Ever since its structure was unraveled in the early Fifties, DNA has been considered the mastermind of the cell. Sitting in splendid isolation in the cell’s nucleus, DNA encodes all of life. It sends duplicates of itself (RNA) to direct the manufacture of proteins; and proteins, as high-school biology teaches, are the building blocks of the cell. In terms of biological machinery. The genetic picture has gotten more and more sophisticated ever since.
But something doesn’t look quite right here. If every cell is a biological robot, and the entire body is made up of cells, then we must be biological robots too. This view, which a surprising number of geneticists believe in, cannot be true. It is a conclusion that the old model of DNA supported because that model was reductionist–that is, all complex processes can be explained by breaking them down into more basic processes. The whole approach is totally logical, but nobody can seriously claim that the works of Shakespeare and Mozart are explainable by protein manufacture. And in our daily lives we think thoughts and feel emotions, which proteins don’t, or cells for that matter.
As a result, genetics has been racing to catch up with human reality. On several fronts there has been progress, of a sort. So-called Systems Biology has emerged to examine how the body works as a dynamic, changing organism responding to input from the environment. In this way DNA stopped being so rigid and got into the game. On another front a field known as epigenetics began to study how everyday experience, including our lifestyle and memory, actually gets chemically imprinted on our genes. Again, DNA became more dynamic and responsive.
But while DNA was getting liberated, what was really happening? One could argue that the only thing changing was a scientific model. Reality wasn’t changing at all. Now it is dawning that DNA is fundamentally so mysterious, biology can’t even contain it, much less explain it. The crack in mainstream genetics came from the huge shock administered by the Human Genome Project, which discovered, to widespread dismay, that the complexity of human life came down to only 20,000 genes. This number was ridiculously small, about 20% of the previous guesstimate. To quote geneticist John Mattick, “that number is tiny. It’s effectively the same as a microscopic worm that has just 1,000 cells.”
To counter the shock, geneticists began a sweep of every nook and cranny of human DNA, an immense undertaking, to discover what DNA really does. Only 1% to 2% of DNA is coded for manufacturing proteins and thus keeping cellular machinery going. The rest was dismissed as “Junk” DNA for a long time. That day is past, and thanks to a couple of decades of intensive research, Junk DNA is junk no more. It is evident that the complex ways that our genes are switched on and off, up and down, happens in unexplored stretches of DNA. Recently a team from Yale and Singapore looked at the DNA of all mammals in order to isolate stretches (small paragraphs and pages inside the vast chemical library) that belong only to Homo sapiens.
One such sequence, known as HACNS1, is related to two interrelated characteristics that make humans unique: our fingers and toes. Around 3 million years ago, it is currently thought, our ancestors began to develop the opposable thumb that made tool-making possible, along with shorter toes and more rigid feet, which aided them to walk upright. If HACNS1 is inserted into mouse embryos, it becomes active during the phase of development when mouse paws develop. A powerful clue had been discovered.
But before anyone shouts “bingo!” there’s a very troubling hitch. The new genetics, including all the breakthroughs we’ve just sketched in, rests on a strange, unproven assumption. This is the assumption that genes can actually do what humans do. A perfect example is telling time. The human body operates according to set rhythms and internal clocks. There is a timed sequence for growing baby teeth and then losing them, for developing an immune system, for going through puberty, falling asleep and waking up, and much, much more. Looking at the body’s hundreds of biological clocks, you’d have to suppose that DNA can tell time.
But that’s absurd. Chemicals live in the now. They meet and interact instantly. They have zero capacity to hesitate, plan ahead, remember, and keep to a schedule. It doesn’t matter how complex an atom or molecule is in its structure. Nothing in chemistry indicates that DNA can tell time. Instead, DNA orchestrates signaling pathways in which the temporal and spatial series of signaling events lead to the cells and biological functions needed by the body to survive at any given moment. But we as humans know how to experience time. In fact, the word “experience” encapsulates the hollowness at the core of current genetics. DNA has no experiences, but we do. Claiming that a non-experiencing mastermind sits in the middle of our cells for the purpose of originating the richness of human experience is nonsense.
Time is only the tip of the iceberg. Right this minute you are experiencing the world as sight, sound, color, taste, texture, and smell. Supposedly your brain makes this possible, and the brain, composed of around 100 billion neurons, is sustained by DNA. Yet the brain itself is silent and dark, and brain cells stay alive according to the same processes, more or less, as a liver or kidney cell. So are we to suppose that DNA “knows” it is inside a neuron and therefore sees, hears, smells, and tastes? For that matter, how did a single fertilized ovum in a mother’s womb “know” how to tell its progeny to become brain cells in the first place? That’s one smart ovum. It not only predicts the future but directs it down to the smallest detail.
To get past this glitch in genetics requites the kind of paradigm shift that more and more theorists are beginning to demand. Biology is a very hands-on enterprise, and theory isn’t welcome in the laboratory or out in the field. But there is no other way forward except to overturn some basic assumptions completely. These assumptions include the following:
- Matter can explain mind.
- Bits of matter known as genes created Homo sapiens.
- If bits of matter become complex enough, they explain how experience works.
- Reducing complicated processes down to simple processes always leads to the right answer.
- If you want to know what a person is all about, map his genome.
These are the standard assumptions of genetics, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and everything they touch upon. Overturning them will be hard; it will encounter stubborn, angry blow-back. But in reality, genes are an artifact of scientific models, and those models are completely arbitrary. We are asked to believe in models for their own sake in order to protect the sanctity of scientific investigation. We are great advocates of science ourselves, but it must be founded on reality. At bottom, reality is just experience and the knowing of experience. Reality occurs in consciousness and nowhere else. Attributing life to DNA is the opposite of what is actually going on. Life created DNA, in the sense that without consciousness at the source, nothing our genes do can possibly be explained. It’s time for a paradigm shift if we really intend to understand who we are and why we are here.
Deepak Chopra MD, FACP, founder of The Chopra Foundation and co-founder of The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation, and is Board Certified in Internal Medicine, Endocrinology and Metabolism. He is a Fellow of the American College of Physicians and a member of the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists. The World Post and The Huffington Post global internet survey ranked Chopra #17 influential thinker in the world and #1 in Medicine. Chopra is the author of more than 80 books translated into over 43 languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. His latest books are Super Genes co-authored with Rudolph Tanzi, PhD and Quantum Healing (Revised and Updated): Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. www.deepakchopra.com
Dr. Rudolph Tanzi is the Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit and Vice-Chair of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Tanzi discovered several Alzheimer’s disease (AD) genes and directs the Alzheimer’s Genome Project. He is now actively developing therapies for treating AD based on knowledge gained from genetics and lifestyle interventions. Dr. Tanzi has published over 475 papers and has received the Metropolitan Life Foundation Award, Potamkin Prize, the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award, and was on the 2015 TIME100 Most Influential People in the World list. He also co-authored the New York Times Bestseller, “Super Brain” and “Super Genes” with Dr. Deepak Chopra.