November 20, 2002 | David F. Coppedge

Human Genome Project: A “Worthwhile Failure”

The Human Genome Project (HGP) was filled with promise.  Walter Gilbert claimed in 1992 that it would bring about “a change in our philosophical understanding of ourselves… one will be able to pull a CD out of one’s pocket and say, ‘Here’s a human being; it’s me!’”  Why does philosopher-biologist Sahotra Sarkar consider that prospect laughable?
    Michael A. Goldman (Dept. of Biology, San Francisco State) reviewed a book by Sarkar in Science,1 Molecular Models of Life: Philosophical Papers on Molecular Biology (MIT Press, 2005).  Goldman considers Sarkar (U of Texas, Austin), who holds dual appointments in philosophy and integrative biology, “a key thinker in the philosophy of molecular biology”:

One of his contentions is that the concept of information flow in biology is problematic.  Sarkar repeatedly mentions the incompleteness or inadequacy of the central dogma of molecular biology.  Although the idea of a genome as a program that spontaneously unfolds to produce a living organism is clearly too simplistic, that hardly renders the notion of information flow without value.  A computer program, too, is totally dependent on its physical context in hardware and an operating system that can interpret it; its output is only as predictable as its input and can be rendered seemingly unpredictable by a temporary power surge or a scratch across a magnetic disk.  We can recognize different inputs–including chance, environmental influences, and developmental context (e.g., maternal cytoplasmic effects)–in the interpretation of the genetic program, and we can even accept that some lines of that program (introns, intergenic regions) are of unknown function, without forgetting the program’s key role in development. (Emphasis added in all quotes.)

Here is where Goldman touches on Sarkar’s attitude about the Human Genome Project:

Perhaps because of his bleak outlook on the nature of information flow, Sarkar considers the Human Genome Project somewhat of a worthwhile failure.  He notes how controversial the idea was even among geneticists and how tenuous the prospects for a full understanding of human biology and an incredible ability to cure diseases were.  In retrospect, the project’s early proponents may be forgiven their exaggerated promises.  Few geneticists have ever proclaimed that day-to-day human behavior could be explained simply by gene interactions, and many have argued against attempts to connect behavioral traits and genetics.  Nor, as Sarkar points out, did we imagine that there were so few genes, such a complex relation between genes and the protein forms they encode, and so much genetic material of unknown function.  Nonetheless, we must understand that we can gain valuable insights from reading the human genome in all its variety.

Goldman found the book too incohesive to recommend it, except for the last chapter.  That’s where Sarkar surveyed the history of positivism about understanding human biology and behavior in a reductionist sense.  That’s also where he reacted to Gilbert’ prospect of holding “me on a CD” –

“Today the claim seems laughable.  None of the promises of Gilbert’s radical genetic reductionism has been borne out.  Proponents of the HGP promised enormous immediate medical benefits.  Arguably, at least, there have not been any.  Gilbert routinely promised the birth of a new theoretical biology.  Instead, the emphasis now is on informatics….”  On the upside, Sarkar notes that at “the very least, the HGP has killed the facile genetic reductionism of the heyday of developmental genetics.”  His dim view contrasts sharply with Robert Sinsheimer’s recent proclamation that the project “succeeded even beyond our hopes.”

That chapter, Goldman feels, is “an ideal capstone reading for my senior undergraduates and graduate students.”


1Michael A. Goldman, “Philosophy of Science: Genomic Meanings,” Science, 18 November 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5751, p. 1121, DOI: 10.1126/science.1120191.

So two millennia of debate about reductionism and determinism have come to this.  If human biology cannot be reduced to terms of its basic physical components, but rather must be understood as information flow comparable to a computer program, and if that program can only be understood in its context of the hardware and operating system needed to interpret it, well then – it seems like stock in the intelligent design movement is about to skyrocket.  Obtain your intellectual shares now.

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