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We must use the right language when trying to compute behaviour


The oldest biological observation
Sydney Brenner Scientist
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Richard Feynman once said that the most important thing about matter is that it's built of atoms, and he also then remarked the most important thing about living systems is that they are just parts of matter and that they are built of atoms. But the most important thing about living system is they've got genes on them. And therefore, in my view, all explanations of living systems have to be couched in that form, in the form of genes, because it surely must be the oldest observation to mankind, that the first sentient organism would look around him at the natural world and he would note that plants give rise to plants that look like them, that men give rise to other men, that fleas produce fleas; so that like produces like is the oldest biological observation. And of course what science has accomplished is to tell us that this happens because organisms contain genes in them and what the future organism is... is written in this somehow. And somehow is what we have to explain. We have to say not somehow, but how. And I think that ultimately, although we may not have to do it in detail, ultimately that has to be the nature of explanation.

South African Sydney Brenner (1927-2019) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2002. His joint discovery of messenger RNA, and, in more recent years, his development of gene cloning, sequencing and manipulation techniques along with his work for the Human Genome Project have led to his standing as a pioneer in the field of genetics and molecular biology.

Listeners: Lewis Wolpert

Lewis Wolpert is Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London. His research interests are in the mechanisms involved in the development of the embryo. He was originally trained as a civil engineer in South Africa but changed to research in cell biology at King's College, London in 1955. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1980 and awarded the CBE in 1990. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1999. He has presented science on both radio and TV and for five years was Chairman of the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science.



Listen to Lewis Wolpert at Web of Stories



Tags: Richard Feynman

Duration: 1 minute, 39 seconds

Date story recorded: April-May 1994

Date story went live: 29 September 2010