Losing My Wings

Qualities of a Gothic Biology Pt 1

So what qualities of the gothic help us understand biology in a new way? Or, to borrow the term from Michael Camille, what might be our “Gothic vision” of Biology? This is where our lengthy exposition on the gothic begins to help us. Three qualities especially, emerge in importance under this consideration: the importance of repetition (as opposed to clarity) in biological processes, the important role of unlikely events for helping to understand how biology works, and the non-isotopic nature of biological space and time. We will treat each of these briefly in what follows.
Part of the Gothic ordering of the world involved an “obsession with systematic division and sub-division,” and “methodical demonstration” (36). To a student of scholastic texts, “The panoply of shafts, ribs, buttresses, tracery, pinnacles, and crockets was a self-analysis and self-explication of architecture as much as the customary apparatus of parts, distinctions, questions, and articles was, to him, a self-analysis and self-explication of reason” (59). Wilhelm Worringer, on the other hand, also notes the importance of repetition for the Gothic, but accentuates how repetition can have its own vitality. The Gothic “does not bear [the classical] restful character of addition, but has, so to speak, a character of multiplication” that suggests a “continually increasing activity without pauses or accents” (55).
The qualities of a seeming infinite repetition of forms, an overall vitality of expression, and the seeking of truth through endless questioning, were often scorned by renaissance artists and scholars who sought clarity, proportion, and symmetry as the arbiters of truth. The term “Gothic” was even coined to ridicule this way of viewing the world as uncouth or barbaric.

Turn-of-the-twentieth-century biologist William Bateson elevated repetition as one of the key laws for understanding how animal bodies were organized. This insight encouraged Bateson to think about the development of the organism as a product of internally produced variations, with their own laws, as opposed to an organism’s relationship to its environment. Variations between animals, in Bateson’s eyes, were created like the waves of the ocean creates ripples on a sandy beach. What we witness, the ripple on the beach, was the product of unseen forces of a larger process. This view of life stressed the importance of the segmental construction in animals, where organisms were thought to be constructed from a repetition of parts, each segment akin to a single ripple on the beach. Many of Bateson’s ideas, including his thinking on the evolutionary importance of repetition and variance were ridiculed during the twentieth century. Some scientists now, however, see them as a precursor to the experiments of Edward Lewis and popular theories on the role of modularity of development growth and development. Modularity is an especially interesting theory on the organization of animal bodies as it recognizes that there can be differences in the repeated elements and these differences might have an impact on what develops. This theory of repetition and variance emerges as an especially important piece for thinking about why some organisms lose their wings.
Repetition also frequently occurs at the level of the gene sequence on the chromosome. Since the early twentieth century, geneticists have thought that the duplication of genes could be evolutionarily important. Firstly, a duplicated gene possesses redundant information that could lend greater genetic stability to the organism. Secondly, since a duplicated gene allows for changes to one of the copies of the gene without the loss of gene function, it could allow for the changed gene to forge a new function. Consequently, genetic replication could be a major contributor to the cooptation, or the use of old traits to achieve new evolutionary ends. The color coded illustration below, shows a remarkable property of the Bithorax Complex in Drosophila called "colinearity". Ed Lewis had long thought that the Bithorax Complex could have occurred through a series of gene duplication events, as much of the sequences are conserved and their functions appear to be closely related. In this particular case as well, each of the genes of the bithorax complex is also responsible for signaling expression of molecules in a segment of the developing fly. Remarkably, and different than other cases of gene complexes, the sequence of the genes on the genome are in the same linear sequence of the segments of the fly as they occur from head to tail. 

The unlikely occurrence of the sequence of genes affecting the sequence of segments is one of those highly unlikely observations that litter the history of biology. Consequently, it well serves as a segue to our next section on the importance of the weird and the unlikely in biological knowledge. 

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