A wonderful conversation.
A few quotes:
What is the one bit of science from your field that you think everyone should know?
David Attenborough: The unity of life.
Richard Dawkins: The unity of life that comes about through evolution, since we’re all descended from a single common ancestor. It’s almost too good to be true, that on one planet this extraordinary complexity of life should have come about by what is pretty much an intelligible process. And we’re the only species capable of understanding it.
What is the most difficult ethical dilemma facing science today?
DA: How far do you go to preserve individual human life?
RD: That’s a good one, yes.
DA: I mean, what are we to do with the NHS? How can you put a value in pounds, shillings and pence on an individual’s life? There was a case with a bowel cancer drug – if you gave that drug, which costs several thousand pounds, it continued life for six weeks on. How can you make that decision?
Scientists have mapped the DNA of an Irish person – an anonymous male volunteer – for the first time. Now the challenge is to find out which of the 300,000 previously unrecorded genetic variations is unique to, or typical of, Ireland. We predict some of the findings.
CH1 The CH1 gene variant gives rise to a condition, believed to affect countless thousands of Irish people, known as “cute hoorism”. Sufferers have unusually sensitive skin, capable of identifying which way the wind is blowing, even when there’s no wind. By contrast, certain areas of the body – typically the neck – appear to be less-than-usually receptive in those affected. Carriers of the CH1 gene are known to be at high risk of a career in politics or selling second-hand cars.
More all-too-true possibilities via the link above.
It seems quite likely that future historians of science will divide biology into the pre- and post-genomic eras.
In one way, post-genomic biology—biology 2.0, if you like—has finally killed the idea of vitalism, the persistent belief that to explain how living things work, something more is needed than just an understanding of their physics and chemistry. True, no biologist has really believed in vitalism for more than a century. Nevertheless, the promise of genomics, that the parts list of a cell and, by extension, of a living organism, is finite and cataloguable, leaves no room for ghosts in the machine.
Viewed another way, though, biology 2.0 is actually neo-vitalistic. No one thinks that a computer is anything more than the sum of its continually changing physical states, yet those states can be abstracted into concepts and processed by a branch of learning that has come to be known as information science, independently of the shifting pattern of electrical charges inside the computer’s processor.
So it is with the new biology. The chemicals in a cell are the hardware. The information encoded in the DNA is the preloaded software. The interactions between the cellular chemicals are like the constantly changing states of processing and memory chips. Though understanding the genome has proved more complicated than expected, no discovery made so far suggests anything other than that all the information needed to make a cell is squirreled away in the DNA. Yet the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its parts.