Genes: from Darwin to Dawkins
On 24th of November 1859, British publisher John Murray brought out the first copies of a remarkable book – one which was to change the very course of mankind. It was “On the Origin of Species” by the English explorer and naturalist Charles Darwin. The book literally created a quake across the scientific community and the general public was perplexed. The idea that species evolve over time through natural selection, and that ‘creationism’ is nothing more than a soothing fairy tale sent shivers all through the popular mainstream. One vital facet that Darwin emphasized upon in his exhaustive work was genetics. His theory that random mutations in the DNA (although that term was not yet invented) could offer favourable characters to a population, which eventually got selected under given circumstances and ultimately leading to speciation, established the study of genes as a tour de force of modern biology. Few years later, an Austrian clergyman by the name of Gregor Mendel published a set of experiments that he had designed and worked on while trying to understand the inheritance pattern of superfluous characters in pea plants. This became a milestone in the study of heredity as a systematic process that life has developed to propagate itself. 20th century brought its own surplus of discoveries and ideas that influenced human intellect forever. The structure of DNA was mapped with precision and now we have a pretty good idea of how the genome looks like and how it works inside the compartments of an invisible cell. In this 21st C., we have literally invaded the human genome and now have a complete database of sequences that design men and women. In fact, we ended up editing the genome of organisms ethically lesser privileged than us. It’s an era of magic indeed. However, one archaic question that still remains largely unanswered is the question of origin. How did all of this come about? When was it that those four chemicals (nucleotides) started behaving as the building blocks of life, arranging themselves in orders that could create organisms as complex as the one writing this article? Why genes after all?
British geneticist and writer Richard Dawkins has an interesting answer. His ‘Gene centric view’ of evolution puts genes first rather than a living, moving creature in the ladder of life. Somewhere in the primordial soup that occurred in our infant earth, these nucleotides were formed. DNA, or what seems more likely that RNA was invented through some unknown reaction taking place in that ‘master mix’ and then, miraculously enough, these chemicals learnt to replicate. What followed was a rough encapsulation of these chemicals into a nucleus, and ultimately a cell. That was the beginning of life as we know it. Evolution and selection followed which moulded this strange diversity that we see around us- creatures born as a result of that ages old strategy of genes to propagate themselves into life and consciousness. Doesn’t it seem depressing- that we are nothing more than biological puppets simply fulfilling the agenda of life’s perpetual progress? Nonetheless, for me it’s overwhelming that despite this pessimism, we humans have been able to march so far in our journey as a species, as sentient beings that have transcended the boundaries of our own habitat. But what seems far more profound is that we have been able to look within and decode our own life system. We turned out to be pretty good anarchists against this slavery of life. I think genetics offers us that symbol, that faith that we are not doomed yet, that we do have a stake to hold in this cycle of life and death. That’s the message I wish to share. We should look at this incredible science, or any science in that matter, as reminders of our inherent craving for an understanding of the world and our own place within it. DNA is not just about GMOs and stem cells, it’s an icon of human endeavour, of his indomitable spirit of enquiry and inquisition, and his rebellion against the monotony of life’s succession.
And as James Watson very rightly said,
If we won’t play God“, who will?”