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The Elephant in the Science Lab

Stephen J. Iacoboni
Photo: Acid mine drainage, a home for archaea, by Jakec, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

In previous posts I have been seeking to describe the science of purpose. Now it is worth getting down to the basics of what science actually is and how it works. The goal is to tease out what has heretofore been elusive for conventional science. I am referring to the elephant in the room, or rather in the laboratory: purpose.

In this context it is necessary to distinguish between measuring grossly objective phenomena versus observing the effects of invisible forces and creating a theory as to what might account for them. Newton came up with a model for that ubiquitous invisible force called gravity. Einstein proved that Newton was not entirely correct and offered a more sophisticated model of why we are snuggled tightly to the ground. 

The point is that for much of science, where we cannot actually touch or see what we are describing, we create a model that allows us to think in macroscopic, concrete terms about what might be going on below the level of our senses.

Invisible Entities

Consider the models we create to describe the action of the invisible entities we refer to as molecules. The study of molecules and their interactions is called chemistry. And chemistry began with simple compounds such as water, hydrogen, oxygen, ammonia, etc. This was inorganic chemistry, arising in the 19th century. And for over a century it seemed that the models we created to describe the reactions between these entities was indeed verifiable in test tubes.

But something very strange has happened in the world of chemistry for the past 20 to 40 years. We now have the discipline of molecular biology, aka biochemistry, where we study the behavior of the molecules of life.These are well-known entities: DNA, RNA, proteins, lipids, etc. When these new disciplines arose in the second half of the 20th century, the models of the 19th century were still employed. After all, these were still just molecules. They must obey the basic laws of chemistry and physics. They must behave like Tinkertoy objects, mindlessly responsive to all the impinging forces of the organic milieu.

But Is This Really True? 

When we apply an electrical charge to H2O, we know what will happen. But when we read a sequence of DNA, the human mind and all of its computers are powerless to determine exactly what protein will be translated through the spliceosome and the ribosome. The answer is not deterministic at all, at least in ways that we understand. And that failure to understand is what brings us all the way back to the beginning of our analysis. By definition, when our observations do not comport with our predictions, it is not nature that is at fault. The fault lies with our predictions, and the fundamental source of the prediction is the model.

The greatest molecular biologist of all time was Carl Woese. He ended his career, after having discovered archaea, by proclaiming that the models of molecular biology must be completely reconsidered. He understood, unlike the naturalists, that molecules behave in a purposeful fashion in ways that the model of mindless Tinkertoys can never predict.

Surprising Terminology

Open any textbook on molecular biology and you will find terminology such as “chaperoning,” “translating,” “interpreting,” “fashioning,” “alternating,” “optimizing,” “stimulating,” “selecting,” “repressing,” etc. These words are applied to the action of biomolecules in the same way that you would apply them to any conscious creature. 

As Woese said, we must embrace the revolution in biology, a revolution quite similar to the one that Einstein and Schrodinger wrought in physics over a hundred years ago. A lot of what chemists figured out in past centuries was true, up to a point, but those days are in the past, and the complexity of life requires an entirely new analysis. The function of macromolecules within the cell is decisive, selective, and quite frankly, purposefully conscious.

Those who deny seeing the elephant in the laboratory should wonder what else there is in the room with them.