Saturday, July 21, 2012

Parasitic DNA

Think of DNA as a parasite. It doesn’t invade a host, it creates a host. That host can invade other hosts, but that’s not DNA’s problem. It’s only worried about its host. Fair enough.

DNA has only one goal, reproduction.

Okay, every living thing has its DNA package which it shares with other members of its species. Presumably, we all shared the same DNA package at one time but through evolution have split into millions of differing packages. This, of course, is the basic living principle of not putting all your eggs in one basket (read: package). A billion different packages is safer, if you want to continue forever. Remember, that’s all DNA cares about, mine, yours, and the amoeba’s packages. Lots of different pkgs. It means, chances are they all won’t be wiped out at one time, no matter what happens. Good for survival.

The complexities arrive when one considers that DNA, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t exist. All it is are a set of instruction on how to reproduce. God only knows where those instructions come from. Life is seemingly like an enormous go game where the rules are deceptively simple but the results can be overwhelmingly complex. Life is one of those forces in the universe like gravity or the weak force that come with the territory. Part of our mandate (yes, we have one) is to figure out how those forces work. We have a long way to go.

However they work, those forces only work because they have something to work on; the universe is not empty. If it were empty, the question of forces would be moot. (or is that “mute”?). We have no idea yet of the extent or operating principles of life, but we have made observations that help us understand the mechanics of life as we know it. It’s a beginning.

We know that here, at least, life uses DNA for transmitting its instructions. We know it does that by creating hosts that reproduce. It must be fairly difficult to get life going and maintain it or there wouldn’t be such a requirement to spread it around. Look at our neighboring planets and you can see why life is clever and determined to spread itself so thickly and diversely on Earth. It’s, evidently, not easy to maintain a vibrant hold on a planet. It’s also evident that life has to be a universal force not restricted to one planet. It’s part of that cogito ergo sum thing: if we have life, then there’s life. I think so, anyway.

So, life creates diversity by splitting into innumerable different species, and the species become the “carriers” of life. They in turn divide into equally innumerable, if not more, individuals which each carry a copy of the DNA. These individuals become the tools of life extension and gene mixing which allow the DNA to continue living while the hosts it creates are discarded one after another as they age. It’s a divinely clever system.

It means, though, that all individual creatures, us humans, butterflies, bacteria, song birds, flat worms, etc. are not individuals in any real sense but only protoplasmic extensions of our species’ DNA, the hosts they created for their lives, forget about ours. They are the parasites, we are the hosts. Or transmission vectors, if it makes you feel better; the bottom line is the same: we die, they live.

This has significant repercussions in understanding biological systems. It means that evolution is carried out at the species level, not the individual level. No matter what a particular mutation does to benefit an individual, if it doesn’t benefit the species, it will be ignored or discarded. Natural selection is not concerned with passing on the genes of any individual, only with the mixing of the genes so that beneficial mutations can work their way to the surface. The King of the Hill may have lousy genes; that’s why Mother Nature inventing cuckolding. Pecking orders were established, not to determine who has the best genes, but to insure intra-species tranquility and cooperation and to allow for the free distribution of genes.

It also has ramifications for morality. Remember that mandate? To reproduce? That one? That’s it. That’s the basic go rule: go forth and multiply. That’s why the Catholic Church says it’s a sin to have sex for anything other than reproduction. They’re just spouting the basic rule, right?

Well, yes, but they’ve thought it through about as far as a bull moose has: “See that cow? Let’s go get her.” They forgot that evolution gave us, not only intelligence, but knowledge (you know, the apple and all), and that allowed us to figure out that the goal was successful reproduction of the species, not of the individual. Evolution, for example, has a perfectly functional way of dealing with overpopulation: starvation. Works every time and keeps the gang in balance. Humans, on the other hand, are clever enough to figure out that having fewer babies would work as well as starvation, and the mothers of the world have begun to do just that: have fewer babies. The Catholic Church may not approve, but the species went ahead and did it anyway, one blob of protoplasm at a time.

I’ll confess, in the end, heaven, hell, and eternity don’t mean much to me. I could never figure them out. Eternity never seemed likely or much fun, and what are those other places? Likewise, I never had much trouble accepting the speed of light or the Doppler effect, and my TV works, so I’ve accepted scientific advances as they come along. The proof of the pudding has been in the eating, and we’re eating pretty well. In fact, I’ll have another bowl right now.

Oddly enough, I’m happy with being a protoplasmic extension of a set of operating rules. I’m happy to be a host for the parasitic DNA. You know how parasites can eat into ants’ brains and force them to climb to the ends of grass so they’ll be eaten by sheep so the parasite can hatch in the sheep’s stomach only to be shat out as eggs that the ants like to eat? That’s me and DNA: I’m responsible for nothing, it’s all the DNA’s fault. I was only told that the ant looked tasty.

Granted, that sounds flip but it isn’t. My reasoning is a little more complex that I present it here, but the bottom line is the same: us blobs of protoplasm aren’t responsible for what we do; we’re only following instructions, DNA. Doesn’t mean that we don’t make mistakes. It’s just that we don’t intentionally make mistakes; we only do what we’re told. We have no choice.

Can DNA fuck up? Obviously, it can. People fuck up, hence DNA fucks up. What doesn’t do any good is casting blame. Correct mistakes, yes, but do not find blame. DNA can’t talk; there’s no way to reason with it; you have only the blob of protoplasm to deal with and best you can hope for is straightening out that blob, DNA will have to take care of itself. At least at this point; the future is in the air.

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