Saturday, October 6, 2018

And yet it moves....our GWAScopes and Galileo's lesson on reality

In 1633, Galileo Galilei was forced to recant before the Pope his ideas about the movement of the Earth, or else to face the most awful penalty.  As I understand the story, he did recant....but after leaving the Cathedral, he stomped his foot on the ground, and declared "And yet it moves!"  For various reasons, usually reflecting their own selfish vested interests, the powers that be in human society frequently stifle unwelcome truths, truths that would threaten their privileged well-being.  It was nothing new in Galileo's time--and it's still prevalent today.

Galileo: see Wikipedia "And yet it moves"
All human endeavors are in some ways captives of current modes of thinking--world-views, beliefs,  power and economic structures, levels of knowledge, and explanatory frameworks.  Religions and social systems often, or perhaps typically, constrain thinking. They provide comforting answers and explanations, and people feel threatened by those not adhering, not like us in their views.  The rejection of heresy applies far beyond formal religion.  Dissenters or non-believers are part of 'them' rather than 'us', a potential threat, and it is thus common if not natural to distrust, exclude, or even persecute them.

At the same time, the world is as the world really is, especially when it comes to the physical Nature.  And that is the subject of science and scientific knowledge.  We are always limited by current knowledge, of course, and history has shown how deeply that can depend on technology, as Galileo's experience with the telescope exemplifies.

When you look through a telescope . . . . 
In Galileo's time, it was generally thought or perhaps believed is a better word, that the cosmos was God's creation as known by biblical authority.  It was created in the proverbial Genesis way, and the earth--with we humans on it--was the special center of that creation.  The crystal spheres bearing the stars and planets, circled around and ennobled us with their divine light.  In the west, at least, this was not just the view, it was what had (with few exceptions) seemed right since the ancients.

But knowledge is often, if not perhaps always, limited by our senses, and they in turn are limited by our sensory technology.  Here, the classical example is the invention of the telescope, and eventually, what that cranky thinker Galileo saw through it.  Before his time, we had we had our naked eyes to see the sun move, and the stars seemed quite plausibly to be crystal spheres bearing twinkles of light, rotating around us.

If you don't know the story, Wikipedia or many other sources can be consulted. But it was dramatic!  Galileo's experience taught science a revolutionary lesson about reality vs myth and, very directly, about the importance of technology in our understanding of the world we live in.

The lesson from Galileo was that when you look through a telescope you are supposed to change your mind about what is out there in Nature.  The telescope lets you see what's really there--even if it's not what you wanted to see, or thought you'd see, or would be most convenient for you to see.

Galileo's telescope (imagined).  source:
From Mendel's eyes to ours
Ever since antiquity, plant and animal breeders empirically knew about inheritance, that is, about the physical similarities between parents and offspring.  Choose parents with the most desirable traits, and their offspring will have those traits, at least, so to speak, on average.  But how does that work?

Mendel heard lectures in Vienna that gave him some notion of the particulate nature of matter.  When, in trying to improve agricultural yields, he noticed discrete differences, he decided do test their nature in pea plants which he knew about and were manageable subjects of experiments to understand the Molecular Laws of Life (my phrase, not his).

Analogies are never perfect, but we might say that Mendel's picking discrete, manageable traits was like pre-Newtonians looking at stars but not at what controlled their motion.  Mendel got an idea of how parents and offspring could resemble each other in distinct traits.   In a similar way that a telescope was the instrument that allowed Galileo to see the cosmos better, and do more observing than guessing, geneticists got their Galilean equivalent, in genomewide mapping (GWAS), which allowed us to do less guessing about inheritance and to see it better.  We got our GWAScope!

But what have we done with our new toy?   We have been mesmerized by gene-gazing.  Like Galileo's contemporaries who, finally accepting that what he saw really was there and not just an artifact of the new instrument, gazed through their telescopes and listed off this and that finding, we are on a grand scale just enumerating, enumerating, and enumerating.  We even boast about it.  We build our careers on it.

That me-too effort is not surprising nor unprecedented.  But it is also become what Kuhn called 'normal science'.  It is butting our heads upon a wall.  It is doing more and more of the same, without realizing that what we see is what's there, but we're not explaining it.  From early in the 20th century we had quantitative genetics theory--the theory that agricultural breeders have used in formal ways for that century, making traditional breeding that had been around since the discovery of agriculture, more formalized and empirically rigorous.  But we didn't have the direct genetic 'proof' that the theory was correct.  Now we do, and we have it in spades.

We are spinning wheels and spending wealth on simple gene-gazing.  It's time, it's high time, for some new insight to take us beyond what our GWAScopes can see, digesting and understanding what our gene-gazing has clearly shown.

Unfortunately, at present we have an 'omics Establishment that is as entrenched, for reasons we've often discussed here on MT, as the Church was for explanations of Truth in Galileo's time.  It is now time for us to go beyond gene-gazing.  GWAScopes have given us the insight--but who will have the insight to lead the way?

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