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At mid-point in the molecular revolution

Wiley Blackwell (John Wiley & Sons)
Publication Date
  • Biology
  • Medicine


James V. Nee1 Introduction The papers in this special number of BioEssays provide a compelling overview of aspects of the progress in biomedicine over the past 50 years. Truly it has been a Golden Age for biol- ogy, the cumulative impact on our view of self comparable to the impact of the Copernican and Darwinian epochs. It is pos- sible - and proper -to revel in the production and synthesis of this fantastic body of knowledge with no thought of its applica- tion to human welfare, just as we marvel at the insights into the nature of the universe resulting from modern astronomy. Almost, however, from the first days of molecular genetics, but especially with the demonstration of the ease with which genes can be shifted from cell to cell, even across species, there has been intense interest in how the new knowledge might be used to alter the human condition. I’ve often won- dered, to what extent our species’ push toward the innovative use of new knowledge is rooted in our intensely social organiz- ation. The guiding principle of social organization in all tribal, pieliterate cultures is a kinship system in which all the mem- bers of the community have a defined place. In such a commu- nity, in general, the adult’s concern for one’s spouse and chil- dren is highest, with concern lessening as one extends outward within the bounds of kinship, but always with a strong sense of who is and who is not kinfolk. To what extent this kin- ship-oriented behavior has a genetic basis, now under siege, an expression of an ingrained desire to ‘help the family’, and to what extent it is a cultural adaptation by an unspecialized ani- mal who for various reasons would have great difficulty going it alone, is unclear. No matter the biological basis of our behav- ior, no sooner does new knowledge become available to our species than - repeatedly in history - ways to exploit it are vig- orously investigated. The hallmark of the biological science of the next decade will be efforts

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