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Sunday, 12 October 2014

Genetics and Epigenetics

This is a new distinction for me. Genetics is a relatively new science. Gregor Mendel was its founding father. Watson and Crick discovered DNA in the 50s and contributed hugely to Genetics. It (DNA) consists largely of a string of genes (which code for proteins). We have learnt to call DNA the Blueprint of Life. This turns out to be an exaggerated claim. The shape of a giraffe or a blue whale is not determined by their genes. Nevertheless giraffes and whales do resemble their parents in shape. So, it is reasonable to suppose that the shape is inherited – but not via the genes.

In biology, and specifically genetics, Epigenetics is mostly the study of heritable changes that are not caused by changes in the DNA sequence; to a lesser extent, epigenetics also describes the study of stable, long-term alterations in the transcriptional potential of a cell that are not necessarily heritable. This is the Wikipedia definition of epigenetics.

A fascinating fact is that if you measure the height of a human male and a human female, you can predict the height of their offspring with an accuracy of 80%. If you examine the genomes of the parents, you can predict the height of their offspring with an accuracy of only 5%.

My newest hero (Yes, Sheldrake again) thinks that genes account for much less than W & C thought and modern biologists think.

He calls his theory ‘morphic resonance’ and he believes that this resonance accounts for many phenomena, most of which are not overtly biological. He rejects the idea that matter and consciousness are completely unrelated.

As geneticists built on the work of C & W, they discovered that DNA contained stretches which do not code for proteins. They labelled this ‘junk DNA’. Recent work has revealed that it is not all junk, perhaps that all of it has function.

RS calls for research programmes into many phenomena which are widely attested but cannot be accounted for by conventional Science. I predict that this man and his ideas will become, if not mainstream, then commonly accepted within a generation.

Most of his ideas are echoes of long established traditions in both Western and Eastern thought. His genius is to express them in scientific terms. He has, of course, been sneered at as pseudoscientific by John Maddox (sometime editor of Nature).

Intelligent Design proponents have to face the accusation that their Designer has to meddle continuously in species. This is not, of course, logically impossible. I am not going to abandon Intelligent Design, which has a lot going for it. But Sheldrake makes more plausible Theistic Evolution. His theory of resonance largely puts paid to the Random Mutation part of neo-Darwinism. Natural Selection was always much the more plausible element. I would love to hear Sheldrake and Jay Richards discussing the subject.

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