Sunday, March 27, 2005

DNA in the Sky

I read recently that a prominent animal behaviorist claimed once that birds never do anything for pleasure or joy; all of their activities are just blind instinct. Call me sappy, but on evenings like this I find his statement hard to believe. Today as the sun set in the west, the sky turned a deep blue, of infinite depth and clarity, and a huge congregation of snow white sea gulls from the nearby lake began migrating up our little valley, and as they reached the head of the valley, where our land is, they entered a large thermal, with the warm sun heating the bare ground, causing heated air to rise rapidly through the still-cool atmosphere. The birds started spiralling higher and higher in this updraft , as more and more gulls came up the valley and entered the lower level of the thermal and joined the chase. Soon there were about a hundred birds riding this circular escalator to the upper sky. The gulls were under-lit by the bright , setting sun, so that they were blindingly white against the deep blue background, soon becoming small, glowing white dots far up in the sky, until they finally reached the top of the thermal, then spilled out in all directions and disappeared. How can something so joyous to see not be enjoyed by the birds themselves?
Perhaps I am a little soft and sappy. Thirty years ago I was a fellow in gastroenterology at U.C. San Francisco. Each year the department would have a dinner meeting at a famous steak house downtown, where everyone would drink too much wine, smoke a big cigar, and listen to a prominent speaker brought in for the occasion. One year they had Francis Crick of DNA fame, who unknown to me at the time, became well known in later life as an anti-vitalist; that is, he felt that life had no special meaning. Well, another fellow and I probably (likely) had a little too much red wine, and were sitting in a corner booth listening to Crick's lecture, trying not to slide under the table on those big leather seats, while holding our big, fat cigars. Crick set us up by starting out his lecture talking about the beauty of nature and life, then outlined the mechanism of the double helix: one could look at the long double chain like two long hallways, and the side chains that are then attached to it are like rooms leading off the hallways. The side chains have a unique chemical bond to the helix that is thermodynamically very difficult to break, so rather irreversible, so it's as though , as you walk down the hallway and enter a room, you cannot exit again. It is inevitable that if enough time passes, that the right combination of molecules will become randomly and irreversibly attached, and what we call life will arise, and what we call beauty, joy, love, are all just predestined by these mindless chemical side chains; the blooming flower, the little child's smile, the butterfly's beauty, are just quirks of a chemical bond, and have no deeper meaning than say, the formation of water from hydrogen and oxygen. Well, by this time my friend and I were practically crying in the corner, our tears trying to put out our big fat cigars. This, of course, is just the reaction that Crick was trying to achieve; with us it was just child's play. So, don't give me any of this mechanical animal behavior stuff; I've paid my dues... leave me my gulls flying in ever higher circles in the evening sun just for the sheer joy of it.

What a miserable line of hogwash... Sorry, but Crick (brilliant though he may hev been) sounds like a fellow who desperately needs to intellectualize less and "know" more.

His point of view on the world sounds utterly joyless and without meaning - since "meaning" is simply an emotional experience governed by brain chemistry anyway.

It's just that kind of crap that makes the world of science so much cannon fodder for the religious right - and I am saying this as a devout Christian. Science and faith needn't be mutually exclusive - and it sounds like Dr. Crick thinks he has all the answers indeed. When, in all actuality, the great mystery of this world and its creator is "the more you know, the less you know you know."

One is left to wonder if Crick ever had any life-changing experiences at all - you know, the type that the rest of us humans cut our teeth on every day. The death of a loved one, being in love, treason, dejection, triumph, etc.

And even if the birds derive no pleasure themselves from what they do, be thankful that we have a creator that has instilled in us the capacity for awe and joy at his creation. Certainly flowers are the way they are to attract pollinators, not for human pleasure. But, at the end of the day, who cares if it isn't done FOR us per se. We can still enjoy and praise the show.
The meaningless chemical reactions in my brain are telling me that I am upset with how much Blogger can suck sometimes. Please feel free to remove one of those double-posts, Don.

Well, ok... I did remove one of the duplicate posts, though since we're talking about double-stranded DNA, seems like double posts were called for. Actually, Crick died last summer; probably a spoiler to the end.The birds are still larking about, though.
I agree with Brian - Crick, like more than a few scientists, wasn't content to stick with what he knew and professed a philosophy that he had no more evidence for than anyone does.

It may be parsimonious of him but it's insulting at the same time, and that comes from a fairly decent biologist who is perfectly fine with reductionist approaches but also quite comfortable with other modes of appreciation. Would that Crick had had a little wisdom in addition to all his vaunted smarts.

(That sounds like quite a sharp criticism against Crick, so I'll say that he was certainly a respectable scientist.)
It's nice to get some feed-back from some guys who know biology... around here you talk about Crick, and people wonder if you've got crayfish growin' in it.
I realize this is an old thread now, but as an academic I've noticed that really smart people can be really dumb sometimes. Maybe especially dumb because they're so good at rationalizing their dumbness.

I don't care where joy and beauty and meaning come from; they're still real to me, and what would life be like without them?
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