It’s all in the DNA

With all the talk about ‘passing on your genes’, ‘the blueprint of life’, and even ‘selfish genes’, let’s revisit the point, what is DNA exactly? If you’re not a scientist, you may not be too excited when I tell you that ‘DNA’ stands for for ‘deoxyribonucleic acid’. Fair enough.

But you can tell one thing from the name I bet…DNA is made of chemicals. Right, so what’s a gene? A gene is a sequence of DNA that acts as a template, and which can be ‘read’ by machinery in the cell to make a certain protein. And then these proteins might interact with other molecules in certain pathways, and sometimes they act as ‘enzymes’, which facilitate chemical reactions.

That’s the complicated bit done! But do you see my point? All these things; genes, proteins etc. are all made of a combination of chemicals.

So then the obvious question; can chemicals be selfish? Is there a ‘fat gene’ and an ‘angry gene’? Because we all think we’ve got the ‘smart gene’, right?

Behind chemicals, from where comes intention/motive/desire? 

This might seem like a silly question, and if you’re not a science geek, you might have assumed it’s been answered…you’d be very wrong. It is referred to as ‘the hard problem of consciousness‘. What is it?

One of the perks of my job right now is that I get to strike up conversations with folk in the street. Random, but fun. Today, I met a lovely neurobiologist (NB) and I’d like to share with you our conversation (we did say hello first, and not straight into the deep stuff!):

Me: The currency of a banker is money, the currency of a farmer is potatoes, and the currency of the body is chemicals and electrical signals…do chemicals have feelings or desires/intentions?

NB: Of course not

Me: How do you know they don’t?

NB: We can’t test it, but it’s unlikely

Me: So let’s agree that the hypothesis is that chemicals don’t have conscious awareness, even on a primitive level. But we’re made of chemicals in different patterns and permutations, so how do we have conscious awareness, which is the only thing that makes us realise we’re alive, rather than being robots?

NB: The epicentre of neurological activity is in the brain, where synapses converge and complicated interactions allow consciousness to arise. Consciousness arose in evolution because we need to feel part of a pack, and therefore feelings are important.

Me: The brain is obviously a very important instrument, but as it gathers information digitally (individual neurons fire off in a 0 or 1 binary fashion), just like a computer, who is it presenting the data to? How is it converted from chemicals and electrical signals into a feeling, which we qualitatively experience as reality (qualia)?

NB: Nobody knows what consciousness is, because perhaps it is an illusion that the brain has created.

Don’t get me wrong, I love science, but what frustrates me is that I have also fallen pray to this kind of behaviour in the past; rather than being open and honest, like science should be, using technical language to trick people into believing that the answer is understood…and in the case of the most important phenomenon in our existence – conscious awareness – it certainly has not been understood by the modern scientific world.

Why not? Well, actually, science is a branch of philosophy, but where it goes drastically wrong is when it starts to merge into philosophy. Because science is a process of open enquiry by hypothesis, method, results and evaluation. It is then up to philosophy to incorporate the results into a workable model.

I hope you see (if you didn’t before) the issue with giving genes some kind of intention…how can they have?

This then begs the question…where do feelings, intentions, instinct, awareness, love etc. come from? Now we’re thinking outside the box! I won’t spoil the surprise, but I happen to take a lot of inspiration from the ancient science of understating consciousness, originating 5,000+ years ago. Those guys were serious philosophers, and we could learn a thing or two from those ancient giants.

“Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery in Nature. And it is because in the last analysis we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve.” —Max Planck



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