What we're trying to do in behavioral genetics and medical genetics is explain differences. It's important to know that we all share approximately 99 percent of our DNA sequence. If we sequence, as we can now readily do, all of our 3 billion base pairs of DNA, we will be the same at over 99 percent of all those bases. That's what makes us similar to each other. It makes us similar to chimps and most mammals. We're over 90 percent similar to all mammals. There's a lot of genetic similarity that's important from an evolutionary perspective, but it can't explain why we're different. That's what we're up to, trying to explain why some children are reading disabled, or some people become schizophrenic, or why some people suffer from alcoholism, et cetera. We're always talking about differences. The only genetics that makes a difference is that 1 percent of the 3 billion base pairs. But that is over 10 million base pairs of DNA. We're looking at these differences and asking to what extent they cause the differences that we observe.
ROBERT PLOMIN is a professor of behavioral genetics at King's College London and deputy director of the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. Robert Plomin's Edge Bio Page
The big story of the 20th and the 21st century is that we’re learning to control the world better. With the development of quantum mechanics, we understand the fundamental principles of what matter is and how it behaves that’s adequate for all engineering purposes.
The limitation is just our imagination and our ability to calculate the consequences of the laws. We’re getting better at both of those as we gain experience. We have more imagination. As computing develops, we learn how to calculate the consequences of the laws better and better. There’s also a feedback cycle: When you can understand matter better, you can design better computers, which will enable you to calculate better. It's kind of an ascending helix.
FRANK WILCZEK, currently the Herman Feshbach Professor of Physics at MIT, has received many prizes for his work in physics, including the Nobel Prize (2004) for work he did as a graduate student at Princeton University. Frank Wilczek's Edge Bio Page
There are now 2000 gene therapies where you’ll take a little piece of engineered DNA, put it inside of a viral coat so all the viral genes are gone, and you can put in, say, a human gene or you can have nonviral delivery, but the important thing is that you’re delivering it either inside of the human or you’re taking cells out of the human and putting the DNA in and then putting them back in. But you can do very powerful things like curing inherited diseases, curing infectious diseases.
For example, you can edit out the receptor for the HIV virus and cure AIDS patients in a way that's not dependent upon vaccines and multidrug resistance, which has plagued the HIV AIDS story from the very beginning. You’re basically making a human being which is now augmented in a certain sense so that, unlike most humans, they are resistant to this major plague of mankind—HIV AIDS.
There are now people walking around who are genetically modified: There are some that are resistant to AIDS because they have had their T cells, or more generally, their blood cells modified. There are children that have been cured of blindness by gene therapy. None of this is CRISPR, but it’s in the same vein. CRISPR is overtaking it very quickly and it’s drafting behind all the beautiful work that’s been done with delivery of DNA, delivery of genetic components to patients.
GEORGE CHURCH is a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Personal Genome Project. George Church's Edge Bio Page
My experience collaborating with Svante since 2007, has been that the data we’ve looked at from the incredible samples they have has yielded surprise after surprise. Nobody had ever gotten to look at data like this before. First, there were the Neanderthals, and then there was this pinky bone from Southern Siberia. At the end of the Neanderthal project, Svante told me we have this amazing genome-wide data from another archaic human, from a little pinky bone of a little girl from a Southern Siberian cave, and asked if I'd like to get involved in analyzing it.
When we analyzed it, it was an incredible surprise: This individual was not a Neanderthal. They were in fact much more distantly related to a Neanderthal than any two humans are today from each other, and it was not a modern human. It was some very distant cousin of a Neanderthal that was living in Siberia in Central Asia at the time that this girl lived.
When we analyzed the genome of this little girl, we saw that she was related to people in New Guinea and Australia. A person related to her had contributed about 5 percent of the genomes to people in New Guinea and Australia and related people—an interbreeding event nobody had known about before. It was completely unexpected. It wasn’t in anybody’s philosophy or anybody’s prediction. It was a new event that was driven by the data and not by people’s presuppositions or previous ideas.
This is what ancient DNA does for us. When you look at the data, it doesn’t always just play into one person’s theory or the other; it doesn’t just play into the Indo-European steppe hypothesis or the Anatolian hypothesis. Sometimes it raises something completely new, like the Denisovan finger bone and the interbreeding of a gene flow from Denisovans into Australians and New Guineans.
DAVID REICH is a geneticist and professor in the Department of Genetics at the Harvard Medical School. David Reich's Edge Bio Page
People have to go around measuring things. There's no escape from that for most of that type of work. There's a deep relationship between the two. No one's going to come up with a model that works without going and comparing with experiment. But it is the intelligent use of experimental measurements that we're after there because that goes to this concept of Bayesian methods. I will perform the right number of experiments to make measurements of, say, the time series evolution of a given set of proteins. From those data, when things are varying in time, I can map that on to my deterministic Popperian model and infer what's the most likely value of all the parameters that would be Popperian ones that would fit into the model. It's an intelligent interaction between them that's necessary in many complicated situations.
PETER COVENEY holds a chair in Physical Chemistry, and is director of the Centre for Computational Science at University College London and co-author, with Roger Highfield, of The Arrow of Time and Frontiers of Complexity. Peter Coveney's Edge Bio Page
My vision of life is that everything extends from replicators, which are in practice DNA molecules on this planet. The replicators reach out into the world to influence their own probability of being passed on. Mostly they don't reach further than the individual body in which they sit, but that's a matter of practice, not a matter of principle. The individual organism can be defined as that set of phenotypic products which have a single route of exit of the genes into the future. That's not true of the cuckoo/reed warbler case, but it is true of ordinary animal bodies. So the organism, the individual organism, is a deeply salient unit. It's a unit of selection in the sense that I call "a vehicle."
There are two kinds of unit of selection. The difference is a semantic one. They're both units of selection, but one is the replicator, and what it does is get itself copied. So more and more copies of itself go into the world. The other kind of unit is the vehicle. It doesn't get itself copied. What it does is work to copy the replicators which have come down to it through the generations, and which it's going to pass on to future generations. So we have this individual replicator dichotomy. They're both units of selection, but in different senses. It's important to understand that they are different senses.
RICHARD DAWKINS is an evolutionary biologist; Emeritus Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Author, The Selfish Gene; The Extended Phenotype; Climbing Mount Improbable; The God Delusion; An Appetite For Wonder; and (forthcoming) A Brief Candle In The Dark. Richard Dawkins's Edge Bio Page
What I want to do today is raise one cheer for falsification, maybe two cheers for falsification. Maybe it’s not philosophical falsificationism I’m calling for, but maybe something more like methodological falsificationism. It has an important role to play in theory development that maybe we have turned our backs on in some areas of this racket we’re in, particularly the part of it that I do—Ev Psych—more than we should have.
MICHAEL MCCULLOUGH is Director, Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory, Professor of Psychology, Cooper Fellow, University of Miami; Author, Beyond Revenge. Michael McCullough's Edge Bio page
What can we tell from the face? There're mixed data, but some show a pretty strong coherence between what is felt and what’s expressed on the face. Happiness, sadness, disgust, contempt, fear, anger, all have prototypic or characteristic facial expressions. In addition to that, you can tell whether two emotions are blended together. You can tell the difference between surprise and happiness, and surprise and anger, or surprise and sadness. You can also tell the strength of an emotion. There seems to be a relationship between the strength of the emotion and the strength of the contraction of the associated facial muscles.
LAWRENCE IAN REED is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology, Skidmore College. Lawrence Ian Reed's Edge Bio page
The way nature is—the nature of flowers, the nature of birdsong and bird plumages—implies that subjective experiences are fundamentally important in biology. That the world looks the way it does and is the way it is because of their vital importance as sources of selection in organic diversity, and as a result we need to structure evolutionary biology to recognize the aesthetic, recognize the subjective experience.
RICHARD PRUM is an evolutionary ornithologist at Yale University, where he is the Curator of Ornithology and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Richard Prum's Edge Bio Page
The significance of the guy holding out his arm, dipping at the wrist, is that that's a gesture that magicians use to imitate the cassowary. The cassowary is New Guinea's biggest bird. It's flightless. It's like a small ostrich. Weighs up to 100 pounds. And it has razor-sharp legs that can disembowel a man. The sign of the cassowary, if you hold out your arm like this, that's the cassowary rolling its head and dipping its head when it's ready to charge. So magicians will imitate a cassowary in order to show their power. Because the cassowary's big and powerful. Magicians identify with the cassowary. They intimidate people.
JARED DIAMOND is Professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles. His latest book, published today, is The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? His other books include Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the widely acclaimed Guns, Germs, and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies, which is the winner of Britain's 1998 Rhone-Poulenc Science Book Prize. Jared Diamond's Edge Bio Page