Deepak Chopra really is an embarrassment. I’ve tussled with his weird arguments before, and now he’s flounced onto the Huffington Post with another article (prompted by an article on human genetics in Time, but bearing almost no relationship to it) in which he reveals his profound ignorance of biology, in something titled The Trouble With Genes. Chopra is a doctor, supposedly, but every time I read something by him that touches on biology, he sounds as ignorant as your average creationist. He also writes incredibly poorly, bumbling his way forward with a succession of unlikely and indefensible claims. This latest article is one in which I think he’s trying to criticize the very idea of genes, but it’s more like he’s criticizing his own lack of knowledge.
It’s amazing to realize that nobody really knows what a gene is or how it works, even though the word ‘gene’ has become the miracle of the hour.
Nobody? Or Deepak Chopra?
There are complexities in defining the details of what a gene is, and there are all kinds of fascinating exceptions and quirks; we find differences of opinion between the operational definitions of a classical geneticist and the molecular and computational approaches of a bioinformaticist, for instance. There are real papers in the literature that wrestle with what we mean by the concept of the gene, and if this were such a work, it might have been the start of an interesting discussion. As we’ll quickly see, it is not such a work.
Almost every bit of important research in biology and medicine over the past decade has centered on genetics. After the successful mapping of the human genome, we were told that an enormous range of disease will prove curable through gene therapy.
OK, this is another worthwhile point—there has been a lot of hype, and the ease of translating basic research into applied therapies has been oversold. Again, this is material that could make for an interesting paper.
Instead, though, what we get is the maunderings of a third-rate mind with no understanding of even decades-old ideas. Instead of revealing any working knowledge of biological thought, Chopra gives us a list of questions about the gene that he is wondering about, and also claiming that no one else understands, and babbling foolishly. Some of these would be good questions coming from a student who seriously wanted to learn, but coming from an M.D. who routinely pontificates on how your body works, and stated with such a stunning certainty that because he doesn’t know, no one else does either, this is an infuriating list. Can we get Chopra’s license to practice medicine revoked, if he has one?
No one knows how genes make inanimate chemicals like hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen come to life.
This is a very peculiar complaint. Hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen don’t “come to life”. The fundamental activities going on in the cell are chemistry. There isn’t anything magical going on.
The ability of DNA to replicate has never been explained.
How strange. You can find a short summary of the biochemistry of replication on Wikipedia. Arthur Kornberg, father of the recent winner of the Nobel in chemistry, won the Nobel himself in 1959 for the discovery of DNA polymerase (that’s right, 1959. Where’s Chopra been?) This has been the stuff of undergraduate cell biology courses for at least 30 years.
We don’t know how genes time their actions years or decades in advance.
This doesn’t make sense. We know lots of factors that regulate gene expression on various time scales, from seconds to months. We understand much of the process of maturation that leads to, for instance, new patterns of gene expression in humans at puberty. I’d suggest that Chopra look up the term epigenesis sometime, if I weren’t certain he wouldn’t understand it.
Having mapped the sequence of genes, we don’t know what the sequence means, only that it exists.
Ah, well. This is finally a statement where he’s close to saying something valid. He’s wrong that we only know that the sequence exists; we do know quite a bit about some parts of the genome, and what those parts do. There is a lot more to learn, though.
Having found out that mice share 90% of human genes and gorillas over 99%, we can’t explain how the tremendous differences between species should come down to such a tiny fraction of the genetic code.
Yes, we can. A great many genes carry out functions that are the same in people and mice and chimpanzees: we all carry out the same processes of basic metabolism, for instance, we all have an enzyme called pyruvate carboxylase, which adds a carbon to a 3-carbon molecule to form the 4-carbon oxaloacetate. Why should we expect this to be different between a human and a mouse, or between a human and a carrot? Our biochemistry is mostly the same, and we’ll all have this similar set of genes for the essential enzymes. Then look at our overall form: we’ve all got lungs and livers and kidneys and teeth. The genetic substrates that will build these organs will use the same genes in all of us. Finally, what makes people distinct from mice isn’t entirely the nucleotide sequence of our genes, but how those genes are switched off and on—a process modified by very small changes to the genome.
Similarity to a high degree is what we should expect.
We can’t explain why people with the same genes (identical twins) turn out to be different in so many ways as they grow up and age.
Let’s remember that word “epigenesis” again. Development is a process in which genes interact with each other and the environment; everyone, even identical twins, experience slightly different environments. As a trivial example, whisper a secret into one twin’s ear, and not the other’s. Voila, the two people have two different circumstances despite having nearly identical genes!
We don’t know why over 90% of genes are inactive at any given time.
Where did this 90% number come from, I wonder? It doesn’t sound right.
No matter, we do know. This is what molecular genetics/developmental genetics is all about: differential gene expression. Different interactions during development set up different patterns of gene expression in different tissues. We wouldn’t expect a pancreatic cell to have all of the same genes active as a skin cell, but we know that in their nuclei pancreatic and skin cells do have the same set of genes present.
We don’t know why evolution developed genes that cause cancer, and why such genes weren’t weeded out after they appeared.
Is this a rather muddled interpretation of oncogenes? There are genes that are known to be involved in cancer, called oncogenes. They are mutated or otherwise modified forms of genes called proto-oncogenes. For example, some of these genes are important in causing cell death; if some kind of somatic mutation causes a cell to proliferate uncontrollably, these genes respond to the abnormal activity by triggering destruction of the cell. These genes evolved to suppress cancers (they obviously have a selective advantage, because people with them live longer—they don’t keel over at an early age, riddled with tumors).
Proto-oncogenes are genes that prevent cancer. They are called cancer genes because patients with damage to these genes in certain cells get cancers.
Isn’t it a little embarrassing for an M.D. like Chopra to not know this?
We don’t know if genes cause or prevent aging. In the same vein, we don’t know if they cause or prevent cellular death, since there is evidence that they do both.
We know that some genes are involved in aging. We know that the environment is also important in aging. Of course there are genes involved in both causing and preventing cell death—this is a process in a kind of dynamic tension, with cells balanced between healthy growth and death.
Chopra is just babbling to himself here, trying to sound profound, I think.
We haven’t unraveled the significance of the space on the DNA strand, even though the blank spots in our genetic code may be just as important, if not more, than the genetic material itself.
Uh, the spaces between genes are part of the genetic material. In general, this looks like incomprehension of basic ideas in genetic structure. There are various classes of repetitive DNA, there are pseudogenes, there are random stretches of nucleotides, there are specific regulatory regions, there are coding regions of DNA (there are, however, no blank spots). While there are still mysteries in there, it’s not as if we don’t know anything…and in particular, there is no evidence that junk DNA (which is what I presume he means by “blank spots”) is more important than the rest. That claim sounds rather goofy, actually.
Genes respond to the outside world as well as to behavior and thoughts, but we don’t know how or why except in the most general terms.
Thoughts? We don’t think genes on or off, unless he’s talking about such processes as learning and memory, where mental activity leads to patterns in gene expression, and a couple of guys, including Eric Kandel, won Nobels for figuring out mechanisms of signal transduction in the nervous system. We also know in great detail how many developmental genes regulate their activity.