Posted tagged ‘genes’

For A Good Time On the ‘Tubes: David Dobbs, Sociable Genes edition

September 18, 2013

Dear all,

A little late — but it’s that time of the month again.  I’ll be doing my regular gig as one of the hosts of Virtually Speaking Science this evening at 6 EDT — just a little more than two hours from now.

My guest this time is David Dobbs, a wonderful science writer and (full disclosure) a good friend.  David has been focusing on neuroscience, genes and behavior for some time now.  Some of you may recall his big Atlantic feature on “the orchid hypothesis.”  There, David wrote about a fascinating line of scientific research that, among much else, showed how subtle and powerful the interactions of genes and environment can be.  Nature or nurture, that old debate, turns out (in this and in many other good works) to be a much richer, and much less dichotomized point of inquiry.


Flash forward to now.  David has been working on a book, The Orchid and the Dandelion, to be published by Crown in 2015, that extends the ideas and arguments of that magazine feature into a nuanced (and very tricky to write) account of how scientists are now trying to piece together the gene-to-behavior chain.  Some of that work led to the essay he just published at one of the delightful new web-based venues for serious, long-form public intellection, The Pacific Standard.  In that piece, “The Social Life Of Genes,” David writes about fascinating work on the way experience affects gene expression — which both takes the nature-nurture interaction to new, much more ephemeral time scales (itself a delightful shocker, at least to me) and points to the way the extraordinary advances in genetic and genomic research have reached a peculiar moment.  We know vastly more than we ever have before about the informational content of life.  We have tools that allow us to produce intimate moments in the daily life of genes and attendant molecules.  But that knowledge has gone just far enough to demonstrate how much more complex, intricate and so far ill-deciphered the genetic view of life remains.  We know more — and yet that knowledge leaves us much less certain about how a lot of biology works than we thought we understood a decade ago.

Which, of course, is just great.  (Physicists would kill for such wide open spaces!)  We live in interesting times — which, as I hope this conversation will demonstrate, is not always an accursed thing.

Tune in:  audio and later podcast here.

Also — do check out David’s website. Lots of good stuff there, but I’d draw the attention of any writers (or devoted readers) to David’s links to good work, and to his own  and others’ fine analyses of writing craft.

Image:  Jacopo Bassano, Earthly Paradisec. 1573

Surfing the Zeitgeist

February 28, 2008

So — a couple of posts back I innocently remember a conversation I had with Susan Blackmore in my kitchen one night at least five years ago (she had come through Boston to give a talk at Mass Art, was staying with my wife and me, and I had just learned that she really, really, hates Lapsang Souchong tea.)

We were arguing about her very strong view of memes. She argues that ideas are imperfect self replicators, analogous to genes, and following Dawkins’ concept of the selfish gene, individuals perceiving themselves to be conscious (us) are in fact merely the vessels for this second class of selfish replicators.

Susan is a systematizer and an avid and extravagant theorizer. I’m a historian by temperament and with what little training I have I look for the details in the grounds of experience, and I don’t see the justification for the strong claim she makes. I’ll blog at greater length on this post -book (2 weeks or less to send the sucker in…), but what brought all this up is that having not spoken to Susan for a couple of years, and not thought much about memes until Bora socked me with one a couple of days ago, who turns up at TED but Dr. Blackmore, in all her memetic — and now temetic — glory (Go to the link if you want to know what a “teme” is.)

I still think her core premise is incorrect, that she mistakes persuasive metaphor for analogic identity — but I deeply enjoy the pressure she puts on me to say why. More on that later. For now, I feel very zeitgeisty. Who needs TED when you’ve got Inverse Square?

3/3/08: Minor update to correct the more obvious usage mistakes.

Image: Anonymous artist, Brazil, “Extracting Foot Worm,” 19th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons