September 7, 2012

Junk gods

Here is a press release about the new findings on what noncoding DNA does. Only a couple percent of our DNA codes for proteins, which are the building blocks of our micro-biological machinery. The other 90-some percent was thought to be mere "junk DNA" that had little importance for biological functioning. At least that was the view of the vast majority of lay readers and popular science writers who discussed the topic before (specialist researchers were probably more careful).

Now it turns out that most of that junk actually does something functional, though still largely unknown in the specifics:

In addition to showing that up to three-quarters of our DNA may be transcribed into RNA, the data strongly suggests, according to Gingeras, that a large percent of non-protein-coding RNAs are localized within cells in a manner consistent with their having functional roles.

The current outstanding question concerns the nature and range of those functions. It is thought that these "non-coding" RNA transcripts act something like components of a giant, complex switchboard, controlling a network of many events in the cell by regulating the processes of replication, transcription and translation -- that is, the copying of DNA and the making of proteins based on information carried by messenger RNAs.

Allow me to get a little New Age-y and suggest that the most successful religions may have been on to something in their beliefs about how life is created and maintained. They have an elite group of gods (perhaps in the form of a holy trinity) whose performances are the clearest. They're like a 2% of spiritual beings that code for spiritual building blocks.

Something in the human mind doesn't find it plausible that so few beings would have such awesome power on their own, so religions that are more on the monotheistic side often have all sorts of intermediary spiritual beings to help orchestrate the work of the Big Guys upstairs -- a "switchboard" of saints, angels, lesser gods, legendary figures, etc. That's in practice, regardless of whether or not it fits with orthodox elite doctrine.

They also have devils, demons, imps, and so on to assist the life-destroying work of the Big Guys underground. Sure enough, researchers are going after all this noncoding DNA for its role in disease. Maybe a devilish coding gene can only cause disease with the orchestrating help of legions of demons throughout the "junk" DNA.

If there's some kind of bridge or analogy between the natural and supernatural -- not an identity, of course -- then perhaps religions that are farther in the strictly monotheistic direction have gotten too far out of touch with reality. Puritanical strains tend to scrub out the wide variety of lesser or intermediary spiritual beings, portraying things more as God vs. The Devil alone. Revival strains tend to paint those smaller guys back into the picture, whether it's the Counter-Reformation's emphasis on saints, or the Pentecostals' putting the Holy Spirit closer to center-stage, to take two familiar examples. At least judging by similarity to the natural world, the revivalists may have been on to something.

I'm pretty ignorant of biology at such a micro scale, but I never bought into the "junk DNA" idea -- not because I had a compelling alternative to promote, but because by that point I'd had enough experience with the personality types who pushed the "junk" idea, enough to know they had to be full of it. Kind of like the idea that "humans only use 1% of their brains."

There's a basic but ultimately not too important logical objection -- then why has natural selection maintained all that waste? Some for insurance, sure, but that much?

The central objection I have to those kinds of theories is that they're full of arrogance and betray an utter lack of curiosity and wonder. Since those types of people never understand the real world, or at least the living world, their theory must be as airheaded as it sounds. "We don't understand it" becomes "There's nothing there to understand." (Or if you prefer, "Highly illogical.")

This attitude is most prevalent among glibertarians, but they're just the right tail of our entire population, which is sadly moving steadily in their direction. The popularity of the phrase and the activity of "debunking" shows how low we keep sinking.

You might have expected these types to only make religion the target of their debunking, but for the profane-minded, nothing is sacred. Even DNA -- the most materialist cause you could point to in the creation of life -- was not safe from their glib dismissal. "Mostly filled with junk, snicker snicker."

Now that their view has been overturned, they just act a little surprised and embarrassed for having been factually incorrect -- not humbled, ashamed, or penitent for coasting through conversations on the topic with such arrogance. They will not develop a new sense of awe before the wonders of nature, but simply update their list of factoids to reflect the most recent reports, lest they be one-upped by some other mouth-breathing nerd on the internet.

I can't emphasize strongly enough how this kind of glibertarian atheist type has not simply replaced a sense of wonder and reverence of a religious nature with the same feelings derived from more material sources. The greatest science writers have that, like Richard Dawkins, but most do not, and their typical reader does not have a Romantic bone in their body. Popular science books for them are not a portal to an encounter with the Sublime, but an armory to be pillaged for their never-ending snark wars.


  1. I agree with you on your past intuition regarding "junk" dna. I'm far less read, but that was my intuition as well.

    I'll read the news tonight when my little ones are in bed to better take it in.

    The materialism of which you speak has been on my mind for the last couple of days since God was denied and then got booed at the Democratic National Convention and I haven't found anyone who has the same question I have: Have they brought a curse from the Almighty upon themselves?

    Much commentary about how the voters will react, but what about God Himself?

    I haven't talked to any people, just what I've gleaned from twitter and the internet, radio, too.

    I can already see the eyes rolling and hear the response: "They're pro-abortion, they've done all these bad ACTIONS which are more important than words and rituals, aren't they kind of looked down upon by Him already without having to bring up 'curses'??"

    I myself believe also in a Hell on earth where the fallout from sin is mainly "logical consequences" (as well as in one hereafter) so I have some sympathy for the more materialist position myself.

    The closest anyone has come to my musings was when I saw a tweet by someone saying that God gets the last laugh in response to Cardinal Dolan leading the entire convention into a prayer to protect the unborn after Obama's speech.
    I just don't know about that.

  2. I guess that the "junk DNAs" proponents also want to believe that nature is imperfect, and can be improved on by humans. Sort of like, "look how stupid evolution was to have all this useless junk lying around". Same with "using 1% of our brain".

  3. I don't recall any discussion of "junk dna" advertise itself as "debunking". It sounds to me like you're conflating two totally different things.

    Dahlia, if agnostic operated on the assumption of the existence of God, he'd need to choose a new name.

    Anonymous, if you're interested in proposed improvements in faulty DNA, check out Steve Hsu. He thinks that merely by replacing rare mutations (most of which are harmful) with the "wild type" allele, a polygenic trait like height can be boosted up to 30 standard deviations. IQ is a similar story.

  4. No, they're two related things -- glib dismissal and debunking both stem from a lack of finding anything sacred, even things that should inspire wonder.

    I chose the name "agnostic" originally in a GNXP discussion about drug treatments for psychopathology, or something, to mean I didn't have a settled view one way or the other.

    It doesn't mean I'm a religious agnostic. I'm more of the "some higher / unseen power / forces" persuasion.

  5. ...and I don't give much importance to the doxia side of religion anyway. It's ultimately about praxis, ritual, participation, etc., not cheaply held beliefs.

  6. It would be nice to recover the previous meaning of "agnostic", but nowadays and (I expect) from here on people are going to assume its about religion.

    If someone asked me to describe "glib dismissal", I would say it involved shrugging off without much thought or effort. But "debunking" typically involves more than that. It's actually addressing a claim (in an effort to show it is false) rather than merely dismissing. Popular Mechanics actually went into a lot of detail with conspiracy theories about 9/11, they didn't just say "You people are crazy conspiracy theorists". James Randi has offered large amounts of money to people to prove the existence of psi powers, and done a significant amount of investigative work exposing frauds. When something is treated as sacred, per Tetlock, it invokes taboos which prohibit even thinking certain things. Sacredness, in my view, is what invites dismissal of certain thoughts.

  7. Maybe you don't know what "glib" means, then. The person assumes a superiority over what they're dismissing, without having much to back up that attitude. It's like "haughty," but in a more childish and airheaded way.

    Sacredness pulls someone's mind in the other direction. Whatever they rule out of bounds is treated more seriously, and they aren't acting superior to it.

    "Debunking" is like glibness, in practice, because most of the debunkers don't know anything about what they're talking about. 99% of the time it's just some autistic airhead dressing up his distaste for something by trying to find logical flaws in something he doesn't understand.

  8. It seems like my previous comment hasn't been approved yet. I had never heard the word "glib" used to mean haughty or arrogant, but I checked it in the dictionary and sure enough it means flippant, shallow, failing to give a question its intellectual due.

    James Randi is the most prominent "debunker" in my mind, and he has no reason to re-evaluate himself in response to DNA findings because he didn't make any claim which has been falsified.

  9. Blogger sent it to the spam filter. And dismissing something in a flippant and shallow way means you're arrogant, assuming without thinking about it that you're so above the thing dismissed. Else you wouldn't treat it in such a flippant way. Read the dictionary some more.

    And sacred-minded people generally don't dismiss things in a flippant, shallow way, certainly not compared to the more autistic-materialistic minded people.


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