070703 – Tuesday – How little we know

A friend of mine wrote me the other day and objected to some comments of mine about an article from the New York Times entitled, “From a Few Genes, Life’s Myriad Shapes”. The article was about an entirely new way of looking at how evolution proceeds – not by codon mutations but by small changes in the degree to which genes are expressed.

Specifically, he questioned my statement that, “As human beings, we seem constitutionally unable to think well about what we don’t know.” I had been reacting to the fact that breakthroughs like this tend to point up just how very much we don’t yet know. An observation which is at odds with the observable fact that normally as human beings we are quite obsessed and pleased with ourselves over how much we do know – and don’t think much about what we don’t know.

Interestingly, just a day or so later, he sent along another article about some work Craig Venter‘s doing. He’s going to make a new bacteria from scratch. He’s going to create a new form of life never before seen on Earth.

I found it hard to think of anything my friend could have sent that would have provided me a better example of what I’m concerned about.

Molecular Biology is an area we only partially understand. In just the last five years, there have been two major revolutions in our understanding. The first was when we came to understand that much of what we previously thought of as ‘Junk DNA’ in our genomes was really part of a major system of RNA regulation running in parallel with the DNA mechanisms we’d previous understood. Then, much more recently, as described in the article about “From a Few Genes, Life’s Myriad Shapes” it was revealed that we’ve now suddenly understood that much of evolution doesn’t occur because of actual mutations in the codons but rather because of changes in the set-points of gene expressions.

Nature’s had over three billion years to work out ever more and more deeply intertwined and complex systems of molecular machinery and humanity is just embarking on understanding small parts of it. Every breakthrough we make reveals, in part, the depth of our previous lack of understanding.

Now Venter wants to make an artificial bacteria. He wants to make something completely new to biology. Has no one heard of the Law of Unintended Consequences? Has no one read “Cat’s Cradle” and the fictional saga of Ice-9?

But, back to my original thought that, “As human beings, we seem constitutionally unable to think well about what we don’t know.” I submit that we tend to focus the vast majority of our thoughts and considerations on what we know and only a small amount on what we don’t know. And, I also believe that we are largely incapable of doing it any other way. When we evolved, there were few survival payoffs for those who could think about what we didn’t yet know. Evolution didn’t create us to have clear perceptions – it created us to survive and it didn’t care if that played havoc with the fidelity of our perceptions or not.

But, to get a better grip on what true fidelity in thinking might look like (and I’m contending that our current manner of thinking most definitely lacks fidelity in the sense that it does not accurately represent reality as it can be shown to exist), consider the following:

Ever since the Enlightenment, mankind has been discovering new things that it did not previously know. The implication, by simple extrapolation, is that there is an enormous amount of stuff to still be discovered in the future. And, I’d contend further that this stuff we don’t yet know is probably far vaster than the small amount we have grasped to date.

So, an accurate fidelity-based, manner of thinking about reality would always ground itself in the fact that regardless of what we do know, we must consciously acknowledge that there’s always a vastly larger amount of stuff that we don’t know about and it is just as significant, if not more significant, as what we know.

Seen in this light, our inattention to what we don’t know combined with the Law of Unintended Consequences, implies huge risks to us. Especially in molecular biology where we are aborigines who’ve understood only a few things here and there out of the vast collection of machinery we are gazing at.

And now, Mr. Venter is going to cobble up some new ersatz bacteria and potentially turn them loose in the natural mix. It makes as much sense to me as dropping wrenches into a huge system of whirling gears to see if they’ll make things better or worse. Oh, I understand that they will take precautions and try to make the little bugs innocous. I’m sure they will – but the Law of Unintended Consequences has bit us over and over again. And we are messing with deadly serious stuff here.

I’ve written about this general idea here before.

When we send the Shuttle into orbit, the engineers try to work out every possible contingency and have a back up plan for everything. And, in spite of their best efforts, we’ve lost two shuttles over the years. I guarantee you that the shuttles and all of their systems are far far less complex that the biochemistry we depend on for life.

So why then do we think nothing of inventing chemicals that have never been seen before in the natural world and putting them into our fields and our water and even our foods (Tran fats). Bird shells are breaking, frogs are dying, human females are reaching menarche much earlier than before, the sex of fish are changing in the streams, many types of cancer are on the rise. God only knows how many ghosts we have loosed in the machine which have yet to reappear. We are messing badly with natural systems we don’t understand and we are mostly oblivious to the fact that we are pissing into our own (and our only) watering holes.

We have the ability to understand many of our foibles. Just look at this list of cognitive biases.

Given that we make these mistakes over and over again to the point where academics have defined them, wouldn’t it seem like we should try to educate ourselves to transcend these predictable and well understood sources of confusion?

Given that we understand the concept of fidelity in perception, wouldn’t it make sense that we should try to understand where our lack of such fidelity leads us astray?

E.O. Wilson, in “The Future of Life“, made much of the fact that our perceptions and our thinking were not evolved for fidelity but rather for survival.

We know that one’s best hope of dealing effectively and efficiently with the problems that confront one depends on having accurate (good fidelity) perceptions of how the things that are causing us problems work.

We really need to start putting some of these ideas together for our own benefit.

So, yes, I stand by my assertion that, “As human beings, we seem constitutionally unable to think well about what we don’t know.” And, I don’t think it is just an interesting question for philosophers who like to ponder obscure stuff.

I think it is a critical problem for our species right now in our evolution and particularly now as we’re about to go into what E.O. Wilson calls “The Bottleneck” and what I’ve been calling “The Perfect Storm“.

We don’t understand ourselves and what motivates us. We don’t understand the natural world around us but we have no apparent fear of messing with it inordinately. And we don’t understand or acknowledge our limitations. Frankly, we are a mess and our world shows it.

In short, there is a huge amount that we don’t understand – including the fact that there’s a huge amount that we don’t understand that is directly relevant to our survival in the near future. And we go on, most of us, convinced that we understand most of what’s important and the small bits that are left can’t be that important.

Can you say Hubris?

One Response to “070703 – Tuesday – How little we know”

  1. Terry says:

    It’s true. We don’t know squat. I read – The Future Of Life.

    Big business and government are the bed fellows that contribute most to the destruction of our planet. What can we do? Individually we try our best, we can contribute to the community. Can we influence a city? I suppose more ecological disasters are the only wake up calls to the mega powers around the globe. These disasters are coming. It’s too bad we let it come to this.

    Not even Al Gore can save us now.