Monday, December 26, 2016

Is genetics still metaphysical? Part V1/2. A relevant holiday exercise?

It's the holiday season, and what with family and friends, and over-eating (and drinking), one can't operate at full speed.  So I thought that by writing a quick half-post in this series (post V 1/2), I could stall for a day or two before wrapping it up.

Yesterday, as in the past on Christmastime, I took some familiar verse and turned it into some science-relevant doggerel.  In prior years I've mainly reworked well known carols or Christmas songs.  This year I chose some verses that most readers of MT will have been familiar with or even have read in school.  I do it for the fun and challenge, but what exactly does the process involve?  On thinking about that, in the context of the current series of posts about genetic and evolutionary theory, and advances in scientific theory generally, it struck me that the process of writing this kind of doggerel has some inadvertent lessons to teach.

I don't know how you or anyone else cobbles a bit of doggerel together (here, I guess I can't resonate with those of you who take a common view, and think doggerel is so inane that it should be against the law).

I take a well-known poem or stanza, that has long been in my head and that I think most readers will recognize.  This is a form, or we could even think of it as a 'species', with a kind of unity.  My objective is to try to modify that unity to give some other sort of message, but without changing the recognizability of the original.

I try my best to keep as many of the original words as possible, as well as the meter and even the punctuation.  But I substitute words to achieve a very different meaning.  In my obviously amateurish way, I at least try with these new words to keep the phrasing, stress, consonants and vowels as similar as I can.  In that sense, it should 'feel' like the same verse, but have a totally different, unrelated or even reversed message.  Here is how I modified the first 4 lines of Trees:

Original :                                                       My doggerelic changes:                    
I think that I shall never see                          I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.                               A gene as lovely as a tree
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest             A gene whose  histones' mouth is pres'd
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;      'Gainst coiled enhancer's flowing twist;

Reading the new version should feel, in a metric sense and beyond, like the original.  The changes can be humorous, satirical, or poignant, but the new poem should be a kind of new species in the same genus as the original.  It is in that sense an evolutionary product: it did not start from scratch, and it retained the 'fitness' characteristics--the basic framework and substance--of the original.

You can see that no single word-change, not even a groan-worthy pun, can achieve this.  Each new word or modification, alters the meaning of a phrase, or its impact or 'feeling', but in itself would make no sense.  This is obvious, when you look at the famous two lines:

Poems are made by fools like me,                   Genes are named by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.                         But lonely genes can't make a tree.

Here, my hopefully obvious contrast was of individual causal elements (individual genes) and the composite action of many genes working together.

In a second example from yesterday's post, here is what I did with Browning's very famous sonnet:

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

My doggerelic changes:
How do I leaf thee?  Let me count the ways.
I leaf thee to the depth and breadth and height
My bows can reach, when flow'ring out of sight

For survival as a unit, multiple changes must be made, and there may be many ways to do it (or to try it, at least, as I can tell you from the effort  to make yesterday's doggerel versions worth posting!).   The revision should read, or sound, or feel like the original, even if the overall meaning is profoundly changed.  One can build a new sense to a slight extent, with a single change, but the thing really wouldn't fly until many changes are made and a key point is that the changes must work in trans: they must relate to each other!  As in the original, the various parts interact to generate the end result. Even to be viable as a working intermediate, I find that I must make at least a few changes, but I can vary these, adding or removing some, always going back to the original, as I work towards what (when it's done) I find acceptable.  In fact, if I look back, I can see better ways I might have done it.

This is an evolution, but it is of course not like biological evolution in one very important--and relevant--sense:  I have some goal in mind.  My goal is usually generic, and it may change, so it's not entirely teleological (it leads to 'spandrels', if you're familiar with that famous view of the evolution of novelty), but when I make even my first change test, I have a thought about the general direction.

However, this process does involve a kind of overall, integrative synthesis--the topic of our 'metaphysical gene' series here.  At some point, for an amateur like me at least, it just feels right as a unit.  Each individual change may then be examined and re-modified, but only in the context of the new whole.  For me, it feels as if I have seen the many parts of both the original and the bits I've changed, or other bits I might change, or alternatives in the context of the overall product, just as the original poet had an original, whole in mind.  That is, there is a kind of gestalt change of the whole, not its separated parts, each of which have their own strong and weak points, otherwise unrelated to that overall gestalt.

In my next post, I'll try to  provide some genetically specific examples of the sorts of facts we have in our science, that we know are true, but that we may not be integrating into the kind of gestalt that I've been discussing here.  Perhaps, in a way similar to other changes in science, concentrating on these separate, not obviously similar, facts may help stimulate a whole new picture.

But as I've said already in this 'Metaphysical' series, perhaps the fragmented nature of what we see is, as they say, what there is: perhaps thinking we'll have, or even that we need, a new Darwinian insight, is romantic thinking.  Perhaps life is just a causally messy phenomenon, not one we can unite with a grand synthesis.  Perhaps causal prediction won't turn out to be precise in our field as it is (or at least seems to an outsider to be) in physics.  Maybe life is already the doggerel we've been dealt!

Meanwhile, try it yourself!
If you look again at my tinkered verses in yesterday's post, or even try do do the same yourself with some favorite verse (or take one of my choices and change it in a very different way), perhaps you can get a sense of what I'm trying to convey about the nature of synthesis, how changes are brought about when it must be done in the whole, and with many equivalents, and so on.

Just pick some verse and in a word processor copy it so you can see both versions at the same time. Then with some objective, start modifying, one word or phrase at the time.  Try to keep the meter, basic sounds and stresses, and even the flow of the logic similar, but give it a whole different meaning. In my experience, it's a good kind of enjoyable brain exercise, if nothing else.  It forces you to try to see a whole 'above' its parts, a synthesis one might say, and then make it a different but still functioning kind of 'whole'.

In any case, in my next post I'll try to be clearer about the sorts of facts (the current version of the verse, so to speak) that we face in genetics today.


Alex Gamma said...

If you look again //
at my tinkered verse of yesterday //
and try to do the same //
but change it in a different way //
perhaps you get a sense of //
what I’m trying to convey //

Ken Weiss said...

That's it!!