Professor Barry Commoner was a prominent cell biologist and became an important leader of the environmental movement. He died on 30 September 2012 aged 95. My introduction to him came whilst browsing the pages of Nature in 1968: an article with the provocative title: "Failure of the Watson-Crick Theory as a Chemical Explanation of Inheritance". This was a fascinating read, and it made me aware of the existence of high profile academics who were prepared to engage with the consensus of the day, providing a spirited assault on orthodoxy. He did not waver in his conviction that there was something seriously wrong with what was known as the "Central Dogma" of molecular biology. But he was too radical for most of his academic colleagues. Commoner found the analysis of Thomas Kuhn helpful: talking across paradigms is difficult because theoretical models are multi-factored. During a visit to the UK in 1971, he was interviewed by Martin Sherwood, who subsequently wrote:
"Barry Commoner is almost a molecular biologist's nightmare. [. . .] His attack on the central dogma has led to "backlash" from the orthodox molecular biologists. None of them has yet accepted his challenge for a public discussion. He has had difficulty in getting his material on the subject published. He likens his problems to those of anyone who, in the terms of Kuhn's theory of the structure of scientific revolutions, is attempting to change the current paradigm, or scientific world picture." (page 103, for more on Kuhn, go here)
Time Magazine cover, February 2, 1970 | Vol.95 No.5 (Source here)
The acme of his challenge came in Harper's Magazine in 2002. The article had the title "Unraveling the DNA Myth" and the tagline was: "The spurious foundation of genetic engineering". The argument could not be ignored, and it aroused the ire of the editor of Nature Genetics. The incredulity expressed in the second paragraph is hard to miss.
"In a long essay entitled "Unraveling The DNA Myth", Barry Commoner declares that the fruits of the Human Genome Project, along with other findings of modern genetics, have undermined everything geneticists thought to be true about their subject. Francis Crick's central dogma is dead, and the creaky, DNA-based edifice of genetics and biotechnology is baseless. The central dogma, according to Commoner, assumes that "an organism's genome...should fully account for its characteristic assemblage of inherited traits." He continues, arguing that "The premise, unhappily, is false. Tested between 1990 and 2001 in one of the largest and most highly publicized scientific undertakings of our time, the Human Genome Project, the theory collapsed under the weight of fact. There are far too few human genes to account for the complexity of our inherited traits." What's more, "the downfall of the central dogma...also destroyed the scientific foundation of genetic engineering."" (source here)
Commoner was an activist within the AAAS for many years, so it might be expected that Science Magazine would provide something to mark his passing. A news item appeared on 5 October: "Early Leader of Environmental Movement Dies". This brief note carried the information that Commoner was "known as an often provocative scholar", but there is little indication about what those provocative views were. Subsequently, on 23 November, Michael Egan wrote a letter on "Barry Commoner's Place in History". This majored on the thought that "Commoner's life in science offers a crucial perspective on the development of science and public life through the 20th century." His role as an champion of environmentalism was applauded.
"Commoner's Four Laws of Ecology (everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch) are perhaps of more social consequence than scientific, but by the 1970s Commoner was - as TIME magazine rightly observed - a scientist "with a classroom of millions". His life and career constitute a model for science activism and social engagement. He should be remembered for his deep-seated belief in the scientist's social responsibility, his duty to the public, and his unwavering faith in an informed citizenry."
It is noticeable that Commoner's critique of the central dogma gets no mention. A careful analysis would show that his environmentalism and his rejection of the central dogma come from the same source: the conviction that life at every level is best understood as a circular system with a network of interactions. There is a unified approach to all his thinking and it is a mistake to think that the environmentalism is independent of challenges to the central dogma. It is, however, very common for people to selectively report so that the hearers get the message the reporter wants them to hear. Winston Churchill is reputed to have said: "History is written by the victors"; he knew how easy it is to pass on a coloured account of the past. The same problem is found within science - those advancing consensus ideas communicate their perspective on the issues to subsequent generations. In Commoner's case, it appears that we are supposed to remember him for his environmentalism, but his challenging views on molecular biology are either deemed best forgotten, or people have failed to realize the importance of this aspect of his life. This same air-brushing, for example, is found in his Wikipedia entry and in many obituaries.
Needless to say, the issues have not gone away. The approach of consensus scientists is to diminish the significance of the arguments advanced. The stance is always one of - we have known all this for a long time and we find no incompatibility between these data and the consensus theory. Here is the editorial in Nature Genetics again:
"And even if one takes Commoner's broader view of the central dogma, it is hard to see what the fuss is about. The often obscure path from genotype to phenotype is, of course, dependent on the protein-protein interactions that underlie alternative splicing, post-translational modification, gene silencing and epigenetic regulation, in addition to a whole host of environmental factors."
The problem is, of course, one of communication across paradigms. The consensus in molecular biology is that DNA provides a blueprint for life but, according to Commoner, the blueprint is provided by the cell as a whole. This is directly relevant to applications of knowledge: if Commoner is right, genetic therapies via DNA manipulation will always provide disappointments. Similarly, when seeking to understand inherited variations, the linear model of Watson-Crick puts all the emphasis on DNA sequences. However, Commoner's systems perspective requires us to consider biological information flows in the cell considered as a whole.
"Biologists have confronted successively - like a nest of Chinese boxes - levels of complexity ranging from the ecosystem to the internal chemistry of the cell. The last box has now been opened. According to the Watson-Crick theory, it should have contained the single source of all the inherited specificity of living organisms - DNA. It is my view that we now know that the last box is empty and that the inherited specificity of life is derived from nothing less than life itself." (Source here)
There are important issues here that Commoner held in common with many design-orientated scientists. This is not just the critiques of neodarwinian theory and the central dogma, but also the priorities for research and educational programmes. It is important to realize that these different paradigms do lead to agendas for action that have practical implications. It was Commoner's view that the Watson-Crick theory is leading us in the wrong direction. (For more on the central dogma, go here.)
"Impelled by this belief [of the fundamental importance of the Watson-Crick theory], much of current research on a wide array of biological processes, including virus infection, carcinogenesis, differentiation, memory, and the origins of life, has become a search for evidence that might bring these processes within the scope of the Watson-Crick theory. On similar grounds, the theory has begun to influence profoundly the structure of academic programmes in biology, encouraging emphasis on the supposedly universal biochemical origin of the specificity of biological processes, rather than on the diversity and complexity of the processes themselves. [. . .] If correct, the Watson-Crick theory is indeed of overriding importance to biology; conversely, if incorrect, its negative effects on the science may be equally profound." " (Source here)
Barry Commoner's Place in History
Science, 23 November 2012: 338, 1028 | DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6110.1028-a
The brief announcement on these pages of Dr. Barry Commoner's passing echoed those of mainstream media outlets, which lauded his work in environmental politics ("Early leader of environmental movement dies," News of the Week, 5 October, p. 23). More important, Commoner's life in science offers a crucial perspective on the development of science and public life through the 20th century.
Wag the dogma
Nature Genetics, 30, 343 - 344 (2002) | doi:10.1038/ng0402-343
In a recent News & Views article in Nature Genetics, David Goldstein offered that "The natural world is not famous for making life easy for human geneticists." A fair statement, although most would probably agree that at least the hard-won intellectual foundations of the field are secure. What a surprise, then, to pick up February's issue of Harper's Magazine, and to read that the entire enterprise has been revealed to be a sham.
Failure of the Watson-Crick Theory as a Chemical Explanation of Inheritance
Nature, 220, 334-340 (26 October 1968) | doi:10.1038/220334a0
Abstract: In reply to recent criticism Professor Commoner discusses current evidence in support of his conclusion that the Watson-Crick theory is an inadequate explanation of inheritance.
Commoner, B. Unraveling the DNA Myth, Harper's Magazine, Feb 2002
Sherwood, M., Compassionate Cassandra, New Scientist, 8 April 1971, 102-103.
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