complexity, intelligence

Where Angels Fear to Tread

As a nonscientist with one big toe in advanced science (I have copyedited everything from molecular genetics to quantum physics, don’t ask me how), I get to make a fool of myself by talking about things I really don’t understand very well. Here’s one of them.

One of the limitations on our thinking about molecular biology may be that we have to give things discrete names to think about them, whereas “in nature” there are just various molecular modules that are repurposed, reassembled, “decorated,” and recycled in myriad ways. Many molecules that to us are distinct named entities serving distinct purposes are really very, very similar to each other, differing just by a methyl group, a charged side group or tail that makes the molecule interact or fold differently, a joining of peptides into a dimer or polymer, or . . . That means in a way the molecular traffic in cells may be LESS complicated than it looks to us. We envision many more distinct entities than there actually are in the protean stuff that multitasks the maintenance of life. The process of learning biochemistry and molecular biology may be a process of first identifying distinct molecules and later reconstructing the cross-functional kinships among them, which is at best backwards from the way life does it (and even “backwards” is too two-dimensional). Life is so much smarter than we are!

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