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Our understanding of evolution


The mysteries of developmental biology and evolution
Francis Crick Scientist
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If we take the case of biology, for example, we don’t know how you build a hand. We know… we… we believe we understood… understand a lot of the principles involved, we don’t think there’s anything deeply mysterious, but it’s a very complicated operation in which we have to unscramble just all the detailed way the molecules interact in order to get the structured shape of a hand, with the bones and the nerves and the right number of fingers, but of course sometimes you get people with an extra finger and so on. We don’t understand developmental biology. That will probably be understood, I would say, within a relatively short time, tens of years and… but the… and the other thing that we particularly don’t understand is the way our brains work. We know an enormous amount about… about bits of our brains and psychological things but they don’t click together in a… in a really… in a picture so that… in such… a good outline picture that we can answer the sort of simple questions you would ask, such as what is memory, and what happens when I… I see a red… red ball or something like that. We can’t really answer those questions yet and the final question we have to… the final broad subject that we have to address in biology is the whole nature of evolution. We think we understand broadly the evolutionary process, but we certainly don’t understand it in detail. How can we understand how you evolve a hand unless you know how you make a hand now, for example? So we have all those things, so it’s an immense amount of biological knowledge, let alone all the practical knowledge which will come out: how to get better crops, better treatment for diseases and so on and so forth.

The late Francis Crick, one of Britain's most famous scientists, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. He is best known for his discovery, jointly with James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, of the double helix structure of DNA, though he also made important contributions in understanding the genetic code and was exploring the basis of consciousness in the years leading up to his death in 2004.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: biology, brain, memory, evolution

Duration: 1 minute, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: 1993

Date story went live: 24 January 2008