Dr James Le Fanu ponders genes, genius and God
THE SECRET FOR scientists seeking fame and fortune is paradoxically to mention God. Stephen Hawking's A Brief Histon, of Time became a best-seller mainly because of its last sentence: "If we find the answer to that, it will be the ultimate triumph of human reason for then we would know the mind of God."
God here may only be a metaphor for whatever must ultimately lie behind the scale and majesty of creation, but evoking his name touches on a profound truth lost over a century ago, and which is only slowly being rediscovered.
Scientists until the late 19th century approached their task with an appropriate sense of humility. Clearly the miracle of creation was beyond human understanding, but it was possible by diligent application of scientific methods to throw the odd shaft of illumination onto its workings. Then hubris entered into the souls of scientists; they started to believe that all would ultimately be explicable and that science would triumph over and displace the need for religious belief.
But the experience of the last 40 years has not vindicated this rationalistic optimism. The more we know, the more wondrous it seems, and God, by necessity, even only as a metaphor, re-enters scientific discourse.
Scientific hubris remains rampant, however, amongst the molecular biologists currently engaged in the Human Genome Project identifying the 90,000 or so human genes and where they sit on the chromosome.
The amount of genetic information coding for every aspect of our lives which is packed into each cell is mindboggling. When fully spelt out, it will run to 46 volumes, each 2,000 pages long. Once achieved, the scientists claim, you will have the blueprint of heredity, a dictionary to tell us the functions of each gene.
But that is not how things will turn out. Single genes responsible for specific attributes or diseases will turn out to be very exceptional and their coding will any how vary considerably from one person to the next. The real complexity of life will lie in the interconnection between the genes.
"The gap in knowledge between the working of our genes and their expression in the behavioural attributes of any individual is not merely unbridged, but is in principle unbridgeable," the pathologist Philip Gell of Cambridge University noted several years ago. This is a salutary reminder that the gaps in scientific understanding are not necessarily due to a lack of knowledge but are a necessary fact of the central awe-inspiring mystery of life itself. We no longer need to invoke God to explain what we do not know but rather to make sense of what we do.