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Bio 103, Week 10, Genes and Humanity; "Energy" and the Link Between Improbability and Probability

Paul Grobstein's picture

Glad you're here, to share explorations of life. If you're registered in Biology 103, remember to log in before posting here. Others are welcome to contribute without logging in. Such comments though will be checked to avoid spam postings and so be delayed in appearing.

In any case, remember that this isn't a place for polished writing or final words. Its a place for thoughts in progress: questions, ideas you had in class (or afterwords), things you've heard or read or seen that you think others might find interesting. Think of it as a public conversation, a place to put things from your own mind that others might find useful and to find things from others (in our class and elsewhere) that you might find useful. And a place we can always go back to to see what we were thinking before and how our conversations have affected that. Looking forward to seeing where we go, and hoping you are too.

You're free to write about anything that came into your mind this week. But if you need something to get you started, what about "In DNA Era, New Worries About Prejudice" and associated class discussion?  And/or the link between things becoming more probable ("falling apart") and other things becoming more improbable (life as "improbable assembly")? 
kgould's picture

article from Scientific American

Here is the article from Scientific American: .

It dicussed what scientists generally qualify as "characteristics of life;" it's what we went over at the beginning of the year.

This article discusses scientists' search for "alien life" that arose seperately from what we commonly accept as life here on Earth. Apparently there has been a long-standing theory that life arose more than once on Earth, perhaps creating a completely different form of life from what exists today. (This might be the key to finding life on planets other than our own). Scientists are now looking in regions where conventional life would not be able to survive, areas where even extremophiles find the conditions a little uncomfortable. The hunt is on for microbes existing with right-handed amino acids and left-handed DNA, exotic amino acids that exist in no present life forms, microbes that use arsenic instead of phophorus, or silicon-based rather than carbon-based microscopic life. Finding any one of these proposed microbes would radically change view of evolution and life as according to science.

 It's interesting. And relevant to our conversation about cells, (in 1988, Olavi Kajander at the University of Kuopio in Finland observed ultrasmall particles inside of mammalian cells, as small as 50 nanometers, and proposed that they were living organisms that lived in urine and created kidney stones).

I'm not sure how much credibility his proposal has, but it creates an interesting hypothesis for our view of life.



MarieSager's picture

And now Im reading through

And now Im reading through the posts and my questions are being answered! sorry to be repetitive!
Paul Grobstein's picture

genes and behavior, repetitively?

No problem. Its an important point, no matter how often it needs to be rediscovered. See Genes, Brains, and Behavior and The Brain as a Learner/Inquirer/Creator.
MarieSager's picture

During dinner this weekend,

During dinner this weekend, I brought up genes and the supposed nature vs nurture controversey. I told my family, based on what we said in class, that genes dont determine anything, but that they do make people more inclined to act or become a certain way. Ok... so in other words, so just because a person has a certain set of genes does not necessarily mean a person will be a certain way because nature and nurture both play a role. But then I was thinking about homosexualiy (or really any trait). Is there a gene for homosexaulity? I guess what Im really asking is are there genes for behaviors? And do these genes determine behaviors? Based on what we discussed, I dont think they do, but Im just a little confused.

Jen's picture

Wednesday's discussion has

Wednesday's discussion has lead me to ponder the question, "What is a woman?" The word woman connotes both biological (sex) and societal (gender) identity. Which factors should be taken into account when accepting students into Bryn Mawr? Which factors, if allowed in students accepted into Bryn Mawr, would distort Bryn Mawr's vision as a women's college? (Where the vision is, to educate, embolden and empower women).
Paul Grobstein's picture

From black and white to male and female ...

Interesting conversation on Wednesday, following up on this discussion of race and genes, and "sex is actually biological while gender is a societal construct". If by "biological" one actually means "genetic", then perhaps race is BOTH genetic AND socially constructed, ie the two are not oppositional but instead there are genetic differences among individuals which in turn are the grist from which a variety of different social/cultural stories can be created?

And maybe the same holds for sex/gender? The notion of two sexes, for example, is not a "biological" story (there are more than two possible relevant genetic forms, and neither "determines" sex in terms of anatomy or behavior or personal sense of identity); its a cultural one (See Does Biology Have Anything to Contribute to Thinking About Sex and Gender?). So maybe both sex and gender (do we really need two different terms?) are also BOTH "biological" AND socially constructed, with genes (and hormones and ...) being the grist from which a variety of different social/cultural stories can be created?

All of this, in turn, raises some interesting questions about not only broad social/cultural stories but more local ones as well. What exactly do we mean by a "woman's college"?

Rachel Tashjian's picture

Woman's v. women's

I might argue for the use of "woman's college" instead of "women's college." To me, the plural connotes that we're all in agreement about what traits make up our college (not just gender). I know many students think we have a very tight-knit community, but in comparison to other colleges (and boarding school, which I attended), many people at Bryn Mawr seem to like to do their own thing. As a result, I would say "woman's college" is more appropriate, because it seems that one of Bryn Mawr's goals is to help us to carve our own paths while in college and afterwards, rather than banning together to single-handedly tear down a patriarchy. The experience at Bryn Mawr is what each woman makes of it.
Anne Dalke's picture

the meanings of sex and gender

What exactly do we mean by a "woman's college"?
A question also under discussion in another class,
up the hill on the same campus; see Bryn Mawr Boys.
ekoike's picture

New Article on Stem Cell Research

It's a little off topic, but I thought I would share this:

It's an article that just came out about the recent breakthrough on stem cell research that states that stem cells can be generated without the use of embryos... it raises an interesting ethical issue and has to do with our current theme of genes and the moral issues raised with new breakthroughs like stem cell research and designer babies.,8599,1685965,00.html

Have a great Thanksgiving guys...

Shanika's picture

Class discussion on friday!

The class discussion was very interesting on friday. Race? Ethnicity? Culture? There is not just "one meaning" of of these three terms. In fact their meanings are some what correlated with each other on a social level. Society connects all of the three terms to eachother, so when asked to define the three one find a relationship of the three in all of thier defintions.

As I mentioned in the class discussion, when the word "race" is used or brought uip in a converstaion I think of the terms 'Black' and "White". I think of it as "black' and "White" because what I've been taught or exposed to in "African American Culture', in AMERICA. Society has provided a clear difference of the two races; growing up reading texts that aklways considered race to be "Black vs. White"....

just some thoughts!

Catrina Mueller's picture

I think it is quite

I think it is quite interesting that people now have a basis to say "you are not equal to me" based on genes. Different genes don't make people better or worse, just different. Being different is what lets organisims evolve.
andrelle's picture

I am glad that we got a

I am glad that we got a chance to talk about that article in the New York Times.  I feel that if we didn't discuss the article at lenght like we did, I propably woud have dismissed a lot of the assumptions made about race in the article.  And I feel that a lot of other people read the article and believed some of the notions made in the article.  This has taught to not always rely on others for our information because it is not always the whoke truth.  We, as individuals have to take it upon us to educate ourselves, and to read actively.  I have basically learnd that "race" is a ridiculous word that should not exist, and its even worse that people are trying to have ways scientifically to reinforce this race concept. 
Jen's picture

I found Friday's discussion

I found Friday's discussion to be particularly stimulating, though it left me with a lot of questions: does race really exist? Does defining race really matter? How significant are the genetic differences between race, and what percentage of the population of a race (assuming you could define a set of people as belonging to a certain race) actually exhibit those qualities?

To me, differences between races are born out of our environments; if someone in a poor, urban city environment is less intelligent than someone from a rich neighborhood, it's more likely to be an issue of nurture than nature. We learn from our parents how to learn. Of course I can't back myself up with a specific article, but I do remember my father telling me that there is a direct correlation between the amount of schooling/how well a parent peformed in school and that parent's child's intelligence level.
asavannah's picture

We are more closely related than we think

Friday's discussion on race was very interesting to me. I have always been confused on what the difference between race, ethnicity, and nationality was. I have come to the realization that race may not even exist at all. I recently read an article on genetic testing done on Penn State University students who took part in a race relations project. When the student's results came back many if not all of them found that they were made up of variety of ancestry that they were not aware of. The reactions of the students were different because some were very excited to learn about their differences while others were devastated. I guess this goes to show us that we are much more closely related than we think.  
OrganizedKhaos's picture

Our discussion in class on

Our discussion in class on Friday was very interesting. Not only did it clear up the "biological" side of race interpretation but it made it clear that the definitions for race, ethnicity, nationality, and many other ways of classification were unclear. What was the most interesting thing was when discussing the article published in the New York Times. Why it was published without any evidence and the fact that a logger was cited seemed to leave me uninterested in the rest of the article.

Another interesting point was made by Wil when he mentioned that a lot of people who claim to know "who they are" often times are wrong in identifying where their roots lie. My parents are from the Caribbean and I would consider myself African American, though my culture, ethnicity, and nationality may all be different. Am I really African American? If so aren't we all since we all came from there at one point in time?

kharmon's picture

I still wish we could have

I still wish we could have made a distinction between race, ethnicity, and nationality during our talk. I know that we learned in my Ethics class for example, that sex is actually biological while gender is a societal construct. I wonder which of these is the case with the terms i mentioned before. Plus where does culture come into play here? I feel like I am African American in race, ethnicity, and culture and based on our discussion, I'm not sure if that's actually an accurate description. Lastly, I feel as though there has to be something genetic explanation for many of these questions that we're asking. As i mentioned in my last web paper, scientists believe they may have found a gene in black women that makes them more prone to deadlier breast cancer. I wonder if this suggests a deeper genetic difference between Whites and Blacks than what we have discovered to this day. Again, how does this fit into the equation and what does this mean for the people that identify as different groups within these larger categories?
kcough's picture

I like the notion of

I like the notion of "geographic race." It makes lots of sense to create "categories" in a sense based on what parts of the world we come from. And it only makes sense that we've developed different traits to adapt to those different climates-just as polar bears have thicker fur than black bears for warmth, we have different skin and features and traits. And how wonderful! Differences should be celebrated, for they make the world an interesting place. Although will "geographic race" even be an accurate term in a few years? Like we talked about on Friday, with so much international moving, we're becoming one big giant melting pot. Or are we? Are we a mosaic rather than a melting pot? At any rate, it seems like race will someday be an almost obsolete term as we continue to move and settle different places. It's an interesting thought. It's just too bad we always have people who want to turn our differences into battles for superiority. And too bad that science can be twisted so easily, is always taken as fact, and that journalism can get away with articles like that.
Kendra's picture

Friday's discussion on race

Friday's discussion on race was very interesting. Firstly, I felt that I learned nothing from the article that we had to read, except that scientists are finding ways to worsen race relations in America. By "genetically proving" that one race is more intelligent than another can only cause trouble for future generations. I am shocked that the NY Times-such a notable periodical source that is read by millions of Americans- would print such an article.

Usually talks about race on this campus are tense but I liked the one on Friday because we got the chance to define what we thought the word "race" actually was. Wil told us an interesting thing, that humans are 99% the same, in respect to DNA, which further proves my previous thinking that race is purely based on one's society and culture and not so much on skin color. One person in our class mentioned that some African Americans and some Indians have the same skin color but they are different culturally which makes them of a different race. This seems like a likely story but I feel that the word "race' could never be sufficiently defined, but stories can be created so that the word/concept can make a little more sense.

PS2007's picture

I thought the discussion on

I thought the discussion on Friday was very interesting. Looking through other newspapers and publications I have seen more articles on this subject and I'm glad I now have more knowledge about this subject and know not to take these articles at face value. It seems irresponsible of "The New York Times" to publish such an inflammatory and controversial article without fully explaining it, but I guess that is how they get people to read the articles.
Kee Hyun Kim's picture

should we be allowed to alter our or our childerens genes?

i thought the discussion on friday was a uniqe one..

like what other students said, race and ethnicity is not as clear cut as they are often portrayed to be...  i guess this is especially true in the us ( unlke korea, where i am from ) since it is the home country to a very diverse ethnic group..

There seems to be very little difference amongst us in terms of the complexity of race and ethics and that it would be simply silly to classify indiiduals simply based on their genetic information.

but i was just curious what other people think about the possibility altering ones genes? ( for those who have seen it, like the movie gattaca )

Yes it is very true that there are other elements in live ( such as socio economical background, education and etc ) that play a much larger role than genetics in ones development. However ( assuming that we have been able to reach that lavel of maturity in bio science which we clearly are far away from today ) wouldn't it be also true that by altering genetic one can be better suited for certain tasks? ( i mean we are already making genetically engineered crops to make them more resistant to pest right? )

to make the long story short, what do people think about this issue? should this be covered under the right to pursue ones happiness, a fundamental idea of the founding fathers of america?

i would appereciate any comment or feedback regarding this issue



Rachel Tashjian's picture

I see what you mean about

I see what you mean about genetically altering people to make them better at certain tasks. I think one issue that most people have is assuming that excelling in your culture's values makes you superior. This just makes you fit within your culture, not a superior person. For example, if someone were genetically altered to excel at predicting the stock market, they might do quite well in our culture. But let's say our country, for some reason, got rid of the stock market. This person is then in no way superior.

So I don't think it's possible for someone to be superior, and even if people could be genetically altered, I think that science should be reserved for weeding out fatal diseases and similar issues, rather than "tallness" or "being awesome at soccer." 
eharnett's picture

The Sun is falling

As others have posted above, I believe that Friday's class was important in that we started to try to define the differences between race and ethnicity, as I know I have always been confused about the difference. Going back to other conversations that we had in class earlier in the week, in which we talked about how processes are constantly breaking down (becoming probable) and being built back up (improbable), I thought that it made a lot of sense and helped clarify what we were discussing.  The idea of the sun as "breaking down" to become a probable assembly makes sense, even if it did seem sort of strange to me at first-I've never thought of the sun as falling apart, even though I know that the sun will eventually burn out in another couple billion years.  It's  just another way of looking at the importance of the sun to life on earth, and how dependent we are on it.

Paul Grobstein's picture

genes and humanity: "explaining it better"

Sorry to have missed Friday conversation. Here's a letter to the editor I sent to the NY Times about the article that served as background ...

Indeed let's start "explaining it better", as suggested by the geneticist Marcus Feldman ("In DNA Era, New Worries About Prejudice", NY Times, 11 November 2007).

Genes influence human characteristics such as susceptibility to diseases, athletic ability, and intelligence. They do not determine them. Genes are a starting point, the grist from which lives are built based on interactions with other genes, environmental and cultural factors, and personal choices. People should be seen not for their starting points but for what they make of themselves.

Genes are different in different people, reflecting in part one's ancestry. Differences in language or the music one also reflect one's ancestry. We take pride in our own ancestry and appreciate that of others (or at least we're learning to). Why should it be different with genes? Their diversity is just as beneficial to humans as is diversity of languages and customs. The differences among us enrich us all.

If we “explain it better," perhaps new information could help overcome rather than exacerbating prejudices. Genetic diversity is essential for our existence and future as human beings. Could we learn from that to value and enjoy human diversity generally, instead of denigrating people different from ourselves?


Samar Aryani's picture

Friday's discussion was very

Friday's discussion was very essential for the purpose of clarifying the misleading information of the article.  It seems very ridiculous to claim that because of the new data found, for example, there may be some correlation between a person's race and intelligence.  This brings me back to the question of 'what is race?'  As a class it was impossible to define what race exactly is.  Also, as stated in another response above, how does a difference in genes conclude that one race is better than another? As Will stated in class, we all essentially come from Africa.  If this is so, we are all equal in that sense.  I believe that it is absolute nonsense to believe that because someone is of a certain race they are better than others.  This reminds me of our discussions in my sociology class that in America there used to be this power-struggle for whites because they believed they were the pinnacle of all creation and that they were the only species that had fully evolved. As we know, this was a ridiculous thought.  One would expect that as humans we are intelligent enough not to go backwards and believe that because of a 1% difference in our DNA there is a difference in our intellectual levels.  I think the class was right in stating that this difference means nothing.  History has shown that people from all races have accomplished many great things, and just by looking at different schools around the world, there is a great variety of 'races' in the top schools.  Therefore, not only does the article not define what race exactly is, it does a poor job of validating its findings.  I believe that we are all one race...the human race.  What also really bothered me about the article was that the writer kept stating that society perhaps is not ready for these 'new findings' yet, here she is publishing it in the New York Times. 
ekim's picture

on genetics and race.

first of all, the relation between genetics and race is unclear especially because race itself is hard to define.

second of all, how does racial superiority even come into play if we are all of the same descent and as we learned in this class, we are all made up of the same things (DNA, atoms) in the bigger/smaller scale of things?

there may be a correlation between race and genetics, in that different races have different clusters of similar genes, but genetics is not the sole determinant of race, neither is it the sole cause of it.

the way i see it, race is a mixture of things: environmental conditions like culture and geography.

and superiority is a matter of an individual's genetics, not a matter of racial genetics.

the article fails to clarify the relationship between genetics and race.
and more importantly, it fails to define what race is.

Rachel Tashjian's picture

I agree that the article

I agree that the article doesn't clarify the relationship between genes and genetics, but I don't think that its aim, either. I think the point is that genetic discoveries are bringing to light the difficult relationship between the two. I don't think it can attempt to be an authority on what race, or what its relationship with genetics, is. More importantly, nor do I think genetics can serve as an authority on race.

I also don't know about the idea of superiority.... Since we sort of established that one species can't be superior to another, I don't know that one human can in essence be superior to another.

I definitely agree on your definition of race, though.
Sharhea's picture

What is race? ethnicity? nationality?

Today's discussion was very necessary. I have always wondered what is the difference between race, ethnicity or nationality? Why are the necessary for job applications etc.? I became so focused on defining each that I almost miss the point that there is no fine line. I could define myself whatever I want to but society have already pre-assigned my race, ethnicity etc. The idea of race may have started as a scientific term but in the US, the popularity of the term before a definition for one's physical attributes. This article mentioned lots of non-scientists, who wants to link this social connotation of race to biology. What are our biological differences? Did we not all originate in East Africa? I really enjoyed the program that Will showed us at the end of class. This definitely showed the migration of mankind throughout different regions but it also showed us that, we are all one in the same in terms of DNA/genes. We are homo sapiens!! I honestly would like to meet some of the scientist/non-scientist, who use biology research to claim their are differences in intelligence between races. I would want to try to hold a conversation, so they could explain their correlations/ their "research"
ekoike's picture

DNA as a vehicle for further racial discrimination

This article sparked a lot of interest to me (mainly because we're discussing this in my Anthro 101 class and I wrote my second web paper on this subject) and provided a completely different perspective on how recent genetic evidence is being highly misinterpreted and therefore creating an imaginary link between genetics and racial superiority.

Since many people (both non-scientists, like the blogger in Manhattan that the article wrote about and scientists, like Dr. Watson who made an unwarranted conclusion about Africans and their "genetic inferiority") immediately jump to arbitrary conclusions with little or no scientific evidence, it seems as though through these conclusions, they are legitimizing racial prejudice.

I personally find it quite upsetting and pathetic that such a well-known and Noble Prize winner, Dr. Watson would make these type of comments when he should know better than anyone that although a scientist is someone who is supposed to constantly revise and question current theories, he is supposed to be willing to back up his conclusions with evidence.