nature of reality. Being radical does not mean that the theory proposed is factual. Furthermore both theories have not provided any empirical or theoretical proof, and are extremely speculative. While I appreciate that both theories challenge current understanding about the origin of life and that this creativity and contrarianism is important for scientific progress, this in itself is not sufficient for a proposed theory to be factual.

    3) Neither biophotons nor morphic resonance match up with current evidence about the origins of life and ignore certain facts that do not fit each theory. In Science set free, Sheldrake mentions that biologists have no idea of how homing pigeons are able to navigate their way back and that this can be explained with morphic resonance. For the record at the time when Sheldrake proposed this theory there were already two competing theories: piegons can sense magnetic field or pigeons use smell. Experimental evidence for homing behaviour in piegons could be explained using both these theories. Just this year, it was discovered that pigeons use very infrasonic cues (low frequency sound signatures) to navigate back to their home site (see this article at the Journal of Experimental Biology: http://jeb.biologists.org/content/216/4/687.abstract?sid=4ce88dda-0628-4845-a300-a3b48305eac0).

    Finally, thanks for taking the time to write a post on a biological issue. If you are interested in examining current research into the origin of life, may I suggest you check out the Planetary Chemistry and Astrobiology group at Cal Tech (see http://science.jpl.nasa.gov/people/Russell/).

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    Replies
    1. biogeek, love your comments! i have so much to say in reply but the holidays are *insane* so for now just wanted to say how much i enjoyed your remarks. i will respond more thoroughly after the holidays. happy new year!

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