So this one is going to be a science opinion post not a life at Leicester post because at the weekend I read this article:
Thank you kindly to Josh and Chuck at HowStuffWorks.com for their weekly “The Best Stuff We’ve Read This Week” which appeared on my twitter at the weekend. For any budding geneticists out there this article is an interesting read. The overall point, that we focus purely on genes as the driving force of evolution, is important. As we further develop our understanding of genetics, genomics and evolution we’ve failed to adapt this fundamental principle. I personally work on methylation, which gets its brief mention about halfway down the article, and it is brief! In the modern scientific world we have to accept that between all the research that is going on what forms the basis of many years of work for us may form just a small paragraph in a long article written for public consumption. This can be a little painful, of course I want my work to be the groundbreaking stuff, but I’m aware that the specialisation we undertake as PhD students will only ever form a small part of what the public see’s. I warn you now this is a long article, and congratulations if you make it to the end. If you don’t I wanted to highlight a few points from it that I think are important.
- The opening of this article points out the effect a good and interesting presentation of your work can have. The author was clearly impressed by the speaker he accidently came across at this conference.
- The idea of presenting the genome as a genetic book that can be read in multiple ways is interest and I think a very good way to teach a more complex idea of genetics in the future.
- The author is fighting for the lesser heard theory that evolution is driven by multiple factors, not just the selfish gene. In case you don’t know the selfish gene theory is the idea that we are vessels for our genes, we only exist to facilitate their transmission to the next generation. The author considers this theory more valid but less glamourous than Richard Dawkins selfish gene theory which is considered a more exciting, easier to digest principle for the public to understand.
For those of you who did make it to the end:
Overall I think this is a really interesting article that raises an important debate, however I do have a few issues with it. Between Darwin and Mendel we developed the basic theory that genes drive evolution and I personally don’t see why the way we teach this at an early stage should change, it allows everyone to understand and then for those who want more we can teach more. We can add the additional players to the game. I don’t understand the complexities behind the theories my boyfriend uses in his job as a design engineer on motorbikes so why should he be expected to understand the small details of how evolution is driven – he knows what he needs to know and one day if he needs to know more I can teach him.
The importance of gene expression is highlighted and multiple examples are provided yet I find only one mention of “microbes”. Gene expression changes can hugely influence the course of an infection (for example) yet are largely ignored for the more exciting animal examples – the author is unfortunately falling into the same trap he highlights, here information on humans and other animals is considered more appealing to the audience so bacteria are largely ignored (personal offence taken that my field is dismissed :P)
I particularly dislike the idea that women in science are less heard then men. While this may have been true in days gone by, it isn’t the case now, I’ve never once felt I’ve been held back in science because I’m female. Getting concepts out is difficult for anyone, and of course Richard Dawkins does it extremely well, as pointed out in the article he was simply able to find a way to explain what had already been discovered in a way accessible to many. The idea that West-Eberhard is less heard today because she is a woman is ridiculous, especially since many men are also mentioned in the article. I will however admit that reputation does play a part. For the majority of scientists we will only ever speak to specialised audiences of relatively small numbers, Dawkins is the exception not the rule, but he is not that exception because he’s a man.
Changes in gene expression are my goal, I look at a specific gene, that when in a specific format, is capable of producing very different looking bacteria. I personally understand the importance of gene expression and the driving forces other than the gene itself, however that doesn’t change the fact that most people need to learn the basics of evolution before understanding this, they need to walk before they can run, a point this article seems to forget.