Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

The Philadelphia Inquirer
Tuesday, March 6, 2001

Tuesday, March 6, 2001


What does genome project say about evolution?
(response to column below)

The human genome project report is no more proof that Darwin was right than it is proof that God doesn't exist (Commentary, Feb. 23). In fact, the report supports the idea that human beings are greater than the sum of their parts.

The report has broad implications for the errors of reductionism, implications that many people may want to avoid and must now confront. For example, people want nonexistent scientific answers to ease existential anxiety about basic human experiences. Not knowing the reasons for certain behaviors is disturbing. We cannot reduce these human problems to simple or complex electrochemical processes.

What is, in part, exciting about the report is that it creates far more questions than answers about what it means to be human. And, undoubtedly to Arthur Caplan's chagrin, many formerly atheistic and even agnostic scientists may now find good reason to believe in the existence of God because of it.

Jeffrey A. Schaler

More letters

Friday, February 23, 2001
Page: A23
Edition: SF



By Arthur Caplan

On Feb. 12, the media flubbed the headline for the biggest news event in the last 50 years of science.

Reporters and TV talking heads crammed a Washington news conference to hear a joint announcement from the journals Science and Nature that a nearly complete map of the human genetic string was soon to be published. Big news. What they didn't understand was that the details they were hearing about the human genome offered the story of a lifetime.

They missed the real headline. Their stories simply should have said: "DARWIN VINDICATED!"

Most reporters played up the fierce competition between scientists working for the publicly funded Human Genome Project and those employed by the privately funded Celera Genomics Corporation of Rockville, Md., to gain credit for the discovery. Others wondered about the financial implications of allowing human genes to be patented.

Still other headlines were meant to give us pause about whether it would be good or bad to know more about the role genes play in determining our health. Knowing more about our genes, after all, might not be so great in an era in which there is not much guarantee of medical privacy but a pretty good chance of discrimination by insurers and employers against those with "bad" genes.

There were even a couple of headlines that suggested that humanity should not be quite so arrogant since we do not have as many genes as we thought relative to other plants and animals. In fact, as it turns out, we have only twice as many genes as a fruit fly, or roughly the same number as an ear of corn, about 30,000.

But none of these headlines capture the most important consequence of mapping out all of our genes. The genome reveals, indisputably and beyond any serious doubt, that Darwin was right: Humankind evolved over a long period of time from primitive animal ancestors.

Our genes show that the teachings lumped under the term scientific creationism cannot be true. The response to all those who say there is no proof, no test and no evidence in support of evolution is: "The proof is right here, in our genes."

Eric Lander of the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., said that if you look at our genome it is clear that "evolution . . . must make new genes from old parts."

The core recipe of humanity carries clumps of genes that show we are descended from bacteria. There is no other way to explain the jerry-built nature of the genes that control key aspects of our development. It's not just that we have DNA in common with these other, older life forms. It's also that this string isn't very elegant: It's redundant, full of noise, inoperative stretches, junk. It came to be in a complex, selective, messy process over millions and millions of years.

No one can look at how the book of life is written and not come away fully understanding that our genetic instructions have evolved from the same programs that guided the development of earlier animals. Our instructions have been slowly assembled from those that made jellyfish, dinosaurs, wooly mammoths and our primate ancestors.

There is, as the scientists who cracked the genome all agreed, no other possible explanation.

Sure, the business side of cracking our genetic code is fascinating. And we all need to be sure that our government does not leave us in the genetic lurch without laws to ensure our privacy and protect us against genetic discrimination.

These however, are concerns for the future. Right now the big news from mapping our genome is that humankind evolved. The theory of evolution is the only way to explain the arrangement of the 30,000 genes and three billion letters that constitute our genetic code.

The history of humanity is written in our DNA. Those who dismiss evolution as myth, who insist that evolution has no place in biology textbooks and our children's classrooms, are wrong. The message our genes send is this: Charles Darwin was right.

Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This article originally was posted on