Philosophical Leanings

David P. Frazier frazier at mbcrr.harvard.edu
Tue Apr 18 12:48:30 EST 1995


In article <m0s189U-0004PVC at uctmail.uct.ac.za>, ed at molbiol.uct.ac.za wrote:

 
> I use a photograph of a T4 phage model made by one of our students - in 
> metallic-gold finish - as an illustration of the function of a virus 
> capsid - and I introduce it initially as the Lunar Excursion Module 
> from the Apollo series....  The analogy hits home hard given that 
> initial confusion, in that they suddenly realise that the capsid is 
> doing what the lander did - protecting nucleic acids.
> 
> Ain't no philosophy to it; life is simply the phenomenon accompanying 
> the propensity of nucleic acids to make more of themselves.
> 


   Characterizations which equate humankind and its activities with the
replication of viral nucleic acid may be glib, but they are also patently
false.  Furthermore, such glib characterizations of the ³will² of nucleic
acid do little to increase the understanding of molecular biology by the
general public or undergraduates.  The primary flaw in this argument is
that it fails to stand up to either top-down or bottom-up analysis.  First
consider bottom up.  Certainly no one would consider nucleic acids to be
the fundamental particles of the universe.  They are made of ordered
collections of atoms which are ordered collections of subatomic particles
and so forth.  Why then do we speak of the ³will² of nucleic acid
collections rather than the ³will² of organic atoms or of large
collections of subatomic particles?  The reason has much to do with our
own focus as molecular biologists/virologists, and little to do with the
basic building blocks of ³life².  Second consider the top-down approach to
this question.  Should all human enterprise be viewed as simply an effort
to spread genetic material?  Of course not.  Such a viewpoint fails to
take into account the tremendous higher order structure which determines
the behavior and existence of human beings.  There isn¹t a court in the
world (even in the USA) that would allow ³I was merely following my innate
need to distribute my genetic material² as a rape defense.  Human
societies are based correctly on the concept of the free will of
individuals leading to personal responsibility for our behaviors. 
Biological determinism based on the ³desires² of our genes is a dangerous
concept which as molecular biologists we should be working to resist not
promote.  Human consciousness derived from the extraordinary structure of
the mind is the primary determinant of societal behavior; the ³will² of
our genes is not.  

David P. Frazier



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