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The purpose of science is not to be “settled” as nothing can be settled – unless you claim to have met the “maker” of the universe. Those of us who claim to be in pursuit of capital “T” truth are also fooling ourselves. Sure, the pursuit of something MORE truthful is surely worthy, but we often speak of capital “T” truth as if we even have the capability of grasping the ultimate answers to the most important questions. We cannot. If this makes me a radical post-modernist, I suppose I’ll have to don the badge with honor, but I do not think that makes the label appropriate.

In any case, the use of the term “the science” I feel has become just another way for people to NOT have to engage or think deeply about the complexity of a topic. Paradoxially (we can’t use the term Orwellian, it’s not appropriate here, I mean more misguided) then, many common invocations of the term “the science” are intended to precisely do the opposite of what “the science” is meant to do.

Take the case of Evolution. Darwin and subsequent thinkers have done an incredible job probing the mysteries of who we are and how we got here and how things change and so on. The “theory” is absurdly solid. But despite that theory having an absurd amount of empirical support, and being “the science” it does not mean we ought not continue to investigate its mysteries, its potential contradictions or our understanding of how it works.

One example of this is the idea that the grist for the mill of natural selection is random genetic mutations during the replication process of living cells. The simplistic story goes something like – DNA does not always replicate identically, so on occasion (extremely rarely) a DNA will obtain a different genotype on one or more of its base pairs. Most of the time these genotypes do not lead to phenotypic expressions that are noticeable or useful. But on rare occasions these mutations will actually confer an evolutionary advantage on its owner (i.e. it makes it easier to survive and/or reproduce) in a particular environment. To the extent that this mutation does so, the improved ability of owners with that “mutation” to survive and reproduce will “advantage” them in the evolutionary game, and that genotype and hence phenotypic expression will become more popular in the population of that species.

But is that all there is? Of course not. But when the term “the science” is invoked, it surely does lead us to believe that it is the case.

I just finished a wonderful book called The Tangled Tree which illustrates this quite beautifully in a number of different applications. The piece that stuck with me most was the discussion of the concept of Infective Heredity. This possibility (empirically demostrated of course) is very different from the vertical flow of inheritable traits from “your” parents. What we are now coming to understand is that the truth is far more complicated that a unitrunked tree of life spouting off sequentially produced branches. In this book, we learn that human beings contain strong evidence of cell characteristics from a strange form of life known as Archaea that chill out on ocean floors near volcanic vents. Nice! Furthermore, it is well known that the humane genome contains a huge chunk of DNA from invasive retroviruses – so the very essence of human beings in ways beyond the metaphorical is that we are viruses, at least partly. Then of course is the fact there we “host” a galaxy-sized melange of microorganisms that play important roles in our daily functioning. Quammen’s book demonstrates how the very core of our own cells likely evolved by being invaded from foreign organisms and incorporating them.

In other words, a good portion of who we are and how we got here did not come from the lucky adaptations from random ‘beneficial” genetic mutations, but rather from cross-species invasions into our human cells. This “Infective Heredity” discovery doesn’t mean Darwin was wrong or that evolution isn’t real. It dramatically enriches our understanding of how life works, dramatically improves our ability to appreciate the complexity of life – very little in our universe is simple and “just so”, something that we ought to take very seriously as we try to be more “scientific” in the social sciences. We must create and propogate a culture that celebrates the kind of work that discovered these horizontal gene transfers, and help people everywhere to appreciate the complexity of human life, and that the distinction between what feels “natural” and “unnatural” is as blurry as can be.

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