More hilariously off-base genetics denialism

Things have been a bit too serious around here lately. After all, yesterday I wrote about obesity and chemotherapy, while the day before that I did an even lengthier than usual deconstruction of some claims by anti-Obamacare activists, which seemed particularly appropriate to me given that a group of wingnuts has just succeeded in mostly shutting down our government because they are opposed to Obamacare. Come to think of it, given the nastiness that’s going on in Washington right now, I could use something light, an easy target even. And who better to serve that role than everyone’s favorite combination all purpose New World Order conspiracy theorist wingnut and pure quack, Mike Adams?

I realize that Mike Adams is often an easy target, but hear me out as I briefly justify my decision to go after this particular piece of spew by him before I actually, well, go after this particular piece of spew. As I’ve described before, gene theory denialism is a strain of “thought” (if you can call it that) running through a lot of alternative medicine and quackery (but I repeat myself). You hear it all the time, be it Deepak Chopra attacking determinism or others claiming that epigenetics implies, in essence, that thinking makes it so. Basically, when you boil it down to its core essence, the complaint against genetics by woo-meisters is that, well, they don’t like genetics determinism. The fancy themselves to be the complete masters of their own destiny and don’t like the idea that everyone has genetic baggage that could predispose to disease regardless of how “healthy” a lifestyle you live. Remember, one of the favorite delusions among alt-med believers is that you are completely in control of your own health. If you only eat the right foods, live the right lifestyle, and take the right supplements, flu can’t touch you (one of Bill Maher’s favorite delusions), nor can other diseases. Anyone with some grounding in—oh, you know—reality knows that this is not true, but it is a pervasive strain of thought running through all of alt med. Using epigenetics to justify it is but one misuse of science to justify such beliefs.

Even though Mike Adams is completely off the deep end, it is precisely because he is so delusional that I find him a useful foil to demonstrate fallacies in alt-med thought. The reason is that he cranks the crazy up to 11 and beyond. Often he cranks up the crazy for common alt-med ideas that, in other hands (for instance, Deepak Chopra’s or Andrew Weil’s) might sound semi-reasonable. In this case, take a gander at what Adams claims in his article The big lie of genetics exposed: human DNA incapable of storing complete blueprint of the human form. Indeed, the very “lie” about genetics that is believed by so many alt-med aficionados is embodied in that very title inadvertently in such a way that Adams probably has no clue what he has done. First, however, he hilariously assures us that he really, truly is a “critical thinker”:

The curse of being a critical thinker is that you can’t turn it off, I’ve discovered. So you become a critical thinker about everything you’ve been told or taught, and as it turns out, most of what we’ve all been taught about genetics is a lie.

But don’t take my word for it. Join me as we take an honest, critical look at genetics using the same kind of skepticism scientists demand we invoke when looking at medicinal herbs or acupuncture.

Um, no. Adams has no idea what kind of skepticism scientists invoke when looking at medicinal herbs or acupuncture. He really has no clue whatsoever. Indeed, as has happened so many times before, Adams has blown my irony meter into a thousand steaming, smoking, quivering shards. Skepticism? He has no idea what skepticism really is, just as he really has no idea what science is, as he demonstrated to such hilarious effect when he tried to examine Chicken McNuggets under the microscope or made a movie declaring science to be irredeemably evil.

The basic thrust of Adams’ argument, if you can call it that, is that the “genetic inheritance theory” has been “shattered,” and the Human Genome Project has similarly “shattered” the mythology of genetic materialism, or, as Adams put it it, “sending nearly the entire scientific community into a tailspin and forcing ‘the great genetic cover-up’ to begin.” Personally, one wonders how there can be a “great genetic coverup” in an age of so much genomic information. But, then, that’s me. In any case, the central “argument” behind Adams’ genetics denialism is that “there isn’t enough data storage in 20,000 genes to hold a blueprint for a human being.” Boiled down to its essence, it’s a massive logical fallacy akin to the same logical fallacy beloved of creationists everywhere, namely an appeal to personal credulity. Just as creationists can’t understand how selective pressures can lead to gradual changes over many generations and thus speciation, Adams simply can’t believe that there is enough “information” in the human genome to provide a blueprint for the human organism.

While making this argument, he mangles genetics using computer terminology. He begins by pointing out that there is approximately 750 MB of “information” in the human genome. Now, behold the argument from personal incredulity:

It turns out this number is shockingly small. 750MB is smaller than the file of a typical modern video game. It’s smaller than a movie on a DVD, in fact. It’s so small that a typical miniature thumb drive you might buy at Best Buy can actually store over 20 times as much data (that’s merely a 16 GB thumb drive). You can buy a 16GB SD card right now on Amazon.com for a mere $12.

750MB of data is so small that no one can explain how it could possibly account for a human body with extraordinary complexity while somehow encompassing physical, structural, functional and behavioral inheritance as well.

To get a grasp of the complexity of the human body, realize that your body is made of 60 – 90 trillion cells. Each cell is its own ecosystem with highly complex functions including cell energy production, waste removal, cell membrane function, the nucleus command control center, and so on.

Your body manufactures 10 million red blood cells every hour. It has a capacity to heal damaged tissues almost everywhere. Your skin and intestines are being slowly replaced with new cells every minute. Your immune system is incredibly complex and highly capable, representing the most advanced system of nanotechnology that modern science has ever witnessed.

So, in other words, just because the Great Mike Adams can’t conceive how the human genome can encode all the information necessary to result in a human being, it can’t possibly encode all the information necessary to result in a human being. Because, of course, Mike Adams is the be-all and end-all when it comes to determining what is and is not possible in science. In any caes, let’s leap to the core of Adams’ claim. Based on his own personal incredulity that the information content of the human genome is sufficient to result in the development of a human being, Adams declares:

Your body and its functions are unimaginably complex. Simply cataloging the structure and function of all the cells in your body right now would take countless terabytes of data — more than a million times larger than “megabytes” of data.

Yet the entire human genome delivers only 750MB worth of data storage. Obviously, this is wholly insufficient to describe the entire structure, function and development of a human being. No matter how the desperate materialists try to keep us focused on human genes, it flat-out isn’t possible to store a full blueprint of the human form in 750MB of data.

The human genome, therefore, is not the entire blueprint of human development. Although some genes do obviously code for some physical characteristics (such as eye color), genes alone do not contain the full blueprint. There must be something else that also contributes morphological information in addition to DNA.

Hmmmm. What, pray tell, could that “something else” be? We’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s have some fun pointing out Adams’ ignorance. First off, he assumes that DNA is the be-all and end-all of human biology, which is a straw man argument. Even the most die-hard, dogmatic genetic determinist doesn’t argue that everything devolves to genes. Moreover, the number of genes doesn’t necessarily correlate with complexity. Adams scoffs at the observation that a roundworm has about the same number of genes as a human and that a fruit fly has about three quarters as many genes as a human does. Because he relates a crude count of the number of genes to “complexity,” Adams is shocked by this information and views it as evidence that the Human Genome Project was an “epic fail.” It’s not. Worms and flies are quite complex creatures, and it’s a fallacy to assume that they must be so much more “simple” than human beings. Heck, there are a number of plants with genomes much larger than that of humans!

Then, of course, another observation shoots Adams’ nonsense down. We don’t just have 20,000 genes. there are around 20,000 or 25,000 protein-coding genes, but there are at least 10,000 more genes that make noncoding RNAs. Non-coding RNAs are RNAS that, well, don’t code for a protein. Remember, the “central dogma” of molecular biology (which is really not a dogma but is true in a majority of cases) is that genes make RNA, which makes protein. In any case, it’s been increasingly appreciated over the last 15 years that these noncoding RNAs are very important in regulating gene expression. For example, one type of noncoding RNA is know as microRNA. MicroRNAs are small (around 20 nucleotides) and regulate gene expression by binding to complementary sequences in various genes and shutting those genes down (silencing them). A single microRNA can regulate hundreds of difference genes, and a single gene can be regulated by dozens of microRNAs. The interacting combinations form a regulatory network that is quite complex.

Another issue that Adams neglects is that around 90% of our genes are alternatively spliced. Basically, that means that different sections of RNA are sliced out of the RNA made by the genes before the RNA is translated into protein. That means that many, if not most, genes can make multiple variants of a protein. The number of gene products is thus likely to be over 100,000. Moreover, many of these protein products interact. Their enzymatic activity allows them to propagate signals, and these signals form pathways that can become quite complex. The number of possible permutations of these signaling pathways is enormous. Moreover, we’re learning that it is the pathways that determine a cell’s behavior much more than any one gene. Indeed, it’s fairly uncommon for a phenotype or cell behavior to be strongly effected, particularly at the organism level, by any single gene. Not only are there many signaling pathways, but there are redundant and overlapping pathways. There are also epigenetic influences. True, the quacks try to hijack epigenetics to mean that you can control the expression of your genes with just thought or with diet or with whatever woo du jour the quacks are selling.

So, in Adams’ view, if he can’t believe that the human genome alone is sufficient to result in the development of a cell into the human organism, what, I wonder, does explain it. That’s easy. In Adams’ world, it’s magic:

To this very day, they are pouring over human genome data, desperately trying to find some “meta data” that would explain all inheritance. What they refuse to acknowledge is that there is a non-physical field of inheritance patterns that functions as an overlay to the human genome, interacting with it and enhancing its scope with non-physical encoding of additional information needed to develop a complete human form.

That field is called the “morphic resonance” field, and it was proposed by one of the most brilliant, revolutionary scientific thinkers of our time, Rupert Sheldrake, a biologist and author of “Science Set Free.”

Rupert Sheldrake? Now, that’s hilarious:

This idea that your body as a whole, as well as each cell in your body, can tap into a field of information which encodes the “memory” of what a human form is supposed to be threatens the very pillars of materialistic science, upon which nearly the entire pharmaceutical industry is based, by the way. This is why materialist scientists are desperately attempting to defend the human genome as the single source of all the information needed to develop a human body, even though the human genome clearly doesn’t have the storage capacity to represent an entire body (not to mention inherited physiological functions and behavioral inheritance).

The best place to read and learn about morphic resonance is at Rupert Sheldrake’s website:
http://www.sheldrake.org/Articles&Papers/papers/morphic/morphic_intro.html

As I said before, because Adams can’t imagine how the human genome can provide enough information to produce a human being, to him it can’t. Because he can’t imagine how genes can control inheritance, to him, they can’t. Because he can’t imagine how amazing biology is, he has to make up magical energy fields to understand the amazing processes that control the fantastically complex functions of the cell and the even more complex functions of cells that lead them into forming organisms. Although Adams is obviously on the nutty fringe of these beliefs, the very same beliefs undergird a lot of alternative medicine: When they can’t understand or accept something that science tells them, then it must be magic. While someone like Deepak Chopra can make such a message seem plausible, at least to the science-illiterate (and sometimes even to some doctors), Adams does skeptics the favor of taking the message to its full, magical conclusion. He’s kind of like the Michael Egnor of genetics.