Everybody knows how to live another person’s life, but not their own, says a Finnish proverb. Nonetheless, life has been examined for some time already from a scientific basis as well, ignoring other people’s opinions as much as possible. That’s what is annoying us, since from among the various fields of science, logical consideration of life is something toward which we all have both a highly personal and fashionably estranged approach. It’s only natural to go jogging with your Nike running shoes tapping on asphalt before having a meal, because that’s what nature has prescribed for us. “The prey didn’t stand still waiting for us in the old days either, did it?” says a person hunting for an “organic” lifestyle on the Internet. And now my neighbour is upset once again, because he couldn’t see the forest from all those trees around.

The first lesson of biology is that a biologist is always a bit wrong. Every time we start thinking we have found something universal about life, the biosphere replies by pointing out a counter-example.

Only animals are able to communicate among themselves, right? Except that so are trees, bacteria, and, when in the sauna, even men.

Yet what’s certain is that Darwin’s natural selection is the force that has moulded our genome. A bit later we can notice that most of our present spectrum is nothing but a genetic collection of parasites, bums hitchhiking in the tracks of natural selection, or often just products of pure bad luck in the bingo of life. Well, the amount of DNA, at least, obviously equals complexity. A bacterium is tiny and negligible and thus not inclined to write a haiku. A human being has a thousand times deeper soul than nucleic acid does, so it must be the source of our mental supremacy. In reality, even an onion being chopped for your midsummer barbecue has five times more genetic layers than a poet. A single-cell amoeba could accommodate genetic material sufficiently for a thousand ordinary Finns.

Eventually a biologist becomes a biorealist, who knows that exception is the rule and difference is a seed for development. He realises that a human being loving or hating one’s own species is, after all, just looking at the seemingly planned chaos from the perspective of an organic, reproduction-oriented jungle of algorithms. At the same time we still wish to find some order in this mess. It has led to various bio-generalisations, which some people without any further expertise would like to use as universal guidelines. In principle, many generalisations are correct, of course, and serve therefore some justifiable purposes. Men’s slippers fit Adam better, and there are two sexes: woman and couch potato. The former has two X-chromosomes, and mister X can cope as a single version. That’s the way it goes, so all the talk about genders is just a big fuss, says the bar stool commenter. But Adam didn’t know that there are also a whole bunch of Eves with only one X. Already a long time ago, Dr Swyer’s microscope revealed that some women actually have chromosomes like those of a man.

At the basic level of biology, we can notice that one gene may control a whole set of others. A small change can cancel out usually valid generalisations. Yet the distinction is not always straightforward, and the continuum may encompass all fifty shades of grey. A mutation here, some change there, and something I find normal may appear totally abnormal to someone else. Nor are you, dear reader, just a genetic combination of your parents but also a collection of novel, unique changes. You are not normal – nobody is. Therefore a small glimpse of understanding toward our fellow sufferers, if nothing else, increases our beauty at least for a millihelen (one helen is a standard unit of Homer’s looking-glass index, by which 1000 ships turn their course towards Troy. One millihelen will probably get you a cruise on a TV dating programme).

Our world has changed and it keeps changing at an increasing rate. As every browser of the Internet can see, barroom discussions are taking place in the reader comment sections of news stories and at the tables of social media. There even inadequate inferences quickly find a resonating choir and experts of all fields know the truth. It is increasingly important that one can base one’s views on real knowledge – not on that of others but that of your own. And such knowledge can be attained only by studying, not by singing along with the choir. Science is an unrivalled source of reliable information, even if you might personally disagree. As Darwin already wisely stated, ”Don’t believe everything they write on the Internet.”

Matti Jalasvuori
Academy Research Fellow

 

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