Life remains mysterious, despite science advances

By | February 14, 2009

… “Wonders are there many,” observed the Greek dramatist Sophocles, “but none more wonderful than man.” And rightly so, for we, as far as we can tell, are the sole witnesses of the splendours of the universe – though consistently less impressed by this privileged position than would seem warranted.

The chief reason for that lack of astonishment has always been that the practicalities of our everyday lives are so simple and effortless as to seem unremarkable. We open our eyes on waking to be surrounded by the shapes and colours, sounds and smells of the world in the most exquisite detail. We feel hungry, and by some magical alchemy of which we know nothing, our bodies transform the food and drink before us into our flesh and blood. We open our mouth to speak and the words flow in a ceaseless bubbling brook of thoughts and ideas.

We reproduce, and play no part in the transformation of the fertilised egg into a fully formed embryo with its 4,000 functioning parts. We tend to our children’s needs, but effortlessly they grow to adulthood, replacing along the way virtually every cell in their bodies.

These practicalities are not in the least bit simple, but in reality are the simplest things we know – because they have to be so. If our senses did not accurately capture the world around us, were the growth from childhood not virtually automatic, then “we” would never have happened. …

The genome projects were predicated on the reasonable assumption that spelling out the full complement of genes would clarify, to a greater or lesser extent, the source of that diversity of form that marks out the major categories of life. It was thus disconcerting to learn that virtually the reverse is the case, with a near equivalence of a (modest) 20,000 genes across the vast spectrum from a millimetre-long worm to ourselves.

It was similarly disconcerting to learn that the human genome is virtually interchangeable with that of our fellow vertebrates, such as the mouse and our primate cousins.

“We cannot see in this why we are so different from chimpanzees,” remarked the director of the chimp genome project. “The obvious differences cannot be explained by genetics alone.” …

More unexpected still, the same regulatory genes that cause a fly to be a fly, it emerged, cause humans to be humans with not a hint of why the fly should have six legs, a pair of wings and a brain the size of a full stop, and we should have two arms, two legs and a turbo-sized brain. These “instructions” must be there, of course, but we have moved in the wake of these projects from supposing we knew the principles of the genetic basis of the infinite variety of life, to recognising we have no conception of what they might be.

… Meanwhile, the greatest conundrum remains – how the monotonous electrical activity of those billions of neurons in the brain “translates” into the limitless range and quality of subjective experiences of our lives, where every moment has its own unique, intangible feel. …

“We seem as far from understanding the brain as we were a century ago,” says the editor of Nature, John Maddox. “Nobody understands how decisions are made or how imagination is set free.”

Certainly, for the foreseeable future there will be no need to defer to those who would appropriate our sense of wonder at the glorious panoply of nature and ourselves, by their claims to understand it. Rather, the very aspect of the living world now seems once again infused with that deep sense of mystery of “How can these things be?”

via How life has preserved its mystery – Telegraph.

2 thoughts on “Life remains mysterious, despite science advances

  1. Xeno Post author

    Something that I think is conspicuously missing from the Internet is a single web site which shows, for each discipline in science, what big things remain unknown. What are the current biggest mysteries in biology, genetics, physics, astronomy, botany, anthropology, alternative energy, medicine, etc. Does anyone know of such a site? If not, perhaps I should work on something like that…consult some experts… seems like a good project.

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