Deepak Chopra does it again

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.

I would like to give Deepak Chopra a prescription. Read Molecular Biology of the Cell(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). The answers he’s looking for are all in there.


  1. #1 Mong H Tan, PhD
    October 7, 2006

    Hello, Pharyngula Readers, Everybody, Mind, and Spirit! :)

    This is a metaphysics of the New Agers, or gurus like Deepak Chopra–a physician turned metaphysician–and the likes!

    This is exactly what I’ve had commented elsewhere, Quantum mechanics: Who is the observer? (PhysOrgEU; September 14).

    Upon deeper analysis–of “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.“–Chopra must have had gotten his misinterpretation of Genetics from Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, thereby “selfish gene” can be enacted by Chopra’s interpretation of “behavior and thoughts!”

    What a Dawkinsian fashionable nonsense, begetting another Chopra-metaphysician nonsense–please see also the ID neocreationism nonsense as a result of The Selfish Gene here, Wells: “Darwinism is doomed” because we keep making progress (ScienceBlogsUSA; September 27)!

    Thank you all for your kind attention and cooperation in this matter–just a food for thought, from a self-introspective Darwinist evolutionist perspective. Happy reading, thinking, scrutinizing, and enlightening! :)

    Best wishes, Mong 10/7/6usct4:01p; author Gods, Genes, Conscience and Gods, Genes, Conscience: Global Dialogues Now; a cyberspace hermit-philosopher of Modern Mind, whose works are based on the current advances in interdisciplinary science and integrative psychology of Science and Religion worldwide; ethically, morally; metacognitively, and objectively.

  2. #2 Stan Chan
    October 8, 2006

    Those who think Deepak Chopra is ignorant are ignorant. Deepak Chopra knows all the basic concepts of biology that you would expect an MD to know. I think there are two ways to understand why he does what is does. First, if you give him the benefit of doubt, then he is saying this because he, just like many others, think that science reduces a person to a giant “chemical reaction” and many people have a very bad reaction to that concept – they really want to believe that they are something special. I completely understand this point of view and you can ignore this point at your own peril. The second way to understand what Mr. Chopra is doing is the more cynical approach. Note that he’s made millions doing this. That’s the motivation – who cares whether what he is saying is supported by facts or not. I think there is truth to both of these ways of thinking. The larger issue is that there are a lot of people who willing pay $20-$30 to buy Mr. Chopra’s books. What are these people getting in return that the great minds who are posting on this message board are not providing? Are we doing a really really bad job at teaching science to our kids? How come most kids graduate from high school and college without the basic tools which would allow them to distinguish between valid sceince and garbage? Beyond the crappy science teaching issue, I think there is a bigger issue: science does not satisfy a very basic human need which is usually what religon (and people like Chopra) target. I believe a recent book by Dawkins wrestles with this subject (it’s on my to-read list) but I’ll be surprised if he has really figured out a way to satisfy this human need without sacrificing scientific integrity. Bottom line: get used to living with the likes of Chopra. No use getting all worked up everytime they open their mouths.

  3. #3 Pattanjali Bdial
    January 25, 2008

    Many of the responders above failed to understand the purpose of Chopra’s writing. His focus is on self enquiry – thus asking questions. His answers rise above folklore as scientists are really centuries backward in explaining something today that they change tomorrow.

    What would be some answers to these questions?
    Is every human being metabolically alike? *(what’s your body type?
    How many readers are vegetarians? (how many are drug pushers?)

  4. #4 Arnosium Upinarum
    November 24, 2008

    Pattanjali Bdial #96 said, “Many of the responders above failed to understand the purpose of Chopra’s writing. His focus is on self enquiry – thus asking questions.”

    Well, Chopra’s focus on ANY inquiry (especially of the “self”) must be hopelessly blurry, because the questions he asks are among the lousiest I’ve ever seen.

    Not only that, he is so ignorant he is completely unaware that his questions are grossly erroneous.

    By contrast, here’s an example of a good question that might actually reveal something about the character of his particular “self”: Isn’t it possible that Chopra just likes to play “let’s pretend to be an intellectual touched by genius”, perhaps, because it is more lucrative to cultivate a charismatic aura of gifted intellect than it is not to?

    If so, at least he is that smart, I’ll give him that much. Ethical and honest? No way. More like “crafty”. As are accomplished charlatans and fakes everywhere.

  5. #5 Tom Boinski
    December 20, 2008

    Singularities? Dark Matter? Dark Energy? Worm Holes? String Theory? Multiple Universes? The Higgs (God) Particle? All “stuff” in the present universe begat from a source smaller than a golf ball?

    The most begrudging “scientific mind” has to conclude some of these “mysteries” may necessitate a different approach and direction to understanding. Even one scientific mind has stated: “If you think you understand ‘Quantum Mechanics’ you don’t understand Quantum Mechanics.”

    My point being, there are some “mysterious” things happening out there (wherever there is!) I cannot, will not, censure what Deepak Chopra has postulated. Perhaps he is not totally knowledgable and/or accurate, but conceptially and respectfully give him some room.

  6. #6 Nerd of Redhead
    December 20, 2008

    Chopra can say anything he wants as long he makes sure it is his personal opinion or fiction. If he tries to present anything as scientific, scientists will have something to say about his inane ramblings. After all, science must defend its good name against frauds, quacks, and wooshysters. If Chopra doesn’t like being in that company, he can shut up.

  7. #7 Nick Gotts
    December 20, 2008

    The most begrudging “scientific mind” has to conclude some of these “mysteries” may necessitate a different approach and direction to understanding. Tom Boinski

    Crap. Abandoning rational enquiry for woo as Chopra does is irresponsible self-indulgence at best, downright fraud at worst.

  8. #8 Ralph Colucci
    March 7, 2009

    I knew you guys in school, in Chemistry class, Physics class, at university and in the nuclear industry. I was one of you guys so I know exactly how you most probably feel: absolutely terrified of death, desperately trying to cling to that elusive elation attached to that ego driven desperate attempt to “prove” that you are right that begins fading rapidly immediately upon recognition of it and quickly turns into more suffering, the pervasive fear that “everyone” (whoever they are) will one day find out that you do not know far more than you do know and perhaps worst of all listening to and taking seriously the non-stop babbling of your ego/mind all day long every day to the point where you wonder if you are going mad or are already there.

    Using words such as tends, assists, can, eventually and so on hardly describe a definitive process for DNA replication. I am fairly certain that I could be just as argumentative as yourself with regards to each of your points if it was important. My point is that nothing Chopra says is wrong because he doesn’t really say anything except that all of the answers are within, beyond the grasp of the ego/mind, and here are some time-tested ways to quiet that mind. And by the way, since everything is pretty much the same, energy that is either on or off, the same laws apply hence we have physics & meta-physics.

    Chopra likely does not have all of the answers nor would he be able to express them if he did (The way that can be spoken is not the way?) I have no idea what he does with all that money. I could not know if he is a good or bad person (what is good? what is bad?) I have come to know after a long and torturous journey that my ego/mind, the thing that won all those arguments, aced all those tests, destroyed all those mere mortals and spent all that money doesn’t actually know anything. My question to you is, why are you so afraid of God?

  9. #9 Nerd of Redhead, OM
    March 7, 2009

    Ralph, we aren’t afraid of imaginary deities. They don’t exist. Just like pixies, elves, boogie men, tooth fairies, santa claus, etc. Show us physical evidence for god that will pass muster with scientists, magicians, and professional debunkers that it is of divine, not natural, origin, and that will change. Until then, no evidence equals no gods.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.