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Lamarck's Signature: How Retrogenes are Changing Darwin's Natural Selection Paradigm.

Lamarck's Signature: How Retrogenes are Changing Darwin's Natural Selection Paradigm By Edward J. Steele, Robyn A. Lindley & Robert V. Blanden Allen & Unwin Publishing, 1998

Until recently, even to hint that Lamarckism--the inheritance of acquired characteristics--was possible would have jeopardized anyone's career in the life sciences. But work by a small number of researchers has resulted in what appears to be the beginning of a paradigm shift, one that promises to develop a more sophisticated theory of evolution to replace the dogma currently in vogue.

In Lamarck's Signature, Steele, Lindley, and Blanden explain how changes in the immune system of vertebrates can, at least partially, be handed on to offspring. In other words, the famous Weismann Barrier, said to prevent DNA from being changed by information from body (somatic) cells, can be breeched. The authors point out that plants have never had such a barrier: "So the secret is out--Lamarckian evolution is and has been a fact of life in plants!" (p. 196).

The authors claim the evidence is so compelling--Barbara McClintock won a Nobel Prize for her work on transposable genes in corn--that if acquired inheritance is not a fact, then the only other possible explanation would be some sort of divine intervention.

To give just one example of the evidence, experiments in Japan and the United States showed that rats developed diabetes after insulin-producing cells of the pancreas were damaged by a drug. Diabetes spontaneously arose in many offspring, showing that changes to somatic cells may have affected DNA in the germline.

The book briefly describes Lamarckism, pointing out that Darwin himself was a Lamarckist. And while it commonly is felt that we have to choose between Darwin or Lamarck, this is not so: "On the contrary, the Darwinian idea will be shown to be essential to the eLamarckian concept" of a gene feedback loop. Both Darwin and Lamarck were probably "right" (pp. 6-7). (I feel these theories together are but a partial explanation, with ideas generated by Prigogine and Sheldrake waiting to be incorporated.)

Weismann's Barrier, the immune system, and interesting histories of blood transfusion and vaccinations are included to help explain immune system research, in which relatively stable DNA is influenced by unstable RNA via reverse transcriptase. On a human level, there is a fascinating exposition of differing anatomical structures in races, related to how they squat or sit.

The book has many tables explaining the technical jargon, plus a comprehensive glossary at the end. There also are numerous figures depicting physical functions. Even so, the book is hard going for nonbiologists, as a sample paragraph will illustrate:
 The standard neo-Darwinian or
 neo-Weismann model (implied,
 never directly stated) is that some
 form of pre-mRNA synthesis
 using the DNA of the genes as
 templates is ongoing in germ cells
 themselves, producing multiple
 RNA 'copies' of a gene. Then
 intervention by a hypothetical
 reverse transcription process
 would produce many non-functional
 cDNA retrotranscripts
 which integrate at various sites in
 the chromosomal DNA....
 (p. 202)

Within my sphere of competence, I noticed only a few blunders. The authors claim that neurons don't divide in human adults; according to recent research, this probably is not the case. On a more serious note, there is repeated the common mistake of confusing statistics and normality. Long ago, if half of all infants died young, while the survivors lived their Biblical three score and ten years, average life expectancy was 35. This confusion has led to the belief that only in this century have some affluent humans lived long enough to develop cancers and autoimmune diseases. This is not so, as any professor of demography will attest.

Perhaps the best part of the book for me was at the end, when wider implications were considered. For example, there is a comparison of vertebrate immune systems and attempts to detect and eliminate computer viruses. IBM is developing a digital immune system that mimics the vertebrate example. However:
 When we compare current antiviral
 software strategies with the
 strategies of our own immune
 system it seems we have much
 to learn. Information technology
 will have to make quantum
 leaps to approach the sophistication
 of the vertebrate immune
 system which has been shaped
 over evolutionary time scales.
 (p. 124)

Human creativity and consciousness were preceded by, and perhaps built upon, the evolution, over a staggering length of time, of sophisticated genetic intelligence, with our immune systems rivaling our brains in complexity. Indeed, there seems to be an ongoing dialog between these intelligences, without deeds, thoughts, and emotions capable of altering the genes we hand on to our children.

Lamarck's Signature ends on this note, with caution about the "genetic responsibility" we have, and hopes that this new way of looking at the world will encourage us to live up to fine human ideals.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Temple University - of the Commonwealth System of Higher Education, through its Center for Frontier Sciences
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Eldridge, Don
Publication:Frontier Perspectives
Date:Sep 22, 1999
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