Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Glimpse of Matt Ridley's Genome

Genome by Matt Ridley is a fascinating read explaining our twenty-three pairs of chromosome and their whats, hows, if sos and so whats. Each chapter offers an in depth look at how the human genome affects our history, fate, intelligence, self-interest, disease, stress, personality, sex, death, and so on, and so forth.  

But what I love most is Ridley's prose. He elegantly transforms complex, abstract concepts into  easy-to-understand metaphors. 

It's been years since I've read it, but Ridley's words left a powerful visual imprint on my mind. Today, I'll illustrate a few of my favorite passages: 

"Imagine that the genome is a book.

There are twenty-three chapters, called Chromosomes.
Each chapter contains several thousand stories, called Genes.
Each story is made up of paragraphs, called Exons,
which are interrupted by advertisements called Introns.
Each paragraph is made up of words, called Codons.
Each word is written in letters called Bases."

"In the beginning was the word.

The word
proselytised the sea with its message, copying itself unceasingly and forever.

The word
discovered how to rearrange chemicals

so as to capture little eddies in the stream of entropy and make them live.

"The word
transformed the land surface of the planet from a dusty hell to a verdant paradise.

The word
eventually blossomed and became sufficiently ingenious
to build a porridgy contraption called a human brain...

that could  discover and be aware of the word itself."

"My porridgy contraption boggles every time I think this thought. In four thousand million years of earth history, I am lucky enough to be alive today. In five million species, I was fortunate enough to be born a conscious human being. Among six thousand million people on the planet, I was privileged enough to be born in the country where the word was discovered.

In all of earth's history, biology and geography, I was born just five years after the moment when, and just two hundred miles from the the place where, two members of my own specifies discovered the structure of DNA...

and hence uncovered the greatest, simplest, most surprising secret in the universe."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Lessons from Our Grandparents

Recently for the first time, I saw records documenting my great grandfather's emmigration from Italy.

A million questions sprang forth: What was he like? How did he feel?

Was he outgoing and funny?

Ecccentric? Or dark and brooding?

I can picture him setting off to sea, eager for a fresh start. In my mind's eye, I see him landing in his new world and trying hard to fit in.

Eventually came his daughter, my grandmother, on the left.

This picture is—of course—worth a thousand words. But I'm more intrigued by the words that were never said.

What was she thinking at this very moment?

What was her inner world like?

Who was her friend? How did they influence each other?

And were they open to desire?

Did their society present opportunities and hope...or constraints and limitations?

My grandmother recently passed away, so she can't answer these questions now. But at the very least (in an effort to better understand the situation) I can try to re-trace her steps.


History is the link from her past to my present. Her generation faced the aftermath of WW1 and the great depression. A failed economy, mass migration, extensive unemployment, and increased poverty. Gloom that spread across the globe.

And I can only imagine how much more difficult it may have been for first and second generation immigrants...


That was a much different time. Society has changed... and the rules of the game have changed as well.

Our world is an entirely different world to make sense of. It's kinda hard to “follow in their footsteps” or “walk a mile in their shoes” when that road has long been paved into a highway. 

Think about it... today, there are more than one billion internet users. The internet represents choice and possibility.

It reminds me of the printing press from history class. Around 1440, it displaced the old way of doing things—laboriously transcribing texts—and allowed for the mass distribution of knowledge. Sometimes, technology doesn't just make our daily life easier. It also changes the way we communicate, how we obtain knowledge, and deepens our understanding of the world. It changes the fabric of who we are.

By Alte Bilder
With the passing of the older generation, my generation finds itself at an interesting crossroads.

With all that we know now about neuroscience and how influential we are on young minds, we have a moral imperative to leverage this societal shift to promote the good aspects of human nature and minimize the bad.

Sure, in 500 years perhaps anything I do in this life will be long forgotten, but any small impact I had by merely being a good person could leave some faint imprint on future people.

A radio program recently broadcast great words of wisdom from a centenarian. When asked for the most important piece of advice he'd like to pass on, he said:

“Be open to change.

Because it will happen no matter what."

Before the invention of the radio, we would have never dreamed it possible, and when it came out, a lot of people were suspicious of it. Then the same thing happened again with television—it upset a lot of people because they didn't like the direction the world was headed. But eventually people got used to it.

I can still hear his voice say, "If you accept that change is just another inevitable part of life, you'll be better off and much happier.”

 Accepting change frees our minds to promote progress.

What will our generations' legacy be?