“THERE is nothing new to be discovered inphysics.” So said Lord Kelvin in 1900, shortlybefore the intellectual firestorm ignited byrelativity and quantum mechanics provedhim comprehensively wrong.If anyone now thinks that biology is sorted,they are going to be proved wrong too. Themore that genomics, bioinformatics and manyother newer disciplines reveal about life, themore obvious it becomes that our presentunderstanding is not up to the job. We nowgaze on a biological world of mind-bogglingcomplexity that exposes the shortcomingsof familiar, tidy concepts such as species,gene and organism.A particularly pertinent example isprovided in this week’s cover story – theuprooting of the tree of life which Darwinused as an organising principle and whichhas been a central tenet of biology ever since(see page 34). Most biologists now accept thatthe tree is not a fact of nature – it is somethingwe impose on nature in an attempt to makethe task of understanding it more tractable.Other important bits of biology – notablydevelopment, ageing and sex – are similarlyturning out to be much more involved than weever imagined. As evolutionary biologist
The future oflife, but notas we know it
Michael Rose at the University of California,Irvine, told us: “The complexity of biology iscomparable to quantum mechanics.”Biology has been here before. AlthoughDarwin himself, with the help of Alfred RusselWallace, triggered a revolution in the mid-1800s, there was a second revolution in the1930s and 1940s when Ronald Fisher,J. B. S. Haldane, Sewall Wright and othersincorporated Mendelian genetics and placedevolution on a firm mathematical foundation.As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, we await a third revolution thatwill see biology changed and strengthened.None of this should give succour tocreationists, whose blinkered universe isdoubtless already buzzing with the news that“
has announced Darwin waswrong”. Expect to find excerpts ripped outof context and presented as evidence thatbiologists are deserting the theory of evolution en masse. They are not.Nor will the new work do anything todiminish the standing of Darwin himself.When it came to gravitation and the laws of motion, Isaac Newton didn’t see the wholepicture either, but he remains one of science’sgiants. In the same way, Darwin’s ideas willprove influential for decades to come.So here’s to the impending revolution inbiology. Come Darwin’s 300th anniversarythere will be even more to celebrate.
Charles Darwin’s theory ofevolution is itself evolving
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DNA testing for paternity can change thecourse of a life. So to run a test on “stolen” DNAtaken from an everyday item, such as a coffeecup or a baby’s dummy, is a gross invasion of privacy – especially when that DNA is an
innocent child’s rather than the alleged father’s.
Either way, a child can be harmed if a coverttest tears their family apart.Even if other nations do not follow theUK’s lead in banning stealthy genetic tests(see our investigation, page 8), laws onpaternity testing merit review. One optionwould be to follow practice in France, whereDNA tests can only be ordered in the contextof a formal hearing to contest paternity. Thecourt can consider the child’s interests andhelp to cushion life-altering shocks when thetest results are disclosed.
Limit the falloutfrom DNA testsDoomy thinking
WHY on earth would anyone spend energyworrying about something that is really, reallyunlikely to happen? Better, surely, to save it formore probable events such as losing your job,home or partner. But follow the logic behindassessments of such remote risks and thingsmay look different – leading, for example, to a10,000-fold rise in the probability that anEarth-guzzling black hole will appear when theLHC restarts (see page 32). It might even takeyour mind off more mundane worries – untilyou recalculate the odds, that is.
“It is now accepted that the treeof life is something we impose onnature in an attempt to makethe task of understanding itmore tractable”
24 January 2009 | NewScientist |