Thursday, November 24, 2016

Denis Noble's Dance to the Tune of Life launch

Denis with President and past-President of Physiological Soc. 
I promised a blog post on Denis Noble's outstanding new book Dance to the Tune of Life whose launch I attended on Monday.

This is a really important book which brings together much of the work that Denis has done to rethink the conceptual foundations of evolutionary biology. The launch was in the form of a lecture at the Physiological Society, which summarised the essence of the book and also reported to some extent on the major scientific meeting at the Royal Society earlier that month.  This was a joint meeting between the Royal Society and the British Academy which brought together about 300 people. Sadly very few of the hand-line "neo-Darwinists" attended so there wasn't much fundamental debate about the views expressed, which is partly because the scientific evidence is now completely overwhelming.

Denis argues that we need to move from a 20th Century Reductionist Approach to a 21st Century Integrative Approach, which recognises that biology works on many levels and that organisms harness stochasiticty to generate functionality.

He points out that the dogmatic adherence to the tenets of Neo-Darwinism has done significant harm to the advance of science. Barbara McClintock did her initial pioneering work on how whole units of genetic material move around, rather than "random mutations" in the 1930s and 1940s but she was told in 1957 that her work was not believed and she stopped publishing for some years. When she was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1983 she was able to state clearly that "the genome is an organ of the cell."  Conrad Waddington was also sidelined for similar reasons.

One of the key areas where it is perfectly clear that  organisms harness stochasiticty to generate functionality is in somatic hypermutation. There is no doubt at all that much higher rates of mutation are allowed on specific parts of the genome in B-Cells. It's also clear that antibiotic resistance in bacteria is not acquired or transmitted simply by "random mutations" but by mechanisms such as horizontal gene transfer. So in fact the dogmatism of the Neo-Darwinists has actually damaged the development of science and medicine.  It seems that they are still at it: there was apparently a concerted campaign to prevent the RS from holding the scientific meeting earlier this month.

Denis kindly signed a copy of the book for me and another for my son. And I'm honoured and delighted to find my name in the acknowledgements, between Sir Patrick Bateson and Steven Bergman.

No comments: