Morphogenetic fields

From: Dace (
Date: Wed 11 Jun 2003 - 00:51:41 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: Morphogenetic fields"


    > The term "Morphogenetic field" seems to be rather abused. Of the first ten
    > Google responses, only the first
    > "Quantum Gravity: String, Weave or Morphogenetic Field?" is really about
    > what would normally be called non-material fields. Numbers 2 ,3, 4, 5 are
    > New Age drivel, including Sheldrake #9. Three seem to be about embryology.

    You'll never get anywhere this way. The ideal method, of course, is to consult a textbook on developmental biology. If that seems a bit much, try Brian Goodwin's *How the Leopard Changed Its Spots,* Scribner, 1994. It's not too long and very readable. The basic issues remain unchanged since E.W. Sinnott's *The Problem of Organic Form,* Yale, 1963. This makes for a good primer.

    > >The question is whether the field is reducible to genes or if it
    > >exists in the same sense that quantum or electromagnetic fields exist. If
    > >morphogenetic fields are real, the question becomes whether they are
    > >produced by timeless "generative equations" (Goodwin) or if they result
    > from
    > >the influence of past, similar organic forms (Sheldrake). This is how the
    > >issue looks right now.
    > "Until recently, the interactions that constituted these fields could not
    > identified. However, the discovery of the homologous pathways of
    > has given us new insights into how these fields are established and
    > maintained."

    Okay. And what determines the "homologous pathways of development?" Genes or fields? Whatever answers researchers come up with cannot help but be provisional. Every answer merely moves the question back a step. Ultimately, the information is either particulate or holistic. Ontogenesis is either bottom-up or top-down. Since biochemists are no closer than they were forty years ago to providing a detailed picture of how genes build bodies, there's no reason not to explore other possibilities. Indeed, this is the general trend of contemporary biology.

    > I really wish you would use Google more.

    You're playing a trick on yourself-- digging up a little sliver of information that confirms your prejudice and then imagining you've solved the case.

    > > > Sample articles
    > > >
    > > > Reference: Scientific American February 1994 PAGES 58-66
    > > > Articles Name- The Molecular Architects of Body Design.
    > > > By William McGinnis and Michael Kuziora
    > > > Jest of Article- Putting a human gene into a fly may sound like the
    > basis
    > > > for a science fiction film, but it demonstrates that nearly identical
    > > > molecular mechanisms define body shapes in all animals.
    > >
    > >If the molecular mechanisms are the same, and the organisms are radically
    > >different, doesn't that demonstrate that organisms are not a product of
    > >molecular mechanisms? This is a huge problem for the mechanistic theory
    > >life.
    > Hardly. "Body shapes" at the level of having a head to tail, left to right
    > and front to back are common from insects to elephants and they all start
    > from a single cell. That the same mechanism (hox genes) lays out the
    > developmental axis only indicates animals with bilateral symmetry had a
    > common ancestor.

    It says we have a common ancestor, and there's no discernible reason why we don't look like flies.

    > > > The root of biology, DNA and proteins, *is* mechanical as anyone who
    > > > followed developments in this area over the last 50 years should know.
    > (I
    > > > started reading Scientific American almost 50 years ago.) One of the
    > > > enzymes for making ATP is known (by direct observation) to rotate.
    > >
    > >The mechanics of protein-formation are still not known, and it's not at
    > >clear that protein-formation, particularly at the quaternary level, is
    > >forced into place by purely chemical and mechanical factors.
    > I would say rather that the mechanics of protein formation are *extremely*
    > well known. Put "protein synthesis" in Google and see for yourself. We may
    > not know every detail, but we know a heck of a lot.

    Mostly what you'll get on Google is an unintelligible sampling of whatever memes happen to be dominant at the moment. A lot of what passes for biological analysis is just DNA boosterism. No one has been able to trace the problem of protein-folding, specifically the quaternary level of structure, to the sequence of amino acids found in DNA. Tooling around on Google is not going to change that.

    > >While the activities of molecules in cells are
    > >indeterminate and unpredictable, higher levels of structure are
    > >in accord with standard patterns. We see this in embryonic development.
    > >The first discernible form to appear in the embryo beyond the cell is not
    > >tissues but the whole body plan. Following this, the embryo develops the
    > >beginnings of circulatory, nervous, immune and organ systems. These
    > >outlines are then filled in with organs, but even these exist, at first,
    > >only as outlines. Finally, organs and limbs are "fleshed out" with
    > >If genes build bodies, they should do so step-by-step from the level of
    > >tissues on up. The actual picture is precisely the opposite. Reduction to
    > >the molecular level could not be a more inappropriate and misleading
    > >for organisms.
    > See the cites above. Your assertion is just not supported by the evidence.

    What I'm asserting here is in no way a point of controversy. The body is not built from the gound up. It's built from the top of the structural hierarchy on down. This is what we see in embryological development, and it's what we've always seen. If you can make yourself believe you've found evidence otherwise, it just goes to show you can get yourself to believe most anything.

    Here's an illuminating excerpt from the August 2001 issue of Scientific American ("Cybernetic Cells," by W. Wayt Gibbs):

    [M]ost biologists still use computers as little more than receptacles for the surge of data gushing from their robotic sequencers and gene chip analyzers. The 'models' they publish in their journal articles are sketchy caricatures based on the best theory they have: the central dogma that a gene in DNA is converted to an RNA that is translated to a protein that performs a particular biochemical function.

    But the past few years have seen a growing movement among mathematically minded biologists to challenge the central dogma as simplistic and to use computer simulation to search for a more powerful theory. "We're witnessing a grand-scale Kuhnian revolution in biology," avers Bernhard O. Palsson, head of the genetic circuits research group at UC San Diego.


    'I could draw you a map of all the components in a cell and put all the proper arrows connecting them,' says Alfred G. Gilman, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. But for even the simplest single-celled microorganism, 'I or anybody else would look at that map and have absolutely no ability to predict anything.'

    [Biotech researcher James] Bailey compares the confused state of microbiology with astronomy in the 16th century. 'The astronomers had large archives detailing the movement and positions of celestial objects,' he says. 'But they couldn't predict the planetary motions with accuracy. They would never have believed that all the orbits are elliptic and described by a simple equation. Nevertheless, Kepler proved it. Now, I don't pretend there is any simple equation for the biology of a cell. But we should be looking for unifying principles that will order our facts into some understanding.'


    John R. Koza, a computer scientist at Stanford University... is a pioneer in genetic programming, a technique for evolving software by instructing the computer to generate random programs, mutate them repeatedly and then screen them to identify the ones that perform the desired task best... Koza used genetic programming to re-create a small but complicated part of the E-Cell model.

    Koza rigged his system to evolve programs that piece together known enzymes into chemical machinery that can convert fatty acid and glycerol to diacylglycerol. Each variant program was converted, for the sake of convenience, to an equivalent electrical circuit, whose behavior was calculated on a commercial circuit simulator. The biological 'circuits' that most closely matched the input-output patterns of E-Cell were retained for further evolution; the rest were killed.

    After a day, Koza's 1,000 processor custom-made Beowulf supercomputer spit out a program that matched the actual reaction network.

    Notice that Beowulf manages to describe a highly complex organic system without trying to trace its structure back to genes. So, are cellular processes regulated instead by immaterial algorithms? The paradigm shift Palsson refers to is from reductionism to Pythagoreanism. Instead of looking for the magic gene, researchers are on a quest for the magic formula.

    And you think Sheldrake is new age?

    My point is that the field, so to speak, is wide open.


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