Sunday, January 15, 2006

Junk, Delilo & DNA

Could the study of junk reveal a continuity between biological and social evolution?

A few years ago, I read Don Delilio's incredible homage to the second half of the 20th century, Underworld. No, it's got nothing to do with Vampires or Kate Beckinsale - sorry, Richard.

The novel is a study of junk, beginning with a certain baseball, and centred on a garbage disposal consultant, Nick Shay, who specialises in highly-toxic waste. Nick's friend and colleague, Jesse Detwiler, is famous for stealing J. Edgar Hoover's garbage, and has a distinctive take on trash, that can be read as the underlying message of the book.

"See we have everything backwards," he said.
Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage came first, inciting people to build a civilization in response, in self-defense. We had to find ways to discard our waste, to use what we couldn't discard, to reprocess what we couldn't use. Garbage pushed back. It mounted and spread. And it forced us to develop the logic and rigor that would lead to systematic investigations of reality, to science, art, music, mathematics. ...
Consume or die. That's the mandate of the culture. And it all ends up in the dump. We make stupendous amounts of garbage, then we react to it, not only technologically but in our hearts and minds. We let it shape us. We let it control our thinking. Garbage comes first, then we build a system to deal with it.

Now, that's probably interesting enough for one blog post. The idea of philosophy and culture in general being a response to a big-o Other is not new. It goes back as far as Hegel, probably further. But notice how, in this picture, the other is not passive. Garbage pushes, it spreads. It incites culture.

Liz Grosz has been working on this idea lately, and what comes next is partly for her, because there's an analogue in the biological sciences, in the thick of our genetic code.

You know that the human genome has been sequenced, but did you know that only 3% of all that DNA code goes into producing proteins? Only about 25,000 genes actively contribute to the functioning of the human body. What's more remarkable is that mice have a similar number of active genes, yet we're far more complex organisms than mice. We can't explain that complexity in terms of the number of active genes, so how do we explain it? Well, as you may have guessed, the answer seems to have to do with the amount of junk. Only 80% of a mouse's genetic code is inactive, while junk DNA makes up 97% of our DNA - more than any other species.

Remarkably, it seems we're biologically more sophisticated than other species because of how much DNA we throw away. (Would it be too lame to say it's the DNA humanity rejects that makes it the best?) But this junk DNA isn't quite "thrown away", is it? We still carry it around in our genetic code. It's still all there, even if it doesn't do anything. So, we'd be better off saying that the key difference between mice and ourselves is the amount of junk DNA we can live with.

Hopefully, that's starting to make the parallel clearer. If the parallel holds, it seems that we ought to say that humanity's complexity is the result of finding a way of living with more junk than any other species. Put that way, a continuity between genetic adaptation and social evolution starts to seem plausible, don't you think?

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