Modern Biology and its tower of Babble

 

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Reading the index of some glamour journals made me think about the Tower of Babel. The famous story starts when life on earth had got under way after The Flood and the surviving human beings decide to build a very large tower that reached into Heaven to challenge God. There is a lot of Biology in the Bible and it is stated that, at this time, all human beings –being derived from a founder effect due to the ‘Noah population bottleneck’- were similar, spoke the same language and shared purpose. Not to digress, the work goes well, helped by the common language. One day God has a close look at what is happening: the project is going swell and there might have been other projects on the go in the same direction. God senses danger (some call it pride) and reckons that the reason for the progress lies in the homogeneity of action through a common language. Worrying that humans might get too big for their boots decides to do something about it -remember that the God of those times is not that kind- .

“If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other” (Genesis 11:6, 7)

As a consequence of this action, people start not understanding each other and progressively break up into groups. As the common purpose and the ability to communicate disappear, the work ceases, the tower is abandoned and humans disperse across the face of the earth. Other projects will appear in due time, but less ambitious, more pedestrian.

One sees elements of what is happening nowadays in Biology, with some consequences. Where a while ago we had a common language manifest in a set of focused significant questions which we could all understand and address together (what was the basis of inheritance, what is the material basis of evolution, what is mechanism whereby a gene effects a structure, or the genetic basis of developmental processes), today we have a collection of fields, each with its own language and aims. Chip-on-Chip, Chip-Seq,  TALEN, CRISPRs, CRISPR-Cas, SPIM, STED, FCS, FACS, MS, LC-MS, SPS-MS, iPS, H3K27m, HDACs……. (see how many you recognize) …….  We seem to have been cursed in the way it happened in Babel but with the difference that we still have not realized what is happening (maybe it also took time in Babel for the realization). In fact we seem to be proud of this babble and, to a large degree, thrive on it. These acronyms have created fields like epigenetics, proteomics, stem cells, recombineering, etc which are like organisms that need feeding and the food is papers with data disguised as science but whose only goal is to fatten the journals and provide a sense of satisfaction to the authors (ah yes, and a salary to the editors). I am not saying that there is no good science around but I am saying that one has to dig deep to find it. And some researchers have become very good at selling what they do, which means that the disguise can be very very good. Journals give Babble a seal of Science.

Recently a colleague was going to have a journal Club on a paper in a hugely glamorous journal by one of those authors who can publish there (don’t forget that ‘all authors are equal in the eyes of the editors but some authors are more equal than others”). The title looked appealing and the abstract involved the now usual cocktail of words that such journals like of high throughput chromatin modification, names of usual genes in the said journal, the obligatory inflationary reference on Twitter to the work……… The day before the Journal Club, it was cancelled: everybody agreed that there was nothing to discuss. The manuscript was a list of genes, some loose/forced correlations with function and a failed attempt to make sense of some of the genes in the pool. This is not unsual. The more glamorous the journal, the more likely it is for you to find this kind of manuscript: lots of data whose quality one has to take for granted, no real question, an attempt to find some correlations between the variables scattered through the paper and very little else. Just have a look at the indexes: Gene X is involved in the differentiation of cell type Y, ZZZ confers polarity to the developing RRR, a new VV-modification in the genome/protein/DNA of YYY and so on…..cataloguing at a level of high resolution.

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As in Babel, having lost a common language, the emerging pidgins lead us to forget the possibility of doing something important, of tackling real problems. Instead we fall into cataloguing the connections of the brain, the genes of 10,000 humans, the genes involved with Cancer…these are useful projects that get the limelight, capture the imagination of the politicians and the funding. Enquiry of the form that led us to find out about the action potential, the nature of the gene or the chemical basis of metabolism is not deemed fundable and as a consequence, training in the art of scientific enquiry falls by the side. I am not saying that what is favoured today is not right or good, on the contrary: it has its place. What I would like to say is that we should get some perspective and do things right. That in addition we should find a niche for what some of us will defend is real science that will make the enterprise much more meaningful. Some funders will say that this is what they do in some schemes but what they do is to fund more of the same. 

Sometimes I like to think about the Manhattan project as an example of how, when there is a common purpose and one can create a common language, interesting things happen. Most people know the Manhattan project as what delivered the first atomic bomb. And this is correct. What most people don’t know is the scientific and technical challenge that this posed and how on the way to create that most terrifying of weapons, a great deal of science and engineering was spawned out. Under the pressure of delivering a common goal, many existing problems were solved and others were created. Physics, engineering and maths benefitted to the point that as Oppenheimer said “physicists have known sin, not because they built the bomb but because they had fun building it”. The reason why they had fun is because they had common challenges to solve and they worked together towards them. Theoretical physicists worked alongside engineers to answer questions which sometimes would have a practical end but sometimes they would not. I know no current biological project that can mimic the Manhattan project because many of the ones that are around are just large scale data collecting exercises. There are some places with the potential to do something useful but the culture of superficial data gathering is too prevalent.

And so it comes to pass that Biology today is in the early stages of a fragmentation in which language plays an important role. It is the tower of Babel in the early stages of its disaggregation or perhaps, as a friend suggested the other day, God felt that we were getting close to his trail again and did a second Babel in the form of the jargon and babble that we suffer today. 

People work their niches according to narrow views that emerge through a feedback of journals-funding bodies-lobbies which, slowly will lead to new rounds of fragmentation. What determines a field is the technique, the language. Data and the way it is presented, is part of this language problem. Language has become the means to success in that if, within a field, you can string in a successful manner a number of words with some large amount of data, you will be successful. There is a catch though. It would be foolish not to recognize that, since Linneaus and Darwin, Biology does require a lot of data gathering and that often, it is not clear what data is needed for a particular question. So, to gather data is important but it is important to do it well, and to have a purpose. More importantly, we need to distinguish data gathering from science, and I am not sure that we are doing this at the moment. In a not too distant future the winners will be those who can mine the available data but only those who can see the questions, only those who remember the original language that was spoken in Babel and who have a memory of what was the point of the tower; only those will succeed (in the real sense of the word).

 

One thought on “Modern Biology and its tower of Babble

  1. Good timing in light of the pushback on the european brain simulation initiative today. The problem is that scientists need to sell their science using ever greater hyperbole. Politicians do not understand, especially in times of relative economic stagnation, that much of science is largely about careful, precise, calculated improvement, interspersed with the odd stunning insight. High energy physics has learnt to speak with one voice because it’s vehicles are massive (from the LHC to satellites to neutrino detectors buried kms under the ground). Much easier to sell a big vision than a million small ones.

    But is nomenclature the real problem? Science has always been elitist in terms of its jargon and technologies. Moreover, it is often driven by technological innovations. When a microscope allows you to see with twice as much resolution, biology unfurls new details and beauty. When the cost of sequencing plunges, you can contemplate wider types of screens. Methods aren’t the answer, nor, very definitely, are they the end; but they often enable a better answer. What we need to recognize is designing a study based on how it is done rather than what question is is designed to address leads to the type of synthetic glam concoctions you describe. All smoke, no fire.

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