Science doesn’t progress (or does it?) « Why Evolution Is True

Oy, my kishkas! Science historian Nathaniel Comfort has now emitted at least 65 tweets either doing down Pinker for Steve’s one tweet criticizing Comfort’s dreadful Nature article, or promoting Comfort’s own article. This includes a series of 25 tweets that duplicate what Comfort said on his own website about Pinker.  Talk about overkill!

Having read some of Comfort’s other pieces in Nature and The Atlantic, I see that he’s consistently anti-reductionist, anti-progressive (see below), woke, and postmodern.  I don’t want a spend a lot more time bashing Comfort’s pieces, which are pretty flat anyway, nor do I want to mock his appearance or issue ad hominems, as he did with Pinker. Instead I’ll point you to one Atlantic article that summarizes some of the characteristics of his writing. Click on the screenshot below.

This article is a review of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s recent book on genetics, The Gene: An Intimate History, which sold pretty well, though not as well as Mukherjee’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book on cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. And although I and others had serious issues with Mukherjee’s views on epigenetics and gene regulation, which I think he mischaracterized in pre-publication articles, the book seems to have been tweaked a bit in light of pervasive criticisms.  and Matthew Cobb gave it a mixed review in Nature.

Comfort’s review, though, isn’t very mixed: it’s mostly negative, characterizing the book as “Whig history”, “anti-scientific”, reductionist, ridden with genetic determinism (Comfort, as a pomo historian of science, hates that!), and, in the end, even suggests that the gene may disappear as a meaningful concept. Most bizarrely, Comfort declares that science is not a “march toward truth.”

I’ll give just a few excerpts. First, the wokeness. Referring to Mukherjee’s interludes in India described in the book, Comfort seems to think that they’re merely instances of “India-washing” to hide the hegemony of—you guessed it—Eurocentric revision of the history of genetics:

The curtain rises on Kolkata, where he has gone to visit Moni, his paternal cousin, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. In addition to Moni, two of the author’s uncles were afflicted with “various unravelings of the mind.” Asked for a Bengali term for such inherited illness, Mukherjee’s father replies, “Abheder dosh”—a flaw in identity. Schizophrenia becomes a troubling touchstone throughout the book. But the Indian interludes are tacked onto an otherwise conventional triumphalist account of European-American genetics, written from the winners’ point of view: a history of the emperor of all molecules.

In 1931, the English historian Herbert Butterfield called this approach “the whig interpretation of history.” Most historians, he wrote, were the epitome of the 19th-century English gentleman: “Protestant, progressive, and whig.” The Whig historian “very quickly busies himself with dividing the world into the friends and enemies of progress.” The danger of Whig history is that it justifies the dominance of the ruling class as the outcome of inexorable natural forces.

“Triumphalist”? “Winners?” Science is an international enterprise, and the fact remains that while most of the advances in modern genetics took place in America and Europe (counting the UK), the people who elucidated how DNA worked, made proteins, and was regulated, were international. One of the important figures was Har Gobind Khorana, born in India, who won a Nobel Prize for his work in the U.S. elucidating the triplet nature of the genetic code. As for Protestants, don’t make me laugh! If there’s one thing characterizing the development of molecular genetics after 1953, it was the large number of contributing Jews: Wally Gilbert, Josh Lederberg, Arthur Kornberg, Marshall Nirenberg, François Jacob, Norton Zinder, and of course Rosalind Franklin. There are more “bergs” in the history of molecular genetics than in the Alps!

Speaking of Rosalind Franklin, who certainly was overlooked at the time, but whose reputation has been largely restored by the work of many writers (I agree with Matthew that had she lived, Franklin should have shared the Chemistry prize with Maurice Wilkins, while Watson and Crick could have won the Medicine or Physiology Prize), Comfort throws in a subtle instance of his virtue-flaunting:

In 1953, the brazen Watson and Crick got the credit for solving the double helix, while the heroic Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins were slighted, their roles minimized.

Brazen? Well, how about “ambitious and passionate”? And while the “heroic” Franklin and Wilkins were supposedly slighted, and that’s true of Franklin, it’s not true of Wilkins, who won the Nobel Prize in 1962 along with Watson and Crick. But this sentence and its superfluous adjectives is unnecessary, for, as far as I know, the ignoring of Franklin is not done by Mukherjee.

But I digress. As his review mercifully draws to an end, Comfort, like others before him, denigrates the notion of the gene, twisting the facts to suit his anti-reductionist and anti-genetic determinism agenda:

Ironically, the more we study the genome, the more “the gene” recedes. A genome was initially defined as an organism’s complete set of genes. When I was in college, in the 1980s, humans had 100,000; today, only about 20,000 protein-coding genes are recognized. Those that remain are modular, repurposed, mixed and matched. They overlap and interleave. Some can be read forward or backward. The number of diseases understood to be caused by a single gene is shrinking; most genes’ effects on any given disease are small. Only about 1 percent of our genome encodes proteins. The rest is DNA dark matter. It is still incompletely understood, but some of it involves regulation of the genome itself. Some scientists who study non-protein-coding DNA are even moving away from the gene as a physical thing. They think of it as a “higher-order concept” or a “framework” that shifts with the needs of the cell. The old genome was a linear set of instructions, interspersed with junk; the new genome is a dynamic, three-dimensional body—as the geneticist Barbara McClintock called it, presciently, in 1983, a “sensitive organ of the cell.”

Yes, gene structure and regulation is complicated, but regulation of genes is often done by other genes. And the concept of a gene as a stretch of DNA that makes a protein or controls the production of other proteins is still useful: I hear the word “gene” used in that way every day. Regulatory genes can still be understood as genes. And Comfort’s last sentence make little sense to me. If the concept of “the gene” is receding, it’s news to me.

But most important is Comfort’s ending; I’ve put his anti-progressivism in bold:

The point is not that this is the correct way to understand the genome. The point is that science is not a march toward truth. Rather, as the author John McPhee wrote in 1967, “science erases what was previously true.” Every generation of scientists mulches under yesterday’s facts to fertilize those of tomorrow.

“There is grandeur in this view of life,” insisted Darwin, despite its allowing no purpose, no goal, no chance of perfection. There is grandeur in a Darwinian view of science, too. The gene is not a Platonic ideal. It is a human idea, ever changing and always rooted in time and place. To echo Darwin himself, while this planet has gone cycling on according to the laws laid down by Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton, endless interpretations of heredity have been, and are being, evolved.

What the bloody hell does Comfort mean by saying “science is not a march toward truth”? Of course science walks into blind alleys or has to back off and revise (Nobel Prizes have been given for bogus findings later revised, and of course we know that continents drift while we didn’t think so before the Fifties), but to say that there’s not a general progression towards truth is simply stupid.

We know the formulae of different molecules, we know the structure of DNA and how it codes for proteins, we know that microorganisms cause infectious disease (and which ones cause which diseases), and we know enough about physics to send probes to Saturn and modules to putter around Mars. Compare what we know about the Universe now to what we knew in the seventeenth century when “modern” science is said to have begun. Really, NO MORE TRUTH???

Yes, the notion of “truth” in science isn’t absolute, but you’d have to be a loon to think that science hasn’t settled on some “truths” so unlikely to be revised that you’d bet your house on them. Water is H2O, benzene has six carbon atoms, a bacillus causes bubonic plague, light travels in a vacuum at 299,792, 458 meters per second. And so on, ad infinitum.

What we see here is a postmodernist making ridiculous statements about the nature of science. Why on earth does Nature employ a man who thinks that science isn’t a march toward truth? If it isn’t, what is it?

Well, maybe it is after all, because earlier in the piece, completely contradicting himself, Comfort says this in a paragraph I deliberately truncated:

The danger of Whig history is that it justifies the dominance of the ruling class as the outcome of inexorable natural forces. It is especially seductive when writing about science, for scientific knowledge does indeed progress.

Which is it, Dr. Comfort? Does science march towards truth or not? If not as you say at the end, what does it mean to say that scientific knowledge progresses? Is there a different between truth and scientific knowledge? Is this some postmodernist word game, or did you forget by the end of the piece that you implied earlier on that science does indeed progress in understanding the universe? Or have you redefined the word “march”?

I look forward to Dr. Comfort’s multipart response and explanation on Twitter. But truly, I don’t see why the man is considered qualified to write about science for Nature and The Atlantic. But perhaps those venues want a dose of anti-science and postmodernism as a palliative for the one true way of knowing: science and its empirical methods.

UPDATE: I was reminded that Comfort was once married to Carol Greider, who won the 2009 Medicine or Physiology Nobel Prize along with two others for discovering the enzyme telomerase. This was deeply reductionist work, and telomerase is of course produced by real genes.

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